photo by Paul Cleveland
It is often that we choose to read a book or watch a film or listen to a message because we know what we will learn. We have a general awareness of what we’re getting ourselves into. We read a book on money management so we can learn principles for better stewardship. We watch a documentary on Martin Luther to learn about the Reformation and how it affects us today. We listen to a seminar on parenting to help us train up our children in the way they should go. We pick books to read and films to watch and messages to hear because we know the direct teaching these resources will provide.

What often goes unrecognized is indirect teaching. There is so much we can learn just by observing methodology. The methods used to transfer information are often as enlightening as the information itself. Or to say it another way: How something is said is just as important as what is being said. Therefore, teachers do not just “teach” when they convey information; they also teach by how they convey information.

Over the years of reading, watching, and listening to R.C. Sproul and John Piper, I have been the beneficiary of much indirect teaching. As much as I have learned from them through direct teaching, I have learned just as much through indirect teaching. By asking myself questions like, “Why did he say this here and not there?” or “Why did he explain it that way and not another way?” I force myself to think through not just what is being said but how it is being said. There is great value in this.

We may not read the same authors or listen to the same preachers, but we all receive indirect teaching at some level. So allow me to share just two fruits of the indirect teaching of R.C. Sproul and John Piper in my life. There are many things I wish I could share, but space does not permit me to do so. Nevertheless, my hope is that in listing these two benefits of indirect teaching in my own life, you too will seek to benefit from the indirect teaching of other authors and preachers.

Philosophical Logic
I didn’t take a philosophy class until my senior year in college. I had never opened a philosophy textbook or read the works of Aristotle or anything like that. But I had read R.C. Sproul. Even after taking philosophy in a formal setting, most of what I know about philosophy I learned indirectly from Dr. Sproul. Dr. Sproul is not only a theologian; he is also trained in philosophy. Not surprisingly, his philosophical bent seeps into his books and messages. Quite frequently, Dr. Sproul will use philosophical logic to help make a point.

Perhaps an example will help. At this year’s Ligonier National Conference, Dr. Sproul explained how there are only three possible explanations for our existence:

  1. eternal existence (we’ve always existed)
  2. self-creation (we created ourselves)
  3. creation by something or someone who is eternal

He then commented on the second explanation, saying self-creation is rationally impossible. That is, it makes no sense. It is a logical fallacy because it violates the law of non-contradiction.

What is the law of non-contradiction?

The law of non-contradiction states that for something to be a contradiction, it must be A and not A at the same time and in the same relationship.

The concept of self-creation violates this principle. Dr. Sproul explained it this way:

“To self-create, one has to be before one is.”

This, of course, is rationally impossible. It makes no sense. Therefore, we can reject self-creation as the reason for our existence. Point taken.

Dr. Sproul uses philosophical logic like this all the time. Every time I read one of his books, somewhere in that book he will make a point by sheer force of logic. As a result, he has indirectly helped shape my own thinking and given me tools for evaluating right and wrong. Philosophical logic is one of the blessed fruits of Dr. Sproul’s indirect teaching.

Poetic Sensibility
Ever since I was a young boy, I have had an affinity for poetry. I’ve enjoyed reading it and writing it. However, it was after reading John Piper that my love for poetry blossomed. Dr. Piper has a poetic sense that engulfs all of his writing. He does write poems, to be sure. I have learned much about writing poetry just by reading his poems. But even his prose has a kind of rhythm and rhyme to it that I find particularly captivating. He has a way of expressing truth in a beautiful, poetic manner.

Again, perhaps some examples will help. Look at this sentence from Dr. Piper:

“You will not know what prayer is for until you know that life is war.”

If we split the sentence into two parts, we can observe a few things. “You will not know what prayer is for | until you know that life is war.”

Notice the parallel wording in each half: “You will not know / until you know.” Note also the closely rhymed endings: for/war. There is also a balanced rhythm in each part. If “prayer” is pronounced in one syllable like “pray’r,” there are exactly eight syllables in each half. Thus, the whole sentence would read: “You will not know what pray’r is for | until you know that life is war.

This is an example of poetic sensibility in writing. Did Dr. Piper intend to teach his readers this poeticism when writing that sentence? Probably not directly. But indirectly, his method of explaining truth instructs his readers. The value is memorability: it is much easier to memorize poetry than prose. Just think about all the song lyrics you know from heart. By writing this truth about prayer in such a poetic fashion, Dr. Piper is helping his readers remember truth easier.

There are numerous examples of this kind of rhythmic flow in Dr. Piper’s writing. One of my favorites is,

“The wisdom of God has ordained a way for the love of God to deliver us from the wrath of God without compromising the justice of God.”

Another favorite is,

“Grace is the pleasure of God to magnify the worth of God by giving sinners the right and power to delight in God without obscuring the glory of God.”

Both of these sentences have a four-part structure, each part ending with “God.” There is a rhythm in each one that is aesthetically pleasing to read. Apart from the glorious truths being directly taught, there is a kind of beauty in writing being indirectly communicated.

One final example is alliteration. Consider this sentence from Dr. Piper:

More of Christ’s mercy was magnified in multiplied converts to the Cross.”

Note the bolded and italicized letters. For the most part, each word in the sentence begins with a “c” or “m.” Again, truth aside, this is a wonderfully worded sentence. And indirectly, it teaches the discerning reader something significant about literary beauty in writing.

Ask, Observe, and Reap
So I just want to encourage you to read slowly, ask questions, and observe not just what is being said but how something is being said. How is an author conveying a point? What words are being used? What’s the sentence structure? You will be amazed at what you can learn just by carefully considering an author’s methods. And don’t be limited to books! Do the same thing when you watch a film or listen to a sermon. Why was that scene included in the film? Why did he lower his voice at that point? Ask questions, observe patterns, and reap the fruit of indirect teaching!

Other Posts in this series:


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