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4 Lessons in Tone from R.C. Sproul

In preparation for sermons, counseling, small group meetings we often prepare what we will say. That’s good. But how we say it requires just as much thought.

At least, that’s what I learned from Dr. Sproul during two weeks of illness.

Recently I was laid up after a minor surgery and secondary infection and I listened to a lot of R.C. Sproul. (A lot.) I love the foundational role he played in my theology as a teenager but it had been a while since I sat down and, say, listened through a whole series. I was struck, but not by the arguments (solid) the exposition (illuminating) or even the intellect (formidable). After pastoring for several years I noticed something about Sproul I never understood as a teenager.

I was struck, perhaps more than anything, by Sproul’s tone.

He was teaching on several difficult doctrines of the Christian faith, thorny doctrines that often get preached with a thunderous and condemning and self-righteous tone. Now, note, that he did not go soft on anything. He wasn’t pulling punches. He wasn’t watering down his doctrine.

And yet, even on the most controversial topic his tone was warm and inviting. He made me want to keep listening, even if I disagreed with this point or that point.

I’ve started to wonder whether we as young evangelicals would do well to pay attention as much to Dr. Sproul’s tone as his theology. Perhaps this feels too touchy feely to you, but in the pages of the New Testament letters as we see pastors communicate directly to churches the tone seems warmer than colder. The tone seems blood-earnest, hard-hitting, and… full of love. Paul even uses the analogy of the gentleness of a nursing mother to describe his tone and affection for a church (1 Thess 2:7).

The Apostle Peter, as brash and bold as he is in the pages of Scripture, charges this readers this way:

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16 ESV)

To Peter it wasn’t enough to make a good defense, how you make the defense matters immensely. And even further, Peter is addressing their interaction with opponents who would likely be belligerent, angry, and reviling. How much more should we take our tone into account when we speak to other Christians?

Here are four things I noticed in Dr. Sproul’s tone that I want to emulate:

An Invitation to come near, not just pushing away

Even when addressing Roman Catholic doctrine, for example, Dr. Sproul invites the listener in. He does not give up his ground but he invites them to pull up a chair and debate. Surely there is no embrace of false doctrine but Dr. Sproul seems to beckon the listener in rather than slapping them across the face. Seekers of truth (even wrongheaded ones) would want to get closer, not turn away.

An explanation, not just a SOUND BYTE

It would be easy for a theologian like Dr. Sproul to simply say, “Trust me here’s what you should believe.” It would be easy to reduce opponents to the worst version of themselves and dismiss them outright. Instead he took the time to walk them down a path, to build out his explanation, before delivering his conclusion on the subject. It takes longer, but it helps the listener see things for themselves.

A respect of opponents, not a mockery

I was struck that Dr. Sproul consistently refrained from taking cheap shots, from settling for a mocking opponents in a way that would be red meat to this audience. Dr. Sproul’s tone toward opponents is one of respect. Certainly he doesn’t refrain from pointing out their faults (even humorously at times) but the tone is not “You’re an idiot” but “I’m afraid you’re wrong here friend.”

A humility before God, not a self-righteousness

When Dr. Sproul teaches you can sense that he himself is in awe of the God he’s teaching about. This is not a tone of “Look here silly people at how I’ve worked this out” but a tone of “Can you believe God is this good? Can you believe he’s been this good to us?”

Certainly there are times to stand for truth, plant your flag, and call for war. Sproul has done this. Paul did this. But I think the default tone should be much closer to this–as we pastor, counsel, and preach.
After all, doesn’t this sound like the tone Christ uses most often with us?