Writing and Whited Sepulchers

“And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” (1 Cor. 2:1-5)

In his book Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice, Dr. Joel McDurmon makes an interesting observation regarding the above passage:

Paul reminded the Corinthians that he purposefully avoided cunning rhetoric in favor of the plain, powerful Gospel. Historically, however, people give in to the temptation to trick and dupe others by using persuasive words rather than godly wisdom. Aristotle provided the first systematic examination of logic, and he did so primarily because of the prevalence of trained rhetoricians who hired out their persuasive abilities for money. Many became very rich and famous. This group of “sophists” (from the Greek sophos, “wise”; of such people see Rom. 1:22) did not care about the truth of any particular issue; they merely cared about winning the argument for their paying clients. Sophists prided themselves on their ability to take either side of any argument and win. (p. 65)

This is something we writers should bear in mind. Clever rhetoric, in and of itself, is a good and useful thing. But it’s not the best thing. And sometimes, it just gets in the way.

I have a deep and heartfelt respect for the writings of men like J.C. Ryle, Charles Spurgeon, and Thomas Watson. Most impressive, for me, is their ability to write with artistic aplomb while keeping the Gospel ever at the forefront. Their talent with the pen is remarkable – their sense of priorities even more so.

I can learn a thing or two from these great men. No, strike that: I can learn a lot. We all can. When the time comes to set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be), we would do well to consider where our inky scratchings point: back to ourselves or beyond ourselves? Do we remember that the ultimate goal of our writing should be to reflect the glory of Christ and the beauty of His Gospel? Or do we stifle these things in a lather of vain, self-important prose?

I’m all for clever writing, but we should have discernment in knowing when and where to use it. “To every thing there is a season,” says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. There’s a time for witty repartee, dazzling wordplay, and literary shenanigans. And there’s a time when we need to set these things aside and forge ahead with unabashed, unadorned plainness.

At all times, however, let us remember that we write for God’s glory and not our own. If we place our trust in cunning rhetoric and artsy prose, relying (as McDurmon puts it) on persuasive words rather than godly wisdom, then our writing is no better than the whited sepulchers of Matthew 23:27, “which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

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