Abraham Lincoln, in his First Inaugural Address, undoubtedly echoed the sentiments of most Gospel preachers when he said, “I am loath to close.” Nevertheless, the sermon must be brought to a strong and effective end. Too often the preacher closes the service but never concludes the sermon. Imagine an orchestra playing one of Beethoven’s mighty symphonies and simply quitting with a few bars still left to play at the end of the final movement, or a hotly-contested baseball game shortened by rain. “Play it out!” is the desire of the concertgoer and the baseball fan and the people of your congregation as well.
The conclusion of your message and the invitation for the listener to respond require as much preparation and prayer as any other part of the message— so let’s examine these two vital aspects of preaching.
What do you need to accomplish in your conclusion? First, the conclusion should summarize. Though the conclusion is not a time to re-preach the whole message, it is a time to recap the theme and major points. This is the time to tie all the aspects of the sermon together. This is not the time to introduce new material nor to add something else to one of the previous points. A good conclusion, therefore, will both concisely capture and capably capitalize on the sermon.
Second, the conclusion should summon. Application should be taking place throughout the message, but particularly in the conclusion. Remember that the sermon is not to be a lecture, but rather a challenge for your hearers to be changed to Christlikeness. The conclusion is where you need to drive that truth home. Olford wrote, “The conclusion crystallizes, personalizes, and helps actualize the response called for by the message. In a sense the conclusion is intentionally the most confrontational aspect of the message.”
Hopefully conviction also has been in operation during the entire message. Now on the basis of the truth presented, the preacher can call for a spiritual choice from his hearers. In Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, doctrine and duty met in His demand, “Enter ye in at the strait gate” (Matthew 7:13). The Holy Spirit used Paul to weave doctrine and duty together in Romans 12:1: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice.” You have presented the evidence and made the arguments, as did Jesus and Paul, and now it is time to call for the verdict. In the end, you want every member of your congregation to say “yes” to the Lord.
Therefore, the conclusion not only reviews some things for the hearer, but also requires some things of him. In the words of Broadus, “If there is no summons, there is no sermon.”
Finally, the conclusion should stop. After all, the word conclude does mean “to bring to an end.” Some preachers do what pilots call “touch and go” instead of landing—these multiple conclusions are frustrating to the hearers and are therefore counter-productive. A.P. Gibbs said, “A conclusion that fails to conclude merely serves to awaken resistance to the message.” Don’t stop too abruptly, but don’t go to the opposite extreme and go on eternally either.
After one evening’s address, the noted orator William Jennings Bryan was reportedly told (by his mother), “Well, you missed several good opportunities to sit down!” Jerry Vines wrote, “Stop dragging it out. Brevity is an important quality in summations. Say what you want to say. Say it briefly. Say it pointedly. Then be done.” Someone said, “A sermon does not have to be eternal to be immortal.” You may be “loath to close,” but by all means, find a way to do it anyway!
Few authors’ writings on preaching deal with the matter of the public invitation possibly because it is so controversial. It is normally politely ignored. Vines wrote, “There is very little discussion in books on sermon preparation about the relationship of the conclusion to the invitation at all. That is unfortunate. The invitation is a key part of the sermon. We do not preach merely to hear ourselves talk… We are preaching for a response… We are calling for a verdict.”
The invitation is an appeal to obey God now and be changed by the Holy Spirit. Since Scripture is both God’s announcement and appeal to mankind and is preached publicly, the public invitation is valid. However, since the Bible is silent on the exact methodology for this invitation, its structure may be varied.
It is a sad commentary that, because some preachers have abused the invitation, other preachers have decided not to use the invitation. When I learned to drive, I was instructed that if I ran off the road onto the shoulder, I was to ease the car back into my lane and not jerk the wheel because I might pull into the lane of oncoming traffic. In driving and preaching, both action and reaction are important.
The word exhort is used 108 times in the New Testament. It comes from the Greek word parakaleo which has been rendered “beseech, entreat and called.”
In his book The Effective Invitation, R. Alan Streett quotes Dr. Paige Patterson as saying, “I have frequently translated it (exhort) as ‘give an invitation.’ Anytime you come across the word ‘exhortation’ on the pages of the New Testament, you have, in effect, an appeal made to the people to come and stand with the speaker in whatever it is that he is doing.” The word para means “to the side,” and kaleo means “to call.”
It is obvious that good men are in disagreement on both the validity and style of the invitation. Every preacher must choose before God what he will do concerning this vital issue.
The ultimate goal of preaching is to bring the individual hearer to a point of decision. Consider the following opportunities an invitation provides an individual listener:
The invitation is an opportunity for confession of salvation. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy” (Psalm 107:2). Just as the Lord had delivered Israel, and they were to declare it, so the convert or backslider should declare what God has done for him (Matthew 10:32).
When Jesus commanded Peter and Andrew to follow Him, the Scripture records, “And they straightway left their nets, and followed him” (Matthew 4:20). The psalmist declared twice, “I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people” (Psalm 116:14, 18). The commitment was a public matter. David called for public commitment of the Israelites for the work project of building the temple: “And who then is willing to consecrate his service this day unto the Lord?” (1 Chronicles 29:5)
Many verses remind us that God puts a premium on humility. The Lord Jesus called a little child to Himself and told His disciples, “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). The child, in faith and humility, walked over to Jesus, and stood as a public example to the disciples. The public invitation is an opportunity for the hearer to bury his pride and publicly kneel in surrender to the commands of Christ. James and Peter both wrote that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).
Quality counselors should be trained and ready to help those who come for salvation and other spiritual decisions. The skilled counselor, in a quiet place, can help the responder to settle and seal the decision that God has laid on his heart. While only the Holy Spirit can empower the responder to succeed spiritually, a godly Christian counselor can help encourage and equip the responder. With the scriptural admonition of Romans 15:14 and the spiritual accountability of Ecclesiastes 4:9–10, the counselor can be a real asset.
The counselor can show how the Scriptures give assurance of salvation (John 1:12), reveal how to confess sin (1 John 1:9), give strength for trials (Philippians 4:13), etc. He or she can explain both forgiveness and hope (Proverbs 28:13).
The counselor can explain to the responder the need for baptism (Acts 2:41), how to study the Bible, how to pray, how to witness, etc. Projects can be assigned that utilize the principles taught so that the responder can experience some spiritual success.
If the responder needs some regular spiritual accountability, the counselor can help in this way. In Ecclesiastes 4:9–10, the preacher declares, “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.” Spiritual cheerleaders can assist the new convert or the weak believer in taking strong spiritual steps.
When the palsied man was healed by Jesus, the Bible records, “And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion” (Mark 2:12). When the folks were saved on the day of Pentecost and baptized, other conversions followed—bringing joy and praise (Acts 2:41–47). The father, in Luke 15, threw a great banquet when the prodigal son came home.
God’s people get encouraged when they witness professions of faith, baptisms, families reunited, backsliders reclaimed, and other outward manifestations of the work of the Holy Spirit. When revival came to the Jews in Nehemiah’s day, the Bible records, “Also that day they offered great sacrifices, and rejoiced: for God had made them rejoice with great joy: the wives also and the children rejoiced: so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off” (Nehemiah 12:43). Confrontation (Nehemiah 8:8), confession (9:1–3) and celebration (12:43) are all based on Scripture.
The preacher should always extend the public invitation with immediacy, intensity, and integrity for the g lory of God. Truly, it is of eternal importance!
This article is an excerpt from Dr. Tom Farrell’s book, Preaching That Pleases God, available from Striving Together Publications.