When pointed and sharp gospel arrows strike a human heart, the impact is felt. In fact, the impact must be felt. The Westminster Divines tell us that those who preach and teach must set forth the truth so that those listening “feel the word of God to be quick and powerful” (‘On the Preaching of the Word’). After all, in Scripture, the heart involves not only the mind but also the emotions and will. And how a person feels about something often determines the actions they take.
Yes, entrance to the heart is through the gateway of the mind, but emotions play a vital role in accepting and acting on the truth. Although explanations and instruction begin with truth stated in the form of propositions, illustrations illumine and make the truth clear and plain. Part of the way illustrations bring clarity is by addressing the emotions. As Brian Chapell puts it, “Listeners who experience concepts, even vicariously, actually know more than those who must consider words and ideas in the abstract” (Using Illustration to Preach with Power, 39).
Illustrations have the effect of actual touch. They add to the plainness and force of a teaching or message. As a result, “the mind of the hearer experiences the sensation of being touched; and this sensation is always impressive, for a man starts when he is touched” (W.G.T. Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, 64). Calvin often speaks of our need to be “touched deeply” by the spoken word (Sermons on Genesis, Chapters 1-11, 607).
This sense of being touched and being aroused is a product of evocative language and well-formed illustrations. When Spurgeon speaks about how close death is to the sinner, he uses a powerful image, which evokes an emotional response. “Death is riding! Here his horse comes—I hear his snortings, I feel his hot breath—he comes! And thou must die!” (Jay Adams, Sense Appeal in the Sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 10-11).
The use of dialog along with imagery helps drive the truth home to the heart. Here is a sample from Calvin. He is preaching on Acts 2:40, “And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’.” Notice how Calvin combines dialog with strong images.
Suppose I see a man so near a precipice that if he takes but one or two more steps he will fall into it and be killed. Will it be enough if I but say to him, ‘Watch where you are going’? Not at all! But I must shout: ‘Hey! Don’t take another step! Stop where you are or you’ll break your neck!’ That is exactly what we must do, for we see many on the verge of stumbling fatally. If we leave them alone without a word of caution, we betray God and you as well. When we see that some are given to adulteries and excesses, and others to usuries, strong-arm tactics, and so many other wicked deeds, we have to shout, ‘Hey! Not another step! You are nearing the pit of hell! If you fall in, you will never get out and, count on it; you will be in unending torment!’ Such is the responsibility we receive from our Lord Jesus Christ and learn from his word. So must we fulfill it (Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapers 1-7, 52-53).
To sharpen your gospel arrows, incorporate language that evokes emotions, use powerful images, and include dialog. The effect will be profound. In teaching or preaching, the truth is imbedded in the heart by the judicious use of illustrative material.