It was Sunday night, October 8, 1871. Growing crowds had forced Dwight L. Moody to relocate his meetings to Farwell Hall. By then, Moody was already poised to become one of the greatest evangelists of his era. He’d teamed up with Ira Sankey a few months prior and his preaching of God’s love had been shaped by Henry Moorhouse of Dublin.
But October 8, 1871 would change Moody forever. That night Moody asked the gathered crowd to think about their standing before the Lord. He challenged them to use the coming week to consider their lives apart from Christ and to come next week prepared to make their decisions. Ira Sankey began singing the closing song as the crowd prepared to disperse.
As the people broke up the sound of fire trucks and church bells began to sound. Soon nearly all of Chicago was on fire. The Great Chicago Fire raged from Sunday October 8th to Tuesday October 10th. When finally extinguished, the fire had consumed 3.3 square miles, claimed some 300 lives, and left over 100,000 people homeless. A good deal of Chicago’s business district was destroyed, including Moody’s YMCA building, church and parsonage. The church would not reopen until Christmas Eve 1871.
The group that was asked to consider in the coming week their lives apart from Christ found their lives engulfed in flames. They had not anticipated that that night their lives might be required of them. They and Moody presumed upon the Lord for another uninterrupted week of living. And Moody, it’s said, declared he’d never assemble another crowd or close a meeting without urging his hearers to then and there “decide for Christ.”
I’m convinced Moody learned the best lesson from that tragedy. Tomorrow is not promised to any of our hearers when gather on Sunday mornings. Whether it’s a great fire or passing quietly while sleeping, some of our hearers won’t live to hear another sermon. Some will not live a week more to consider life apart from Christ. Richard Baxter was right to “preach as a dying man to dying men,” for that’s the truth about us all. Gospel preaching to the lost is urgent business. As Carl Henry once wrote, “The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time.” If we have a live audience listening to us and we are gospel preachers, then in those moments the gospel is on time and we should preach it to the full!
I have this basic conviction about preaching: Every sermon from every text in a way that’s natural to that text should proclaim and explain the gospel fully enough that every hearer can be saved.
If we’re serious about life and death matters, if we are convinced a real hell awaits the unrepentant, if we have hope that a glorious heaven is in the offer, if we think Jesus Christ is a sufficient Savior, then there is no good reason to ever leave the pulpit without having clearly explained the gospel and urged people to give a biblical response to it—repentance and faith.
Every sermon that omits a clear gospel explanation and appeal is a massive fail. We fail the Christ we’re supposed to preach. We fail the hearers whose souls are at stake. We fail to do the work of an evangelist and discharge our ministry. It’s the preacher’s business to “determine to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
We must not fail. Greater fires than Chicago’s are burning and will burn forever.