I was flying to Minneapolis in 1973 as editor of Moody Press to visit with professors at Bethel College and Seminary, also speaking in chapel to the college’s students, when the Holy Spirit introduced me to four verses of the Bible, Luke 1:1-4, that changed my understanding of effective writing. Though I have gained other insights on writing from the Bible since then, “Earning the Right to Be Published” takes writing conference participants on a tour of the Gospel of Luke like no preacher ever did. From those four verses I gleaned five principles that must guide all Christian writers.
- Luke had a target reader clearly in mind—Theophilus, obviously an educated Greek believer (v. 3).
- Luke did market research to determine what was already available on the topic (vs. 1-2)
- Luke did additional personal research to discover the true facts about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (v. 3).
- Luke selected and organized his materials for maximum impact on the reader (v. 3).
- Luke had a clear purpose for writing his book and constantly kept that in mind (v. 4).
Reading through Paul’s Letter to the Romans recently I was struck by how the apostle Paul implemented the first principle, specifically in Chapters 7-10. He makes it very clear that he is writing to Gentiles, Roman Christians, but is openly aware that among them are Jewish Christians being troubled by Judaizers. These were insisting that since God revealed the law, the Torah, to the Jewish people, descendants of Abraham and followers of Moses, even Gentile Christians ought to obey all the ritualistic laws, including circumcision. So does he embark on a sermon, unloading all the arguments against those wanting to enforce Jewish laws on Gentiles? Here’s some of what I gleaned from these chapters.
- He accepts both Gentile and Jewish readers as loyal followers of God. Some clearly have a faulty understanding, but he accepts them as intelligent enough to consider the clearly presented new insight God gave Paul on what Christ’s death and resurrection did for the law. Here’s how he puts it: “So, my friends, this is something like what has taken place with you. When Christ died he took that entire rule-dominated way of life down with him and left it in the tomb, leaving you free to ‘marry’ a resurrection life and bear ‘offspring of faith for God’” (7:4, The Message).
- There’s no talking down to readers in that passage, just a well-developed argument in a form that dignifies them as intelligent. Much of what I read in apologetic or Christian living manuscripts demeans the intelligence of readers and would turn them off instead of enlisting them in an intelligent conversation. All of us see “as in a glass darkly” and do not understand ultimate truth perfectly. Pounding the reader with “truth” always works against us as writers.
- Paul engages the reader in a dialoguing approach that re-occurs repeatedly throughout all of Paul’s letters. In verse 7 of Chapter 7 (using The Message version all the way) he seems to be alertly “listening” to their response and writes, “But I can hear you say, ‘If the law code was so bad as all that, it’s no better than sin itself.’ That’s certainly not true.” Go to verse 13, “Don’t you remember how it was? I do, perfectly well. The law code had a perfectly legitimate function.” Notice that he is not only dialoguing, but in doing so is giving the reader a legitimate reason to feel good about what he has believed, though Christ had moved Christ-followers beyond that law code.
Here are some other dialoguing questions: “Don’t you remember how it was?”; “I can already hear your next question;” “I can anticipate the response that is coming;” “So, what do you think?” “So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent?” Check the NIV and you’ll see the questions there as well, though not as obvious as Eugene Peterson has made them in The Message. I’ve had numerous pastors question me how to write in a dialoguing way and I’d send them to Improving Your Serve, by Charles Swindoll, but now I can also send them to Romans 7-10.
There’s amazing personal transparency in all of the apostle Paul’s letters. He’s not afraid to admit inadequate understanding, failure to keep God’s commandments, to feeling weary, to feeling keenly disappointed in the Christians he is addressing. Here’s one from Romans 7: “I’ve tried everything, and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?” The answer comes in verse one of Chapter 8. So if the apostle Paul is willing to be transparent, why are we as writers so reluctant to be transparent? Do we really have to come across as perfect, or is that a façade we use to try to convince people we have superior truth?
Take time to read the Bible not as a proof text for something you have written but as a guide to inform your writing approach. It’s been an amazing experience for me!