The Legacy of R.C. Sproul
R.C. Sproul passed away in December 2017. I remember being hurt as if I had known him personally. His teaching had a personal effect on my life and faith. He showed me Christians can (and should) be intellectually engaged. He showed me that God is holy. He showed me God uses teachers to strengthen, encourage, comfort, and exhort his people. He introduced me to Reformed theology, and the history of ideas. He taught me from the Bible that God is sovereign. I am in seminary today, in part, because I saw through Sproul that I wanted to be used by God to teach too.
Sproul: A Life, written by Stephen J. Nichols, was the first book I turned to as this past semester ended. Nichols and R.C. were friends. They edited a book in 2016 together called The Legacy of Luther. Martin Luther was a shared love. It’s only fitting that Nichols captures in this biographical eulogy the life and legacy of Sproul.
Sproul’s legacy stands out in this biography in four themes. First, is God’s holiness. One of the most well-known works of R.C. was his book, The Holiness of God. God’s Holiness gripped Sproul almost as soon as he became a Christian and he labored all his life to introduce others to this same holiness. Through Ligonier—the teaching ministry he founded—and in his writing, his passion was for people to see God, and to see that he is holy, like the angels in Isaiah 6 who, upon the entrance of God, sang, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” Sproul taught on this passage many times, and those of us who have heard him teach can’t help but hear his voice behind those words: Holy, Holy, Holy. Dripping from the pages of this book is the consistent focus of Sproul on the character of God as holy.
Secondly, Nichols calls Sproul a “battlefield theologian”. R.C. believed God is holy and that man is sinfully opposed to God. The truth, of both God and man, made Christ’s sacrifice for his sheep all the more glorious. Sproul’s grasp of this gospel is to blame for his joyful yet reverent demeanor. But his understanding of the gospel also gave him a steel spine that stood strong like iron when the message of the Christian faith was at stake. Perhaps Sproul’s most widespread and lasting influence was his was instrumental work in initiating the Council of Biblical Inerrancy in the 1970’s. He was a bold defender of the inspiration, infallibility, inherency, trustworthiness, and authority of God’s word. He further took stands against “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” and the New Perspective on Paul as they encroached on the essential doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. In the final analysis (as Sproul liked to say), it was not just his standing against things, but his standing for the gospel, and the gospel’s holy God, that kept him anchored in the battlefield.
Thirdly, for Sproul, the past had a purpose. Semper Reformanda was the cry of the Reformation, meaning, “Always Reforming.” This was Sproul’s goal, as Nichols says, “The past was not historical curiosity. For him the past served to catapult him to the future. He studied the Reformation and awakenings of the past because he longed to see a new Reformation and a new awakening” (272). Men like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and many others had a great influence on R.C. And he used their wisdom in his own teaching, commending them and the doctrines of faith they taught to his listeners. He was unapologetically committed to the historic tradition of Reformed Christianity. Scripture was always paramount for Sproul, but he saw the benefit of drawing from the past for Christian faith and practice today.
Lastly, if R.C. Sproul was anything, he was a teacher. Nichols recounts that “[Sproul] labored to help others know what they believe and why they believe it, because, he would often say, it’s not a matter of life and death; it’s a matter of eternal life and eternal death” (159). Theology was not just for the academy, or for pastors, it was for every Christian who would seek to know the saving power of God. Theologians must therefore “speak directly to the laity” and the laity must take seriously theology (140). Through Ligonier Ministries, pastoring St. Andrews, his initiative in the Reformation Study Bible, the creation of Reformation Bible College, and even the making of hymns, Sproul sought to influence others to be thinking Christians caught up with the holiness of God and glory in Christ.
1 John 3:2 says “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” Nichols aptly shows Sproul’s desire for himself and others to get a glimpse of God in this way, and to look forward to the day when we will “see him as he is”. This was Sproul’s desire all the way to his last breath.
An Endearing Eulogy:
Sproul: A Life is special because Nichols is a close friend to the Sproul family. Nichols leans on personal interviews with R.C. and Vesta Sproul. He includes personal memories, as well as personal letters R.C. wrote to friends. He reminisced on these things, all the while pulling from Sproul’s public teaching and writing too. All of this makes for an endearing eulogy of R.C. Sproul. Certainly, Nichols admires Sproul and intends to show others why they should admire him too. I sure do. This biography only breeds more admiration as we get a closer look into the personal life of the theologian of God’s Holiness. He was a mentor and friend to those close to him. Yet his mentorship and friendship were felt by many others—including me—who benefited from his ministry.
This book contains history, theology, and a the life of a fallible man who strove by grace to live faithfully to God. I commend this book for its personal touch and the encouragement it will breed in believers who see a man passionate about teaching others—in line with some of the great Christians in history—about the holiness of God.