Preach for a Verdict

“Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” – II Corinthians 5:11

There is an old preacher saying, “Preach for a verdict.” It communicates the idea of calling for a response to Jesus Christ. Such a response is relational, and not merely to God in abstract. The saying communicates that a right response is consequential, that the stakes are high. It implies urgency. Decision is called for, action is demanded. It insists that the hearers be “doers and not hearers only.”

Since this figure of speech is drawn from the legal realm, I decided to read up on closing arguments. While I believe the Bible is the final and an altogether adequate guide for expository preaching, the Bible itself discusses the subject of persuasion. Is it possible the legal profession has discovered some principles of persuasion that, if I check, I will find contained in Scripture? Is it possible someone else may have discovered principles of persuasion which God has woven into nature, and that I have missed them? Could it be that seeing such principles illustrated in the realm of law and, then, verifying them by the Word of God, I might just become a better preacher?

Two books were especially helpful. First, Win Your Case by Gerry Spence, especially Chapter 15: Closing the Deal: The Final Argument (Saint Martins Griffin, 2005). Second,

Closing Arguments: The Last Battle by Fredric G. Levin, Mike Papantonio, and Martin Levin, Seville Square, Pensacola, 2003).

I also listened to the audio version of The Devil’s Advocates: Greatest Closing Arguments in Criminal Law by Michael S. Leif and H. Mitchell Caldwell (Blackstone Audio, 2006). This turned out to be more about famous cases than great closing arguments. However, it did have Gerry Spence’s closing argument from the Ruby Ridge case, which was very interesting to hear.

So, I moved from the figure of speech to what I read about closing arguments by attorney’s to the Bible to my training in preaching.

Spence lists several general insights, then some steps to developing the closing argument. After his comments; I list the application of each concept in regard to persuasion for the preacher’s purposes.

General Principles

Spence says, “Look at each juror in their eyes. Each of them, juror by juror… confirm for them they are individuals who count” (page 224).

Eye contact is only part of the idea; we are preaching to people, created in the image of God, whose choices have consequences and whose lives have eternal destinies. Their choices will also impact the lives of others. They have a right to make those choices and that capacity, unique in all creation, is to be respected. We are letting them know we respect that right. We are also letting them know the ball is in their court.


“Every space in the heart where the argument has been maintained has been marinated with urgent feelings.”

Farrar Patterson said in preaching class that communication not like driving a dump truck and dumping off our load. The dump truck driver may not care about the load he hauls, he may merely be putting in his hours; but the message we are delivering matters. We’re not indifferent to the message we deliver; we are passionate about it.

The Guide through the Forrest

“I compare our role to Kit Carson or Daniel Boone—someone who knows the territory and whom the jury trusts.” – Spence, 226

It should sound and feel as if someone were telling a friend about the incident, the issues, and the law. When speaking with a friend, one does not talk down to him…” (Levin, 20)

There was a time in the south when some people enjoyed having “their toes stepped on.” Those were the days when the Christian worldview dominated the thinking of the culture. People saw “hard” preaching as an art form, even as a form of entertainment. In our post-Christian culture that is less true. In a time when people are rejecting the biblical standard, there is a need for many to come to grips, first with the reality of the standard itself, and secondly, with the fact that they have violated it. This can be a long process and quite traumatizing. People need someone who is safe to help them face reality. People would rather hear such unpleasant news from a friend than an enemy. Not from someone who is immune to temptation, who is above it all, but from someone who has traveled the road and is further along in the journey of spiritual growth. They need someone who is able to guide them to an awareness of their guilt and their need, and then to guide them out of the deep dark woods. Humility, gentleness, and an appropriate measure of self-disclosure are necessary.

In his book, You are the Message, Roger Ailes (Doubleday, 1988, page 25) writes:

“…‘You are the message.’ What does that mean exactly? It means that when you communicate with someone, it’s not just the words that you choose to send to the other person that make up the message. You’re also sending signal about what kind of person you are—by your eyes, your facial expressions, your body movement, your vocal pitch, tone, your sense of humor, and many other factors.

…Everything you do you do in relation to other people causes them to make judgments about what you stand for and what your message is. ‘You are the message’ comes down to the fact that unless you identify yourself as a walking, talking message, you miss that critical point.

The words themselves are meaningless unless the rest of you is in synchronization. The total you affects how others feel about you and respond to you.

The Reasoning

“The final argument is not a rehashing of evidence. It is not a summary witness by witness… The argument is an argument.” (Spence, 228)

That is almost word for word what Dr. Jesse Northcutt told us in preaching class at Southwestern Seminary about the conclusion of a sermon.  And here, the parallel to preaching concerns the conclusion of the sermon more than sermon in its entirety. Properly, a conclusion does not merely review the points of the sermon, but rather brings the sermon to a point.

Attorneys speak of developing “themes” throughout the presentation of their case and especially in the closing argument.

Peggy Noonan writes, “The most moving thing in a speech is always the logic… A good case well argued and well said is inherently moving” (On Speaking Well, Regan Books, 1998, 64).

According to J. F. Thornbury, the preacher Asahel Nettleton excelled in this skill:

When reasoning on any of the great doctrines in Romans… his manner was often Socratic. He would commence with what must be conceded by every one present; then, by a series of questions, each deliberately considered, and not allowed to pass away until the speaker and hearer gave the same answer, his opponents would find themselves face to face with an absurdity so glaring, that notwithstanding the solemnity of the scene, the hearer could hardly escape the disposition to laugh at himself for holding a belief that appeared so utterly untenable. – God Sent Revival by J. F. Thornbury, 93-94

The day I get the case I begin to prepare the final argument.

Again, the parallel is the conclusion of the sermon. The closing argument concludes the trial; the conclusion of the sermon brings the message to a close. Getting a verdict is the whole point of the trial, so calling for a response from God’s people is the whole point of a sermon. The conclusion is one of the more difficult parts of the sermon to prepare and one of the most neglected. Sometimes, figuring out how to stop is the hardest part. When you ride the wild horses it can be difficult to dismount. To bring the points of a sermon to a point, the conclusion of the sermon should be given consideration early in preparation and not come as an afterthought.

Continued in Preach for a Verdict, part 2

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One Response to Preach for a Verdict

  1. Pingback: Preach for a Verdict, part 2 | Disproportionate Impact

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