Let's face it, good sermon illustrations are tough to come by. Every week preachers wrestle with a key question during sermon prep: "How do I craft illustrations that are compelling, credible, and theologically sound?" All three criteria are important, but we often focus attention on providing compelling and credible illustrations. But we can't undervalue the importance of being theologically sound. This is especially important as we approach Easter and think about one of the most difficult doctrines to illustrate: the Atonement.
What's at stake in illustrating the Atonement? Think of it this way: your pulpit is a classroom. Sunday morning may be the only time during the week that some of your laypeople actually engage the Scriptures. By expounding the Scriptures, you are providing ongoing biblical education for your laypeople. Hopefully, over time they will gain an ever-deepening knowledge of God, his works, and his Word. Consequently, you want to ensure you always communicate robust, orthodox theology. If you use theologically problematic illustrations, you may be teaching your listeners bad theology, whether or not you or they are aware of it.
The Atonement is one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. So you'll want to make sure you communicate Christ's atoning work in a way that is certainly compelling and emotive, but most importantly faithful to Scripture. So here are five tips to help you use illustrations that bridge Scripture and contemporary life.
1. Realize the Atonement is a multifaceted event. New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) said of the Atonement, "This Bible doctrine is not intricate or subtle. On the contrary, though it involves mysteries, it is itself so simple that a child can understand it." Christ died for our salvation! What's complicated about that? And yet, there are multiple understandings of how Christ accomplished our salvation and what our salvation entails. That's one reason why the Atonement can be a difficult doctrine to illustrate effectively.
Numerous Atonement theories have arisen throughout church history—motifs such as Ransom, Christus Victor, Satisfaction, Sacrifice, Moral Influence, Moral Government, and Penal Substitution, only to name a few. While certain traditions and theologians tend to emphasize one motif over the others, the Bible gives us various images to describe Christ's atoning work: self-giving love (John 15:13), the forgiveness of enemies (Matt. 26:28), payment of a debt (Col. 2:14), the ransom of captives (Mk 10:45), victory over demonic powers (Col 2:8, 15), and so on. All Atonement theories are partial yet complementary. No one theory by itself captures the full extent of Christ's work.
So don't worry about trying to find illustrations that fully capture the scope of Christ's work. Instead, tell your listeners which feature of Christ's work you're illuminating, and that it's only one of the many wonderful facets of the Atonement. For example, in his sermon "Patch Em," John Ortberg tells the story of a generous, anonymous donor who pays off three students' debts. The illustration highlights the satisfaction motif—that Christ paid our debt of sin—but it does not speak of Christ's substitutional death, his releasing us from Satan's grip, and so forth. Of course, not every listener will assume debt-paying is the full extent of Christ's atonement, but you can briefly say something like, "This illustration touches on one very important facet of Christ's multifaceted work on the Cross. Just as the generous donor paid the debt of these three students, ambushing them with grace, so Christ's has cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness (see Col. 2:14)." This will help your listeners understand that this is only one aspect of Christ's atonement.
There are multiple understandings of how Christ accomplished our salvation and what our salvation entails. That's one reason why the Atonement can be a difficult doctrine to illustrate effectively.
Also, no matter which motif your illustration emphasizes, you'll want to ensure it accentuates deliverance of some sort—whether from a person, a sin, oppression, or a consequence—because the heart of Christ's atonement is our deliverance from sin, death, and oppression.
2. Compare and Contrast your illustration with the nature of Christ's Atonement. One way to ensure the theological integrity of an illustration is to compare and contrast it with Christ's atonement. This is especially helpful if you are expositing a biblical text that points to the Cross.
Though it's not an "illustration" per se, I will use the story of Abraham's testing in Genesis 22 as an example. Many elements of this narrative typify and anticipate Christ's atoning sacrifice. Just as Abraham was obedient to God, so Christ was obedient to the Father. Just as Isaac complied with Abraham, so the Father and Son were unified in their mission to save humanity. Just as God provided a ram as a substitute for Isaac, so the Father sent his Son to die in our place.
However, there are several points of disconnect between this scenario and Christ's sacrifice. We can then contrast the two to explain more fully the extent of Christ's work. One example: Though Abraham was willing to offer his son—not for atonement for sin, but as a demonstration of his faith in and obedience to God—Christ offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for the world.
You can use this method for any story, not just Bible stories. However, if you do choose this method for biblical stories, you will provide powerful exegesis, demonstrate the unity of the Scriptures, and give your listeners a more robust appreciation for the supremacy of Christ's work.
3. Don't use illustrations that fail to emphasize Christ's self-willing sacrifice—or worse, imply unjust coercion. Perhaps you have heard atonement illustrations like this: In a certain region in England, someone had been stealing sheep. The police were unable to apprehend the thief. One day, a certain farmer was brought before the judge and was accused of stealing the sheep. He established his innocence but the judge replied, "You are an innocent man, but someone has been stealing sheep. I must show to this community what the law would do to a sheep thief." The judge then committed the innocent man to prison to uphold public justice.
After using this illustration, a preacher might then explain that just as the judge sent the innocent man to prison to pay for the thief's crime, so the Father sent his Son to earth to pay for our sin.
Another illustration, formally included on our Preaching Today.com, suggests the preacher make a bowl of salsa in front of the congregation while teaching on Christ's sacrifice, explaining: "As you do so, point out how the fruits and vegetables 'began a slow death' when picked from their plants and how with each slice, they die even further. As the salsa gets close to being finished, bring your teaching on sacrifice to a climax, focusing on how something must die to bring life. For us to live physically, we must eat things that have died. Talk about how the tomatoes and the onions had to die to bring both the sustenance and the flavor we need for life."
Unfortunately, both of these illustrations fail to emphasize one crucial feature of Christ's atonement: his self-willing sacrifice. Neither of the "sacrificed" subjects—the innocent farmer or the vegetables—offered themselves as a sacrifice. If anything, logic concludes they were coerced against their will. Thus, these illustrations collapse theologically. (By the way, the salsa illustration was so bad, that we removed it from our site.)
Without Christ's self-giving offering of himself, the Cross would be incredibly unjust. A few more radical critics of Penal Substitution claim the theory advocates divine child abuse. Of course that's an unfair criticism, and a misunderstanding of the motif. However, the moment you remove the self-giving aspect of Christ's atonement, you miss the heart of the Atonement and you present it as the most unjust act in all of history. The Father did not coerce the Son to pay for our sin. As St. Anselm of Canterbury explained in Cur Deus Homo, both the Father and the Son "preferred the death of the Son" rather than allow humanity to perish.
4. Don't use illustrations that deny human inability. "The Whipping" on Sermonillustrationlibrary.org tells the story of an unruly school class. A new teacher, fresh out of college, accepts the challenge of teaching the rowdy students. On his first day, he tells the class, "I've come here to conduct school. But I realize I can't do it myself. I need your help." He told the class they need to have some rules, and that the students can help establish the rules. One boy suggested, "No stealing!" Another shouted, "Be on time for class!" Soon they had ten rules listed. The teacher then said, "Rules are no good unless they are enforced." So they determined a punishment for rule breaking. One student suggested that culprits should receive ten whips across the back, with their coat removed. The class agreed.
The class did well at first, but Big Tom came in one day very upset. Someone had stolen his lunch. Little Timmy admitted he stole Tom's lunch. About to receive his punishment, Timmy asked if he could keep his coat on. "My daddy's dead and my mother is very poor. I don't have but one shirt, and my mother is washing it today. I wore my big brother's coat so I could keep warm." But the teacher stuck to the rules. However, when he saw Timmy's spiny, bare back, he wondered how he could whip his fragile back. Just then, Big Tom shouted, "Can I take his whipping?" The teacher thought about it and allowed Tom to take Timmy's punishment ….
Imagine how you could use this illustration: although we have robbed God of his glory with our sinful rebellion, Jesus took the whipping for us. While stories like these are moving, they propagate bad theology. Sure, Big Tom demonstrated compassion and self-giving love toward Little Timmy, but his sacrifice is far different from Christ's. Though it would have been incredibly painful, Timmy could have paid the punishment he deserved. In contrast, the biblical doctrine of the Atonement stresses the fact that Christ took on a punishment that we could never pay.
5. Resist the temptation to use poor illustrations thinking you can explain why they are theologically problematic. If you find an illustration that is compelling and fresh but breaks down theologically, like "The Whipping," you may be tempted to use it anyway and then explain why it breaks down theologically. Resist this temptation and try to find more theologically robust illustrations so you don't have to add qualifying statements.
This, however, is different from the compare-and-contrast method. You will use the compare-and-contrast method to explain why certain elements of your illustration directly correspond to Christ's work but how other elements fail to grasp its full extent. Taking again the example "The Whipping," Timmy could have endured his punishment and still have lived. That does not correspond to the truth we find in Scripture about the punishment of sin we deserve and Christ's atonement. If an illustration prorogates bad theology, avoid the temptation of explaining why it does. Just don't use the illustration and find a better one.
On PreachingToday.com we have many Atonement illustrations that reflect the criteria I have listed here. Sacrificial Love, taken from In the Grip of Grace by Bryan Chapell, is an excellent example. On August 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines flight 225 crashed just after taking off from the Detroit airport, killing 155 people. One survived: a four-year-old from Tempe, Arizona, named Cecelia.
News accounts say when rescuers found Cecelia they did not believe she had been on the plane. Investigators first assumed Cecelia had been a passenger in one of the cars on the highway onto which the airliner crashed. But when the passenger register for the flight was checked, there was Cecelia's name.
Cecelia survived because, even as the plane was falling, Cecelia's mother, Paula Chican, unbuckled her own seat belt, got down on her knees in front of her daughter, wrapped her arms and body around Cecelia, and then would not let her go.
Nothing could separate that child from her mother's love—neither tragedy nor disaster, neither the fall nor the flames that followed, neither height nor depth, neither life nor death.
Like that child caught in the middle of the disaster, so we have been trapped by our own sin, spiraling down to an inevitable doom. But our God loved us so much that he left heaven, came down to our level, and covered us with the sacrifice of his own body so that we might be saved from the Fall.
You'll notice that this illustration doesn't illumine every facet of Christ's atonement, but it holds up nonetheless. It is emotive, fresh, and clearly communicates Christ's self-sacrificial offering. One potential point of theological disconnect between the illustration and Christ's atonement is that the little girl didn't do anything to deserve her impending doom—in fact, the plane's crash was not a punishment for anyone's sin. But you can add a simple and brief qualifier, something like this: "Like that child caught in the middle of the disaster, so we have been trapped by our own sin, spiraling down to an inevitable doom."
Of course all metaphors break down at some point. So don't worry if your illustration isn't "perfect." It never will be. Simply keep in mind the above criteria and you'll avoid using illustrations that collapse theologically.
Kevin Ememrt is assistant editor for Christianity Today and editorial coordinator for Leadership Journal and Preaching Today.