I am very privileged to have known Doctor Robert Charles Sproul. We know him as R.C. This titanic figure was an evangelical Atlas, a formidable theologian, prolific author, and endearing pastor who will long be remembered for his substantial and significant contribution to the course of evangelical Christianity over many decades.
A FIXED NORTH STAR
In our day, there have been many Christian leaders who have been a flashing meteor in the sky. They have appeared for a brief moment on the scene, and then disappeared. But few men have been a fixed north star, who year after year and decade after decade, have provided gospel light from their many sermons, lectures, and books. R.C. Sproul has done just this. This gifted man has given the Christian world a lifetime of treasured resources that have shaped our knowledge of God.
The books authored by Dr. Sproul are far too numerous to list, but they include: The Holiness of God, Lifeviews, Chosen by God, One Holy Passion, Pleasing God, Surprised by Suffering, The Glory of Christ, Following Christ, The Soul’s Quest for God, Faith Alone, The Invisible Hand of God, Grace Unknown, Willing to Believe, Getting the Gospel Right, Saved from What?, Defending Your Faith, Scripture Alone, What Is Reformed Theology?, The Reformation Study Bible, and A Taste of Heaven.
RECLAIMING THE HIGH GROUND
These works written by Dr. Sproul are not your normal Christian books—they are not mere fluff. These are not books that have compromised the Christian message in order to be popular. These are books that have clearly articulated the God-exalting truths of the Bible that the evangelical world has so desperately needed to recover.
For over forty years, Dr. Sproul dusted off the high ground of a biblical Reformed theology—and took his stand there. We, his many students, have been pulled up by him to this lofty mountain peak and have seen God as we have rarely seen Him.
Through these many books, Dr. Sproul is, I believe, the one man most responsible in this generation for the current resurgence of Reformed theology. He has brought the theology of the Reformation out of the ivory tower of the academicians and made it accessible to the average person in the pew. His doctrinally-sound books have influenced two and even three generations of Christians with a high view of the holiness and sovereignty of God.
A GUARDIAN OF THE GOSPEL
Dr. Sproul has been a guardian of the gospel at all costs. He has been a staunch defender of the faith. He has safeguarded the ‘queen of the sciences’—the robust theology of Scripture—and has protected her ‘crown jewels’, the doctrines of grace. He has faithfully upheld the grand truths of the supreme authority of God, the mystery of His providence, the depravity of man, the definiteness of the atonement, the supremacy of Christ, the purity of the gospel, the necessity of justification by faith alone, and the irresistibility of regeneration.
In all of this, Dr. Sproul has fought the good fight. He has run the course. He has kept the faith. He has contended for the gospel against its many foes. He has not entertained us, but has exposited, expounded, exegeted and explained the biblical text, and in so doing, he has edified and equipped us.
What is even more amazing is the winsome way in which Dr. Sproul has done this. He has spoken and written with much grace and dignity. He has been engaging with his words and endearing in his manner. No man in our times has exposed so many to the doctrines of grace as R. C. Sproul. Moreover, no man has done so with such a broad appeal and wide acceptance. R. C. has impacted the world without bells and whistles. He has been armed with simply an open Bible, a renewed mind, and the power of the Spirit.
ELECTRIFYING IN THE CLASSROOM
I can vividly recall when the book, The Holiness of God, first hit my spiritual life in 1986 with the force of a category five hurricane. It rocked my world and revolutionized my life. The effect was so profound that when it came time to pursue a Doctor of Ministry degree, there was only one choice for me. I was compelled to sit under the influence of this distinguished professor at the seminary where he taught.
When the time came for my first class under this formidable figure, the growing anticipation of experiencing Sproul did not exceed the reality. The classroom was filled with a buzz of excitement as we awaited his arrival. Every student was seated long before he walked in. Not one of us would have dared to be late for this class. When the door swung open, striding into the room, Dr. Sproul. On one side was his vivacious wife, Vesta. On the other side was the beaming president of the seminary, showing off his prized faculty member. This grand entrance felt more like a heavyweight champion entering the ring, escorted by his entourage.
He was passionate, powerful, persuasive, provocative, and penetrating. I want you to know, it was electrifying! My life and my character were forged upon the anvil of that class, and Dr. Sproul was the skilled hammer.
The first matter of business for Dr. Sproul that day was to have us stand to our feet. He then began pacing back and forth, inspecting all of us, assessing how each man was dressed and presenting himself. This was akin to a five-star general inspecting his troops. His penetrating eyes sized up each student from top to bottom. Nothing escaped his gaze. He examined what each man was wearing. He analyzed how our hair was combed. He scrutinized our glasses. He commented on any facial hair. He then critiqued – out loud, mind you – how each man was presenting himself. He even made fun of some men who wore tasseled loafers. He called them “fruit loops.” This assessment was given publically in front of the entire class.
This class was called “Communication,” and this master communicator was giving us our first lesson. Not all communication is verbal. We were being schooled, that much of what we convey is non-verbal. He stressed that we are communicating before we ever open our mouth. Point made.
MOBILIZING THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
Dr. Sproul then proceeded to lecture us on the proper use of the English language. If we are to preach effectively, he maintained, we must employ well-crafted words and phrases in our sermons. We have little more going for us as a preacher, he affirmed, than what comes out of our mouth. So, we must choose our words carefully and use them strategically. Hence, his emphasis upon English. This was exactly what I had never wanted to hear. What my father, who was a professor, and my high school teachers had belabored with me. But I had refused to listen. However, Dr. Sproul was saying it, and I was buying everything he was selling.
This master communicator demanded that we not repeat our words when we stood in the pulpit. He preached that the law of diminishing return is in effect when we use the same word multiple times. So, he reinforced with us with the need to acquire an arsenal of synonyms at our beckoning call. He underscored that we must discard our tired words for stronger ones. He demanded that I stop saying “very” in order to prop up a weak word. He stressed that I must use a more potent word that would better communicate. Yes, sir.
IDENTIFYING “THE UNIFORM”
He was also known to give a lecture on old-school attire, which was a tour de force in understanding the proper presentation for a leader. He explained how there is an unofficial, but recognizable uniform that respected leaders wear. To which people sub-consciously respond. That day we heard about when he attended the International Council for Biblical Inerrancy. He claimed he knew exactly who the chairman would be. He wrote down the name on the backside of a piece of paper and kept it concealed. Sure enough, his insight was correct. The one man in the room wearing the uniform was James Montgomery Boice, and he was named the chairman. What more proof could we want?
Dr. Sproul challenged us to present ourselves as a leader. The businessmen in our congregations, he chided, are often hesitant to introduce us to their work associates. He said we look more ready for a junior high lock-in than for an adult conversation.
On one occasion, Dr. Sproul stood in front of us and demonstrated how to properly tie a men’s tie. By this point, he was becoming more like a father figure to us. After he had tied his tie, he looked down at his bulging waistline and snapped, “I need to start buying ties with a bump in them.” His self-deprecating humor disarmed us. It drew us even closer to him.
SPEAKING WITH YOUR HANDS
Soon the time came for each of us to preach in class. Dr. Sproul assigned me Daniel chapter 5 and the account of Belshazzar’s drunken feast. When I stood before the class, he was sitting in his customary place—in a chair in the back of the class, rocking back and forth on its back two legs. Trust me, I was well aware of where he was. As I progressed in my sermon, I reached the verse where the divine hand mysteriously appeared in the midst of the drunken orgy and began writing on the wall. As I was explaining this dramatic scene, I gestured with my right hand, as though it was the finger of God writing on the wall of the banquet hall.
Like he was shot out of a canon, Dr. Sproul bolted out of his chair and flew up the center aisle to the podium where I stood. Abruptly interrupting my delivery, he barked, “Who told you to motion like that?” Fearing his reprisal, I apologized, “No one, sir. It just seemed like the thing to do.” I knew my dress-down was coming. Publically. Before my peers. But he turned to the class and snapped, “That is exactly what I want to see each one of you do. Gesture with your hands. Now, continue the message, Lawson.” He spun around and marched back to his chair in the back of the room.
MAKING EYE CONTACT
I worked up my nerve to continue to preach. But it was not long before Dr. Sproul interrupted my sermon a second time. He did not like that I was using sermon notes. This mastermind never used notes. He grabbed my manuscript from off the podium and stomped back to his seat with them. He asserted, “Now preach.” He wanted better eye contact from me with the listeners. He wanted greater freedom of expressions. These were all things I desperately needed.
To make his point, Dr. Sproul stood before the class and challenged us to throw any topic at him. He would spontaneously preach on whatever subject without any notes. Only he could have pulled this off. Someone in the class yelled out, “the sovereignty of God,” which was like lobbing him a softball down the center of the plate. He swung hard and knocked it out of the park. He pulled out of the back of his mind the illustration of a sign that was posted during the American Revolutionary War that read, “We will have no sovereign over us.” He used that to indict fallen man’s aversion to this truth. He explained that the nature of our flesh never wants a sovereign God ruling over us. But then, he explained, divine sovereignty is God’s favorite doctrine. He said it would be our favorite doctrine if we were God. I could hardly write down these one- liners fast enough.
ENCOURAGEMENT ON STEROIDS
One particular assignment that Dr. Sproul gave us was to write a theological paper. The topic I chose escapes my memory, but I will never forget what he wrote at the top of my paper. When it was returned to me, he wrote plain as day at the top of the page, “Steve, you can write. I want you to pursue writing.” I would have been otherwise reluctant to pursue this. But if Dr. Sproul says I can write, then I surely can. If he had told me I could run through a brick wall, I would have taken a running start. I took his word as gospel and began a ministry in writing. That brief comment, written in his virtually illegible handwriting, launched me in the direction of writing. I would have never done so on my own initiative. The mere fact that I am writing this reflection about him is simply the direct result of his influence upon me.
That classroom and those memories became an Upper Room for us. The Lord met with us through this one man’s dominant presence. So impactful was it that whenever I would return to my home church after classes, the lay leaders told me that I always preached better after having been with Dr. Sproul. Truth is, it has always been that way. I have always been better at whatever God has called me to do as a result of being with him.
OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
That was 30 years ago, and I would have never dreamed that I would know Dr. Sproul in another light. It has since been my privilege to serve with him at Ligonier Ministries as a teaching fellow and a member of the board. This has allowed me an even closer access to him. The influence that he has exerted upon me has only grown.
I have been able to play many rounds of golf with him, and he has loved to instruct me in my swing. You have to know that in his heyday, R.C. was a scratch golfer. Even into his 70’s, he regularly shot his age. This is a remarkable accomplishment that few are able to do. He liked to take me to the practice tee and give me instruction. I lovingly called him, “Coach.” My term of endearment for him, “Hey, Coach.”
No one could go from being so serious about the holiness of God to laughing so loud that all around could hear him. One night at dinner, he laughed so hard with Sinclair Ferguson and me that he literally pulled a muscle in his rib cage. I am serious. We had to call my brother, a physician, to come to the restaurant and attend to him. How many people do you know who have hurt themselves laughing? R.C. did.
Having a meal with RC was always quite an event. He was always on some new diet. The way he would work around this was to order my meal for me. This way he could eat what he would have ordered for himself off my plate. He was the smartest man in the world, yet he always thought that Vesta could not see him eating off my plate. Even though she was seated right next to him. Not only would he eat my steak, but he would also eat out of my baked potato. He would then order crème brulee for me and eat a sizable portion of it. All because he was on a diet.
THE PRACTICAL JOKER
It was also my joy to travel with RC on various church history trips. I’ll never forget our leading a group through New England to visit the sites of the Pilgrims in the Great Awakening. During the course of that trip, I mistakenly pronounced the word indefatigable. It was somewhat of a tongue twister for me, and I could never say it right. RC naturally love to jab at me for this. He would not let it rest.
When we came to Philadelphia, I was excited to lead us to the statue of George Whitefield on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. As we were standing there with our entire tour group, RC asked me in front of everyone to read the back engraving at the base of the statue. I was so overwhelmed that R C, my esteemed professor, would ask me to read this.
As I began to read the engraving, with my head held high with this new affirmation from RC, I soon came to the word I could not pronounce. R C had sent me up. There was that word, indefatigable. I all but swallowed my tongue trying to say the word, RC threw back his head and gave the loudest laugh that I have ever heard in my life. I had stepped right into his trap. And how he loved it! And I loved that he loved it. (the picture below captured that very moment)
A LASTING INFLUENCE
Dr. R. C. Sproul will always be my professor. I will always be his student. In eight years of seminary, I had many different professors. But, in my heart, I only had one. To this day, I still carry his influence in my life and ministry. He still sits on my shoulder and speaks into my ear. He still sits on the chair in the back of the classroom and gives me his evaluation and guidance. The lessons he taught have not been forgotten. They are permanently lodged in my memory.
Like no other person, the Lord used this amazing man in my life. He took me several levels higher in ministry skills – how to think, write, and speak. He taught me that it is not only what I say, but how I say it. Moreover, he taught me that it matters how I live the truth. How I stand for it. And that I defend it. The impact of his penetrating words is safely deposited with me.
A sacred stewardship has been entrusted to me. Dr. Sproul made a significant investment in me that I must now deposit into others. I now serve as the dean of the Doctor of Ministry program for another seminary. I rarely enter into the classroom without thinking of that first encounter with him. Though he is no longer with us, he nevertheless continues to multiply himself through his lasting influence. Long live the legacy of this extraordinary life.
ANOTHER LUTHER HAS RISEN
Several years ago at The Shepherd’s Conference, John MacArthur introduced Dr. Sproul by saying, “He is the Martin Luther of our times.” This is true—R.C. Sproul is the Martin Luther of our times. His books have been the Wittenberg door upon which he has nailed the truth to our minds.
Some 150 years ago, Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “A reformation is as much needed now as in Luther’s day and by God’s grace we shall see it, if we trust in Him and publish His truth. But mark ye this, if the grace of God be once more restored to the church in all its fullness and the Spirit of God be poured out from on high and all its sanctifying energy, there must come such a shaking as has never been seen in our days. We want such a one as Martin Luther to rise from his tomb.”
Another Martin Luther did rise from his tomb. His name was the Reverend Doctor Robert Charles Sproul.