R. C. Sproul (1939-2017)

December 16, 2017

R. C. Sproul died yesterday and immediately entered into the presence of God, fulfilling what was for him the deepest of his desires: to behold the face of God or as he would say it, “I and every child of God looks forward to the beatific vision, to behold the face of God.” R. C. Sproul for the least twenty plus years has had a profound significance on my life and ministry. I had never heard of him before nor did I know anything at all about what he believed and taught. His influence has not been at the level of providing for me a system of belief or a systematic theology; only the Bible can and should do that for the believer.

 

I had begun twenty plus years ago to take once again the Bible seriously as the inerrant, infallible and fully sufficient Word of God. I believed then and believe even more now in the absolute accuracy of all of those attributive adjectives. I had by God’s grace returned twenty plus years ago to the exposition of Scripture book by book and line by line. I was reading then and now the Bible in its original languages and diving in as deeply as I could go. I was simply preaching and teaching what I saw in the text after many hours of praying over and studying the text. At that point in my life I had never heard of R. C. Sproul, I knew John MacArthur by name and reputation and didn’t like him and had no idea that John Piper even existed. I knew Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer et.al. only by name as men of some importance during the period of the Reformation and I knew the Reformation only as the religious component of the Renaissance that created the context for the emergence of Protestantism. That is all I knew. I was simply studying the Bible book by book seeking to understand as much as possible each book in the context of the whole Bible and preaching what I saw in the text. I called it simply “preaching the Bible.”. Then one day one of my brothers in the church that I serve asked me if I knew that I was preaching Calvinism or Reformed Theology (which I would learn later are terms that are closely connected but not identical at all) and I was stunned. I was stunned most of all because I hate looking stupid but it was the only look that I could give at the time because I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

 

I love to learn about as much as I can so I went on a search for what Calvinism/Reformed Theology was and was led to R. C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries. I noticed that they were hosting a Pastors Conference in Sanford, Florida in the Fall at a very nice hotel for a total cost of $150 that covered two nights lodging, all meals and all the conference registration fees. This was my kind of conference, so I went. I had been to many conferences in the past but never attended all the sessions; most of them were about programmatic techniques to put people in the pew and the preaching was as shallow and superficial as the purpose of the conference. I went and played golf. So, with golf clubs in tow, I headed to Sanford, Florida. I never played golf. I never left the building except to attend a worship service at St. Andrews Chapel where Sproul was the pastor. I had never experienced such worship in my life and I had never heard teaching/preaching this rich, this deep, and this profoundly biblical. These men were showing us what the text taught and how the text taught was tied both to other texts and to the theology of the entire Bible. I was captivated. God was in our midst and I knew it and felt it. I heard that year Ligon Duncan, Sinclair Ferguson, Derek Thomas, Mark Dever and R. C. Sproul. What they taught was exactly what I had been preaching but so much richer and so much better. Let me make a candid confession: most of the conferences I attended up to then had me leaving thinking that I could preach as good as the guys I heard and on some Sundays, the sermon was even better than what I had heard. But when I heard these men and particularly R. C., my first thought was that I had never preached like that in my life but that what I was hearing was real, expository preaching.

 

I bought two of his books at that conference along with lots of others written by people I had never read including Calvin’s Institutes which even today for me is still the finest summary of biblical teaching for practical living that anyone could ever read. I came home and devoured The Holiness of God and Chosen by God. These were the first two books by Sproul I had read and God used them to shake me and to show me that what I was seeing in the text that I had until then not heard taught anywhere was the same thing that Sproul was seeing. And it dawned on me then that I was often taught by preachers who used biblical texts for their purposes rather than those who prayed and sweated to see the purpose of God in the biblical text. That was R. C. Sproul in capsule. He loved the Word of God and wanted to make sure that he expounded it accurately. He was never afraid as brilliant as he was to say, “I don’t know.” I heard him just this week teach on the views of the end time, giving his own with the caution that he is not sure at all if his view is absolutely right or not. That is genuine humility.

 

The most significant impact that he had on my life though was not theological: his writings as the writings of other men have not given me the substance of my theology; only the Bible should do that. What has influenced me the most is his genuine humanity and humility. He was the most brilliant man I have ever heard speak. He was “Dr. Sproul.” But nobody knew him that way. Everybody knew him as “R.C.” He actually found it pharisaically suspect when men in ministry have to be addressed by their titles. His influence was not in his degrees but in his devotion to God. And it showed. I have bee to lots of Baptist conferences through 40 plus years because I am a Baptist where the speakers would enter from ‘backstage” to give a stirring exhortation only to exit and never be seen again. Not R. C. When I first went to that conference in Sanford, he was mixing and mingling as were the other speakers with all the other pastors who were there. I was shocked. But then I would learn that was simply who he was. I will miss him this March when I go to the Ligonier Conference. A theological giant has gone home. A man whose writings helped confirm in me what I was and am seeing very clearly in Scripture is now in glory. I am grateful to God for what He did in my life 20 plus years ago and I am profoundly grateful that in His great providence he brought me by his grace under the teaching of this incredible man of God.