And [God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Eph. 4:11–12)
The apostle Paul tells us that God gives good gifts to his church. Scripture’s prophets and apostles all are gracious gifts whose voices still speak through God’s Word. God also populated the landscape of church history with towering figures who boldly preached and defended the gospel, and he has sent many humble, anointed preachers and teachers into evangelical churches today, including one who shaped me profoundly: Robert Charles “R. C.” Sproul.
Sproul arrived safe in the arms of Jesus last Thursday after a long battle with lung disease, yet as I write this article, signs of his ministry remain all around my study. On my desk sits the Reformation Study Bible from which I read daily personal devotions—a cherished gift from a friend at Ligonier Ministries. Inside that Bible is a copy of the December edition of Tabletalk—a tool I’ve read devotionally for the past two decades. Scattered through my theological library are dozens of Sproul’s books, CDs, and DVDs, even children’s works my four kids have eagerly devoured. My family once spent a year watching and discussing his Dust to Glory series.
Like many who’ve come to cherish Reformed theology over the past quarter century, Sproul’s impact on my life and ministry has been seismic.
I’m a Baptist. Sproul was a Presbyterian. I never had the privilege of knowing him personally. In a real sense, however, his teaching formed my worldview. Of course, his influence was deep and wide across the spectrum of Reformedish evangelicalism stretching back to the 1970s.
In the mid-1990s God used Scripture, along with Sproul’s books and teaching series, to begin filling my mind with biblical truth. The Holiness of God was the first serious theology book I owned. Chosen by God was like a battering ram that pummeled the final wall of my intellectual rebellion against the beautiful biblical doctrines of predestination and election. For the first time in my life, it felt like I saw the world from atop Mount Olympus. My first inkling of the five solas, TULIP, and the significance of October 31, 1517, came through Ligonier CDs and cassette tapes. Sproul sowed the seed, and God grew in me strong affections for theology and church history. I would read about the work of Christ and weep with joy, because I was one of God’s chosen children.
In his book Heroes, Iain Murray draws upon the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to establish a definition of a hero: “A man who exhibits extraordinary . . . greatness of soul, in connection with any pursuit, work, or enterprise.” As Murray goes on to write, “The Bible no more knows a separate class of heroes than it does of saints. Because of Jesus Christ, every Christian is extraordinary and attains to glory. Yet grace so shines in some, that it lightens the path of many.”
I’m comfortable having ministry heroes since Scripture itself commends godly people as examples to be emulated (see, for example, Hebrews 11). It’s difficult to distill all I’ve learned from R. C. Sproul these past 20 years, but here are six ways his teaching has lighted my path.
1. Everyone’s a theologian.
One Sproul volume I’ve given to numerous young men at the outset of their pastoral ministry has been Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Even the atheist has a theology—some view of God and ultimate reality, even if naïvely formed. And every person lives daily out of that theology or worldview. Sproul’s chief mission at Ligonier was to teach, defend, and spread sound biblical doctrine and, consistent with Ephesians 4, to equip ordinary Christians to do the same. His passion for doctrine played no small role in endowing me with a love for the same, leading to my surrender to pastoral ministry 20 years ago.
2. Make the complex simple.
As a preacher and teacher, I must labor to make the things of God—especially truths with sharp corners—accessible and attractive to all kinds of people. To me, this was perhaps the greatest genius of R. C. Sproul.
Making truths with sharp corners accessible and attractive to all kinds of people was perhaps the greatest genius of R. C. Sproul.
As J. C. Ryle wrote in Simplicity in Preaching, “To make hard things seem hard is within the reach of all, but to make hard things seem easy and intelligible is a height attained by a very few speakers.” Sproul could unpack biblical texts or doctrines, and bring to bear all the pertinent historical and philosophical arguments with startling clarity—all in 23 minutes, the length of a daily episode of his broadcast. His books, too, are pithy yet robust. Few have that gift, but I’ve repeatedly asked God for it.
3. Theology, rightly understood, leads to doxology.
It was obvious Sproul delighted in the truths he proclaimed. Thanks largely to his ministry, I do as well. It was clear from both the tone of his teaching and also the witness of those who knew him best that a passion for truth filled him, an exuberance and joy for the Christ who in John 14:6 called himself “the truth.” Theology should never be a cold, stiff, academic pursuit, but should lead us to God and to humble, warm, fervent worship.
Sproul could write ‘The Holiness of God’ because he stood in awe of a holy God.
“People in awe never complain that church is boring,” he said. Sproul could write The Holiness of God because he stood in awe of a holy God.
4. A pastor-theologian should be a ‘real’ person.
Growing up, I feared the preachers who populated my rural Baptist orbit. They prayed in Elizabethan English. They chided me for loving baseball more than Jesus. I learned about backward messages on Queen albums, but not justification by faith. Many seemed to live with a deep-seated fear that—as H. L. Mencken famously said of the Puritans—someone, somewhere was having fun. Sadly, I didn’t see many church leaders who were happy in Jesus.
In my few personal encounters with Sproul, I was struck by how down to earth he was. One of our lengthiest conversations was about two of his favorite sports teams: the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Pirates. With no small enthusiasm, he riffed on the Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s Steelers and the howitzer-like throwing arm of Pirates legend Roberto Clemente. His sermons and lessons are rich in personal anecdotes told with a vitality that made R. C. feel like a beloved uncle. There was a funny story about Vesta and the grandchildren here, an anecdote about his father in the faith, John Gerstner, there.
That’s a good way to relate to people. And most fundamentally, we pastors are called to minister to people.
5. No truths are sweeter than the sovereignty of God and the grace of God in the cross of Christ.
These truths formed the center of Sproul’s teaching because they form the center of Scripture’s teaching. Four memorable Sproul quotes are illustrative:
A Substitute has appeared in space and time, appointed by God himself, to bear the weight and the burden of our transgressions, to make expiation for our guilt, and to propitiate the wrath of God on our behalf. This is the gospel.
If God is not sovereign, then God is not God.
A god who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol.
As soon as we think God owes us mercy, we’re not thinking about mercy any more.
6. Persevere in faithfulness; leave the results to God.
That Sproul influenced untold thousands whom he never met illustrates a consistent message from his lectern: “God has entrusted to us the ministry of the Word, not its results.” He preached the Word, taught the Word, and trusted God’s Spirit to apply the Word—and God did: “When God says something, the argument is over.” And only God can fix our thinking: “When there’s something in the Word of God that I don’t like, the problem is not with the Word of God. It’s with me.”
Giving Honor Where It’s Due
Yes, even the best men are men at best. R. C. Sproul was, like every son of Adam, flawed. However, consistent with Paul’s words in Romans 13:7, I desire to give honor where it is due. And because there have been few people who’ve shaped my thinking about God more than Sproul, he is worthy of high honor. I am grateful God gave him as a gift to his church, a stalwart reformer in an age that desperately needs reform.
A couple of years ago, a Sproul quote went viral across social media: “I’ll retire when they pry my cold, dead fingers off of my Bible.” R. C. didn’t retire. His Savior took him. His faith is now sight. But thankfully, his light burns on through books and sermons, and in the lives and ministries of a vast army of his spiritual children.