One-Point Preaching: A Simple Law & Gospel Structure

This is an excerpt from Shawn Lazar’s One-Point Preaching: A Law & Gospel Model.

You Need to Know Where You’re Going

I have a terrible sense of direction. Without a map, I get lost every time. Even with a map, I may still get lost, but at least I have a fighting chance!

It’s the same with preaching.

I’ve heard many preachers who went into the pulpit without a map and never stood a chance of getting to their destination. Consequently, neither did the congregation!

The preacher vaguely knew where he was and where he wanted to go, but by the end of the sermon, he and the congregation ended up in the middle of Nowhere, TX.

Of course, I’ve not only heard preachers like that, but I’ve been that preacher. I’ve been the stream-of-consciousness, “I hope the Spirit will lead me” guy, and it (almost) never turned out well.

If you want to improve as a preacher, you need a map.[1] Your one-point sermon needs a starting point and a destination and a clear way to get your listeners from one to the other.

I have just such a map!

It has clear theological directions and definite destination. You will move from law to gospel, from sin to salvation, from grime to grace, and hopefully, your congregation will follow you all the way. Here is the structure:

  1. My Sin Story
  2. Your Sin Story
  3. God’s Sin Story
  4. Jesus’ Salvation Story
  5. Your Salvation Story

In this chapter, I’ll explain what each part means beginning with the reason I call each section a “story.”


Stories Connect

Each section is called a story because each section is story driven. Why emphasize stories? If you want to improve as a preacher, you need to create a better connection with your people. And that’s what stories do. They connect.

That’s hardly a new idea—think of Jesus. How did He preach?

Using stories.

Lots of stories.

The Lord’s sermons and teachings are filled with vivid parables and illustrations about people, plants, and places. Sometimes stories are all He preached, and He left it to the hearers to determine their meaning.

Jesus was a storytelling preacher. Shouldn’t you be, too?

As I said, stories connect. And you know that.

Think of it this way. I can lecture you about the importance of telling the truth consistently so that people will believe you in an emergency or I can tell you the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Which will you remember?

Better yet, which have you remembered?

Surely, someone, sometime, lectured you about telling the truth. You probably don’t remember the details. But I bet you do remember the story of the Boy Who Cried World. You haven’t forgotten it since you first heard it, have you?

Why not?

Because stories engage your imagination, emotions, and thinking, making stories easier to remember than a list of moral propositions properly deduced from a master axiom.

Hence, this simple way of preaching grace is story-driven.

Each stage should use multiple anecdotes and illustrations to drive home the one-point of the one-passage you’ll expound to your congregation.

And it all begins with my sin story.


Section 1: “My Sin Story”

The first five minutes of any public talk will be a waste. Yes it will! Know why? People don’t listen right away. It takes time for them to settle in. They need to get used to you—to your face, your voice, and you mannerisms.

So instead of starting your sermon by overwhelming them with info, lure them in with a story about you.

And since we’re moving from sin to salvation in this sermon, start with a story that illustrates the effects of sin in your life or in a way that is personal to you. Make sure the illustration relates to your one point.

If you are not used to preaching about sin, then get ready to repent! If you haven’t been preaching against sin, then you haven’t been doing your job as a preacher. Salvation presupposes sin. So does sanctification. As Paul asked, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Rom 6:1).

Sin is real, and harmful, and stinks to high heaven.

It destroys marriages, families, businesses, and people.

Jesus came to save you from sin.

So you’ll preach against sin, starting with a personal illustration.

For example, when I preached through the Lord’s Prayer and came to the petition, “Lead us not into temptation,” I told the story of my first encounter with a new website called eBay.

It was the early 2000s, and I was single with some money to burn, looking for a new guitar. My dream guitar was (and still is) a green Rickenbacker 360, which can be expensive. Very expensive.

I heard about this new bidding website called eBay and found a Rickenbacker for what I thought was $700, a phenomenal price. I put in the highest bid and felt proud as if that was an achievement.

Isn’t that silly? To be proud of willing to spend money?

Of course, over the next few days, that price went up.

Way up.

Way, way, way up.

I would raise my bid by $10 or $20, enough to stay ahead. I got into the habit of checking that price every hour. Sometimes, multiple times per hour. Eventually, we broke the $1000 mark and the bidding settled down for a day or two. I was still the highest bidder and thought I had it in the bag.

Then came the last few hours of bidding.

Then the last few minutes.

And it was crazy.

And thrilling.

I was ready to spend $1500 on that guitar. As those last fifteen minutes ticked by, I found I had committed to a little over $3300.

Let me add this detail—there’s a history of compulsive gambling in my family.

I thought I was above that.

I thought I missed that genetic predisposition. Until then, I was not tempted by lottery tickets or casinos. I had no interest and couldn’t understand why anyone else would be interested, either.

Then I started bidding on eBay.

When I put in that last bid of over $3300, I realized I made a horrible mistake.

My heart sank.

I wanted to vomit.

I didn’t have that kind of money to spend! I could pay it, but I would be wiped out.

I started to pray, “Lord, please, please, please, let someone else make a higher bid! I’ll never do this again, I promise! Spare me!”

That’s when I knew I was no better than the other gamblers in my family. I just hadn’t found my poison yet. Who would have thought my temptation was bidding on eBay?

But now I know. That darkness in is me, too.

Well, that was my “sin story.”

Did it get your attention? Did it give you a sense of who I am? Did it make you feel like you could relate to me a little? Can you sympathize a little with how sin could operate in my life?

That’s what stories do.

So that’s what you should do in the first part of this simple sermon structure: tell a story about yourself to warm up the congregation in those first five or ten minutes. Make sure your story relates to the one point you’ll be preaching. If you’re preaching law, make sure your story relates to your particular law. If you’re preaching gospel, make sure the sin serves as a counterpoint to the kind of salvation you’ll be preaching.

Once you’ve done that, it’s time to move to the next stage on this simple sermon map.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering—in the last sixty seconds of bidding, I lost my dream guitar to a higher bidder. And I could not have been happier.)


Section 2: “Your Sin Story”

Hopefully, the people have settled in and identified with your story. They feel like they can relate to you and to the issue you raised. Now you need to create a felt need in the congregation.

You need to break through the so-called “fourth wall.”[2]

What’s that?

In a play there’s an imaginary fourth wall between the actors and the audience. Occasionally, characters in a play (or in a movie) will step aside and speak directly to the audience, breaking that fourth wall.

That’s what you’ll do in this section.

You just told a story about yourself. You were speaking about “Me” and “I.” It was like the congregation was watching a movie or play. But in this section, you’ll speak directly to the congregation using the second person direct address, “You.”

Not “we,” but “you.”

Instead of saying, “We’ve all experienced this,” you’ll say, “You’ve all experienced this.”

And then you’ll prove it with examples, illustrations, and stories that show they have experienced the same sin problem you illustrated in the first section of the sermon. This section diagnoses sin in their lives. So give examples that illustrate how the same sin operates in them.

How?

By appealing to some law they have likely transgressed. As the Apostle Paul explained, that’s why God gave the law—to expose sin (Rom 7:7b). So use it!

Now, they may not struggle with the “capital-L” law of the Ten Commandments, but we’ve all struggled with the “little-l” laws expressed in the demands, standards, judgements, criticisms, evaluations, and performances that society expects of us. We’ve all struggled to “live our best life now” and come up short.

There’s a little book I recommend that will help you better understand how law can be at work in a secular society. It’s called Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints). Here is how the authors, McDavid, Richardson, and Zahl, explain how law-thinking infects our culture:

In this theology of Law and Gospel, a basic tenet is that we can better understand our relationship to the Law of God by examining our relationship with little-l law, because the psychological impact of them is often the same. The little-l law— “Thou shalt be beautiful” or “Thou shalt be successful”—is often more measureable than the Law of God, as well as more salient in people’s lives. That is, the pressure to be well-liked or valued at work is often stronger than the pressure to be a perfect person, and while holiness is usually invisible, things like salary, number of social media followers, and body weight can be easily measured. So it’s easiest to talk about law where most people, regardless of beliefs, actually live: to start from the bottom up.[3]

So in this section, your illustrations can start from the bottom up. Think of the “little-l” laws that relate to your one point and that will surely weigh on your congregation’s conscience.

Appeal to art, pop culture, movies, music, and memes where characters have come up against some demand and utterly failed to meet it.

Speak to the people on their level.

And as you share your illustrations ask direct questions to bring home the point—“Have you done that? Have you seen that? Has this affected your family?”

Simply asking the questions will engage them more than telling them it is so.

And pay attention to their faces.

Are they awake?

Are they looking at you?

Are they engaged?

If someone’s distracted, don’t rush to the next section. Stop, think, and improvise. Make up another illustration that might engage that particular individual.

If your congregation has teens, make sure some of your illustrations will appeal to them.

If you have new parents, don’t leave them out.

If your pews are filled with senior adults, then speak to their season of life, too.

Come up with as many illustrations as you can until everyone is engaged and feels that you are pointing out a real, and troubling aspect of their lives, so that they want to know the answer your one-point will proclaim.

Use new words.[4] For example, instead of speaking about “justification,” I’ve heard David Zahl speak about society’s quest for “enoughness.” That language might be easier to understand than leading with “justification.” I fimly believe it is the pastor’s job to teach people to think in the Bible’s own vocabulary, but using new words can help ease them into it.

By the way, at this stage of the sermon, I find it helpful to pick illustrations that move from external sins to mental attitude sins. You want to make them see the sin is not just a behavior problem, but a thinking, feeling, and desiring problem of the heart.

The heart’s rocky soil goes down deep—deeper than they may realize.

And now that the people are fully engaged, it’s time to drill even deeper.


Section 3: “God’s Sin Story”

You told your sin story. And then you told the congregation’s sin story. Now it’s time to tell God’s sin story.

The goal of this section is to show your people that sin is not just about behavior, or your heart, but eternity.

In this section, preach the sinfulness of sin.

Remind your people that sin is not a mistake, but an act of rebellion and lawlessness (1 John 3:4).

You already determined whether your one passage functions as law or gospel. If you have a law passage, this is where you begin to preach it. If you have a gospel passage, then you’ll preach it in the next section.

If you have a law passage, show the sinfulness of sin from that passage. Read it slowly. Take your time to explain important words and concepts. Ask questions about it. Point out problems and mysteries in the text. In sum, engage the congregation with it.

If you have a gospel passage, then in this section, you’ll tell a story about how sin separates. Use a Biblical illustration.

As always, be a pastor.

Look at their faces.

Are they still engaged?

Do they feel it?

Again, don’t rush through this part. Make sure the message is sticking and biting and making them squirm in the pews. The Word of God will do that. So will the Holy Spirit. It will bother them. And it should.

And once you’ve established the sinfulness of sin, and the eternal problem this poses between them and God, it is time to turn to Jesus.


Section 4: “Jesus’ Salvation Story”

In this section, you’ll begin to preach the gospel. You’ll begin to preach grace. You’ve talked about sin. Now it’s time for salvation. That means focusing on Jesus.

Jesus is everything.

Everything!

That’s what this section of your sermon is about and what your sermon should convey!

If your one passage is a gospel passage, this is when you take your people to the text and start preaching it. Read it slowly, deliberately, stopping to explain and to provide context.

In the last three sections, you established why your congregation needs salvation—now explain what Jesus did to bring it!

Jesus came to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). How did He destroy the devil’s works in your one-passage?

Explain it from the text.

Celebrate Jesus.

Praise Him.

Give Him the glory.

This part of your sermon should be uplifting—full of thanks and praise for our Lord and Savior.

All eyes should be drawn to Him—“looking unto Jesus” (Heb 12:2)[5]—to the healings, exorcisms, and words of comfort.

Point your people to the cross and empty tomb. Joyfully contemplate His unconditional love and radical grace!

Whatever gospel is in your text, preach it!

If you have a law passage, then talk about Jesus anyway—in a general way—and apply Him to your law passage. Show what Jesus did about the sin your law passage condemned. You could take them to a key gospel passage, but I would resist having people flip through different passages in the Bible. Instead, proclaim what Jesus did.

This section is absolutely essential because preaching law without gospel means preaching a false gospel of moralistic works-salvation.

I have heard many, many, many moralistic sermons. They were all Christian Law and no Christian Gospel.

Sadly, I have preached some of them (unintentionally).

But not with this model.

This model makes clear that “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5 niv).

He saved.

It was His mercy, not your efforts.

His love for you, not your love for Him.

His grace, not your merit.

His free gift of eternal life, given apart from works, through faith (Eph 2:8-9).

This model makes Jesus and His work of salvation the center of your sermon. You didn’t climb up the ladder of salvation—He climbed down.

And then, once you’ve preached Christ, it’s time to give Christ to your people.


Section 5: “Your Salvation Story”

In this section you give grace.

Your people don’t just need to hear about Jesus, they need Jesus Himself— “For He Himself is our peace” (Eph 2:14 nkjv).

Likewise, it is not enough for them to know the good news about salvation, they actually need to be saved (John 3:16-18).

So, in this section, you’ll proclaim the salvation that Jesus brings to them.

Proclamation is not the same as preaching.

Proclamation is a subset of preaching.

In preaching you can do different things—give a lecture, talk, motivational speech, or a history lesson. Or you can proclaim. Proclamation is a different order of discourse from those other preaching acts.

Think of it this way—I am married to the most beautiful redhead in Texas. What does she need to hear from me? Does she need to hear a lecture about how husbands generally love their wives, or does she need me to say, “I love you”?[6]

That’s what your congregation needs to hear, too.

That’s what this section does. Your congregation does not only need to hear about God, but from God. They need to hear an authoritative proclamation of God’s word to them.

So in this section you will speak in the second person, “You.” You will say, “Jesus did this for you.” That’s the emphasis. Everyone in the congregation should be able to say, “Jesus did that for me.” Not for “someone” or for “that guy over there” but for me.

They need to make the “for me” connection.

When John Wesley was crossing the Atlantic to become a missionary in Georgia colony, he met some Moravians who deeply impressed him with their piety. Wesley felt he lacked their faith and so he talked with the Moravian pastor, a Mr. Spangenberg. Here is their conversation as recorded by Wesley in his Journal:

He said, “My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it, and asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused, and said, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.” “True,” replied he, “but do you know he has saved you?” I answered, “I hope he has died to save me.” He only added, “Do you know yourself?” I said, “I do.” But I fear they were vain words.[7]

Wesley did not have the “for me” assurnace that is of the essence of saving faith.[8] You might say he had historical understanding without believing the gospel was true for him. Faith is both understanding and assent. You need the assent. The assent is the “for me” element of faith. Wesley didn’t reach the “for me” assurance until his famous Aldersgate experience:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.[9]

He was saved!

After that born-again experience, Wesley distinguished between “almost” and “altogether” Christians. Up until that moment, he had been an almost Christian: well educated, ordained, and knowledeable about the facts of Christianity. But he lacked the personal faith that the saving message was true for him.

In Baptist terminology, up until Aldersgate, we’d say that Wesley had been a nominal Christian, not a born-again Christian. And then he got converted.

Whatever you want to call it, each member of your congregation needs to come to that point.

When you preach that Jesus died to take away the world’s sins, they need to know that their sins have been taken away.

When Jesus promised to give eternal life to believers (John 3:15-18, 36; 5:24; 6:47), they need to know, “I have eternal life.”

“Maybe” is not saving faith.

Neither is “for someone.”

“Yes, Lord, I believe” is the answer Martha gave to Jesus and that everyone in your congregation should be able to give (John 11:27).

You’re an ambassador for Christ, imploring on His behalf (2 Cor 5:20). You are proclaiming His words, to His people. The authority is His, not yours, so speak for Him. What you proclaim will become anchors for your people to believe and to which their faith will hold fast. In this section you will directly say things such as:

“Jesus died for you.”

“Jesus forgives you.”

“Jesus gives you eternal life.”

In this section, I’ll sometimes stop and ask individuals in the congregation a question to see if they have made that “for me” appropriation.

For example, I was preaching on John 6:47, “Whoever believes in Me has everlasting life,” and I stopped and began to call on people.

“Dan, what did Jesus just say?”

“That if you believe in Him, you have everlasting life.”

“Do you believe in Him?”

“Yes?”

“Then what do you have?”

“I’m not sure.”

“What does Jesus promise the believer in this passage?”

“Everlasting life.”

“Is that something He says you’ll get in the future? When does the believer get it?”

“It says believers have it.”

“Do you believe that?”

“Well, Jesus said it right here, so yes.”

“So what do you have?”

“I have everlasting life.”

“Do you believe you have everlasting life as a present possession?”

“Yes, I do!”

Remember that everyone needs God’s grace and the salvation that Jesus brings. Look for tears. Speak grace to those tears.

Comfort the afflicted.

Encourage the downcast.

Free the bound.

Build up the faithful.

Give them the deliverance Jesus brings to whatever sin is stinging their conscience and binding them in spiritual bondage.


Don’t End With Law

But what about application?

My sermons used to have a sixth section called “Your Neighbor’s Gospel Story.” I was inspired by Stanley and Jones who recommended ending the sermon with a challenge or vision statement. What I used to do was end with a call to live our your vocation in loving your neighbors.

But I decided to drop it.

Frankly, it ended up being a form of law-preaching.

I had just announced what Jesus did for the people in section five, and instead of leaving them with good news, I’d give them something to do (which they seldom did anyway).

I gave a gift only to ask for something in return.

I took off the yoke, only to put another back on.

Here’s how Paul Zahl describes the process:

The law, the stress of life driving you to a breakdown, reduces you to a walking question mark. The question is answered, amazingly, by God’s one-way love. Grace changes everything. You then enter some form of church or community. At this point, the iron curtain of the law comes down. You are told you need to be “discipled” or “mentored” or “coached”: held “accountable.” Sermons contain lists of things to do, “disciplines” to take up, a “Christian worldview” to embrace. The law is reimposed.[10]

That’s what I used to do.

In that last section, I was reimposing the law, instead of ending with one-way love. So I dropped it.

I still preach about vocation, I just don’t end my sermons with it. I find that ending with grace is more effective. Yes, you want to promote holiness. I know I do. But the law can’t produce that. What can? Think of what Paul told Titus about grace:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age (Titus 2:11-12).

What does grace do? Exactly what the law can’t—grace transforms.

Isn’t that ironic? As Paul Zahl noted:

The irony is that grace always produces the sterling character that the law intends. But that promise can never be stated within the initial offer of grace. It cannot even be thought. It cannot even be hoped. If we think this or hope for it, our grace has strings attached. Grace must be tied to nothing. This is the key to its being effective in practice in everyday life.[11]

It’s also the key to this simple way of preaching.

If you preach grace and end with grace, you’ll actually be accomplishing what law preaching never could. Preaching grace is the only means of really transforming people: “the qualities that grace births in people are the same qualities that the law sought but failed to birth.”[12]

Hence, as someone advised me, “Preach implication, not application.”

So let grace have the final word in your sermon and watch what happens!


[1] Once again, I am indebted to Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, Communicating for a Change (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2006), Ch. 13.

[2] See Paul Zahl, “Breaking The Fourth Wall: The Mockingbird Preaching Seminar,” https://www.mbird.com/2010/12/breaking-fourth-wall-mockingbird/. Accessed March 5, 2019.

[3] William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, Ministries, 2015), 18-19.

[4] See the series by Paul F. M. Zahl, “New Persuasive Words for Defaced or Degraded Ones: Mercy, Grace, & Hope in an Age of Recession,” available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgKzULpM9Dc&t=16s. Accessed March 1, 2019.

[5] For a stirring example of exalting Jesus, see Theodore Monod, Looking Unto Jesus, trans. Helen Willis (New Territories, Hong Kong: Bible Light Publishers, n.d.). Available online: https://bibletruthpublishers.com/looking-unto-jesus/theodore-monod/t-monod/la104897

[6] See Gerhard O. Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1990).

[7] Emphasis added. John Wesley, Journal and Diaries I (1735-38), The Works of John Wesley Vol. 18, eds. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1988), 146.

[8] For example, Shawn Lazar, “Assurance Made Simple.” https://faithalone.org/grace-in-focus-articles/assurance-made-simple/ Accessed March 3, 2019.

[9] Ibid., 249-50.

[10] Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 91

[11] Zahl, Grace in Practice, 92.

[12] Zahl, Grace in Practice, 93.

Shawn Lazar is the Editor of Grace in Focus Magazine and co-host of Grace in Focus Radio. He received a BTh at McGill University, an MA from the Free University, Amsterdam, and is currently pursuing a DPT at McMaster Divinity College. He has written three books—Beyond Doubt: How to Be Sure of Your Salvation; Chosen to Serve: Why Divine Election Is to Service, Not to Eternal Life; and One-Point Preaching: A Law and Gospel Model.

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