Sermon illustrations


An Advance of $90,000

Millions of golfers know the name of Harvey Penick. His first book, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, became a surprising best-seller, selling more than 1 million copies in 1992, quickly earning the title of the best-selling sports book of all time.

But by the time Penick even showed his notes – the genesis for his book – to a local writer, he was nearly 90 years old. Penick wanted to know if the book was worth publishing. The writer read it, and told him he liked the book. In fact, by the next evening, the same man left word with Penick’s wife that Simon & Schuster had agreed to an advance of $90,000.

When the writer saw Penick later, the old man seemed troubled. Finally, Penick came clean. With all his medical bills, he said, there was no way he could advance Simon & Schuster that much money. It took a while, but finally the writer convinced Penick that the publisher would pay him the $90,000 . . . not the other way around!

What a joy to realize that instead of needing to pay God an insurmountable bill for sins already committed, God has decided to give us the priceless gift of grace – our sins are already paid for, in full. (Source: Leadership Journal, Fall 1995)

Andy Cook


Cheap Grace vs. Costly Grace

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market… Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system…. Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner…. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline…. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field…

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.

It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son…. Above all it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Touchstone, pp 45-48.

Grace for the Long Road of Obedience

Grace is not only needed for the occasion of conversion, the moment we suddenly (or slowly) come to our senses and realize that we are spiritually bankrupt, having nothing to bring to God and everything to receive. Grace is also required for the long season of cultivated growth that follows that rebirth. By grace we set out. By grace we are also sustained. Grace has as much to say about endings as it has to say about beginnings.

Taken from Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel Copyright (c) 2014 by Jen Pollock Michel. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


Confession is not…

Confession is not telling God what he doesn’t know. Impossible. Confession is not complaining. If I merely recite my problems and rehash my woes, I’m whining. Confession is not blaming. Pointing fingers at others without pointing any at me feels good, but it doesn’t promote healing. Confession is so much more. Confession is a radical reliance on grace. A proclamation of our trust in God’s goodness. “What I did was bad,” we acknowledge, “but your grace is greater than my sin, so I confess it.”

Max Lucado, Grace: More than we Deserve, Greater than we Imagine, Thomas Nelson.

Fathers and Faith 

In his book The Case for Grace, pastor and author Lee Strobel describes a dream he had as a child after having a significant argument with his father. Strobel does what most of us would do at that age: resolve to work harder, perform better, and get into his father’s good “graces.” The dream that followed demonstrates, even at an early age, that grace would inevitably seep into Strobel’s life, and that the performance treadmill he had learned as a child would never get him where we wanted to be:

One evening when I was about twelve, my father and I clashed over something. I walked away feeling shame and guilt, and I went to bed vowing to try to behave better, to be more obedient, to somehow make myself more acceptable to my dad. I can’t recall the details of what caused our conflict that evening, but what happened next is still vivid in my mind fifty years later.

I dreamed I was making myself a sandwich in the kitchen when a luminous angel suddenly appeared and started telling me about how wonderful and glorious heaven is. I listened for a while, then said matter-of-factly, “I’m going there” — meaning, of course, at the end of my life. The angel’s reply stunned me. “How do you know?” How do I know?

What kind of question is that? “Well, uh, I’ve tried to be a good kid,” I stammered. “I’ve tried to do what my parents say. I’ve tried to behave. I’ve been to church.” Said the angel, “That doesn’t matter.” Now I was staggered. How could it not matter — all my efforts to be compliant, to be dutiful, to live up to the demands of my parents and teachers. Panic rose in me.

Words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. The angel let me stew for a few moments. Then he said, “Someday you’ll understand.” Instantly, he was gone — and I woke up in a sweat. It’s the only dream I remember from my childhood. Periodically through the years it would come to mind, and yet I would always shake it off. It was just a dream.

Lee Strobel, The Case for Grace: A Journalist Explores the Evidence of Transformed Lives, Zondervan.

Forgiving a Concentration Camp Guard

After the defeat of Hitler’s Nazi regime in World War II, Holocaust survivor and Christian Corrie ten Boom returned to Germany to declare the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. One evening, after giving her message, she was approached by a man who identified himself as a former Nazi guard from the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, where she had been held and where her sister, Betsie, had died.

When Corrie saw the man’s face, she recognized him as one of the most cruel and vindictive guards from the camp. He reached out his hand and said to her, “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk. I was a guard there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, will you forgive me?” About this encounter, Corrie writes:

I stood there—I whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place. Could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I ever had to do . . . I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. . . . But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently.

As she reached out her hand to the former guard, Corrie says that something incredible took place. She continues:

The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” . . . I had never known love so intensely, as I did then. But even then, I realized it was not my love . . . It was the power of the Holy Spirit.

Scott Sauls, A Gentle Answer, Thomas Nelson, 2020, pp.19-20.

The High-way and the Wall

Now I could see in my dream that the High-way Christian was to travel on was protection on either side by a Wall, and the Wall was called Salvation. Burdened Christian began to run up the High-way, but not without great difficulty because of the load he was carrying on his back.

He ran this way until he came to a place on somewhat higher ground where there stood a Cross. A little way down from there was an open Grave. And I saw in my dream that just as Christian approached the Cross, his Burden came loose from his shoulders, fell from his back, and began to roll downward until it tumbled into the open Grave to be seen no more.

John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress.

How Grace Transforms and Holiness Follows

A number of you may be aware of Jerry Bridges’ series of books on holiness, and the book that maybe put him on the map was Pursuit of Holiness. Jerry’s a friend, so he’s told me these stories, and I don’t remember the exact numbers, but Pursuit of Holiness was the book that really brought him to fame. People were strongly motivated to obey God, to seek to honor Him, by Jerry’s writing in Pursuit of Holiness.

But he says that as he went around the country preaching on Pursuit of Holiness, there was always another sermon he had to preach after the series of messages based on the book. And he said the message that he had to preach after Pursuit of Holiness was how grace transforms us so that we can pursue holiness.

I mean, after all, it was in some measure, early on, just kind of a Nike Christianity: “Just do it. You just hunker down and try harder and do what God says here.” People were inspired but found themselves incapable. And so Jerry had to say, “Well, you know, it’s by the grace of God that you’re enabled to do what He says.”

… Here’s what happened. And I don’t remember these figures precisely, but Jerry says the first book, Pursuit of Holiness, which was all about “you just do it,” sold some three million copies. The second book, Transforming Grace, which says it’s actually God’s grace that enables, sold 300,000 copies.

The more we talk about the grace of God rather than what we do to get God to respond to us, the less people seem to be interested. And, you know, what Jerry Bridges said was, it’s actually the grace of God that is the power of the ability to pursue holiness, and our disciplines, as we practice them, are not about somehow paying off God so that He will be good to us but, rather, are simply the means by which God gives us to open our hearts to receive the grace that helps us understand what He provides in our behalf… That inversion—understanding that His grace precedes our performance, not [that] our performance buys His grace—that shift changes everything.

Bryan Chapell, Preparing and Delivering Christ-Centered Sermons II: Communicating a Theology of Grace, Lexham Press.

“I am Buying Your Soul”

One of the most powerful illustrations of grace and mercy in all of western literature has to be the great scene between Monseigneur Bienvenu and Jean Valjean in the stirring epic Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

Jean Valjean, having recently finished serving a long prison sentence for stealing bread (for his starving family), once again finds himself in desperate straits.

With nowhere to go on a rainy evening, he is offered shelter by the Monseigneur Bienvenu. With no money or work prospects, Valjean steals some silver from the parsonage, only to be caught by the local authorities.

Valjean is dragged back to the Monseigneur’s residence to be confronted for his wrongdoing. But instead of confirming the crime, Bienvenu sees the unfortunate event as an opportunity.

It is, with no exaggeration necessary, the opportunity to either condemn a life or to save one.

Employing distinctly atonement language, Bienvenue chooses the latter, and says to the stunned Valjean,

“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man….Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”

Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf.

An Illustration of Faith as Grace, Not a Good Work

In his book The Mystery of Christ, a series of fictionalized pastoral counseling sessions (based on actual events), the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon shares a number of helpful ways of understanding the nature of God’s salvation, including this helpful parable of how faith is a grace, not a [good] work:

Suppose I were to tell you that I had already buried, under a flat rock on a piece of property you own, $ 1,000,000 in crisp, new $1,000 bills. And suppose I were also to tell you that I have no intention of ever taking this money back: it’s there, and that’s that. On one level, I have given you a piece of sensationally good news: you are the possessor of a million bucks, no conditions attached, no danger of my reneging on the gift.

And if you trust me — that is, if you go to your property and start turning over flat rocks—you will sooner or later actually be able to relate to the million I so kindly gave you. But note something crucial. Your faith (your trust) does not earn you the money, nor does it con me into giving it to you: the money was yours all along just because I was crazy enough to bury it in your backyard. Your faith, you see, is in no way the cause of the gift; the only thing it can possibly have any causal connection with is your own enjoyment of the gift.

Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ & Why We Don’t Get It, Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1993.

Living a Grace-Filled Life

According to Dallas Willard, grace is “God doing in us and for us what we could not do ourselves.” We are meant to be forgiven by grace; we are also meant to live by grace.

We often believe that only “sinners” need grace or that the only times we need grace are times of guilt. But as Dallas used to say, “Saints burn far more grace than sinners ever could. They burn it the way a jet burns rocket fuel.”

Salvation means that not only am I forgiven by grace, but I am also learning to live by grace. This is part of what makes boasting for any good that comes out of me as unthinkable as boasting for any sin forgiven in me—in either case, it is a gift of grace.

Eternity Is Now In Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught About Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2018), Kindle Electronic Version. 

Living By Grace

Living by grace instead of by works means you are free from the performance treadmill. It means God has already given you an A when you deserved an F; He has already given you a full day’s pay even though you may have worked only one hour.

It means you don’t have to perform certain spiritual disciplines to earn God’s approval. Jesus Christ has already done that for you. You are loved and accepted by God through the merit of Jesus, and you are blessed by God through the merit of Jesus. Nothing you ever do will cause Him to love you any more or any less. He loves you strictly by His grace given to you through Jesus.

Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace: Living Confidently in God’s Unfailing Love, NavPress.

Moving the Fence

In the Second World War, a group of soldiers were fighting in the rural countryside of France. During an intense battle, one of the American soldiers was killed. His comrades did not want to leave his body on the battlefield and decided to give him a Christian burial.

They remembered a church a few miles behind the front lines whose grounds included a small cemetery surrounded by a white fence. After receiving permission to take their friend’s body to the cemetery, they set out for the church, arriving just before sunset.

A priest, his bent-over back and frail body betraying his many years, responded to their knocking. His face, deeply wrinkled and tan, was the home of two fierce eyes that flashed with wisdom and passion.

Our friend was killed in battle,” they blurted out, “and we wanted to give him a church burial.” Apparently the priest understood what they were asking, although he spoke in very broken English. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we can bury only those of the same faith here.

Weary after many months of war, the soldiers simply turned to walk away. “But,” the old priest called after them, “you can bury him outside the fence.” Cynical and exhausted, the soldiers dug a grave and buried their friend just outside the white fence.

They finished after nightfall. The next morning, the entire unit was ordered to move on, and the group raced back to the little church for one final goodbye to their friend. When they arrived, they couldn’t find the grave site, tired and confused, they knocked on the door of the church.

They asked the old priest if he knew where they had buried their friend. “It was dark last night and we were exhausted. We must have been disoriented.” A smile flashed across the old priest’s face. “After you left last night, I could not sleep, so I went outside early this morning and I moved the fence.”

Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People, Zondervan, 2015.

The Prodigal Should Be Arrested

The law is harsh and cannot help us to receive forgiveness.

In Craddock Stories, a collection of outstanding stories by Fred Craddock, is the following account with one who could understand law, but not grace.

Craddock preached in Blue Ridge, Georgia one Sunday while the pastor was away. He preached on the lectionary text which was on the prodigal son. After the service a man said, “I really didn’t care much for that frankly.”

He asked the many why and the man said he just didn’t like that story because it was morally irresponsible.

Craddock said, “What do you mean by that.”

“Forgiving the boy.” the man replied.

Craddock asked, “Well, what would you have done?”

“I think when he came home he should have been arrested.” answered the man.

Craddock writes, “This fellow was serious. He’s an attorney, I thought. I thought he was going to tell me a joke. But he was really serious. He belonged to this unofficial organization nationwide, never has any meetings and doesn’t have a name, but it’s a very strong network that I call “quality control people.” They’re moral police. Mandatory sentences and no parole, mind you, and executions.”

Craddock then asked, “What would you have given the prodigal?”

He said, “Six years.”

Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, Chalice Press, 2001, 51.

The Protestant Buddhists

In his insightful book, Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves shares an interesting point of connection between the Protestant understanding of sola grati discovered by Francis Xavier during his missionary expeditions to Asia in the 16thcentury: that a group of Buddhists believed in a type of salvation that could not be achieved by good works, but by grace along. It provides an interesting contrast to historic Christianity:

Francis Xavier was a Roman Catholic missionary to Asia. When he reached Japan in 1549 he came across a particular sect of Buddhism (Yodo Shin-Shu)that stank, he said, of what he called “the Lutheran heresy.” That is, like the Reformer Martin Luther, these Buddhists believed in salvation by grace alone and not by human effort. Simple trust in Amida, they held, instead of trust in self, was sufficient to achieve rebirth into the pure land.

If we call on him, they taught, then despite our failings, all his achievements become ours. Of course, the “salvation” in view here was nothing like Christian salvation: it was not about knowing Amida or being known by him; it was about enlightenment and the achievement of Nirvana. It was, nonetheless, a salvation grounded on the virtues and achievements of another, and appropriated by faith alone.

Taken from Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. Copyright (c) 2012 by Michael Reeves. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com 

Rejecting Grace

There’s a gut – wrenching scene in the Korean film Secret Sunshine that captures the scandal of grace better than any film I’ve ever seen. The scene takes place in a prison, as protagonist Shin-ae (Jeon Do-Yeon) goes to visit her son’s murderer in prison. Shin-ae, a new convert to Christianity, wants to forgive him.

Her friends tell her she doesn’t have to see him face-to-face in order to forgive him. But she insists. She wants to see him in person and (truth be told) wants to witness the look on his face when she offers him the gift of forgiveness. And yet when she sits down to confront the prisoner on the other side of the glass, Shin-ae finds him unexpectedly happy, peaceful, even joyful.

“You look better than I expected,” she tells him before explaining that the peace, love, and “new life” she’d found in God had prompted her to forgive him. She’s “so happy to feel God’s love and grace” that she wanted to spread his love by coming to visit her son’s murderer.

But then the shocker: the prisoner, the killer of her son, has also come to faith in Christ. “Since I came here, I have accepted God in my heart. The Lord has reached out to this sinner,” he says. “Is that so?” replies Shin-ae, crestfallen and shaken. “It’s good you have found God,” she says, very tentatively. The convicted murderer continues: “Yes, I am so grateful. God reached out to a sinner like me.

He made me kneel to repent my sins. And God has absolved me of them.” And this is where Shin-ae begins to wilt. “God . . . has forgiven your sins?” she mutters in disbelief. “Yes,” he replies. “And I have found inner peace…My repentance and absolution have brought me peace.

Now I start and end each day with prayer. I always pray for you, Ms. Lee. I’ll pray for you until I die.”

This hits Shin-ae hard. When she leaves the prison, she collapses, overcome by the horror of an idea she had not considered: that God could beat her to the punch in forgiving her son’s killer, offering this criminal the only real absolution he needed. Unfortunately, Shin-ae can’t accept this seeming injustice. How can a law-abiding, good citizen like her and a convicted child- killer be on the same level in terms of God’s grace? She can’t take that, and abandons God because of it.

Taken from Uncomfortable by Brett McCracken, © 2017, p.50. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

The Religion Shop Has Been Closed

[For Christians]  the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten. The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and it never will be, in spite of all the ecclesiastical turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religion was their stock in trade.

The church, instead, is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. It is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” It is here, in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free grace.

Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 252-53.

The Two House-Hunters from Quadora 

Sam and Pam, two friends, both arrived in the United States as immigrants from the country of Quadora. Each one wanted to buy a house, and it so happened they each found one for sale by a certain wealthy man. Both houses were priced at $ 100,000 Sam arrived with 500,000 quadros, the currency of Quadora, and Pam arrived with 1,000,000 quadros.

They knew quadros were not worth one dollar apiece, but they assumed they would be able to exchange the quadros for at least enough to buy a house. However, Quadora had been ravished by hyperinflation, and the quadro had been debased until it was virtually worthless. The bank would not accept their quadros in exchange for any dollars.

To compound the problem, Sam and Pam both discovered that the wealthy man from whom they hoped to buy their houses was not unknown to them. They’d each had business transactions with the man while still in Quadora, and were heavily in debt to him. Sam owed him about a million dollars, lars, and Pam owed him 500,000. Since their quadros were worthless, neither could even begin to pay his or her debt, let alone buy a house from him.

Then a strange thing happened. The wealthy man hearing Pam and Sam were now in this country and knowing they would have arrived with only their worthless quadros sought them out.

Despite the fact they were heavily in debt to him, he canceled the debts, gave them each the house they desired, completely furnished, with utilities and maintenance paid for life. That is a picture of how God’s grace operates. The “currency” of our morality and good deeds is worthless in God’s sight.

Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace: Living Confidently in God’s Unfailing Love, NavPress.

The Unmerited Gift of Grace

If you’re not stunned by the thought of grace, then you aren’t grasping what grace offers you, or what it cost Jesus. In 1987, eighteen-month-old “Baby Jessica” fell twenty-two feet into a Texas well. Rescuers labored nonstop to save her. After fifty-five grueling hours, her life hanging in the balance, they finally reached her and extracted her from the well. The nation breathed a sigh of relief and cheered the heroes. This was not the story: “Baby Jessica clawed her eighteen-month-old body up the side of that twenty-two foot well, inch by inch, digging in her little toes and working her way up. She’s a hero, that Jessica!”

Baby Jessica was utterly helpless. She could do nothing to deliver herself. Her fate was in the hands of her rescuers. Left to herself, Jessica had no chance. Likewise, when it comes to our salvation, we’re utterly powerless.

That’s grace: “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). We get no more applause for our redemption than Baby Jessica got for being rescued. God alone deserves the ovation. In the story of redemption, He’s the only hero. And it didn’t just cost Him fifty-five hours of hard work—it cost Him everything. Do you want to say “Thank You” right now?

Randy Alcorn, The Grace and Truth Paradox, LifeChange Books, The Crown Publishing Group.

What’s Unique about Christianity?

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods’ appearing in human form. Resurrection?

Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law — each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.

Aware of our inbuilt resistance to grace, Jesus talked about it often. He described a world suffused with God’s grace: where the sun shines on people good and bad; where birds gather seeds gratis, neither plowing nor harvesting to earn them; where untended wildflowers burst into bloom on the rocky hillsides.

Like a visitor from a foreign country who notices what the natives overlook, Jesus saw grace everywhere. Yet he never analyzed or defined grace, and almost never used the word. Instead, he communicated grace through stories we know as parables.

Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Zondervan Publishing.

When Grace Strikes

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life…. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything, do not perform anything, do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.’ If that happens to us, we experience grace.

Paul Tillich quoted in Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel, p.28-29.

See also Illustrations on ForgivenessJudging, Kindness, LegalismMercy

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Grace. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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