The tributes to R.C. Sproul continue to roll out since his death last Thursday, with many of the best ones collected here. Tomorrow will be his funeral, where many other remembrances will be given. I wanted to add my thoughts and thanksgivings to the many others.
Like many, I first came to know Dr. Sproul through his Ligonier video teachings in the 1980's as I was discovering the Reformed faith. Watching his series on "The Holiness of God," I was touched in a new way by the Lord's glorious transcendence but also his glorious grace in revealing himself to us. R.C. wove his own testimony into his teaching, making the subject immensely practical and personal. Listening to him, and later reading his book by the same title, I recall even now how I felt the words of John the Baptist as their ready application. "He must increase, but I must decrease." R.C. had a way in his preaching ministry to bring God near so that you both feared and loved him more all at the same time.
From then on, I was hooked. I subscribed to Tabletalk and still do. I bought one book then another (Knowing Scripture remains a favorite for its simple clarity in Bible study that I can share with others; Chosen by God for its bold, passionate application of the doctrine of election). I used his videos in my ministry, from his "Choosing My Religion" series on a college campus to reach students to offering classes and studies on topics like Christian character, suffering, and eschatology. I went to his conferences. I used the Reformation Study Bible he edited. Whenever I had questions on doctrines, I wanted to know what R.C. thought.
In 1989, during a pastoral internship with Dr. Roy Blackwood, he had me watch a series by Jonathan Gerstner on systematic theology. When I first heard Gerstner's voice, I thought it was Sproul! Only then did I learn the relationship of the two men. The earnest gruffness of both was captivating and endearing, and taught me something about discipleship. You become like, and even imitate, the men who closely mentor and influence you.
With his use of vivid imagery, earnest delivery, and emphatic pausing to let truth sink in, many memories from Dr. Sproul's preaching stick with power in my mind. Few preachers have the ability to communicate like he did. The Spirit of God often brings to mind a message R.C. preached. I think of experiences such as:
- His crying out "Christians, think!" while pointing to his temple as he spoke against the mindlessness of this age in the "Choosing My Religion" series.
- Remarkably, through the influence of some Christian legislators, hundreds gathered in the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis as R.C. spoke there one winter evening. He caused the large chamber to grow silent as he spoke with wonder at how the infinite God could become man.
- While chopping wood and weeping the day my lifelong mentor, Dave Long, was dying, I recalled R.C.'s sermon on Abraham's offering of Isaac in Genesis 22 that I had heard years prior (see here).
- In a Ligonier conference on God's love, R.C. addressed the topic of divorce and God's hatred of it. He made us meditate on what divorce means. He told us divorce is a wife opening her heart and her mind and her body - the essence of who she is - to her husband only to have him reject what he has seen and experienced. I have rarely felt such disgust for sin as I did that day.
- He preached once on Mephibosheth at a conference, and by the time he was done I felt in my soul just like that lame, good-as-dead man seated at the King's table.
Part of how R.C. captivated you as he preached was that he was an active, energetic preacher who did not stay long behind a pulpit. At one Ligonier conference, Jerry Bridges came out for the next address following a message by him. Shaking his head, Jerry commented how difficult it was to to follow R.C., who had the charisma that he lacked. But Jerry went on to say that he had one thing going for him over R.C. He saved a lot on shoe leather!
Though I did not have the privilege of being a personal friend of R.C., in 2014 I had the opportunity to meet him. I was taking a Doctor of Ministry class under Derek Thomas being held at the Reformation Bible College. On the first day of the class, President Stephen Nichols announced that they had a special treat for us as R.C. and his wife Vesta would join us for lunch. After greeting us very warmly, as we sat around the table he and his wife asked us to share a little bit about ourselves.
When my turn came, Dr. Sproul almost came out of his seat with enthusiasm when he heard that I was from Pittsburgh and teaching at the Reformed Presbyterian seminary there. First, he made sure I knew that he loved the Steelers and that I should also. But then he grew serious and told me to give greetings to my colleague Dr. Rick Gamble. He and Vesta told me of how Rick's father-in-law, Dr. Thomas Gregory, had been his first spiritual mentor at Westminster College following his conversion and had performed their wedding. They both radiated warmth and love as they spoke of these things.
Such a mind and such a heart. Thank you, Lord, in giving such a great gift to the church in the person of Dr. R.C. Sproul.