John Piper once wrote, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do, sometimes even sentences.”
Think about your Mount Rushmore of books. A book often makes my favorites list by bringing me face-to-face with a profound statement that peels back the layers of falsehood and gives me a glimpse of truth. Or maybe, it is a scene or description from a novel that perfectly crystalizes man’s fallen nature and our need for redemption. Whatever the case, something in the book impacts me in such a way that it sticks with me, refusing to be cast it into the mental wastebasket alongside 95% of the stuff I’ve read.
This is not unique to books, though. Our favorites movies are often filled with brilliant or, at least, memorable lines. The quotable movies will be the ones that come to mind years after their release. Likewise, think of the powerful sermons that you’ve heard throughout your lifetime. You probably don’t remember all of the preacher’s points. Rather, it is one sentence out of a few hundred that is still implanted in your memory.
After I read Piper’s quote, I started thinking about paragraphs and sentences that changed me. Several came to mind, but I’m only going to list three (Note: I’m not including Bible passages because I feel strange implying that some verses have not deeply impacted me.):
- “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” (Owen, Mortification of Sin)
- “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)
- “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” (Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad)
These three quotes have deeply impacted my theology and my way of life. They return to my mind time and time again. As I’ve come to realize the power of sentences, I have tried to give more attention to the individual sentences that I write, whether in a sermon or a blog. I write knowing that hearers and readers will likely take away one or two statements at most. This forces me to strive for sentences that are concise and creative.
Creativity is not an end in itself, though. The goal is not to have people remember your words and how wonderfully you can turn phrases or “tug on the strings of their heart” with your powerful illustrations. No, the goal is helping others remember truths that will build them up in the gospel of Jesus Christ, statements that will come to mind as they journey along the grace-paved path.
Is this your aim in writing? Are you actually giving thought to the individual sentences that comprise your sermons and articles? Biblical faithfulness is no reason for mediocrity. We strive to excellently proclaim the excellencies of Christ. This goes for all Christians as we seek to faithfully communicate the gospel to the nations. We express the truths of the gospel in a clear and creative way that will hang with the listener long after he or she has left us.
If you are interested in growing in your ability to creatively and concisely communicate truth, here are a few suggestions. First, read good books. Reading skilled writers helps produce skilled writers. There is no substitute for filling our minds with works that faithfully and winsomely expound Christ and the blessings that are found in Him.
Secondly, related to the first point, don’t be afraid of reading books on writing. This may seem a bit nerdy, but these works will get you thinking about language in ways that we normally don’t consider. Two of my favorite books on writing are Elements of Style by Strunk and White, along with Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson.
Lastly, practice. I’m not saying that everyone should seek to write books or even blogs. But you can do simple things, like editing your sermon. One easy, though beneficial, practice is to read it aloud while paying particular attention to how your word choices will fall upon the congregation’s ears. Likewise, spend time considering how you can state a great truth of Scripture in such a way that will be equally clear and memorable. What often separates a decent writer from a great writer is not the ability to create incredible first drafts, but the diligence to edit and sharpen mediocre first drafts.
As Christians, we are all heralds of the gospel. Though the substance of our message is always fixed on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that doesn’t mean the form of our message must remain fixed and grow stale. We must pursue excellence, remembering that sentences change lives.
What are some sentences that have impacted your life? Feel free to share them in the comments section.
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published here on January 6, 2014. I have made a few edits to the current version.)