Whenever I get in a writing slump I go back to these 5 tips from C.S. Lewis. Inevitably, I’m off on one or all of these points. Of particular interest to me as a pastor is Lewis’ fourth point:
In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
The word “gospel” is becoming the terrible and delightful of Lewis’ day. We are becoming proficient at telling people gospel but not showing people gospel. And when I say “show the gospel” I’m not saying something like, “preach the gospel and when necessary use words”. What I mean is that we insert the word gospel here and there rather than showing the gospel.
“Whoa, this is incredibly good news” should be the response of our hearers. But far too often we are merely telling people that the gospel is good news without letting the gospel do its own work.
There is a big difference between saying in your sermon, “Christian, because of the gospel you are justified” and preaching in such a way that your hearer feels the flames of hell and then the glorious pronouncement of not guilty because of the shed blood of Christ. That is the difference between telling gospel and showing gospel.
The Importance of Telling
I am not intending to say that we ought to show the gospel and NOT also tell the gospel. While “show don’t tell” is a good maxim for writing, it is incomplete advice for preaching. We need statements like “Christian, because of the gospel you are justified”.
We need statements like that because we need to have words (simple and glorious words) to identify these great truths. If we don’t, then we’ll feel the gospel in our own hearts but leave nothing to communicate these truths to posterity. If we show without telling then the gospel will be assumed. Mack Stiles is correct, “to assume the gospel is the first step to losing the gospel”.
Telling is vital. But so is showing.
The Piper Experiment
In his book, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, John Piper reflects upon a sermon he preached from Isaiah 6. Piper felt led to preach on the “majesty and glory of such a great and holy God” but to do it without “one word of application to the lives of [his] people”.
Why did he do this? He wanted to answer this question:
Would the passionate portrayal of the greatness of God in and of itself meet the needs of the people?
In other words, would it be enough for him to show without telling?
After the sermon he learned that one of the families in his church had just discovered that their daughter had been sexually abused by a close relative. Piper’s test was hitting real life. Would a passionate portrayal of the greatness of God be enough to sustain this family?
Absolutely. After one service the father confided in Piper and said the thing that held them together all those days was “the vision of the greatness of God’s holiness”.
This is what I am talking about when I say that we need to become more proficient at showing the gospel. We need to preach on these glorious truths in such a way that people feel delighted instead of told that they ought to delight in the gospel.
So when the subject of your writing and preaching is the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ ask yourself whether or not you are showing AND telling this good news.