In Memoriam – R.C. Sproul (1939-2017)

Excerpted from Well-Driven Nails 

R.C. Sproul: A Man Fluent in Latin and Common

Ligonier Ministries was established in 1971 to equip Christians to articulate what they believe and why they believe it. Our foremost desire is to “awaken as many people as possible to the holiness of God by proclaiming, teaching, and defending His holiness in all its fullness.” Our vision is to propagate the Reformed faith to the church throughout the world.

In order to accomplish this goal, Ligonier endeavors to provide solid teaching that helps bridge the educational gap between Sunday school and seminary. By making Christian education materials available, Ligonier hopes to encourage Christian laypeople to be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that they will be equipped to serve the church and glorify God (Romans 12:2).[1]

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Accompanied by two elders, I met R.C. Sproul at an Italian restaurant in Orlando where he eats two to three times a week – a home away from home. The owners, cooks and waitresses call him by name – and he by theirs. Having arrived in town the night before we ventured out to reconnoiter pulling up to the restaurant around closing time. I approached a table of servers who were assembled discussing the day’s damage. “Excuse me. We’re supposed to interview R.C. Sproul here tomorrow at lunch and…” That’s all I got out. “R.C.!”, they said, “The good doctor!” It was like Norm walking into Cheers. At that moment all my suspicions were confirmed. He is and forever will be the common man’s theologian. A very accommodating man with a very easily unaccommodating intellect. Some people throw Latin phrases around to impress. R.C.’s usage is unpretentious and natural. He actually thinks in Latin. Praise God he also thinks – and speaks – in Common. R.C. Sproul is a treasure of inestimable value to the Church. He’s been our resident theologian for forty-five years.

It was among the most impactful afternoons I’ve ever spent with any one person. You simply had to be there. The man is definitely from Pittsburgh. He spoke in the extremely distinctive Quasimodo like voice you hear on the radio – a rough and leathery sort of refinement. He ordered for the group. We spoke to one another with food in our mouths. Our hands politely covered the contents discussing everything from gout to acting classes. There were guttural laughs and moments of pin drop quiet and everything in between.

The effect of the day was similar to attending a Bible conference. When it’s not necessarily the particulars that stick with you, but the overall impact. I think that’s called indelible. The entire experience was very much along the lines of who R.C. is as a person – a renaissance man. Scratch golfer (before the train wreck). Talented guitarist. Accomplished painter. Lethal philosopher. Skilled theologian. Incredible communicator. Faithful pastor. Ministry director. Prolific author. Gifted teacher. Undeniable scholar. Successful publisher. The list goes on. But, from the moment we sat down, he made us feel his equal. His friends. Which is exactly the thing he does better than any theologian I know. The very reason I was in Orlando.

My discussion with R.C. was a veritable goldmine. Not only about theological communication, but communication in general. I was surprised to learn how serious he takes it. I had come to the right place. I learned more about the principles of communication from him in our meeting than I had over my entire life. It’s a personal passion for him and a subject to which he’s dedicated a tremendous amount of thought.

At times in our conversation R.C. appeared annoyed by the inability of preachers to effectively relay doctrine. His reaction to the church’s theological ineptitude is like observing a coach’s frustration after his team fails to execute a basic play. “We should know these things by now!” In recent history he’s been seen pacing the church’s sidelines with head in hands. We’ve definitely dropped the ball.

But, it’s not just that he thinks it should be said correctly. It’s also that we should say it well. His determination is due in part to the value of theology itself. The theological constructs we have the privilege of explaining to our people are the most important truths men will ever hear. The benefits of precision and fluency are incalculable. It behooves us to explain them as best we can.

Blowing the Church’s Mind for Forty-Five Years

Ligonier Ministry has been a staple of evangelicalism for four decades. Surprisingly, its central audience has not been the classroom, but the pew. It’s unusual for ministries dedicated to upper shelf theological instruction to be so popular among the “laity.” Ministries devoted to the “propagation” of the “Reformed Faith” don’t usually hold the attention of the church. We have a notoriously short attention span. But, for some reason R.C. has always connected. There are similar faithful voices out there, but none with quite the same breadth of impact. To understand why and what sets R.C. apart you have to go back to the beginning. Back to some important experiences which serve as the genesis of his personal passion. These moments would drive him to hone the skill we observe today and set the course of his professional career.

As a senior philosophy major in college he took a course jointly with the science majors – The Philosophy of Science. Out of the forty students only four were philosophy majors. The rest were various category of science students. The top thirty-five students of the graduating class were present. R.C. described it as the crem de le crem of the student body.

The four philosophy majors aced the course with complete ease. But, to his surprise, the physics majors, biology majors, chemistry majors and premed students struggled to pass. Dependent upon the empirical processes of observation and experimentation they were adrift. They had no capacity for abstract inquiry.

R.C. could only watch in frustration. He placed the blame squarely on the professor’s inability to communicate the material. It was not a matter of the student’s intelligence, or lack there of. They were plenty smart. The problem was twofold: the professor’s lack of command (of the subject) and his lack of concern (for the student’s comprehension.) The professor was in the way of the material. R.C. walked out of that class and into the Church with one fundamental goal; get out of the way.

As has been stated, it’s too easy to assume the problem is our people’s lack of understanding. This is a fundamental mistake of the preacher. It’s a self-righteous excuse. Humility compels us to start by examining our explanations. We have to blame ourselves first. The problem is not usually their lack of comprehension, but ours. We don’t understand it ourselves and, therefore, we’re in the way. We also can’t assume it’s a lack of appreciation. That mindset lacks compassion and is full of pride.

It wasn’t long before R.C. found himself facing the very same situation from the other side of the desk – as a college professor teaching Philosophy to incoming freshmen. It was here he first cut his teeth on theological instruction.

What happened there had an impact on me for the rest of my life. I first taught philosophy before I taught theology. Philosophy is a particularly difficult subject. Intensely abstract. Requiring an extraordinary use of logic to follow the abstract arguments of the various philosophers of history. People approach theological inquiry in different ways. Not everyone can relate well to that type of information.[2]

As God would have it, at the same moment in time R.C. was asked by his pastor to teach an adult class on the person and work of Christ. The class was mostly comprised of professional people. All at once he was faced with teaching complex concepts to two completely different audiences.

During the week his audience was populated by captive students. He could be as technical as he wanted since their presence and participation was required. But, on Sunday his audience was voluntary. “They had no background in theology, but they did have an interest to know the things of God.”[3] Their presence was not a requirement. It was a need.

As it turned out, communicating at a lay level took far more skill than at the collegiate. The point? It takes a greater level of expertise to simplify. Despite the fact that R.C. had always planned on being a “battlefield theologian” in the academic world, his passion for the laity and their passion for God drew him into the church. While fulfilling both obligations he found his calling.

During the week I found was getting bored. And on Sundays I was getting excited because the people were responding with so much excitement themselves… When I would be teaching The Doctrine of God in the seminary classroom – the most abstract theological concept within systematics – going into depth on the attributes of God, I discovered something would happen. The student’s grasp of the being and character of God would be elevated to a degree they had never experienced before. It would have an almost palpable impact on them. Both in their responses and their Christian growth.[4]

It was here Sproul set out to “bridge the educational gap between Sunday school and seminary.” It was here he aimed his life at providing both factory workers and doctors the very same life altering realizations at the very same time. As he put it, “It bugged me that I would see the spiritual experience the students were having as they examined the Doctrine of God in an academic way. The laity of the Church was missing all this. I mean who preaches on the nature and character of God?”[5]

R.C. answered this question with his very life. The combination of these contexts over all these years has created that uncanny capacity to speak to any level of intellect on any theological subject at any given time. As R.C. explains, “I have always had one leg in the academic world and the other leg in the laity.” [6]

In a sense, our responsibility is the same. We should preach with one foot in the things of God and one foot in our people’s living room. R.C. went on to concisely describe the basic challenge of his teaching experience. He was “teaching philosophy to people who had no intention of becoming philosophers.”[7]

Our challenge as preachers is only slightly different. We teach theology to people who don’t realize they’re theologians. By definition theology is the “study of God.” Therefore, every believer is a theologian by trade. Our job is making it both obvious and enjoyable.    

Tipping Over Idols

We’re idolatrous by nature. Our thoughts of God are all over the page. We start our journey far removed from the center. We could all use all a theo-centric shove. Part of our responsibility as preachers is to push the popular idols over on their faces. We regularly push them over through a clear explanation of the Bible. As we preach we confront our people’s (and our) misunderstanding and misrepresentation of God. From time to time, they let us know when we’ve stepped on a theological toe. Their sensitive reactions are often cloaked in traditional verbiage – “I’ve always been taught…” This is a sure sign of an internal debate. Challenges show up in questions you get via email, or face to face at the end of a sermon come. It’s to be expected. After all, it’s not easy for someone to admit their grandmother was a heretic.

These are the moments we step in and speak Common. We teach with our feet planted firmly in both places – the Word and the office cubicle. Or, wherever our people may be standing at the time. It’s here that simplicity is so important.

As doctrinal preachers we need to be liberated from the sterile and predictable language used in our preaching. This language is more like dusting plastic flowers than cultivating roses. The doctrinal preacher needs to use language that is similar to the Bible – language that has elasticity and portability for use in our contemporary times. Doctrine does not come to us from some esoteric arena; rather, it emerges from the seams of society.[8]

Your people are unintentional theologians. Whether they realize it, or not they’re constantly grappling with life’s most substantial questions. The same questions ivory tower scholars wrestle with. Let them ask. Force them to ask through your preaching. When they ask get out of the way with as much clarity as you can muster and let them deal with the broken little pieces of their sentimental theology.

To do this we must be gripped by the same motivation as R.C. – blowing the church’s mind with God. We too often miss this opportunity by distorting even the easiest concepts. Confusion isn’t hard. I mess up the announcements every Sunday. Imagine what I can do with the doctrine of election. I know when I’ve sailed over my people’s heads. As R.C. pointed out, “it’s that deer in the headlights look.” Portable doctrine is challenging. Regardless of how hard we try, we often fall short in our explanations. But, take heart even the most difficult concepts can be easily explained. It only takes hard work. Simple is hard.

The unsuspecting layman would be surprised to know the battles which are waged just to render average sermons and minimal concepts. It’s gut wrenching, actually. As the saying goes, “Being difficult to understand is easy. Being easy to understand is difficult.” As R.C. noted, “By simple I don’t mean simplistic. Simplistic is shallow. Simple is not.”[9] To be simplistic you need only to regurgitate facts. It’s a restatement of the obvious, a running commentary and a flawless impersonation of a human tranquilizer. To be simple requires a very deep level of awareness and conviction which may be attained only by pushing ourselves beyond the limits of our basic understanding. Simple is a “pocket size” explanation of the profound. It’s saying one thing–which may be complex in and of itself–in a way that anyone can grasp. Simple is not as easy as it looks. As has already been said, clarity begins with your own understanding. R.C. put his own spin on this critical idea.

If you don’t have the ability to explain the concept to a six-year-old kid then you don’t really understand it yourself. In other words, to simplify without distorting requires a very deep mastery of understanding of your content. And so, if you understand it then you can communicate it. If you don’t understand it, you can just transfer information from your notebook to the next generation.[10]    

This gives me a new found respect for Sunday school teachers, not too mention six-year-olds. But, the truth of this observation can’t be denied. It’s easy to assume the glazed look in people’s eyes is their inability to understand. In reality, the problem is our understanding, not theirs. When we cannot explain it clearly we simply don’t understand it. When we understand it so will others.

What Everybody Thinks They Already Know

No one exemplifies this principle more so than R.C. He has a way of presenting not only a doctrine’s meaning, but also its importance. In a few minutes he can peal away the layers of misunderstanding which have a way getting on complex doctrines. He exposes the point of our misunderstanding and tweaks it. Many of his explanations are not only concise, but shrewd. We see not only what we should understand, but how we’ve misunderstood it.

At one particular conference I watched him expose an entire audience’s collective misapprehension of imputation and justification. What made it all the more impressive were the events occurring in evangelicalism at the time. Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a document calling for co-belligerence between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, was being signed by a surprising number of conservative evangelicals. The Protestant world was ablaze with responses decrying the incongruity of the union. All at once everyone was an expert on the Protestant doctrine of justification and it’s incompatibility with Rome’s view.

R.C. took the podium and declared, “I believe you are saved by works! You cannot be saved without them. To think otherwise is to deny the biblical Gospel.” You can imagine the response. People were baffled. He let this go for a moment and then said, “Not my works, of course. The works of Christ.” Sproul is tricky. There was a faint grin on his face. I went around for a month pulling that one over on people. In the midst of the hysteria regarding ECT we forgot that righteousness (works) is an indispensable condition of our salvation. The question is “Who meets the condition?” It’s certainly not us. Our debate with the Roman Catholic Church isn’t about the need for righteousness, but the means by which it is acquired. It was brilliant. In that moment, I came to fully understand the doctrine of justification. So did the audience.  

There are so many places this type of adjustment could radically enhance our people’s understanding of basic doctrines. These counterintuitive reminders are powerful. Take Christology for example. In one way or another, every New Testament book is a defense of Christ and his nature. The opportunities to deepen our congregation’s understanding of the Savior are limitless. This is true even with a perplexing doctrine like the kenosis.

Most people misunderstand what Paul meant when he says Christ “emptied himself.” (Philippians 2) They assume it means Christ laid aside his divine attributes when he took on humanity. They understand “emptied” to mean “dispensed with.” As if he left his deity in heaven. Attributes such as omniscience and omnipotence were abandoned. Such a view is touching, but not much else.

According to Scripture, this could not be farther from the truth. “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him.” (Colossians 1:19) “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.” (Hebrews 1:3) He is fully God and fully man. By “emptied” Paul was pointing to his selfless sacrifice and obscurity in death, not the abandonment of his divine attributes. He became nothing.

This is such a crucial modification. In seeing this Christ’s act goes from merely touching, to infinitely more than we ever imagined. His sacrifice is far more remarkable when we realize his divinity was at his disposal. An incredible rebuke to our unlimited capacity for self-defense. Christ could have vacated this planet the first time his stomach rumbled from hunger, much less turned stones into bread. This is the very point the Apostle was making when he said, “although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.” (Philippians 2:6) He never used any of his divine attributes to lessen the demands of God’s righteousness, or soften his suffering. The only time he ever employed his divine power was to serve others. His humility is infinitely greater with this in mind.

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then shall the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen this way? (Matthew 26:52-54)

“I Don’t Know” Never Hurts

In all honesty, R.C.’s rhetorical capacities go way beyond the bounds of this work. If you’ve ever seen him in person you know what I mean. He is a well-trained, extremely skilled and vastly experienced communicator. Yet, it’s here I learned the true source of effective theological communication – humility. Dr. Sproul has never assumed his usefulness has anything to do with his competence. His theology won’t let him go there.

When I step into the pulpit I have a fundamental feeling of helplessness. The Spirit must accompany the word with power. Anything I bring is futile unless the Spirit accompanies it. My job is to be as accurate as I can be in my understanding and as dynamic as I can be in my presentation. But, I have no confidence any of that will have any impact. It depends on the Spirit. It will have no effect otherwise.[11]

I really wish he hadn’t said that. Helplessness? Really? To realize a man of Sproul’s ability feels helpless is extremely humbling. To hear him admit the futility of his capacities is embarrassing for the rest of us who are so busy drawing connections between our level of preparedness and effectiveness in the pulpit. It’s too often about us. We should work hard, but we should never forget where real power comes from. Honestly, after forty-five years of practice who’s more prepared than Sproul?    

I know enough theology to know it does not matter how gifted I may be. It does not have any power. You may fascinate people. You may interest people. People may respond to your preaching, but it won’t penetrate into their souls unless the Spirit accompanies it.[12]

When I asked if a “fundamental sense of helplessness” was a necessity for every preacher, he quipped, “It would help. But, honestly, there are guys who are helpless even with the Holy Spirit!”[13]

R.C. is humbled by all he knows, not puffed up. This makes perfect sense given that humility of mind is the starting point and inevitable outcome of all sincere theological inquiry (Proverbs 1:7). Particularly, a reformed soteriology. It’s troubling to watch Calvinists – especially those having recently discarded Arminianism – pridefully shove Reformed theology down the first throat they find. It’s the exact opposite effect one should expect. A condescending or elitist attitude will always get in the way of simplicity. It holds

R.C.’s teaching comes with a lowliness of mind rare among learned theologians. It’s partly this absence of smugness and arrogance that draws people into his explanations. A gracious humility of mind comes through in all his theological inquiry. This is true even when facing theology’s most taxing questions. When dealing with the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden R.C. remarked,

We are fallen creatures. But Adam and Eve were not created fallen. They had no sin nature. They were good creatures with a free will. Yet they chose to sin. Why? I don’t know. Nor have I found anyone yet who does know.[14]  

While discussing the sovereignty of God in salvation – why some are saved and others aren’t – Sproul admitted his limitations once again,  

The only answer I can give to this question is that I don’t know. I have no idea why God saves some but not all. I don’t doubt for a moment that God has the power to save all, but I know that he does not choose to save all. I don’t know why.[15]

We should take our cue from R.C. Sproul. Our congregations need to observe the same type of honesty in us. Admitting intellectual defeat before the greater mysteries of God will not reduce people’s respect for us, as much as it will increase their reverence for God. It fosters a corporate humility. Putting our hands over our mouths like Job at these moments is really good theology. This not to suggest reasonable answers to tough questions don’t exist, but a certain amount of mystery is healthy. A well placed “I don’t know” every now and then communicates more than we can imagine.

Ask this Question: Where’s the Drama?

We pass by so many jaw-dropping moments. Not just the obvious ones, but the subtle ones as well. We miss opportunities to blow our people’s mind with their God. We fail to spot the theological movement in the passage and draw our people up to His greatness. Sometimes we’re too quickly running past them to get to “application.” We sprint right past truths which beckon us to stop and ponder. Or, our systematic is unrefined. Our lack of awareness allows the connections to get away.

Obviously, R.C. has spent the majority of his life teaching systematic theology. Over the last decade he’s been practicing consecutive exposition. This raises a legitimate and often asked question? What role should theology play in our exegesis? At what stage does it come in? Obviously, exegesis precedes systematics. It’s the natural order of things. But, part of our responsibility as exegetes is making the theological links obvious. It’s a part of defending the Truth and enlightening our people. This is why R.C. proves to be such an example. All those years teaching theology has given him an eye for it in the text.

But, the question remains – How do we make the theology in the text come alive without violating the priority of exegesis? R.C.’s answer? Look for the drama. As he stated it, “There’s drama in every text.” That is, there’s a context, circumstance and intent underlying the passage. The passages we study to preach were written to real people in real circumstances.

Regardless of the genre, each text was written to a certain situation to address a certain need, relay a certain lesson or capture a particular moment of God’s providence. There are so many theologically dramatic elements in every section of Scripture you couldn’t exhaust them in ten sermons, much less one. As R.C. pointed out, “There is enough drama in one day of your life to write a five hundred page novel. It only depends on how well you pay attention.” Our job is to pay attention in our study.

Often times we are so deep in the details of exegesis we fail to notice the actual point being made by the biblical author. A frequent struggle of expositors is the failure to appreciate the forest by staring at knots on trees. This kind of near sightedness greatly effects delivery. We never get to see the details we unearthed at ten feet from the perspective of thirty thousand. There’s no awareness of the greater biblical theme or argument which holds the details together. The pieces of the sermon are like the pieces of an unassembled bike. Interesting, but useless. This is where people struggle to follow us. That greater context (or drama) is like the picture of the bike on the box it came in. It helps us keep the final product in view.

Chip and Dan Heath make this very point in their helpful work, Made to Stick. They tell the story of how one successful author learned the lesson of paying attention early on in a high-school journalism class. On one particular day the teacher had the students write a newspaper headline based on some specific details handed out in the class. Their job was to examine those details and then relay the main emphasis through a succinct and brief statement. As this author tells the story,  

The teacher reeled off the facts: “Kenneth L. Parker, the principle of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.”[16]

According to this budding author, the results were typical, “Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Mead, and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the Beverly Hills High School faculty Thursday in Sacramento… blah, blah, blah.”[17] After the teacher sampled the papers he surprised everyone by declaring, “The lead story is “There will be no school next Thursday.”[18] The impact on the author was indelible.

It was a breathtaking moment… In that instant I realized that journalism was not just about regurgitating the facts but about figuring out the point. It was not enough to know the who, what, when and where; you had to understand what it meant. And why it mattered.[19]    

Because we’re dealing with divine realities and the ever-present epoch of God’s providence and grace, every detail leads to a breathtaking reality. It’s not just “who, what, when and where.” There’s also why. It’s the why we’re after. The context of a particular provides the opportunity to show the importance of a given doctrine.

            I realize this raises significant Hermeneutical and Epistemological questions for some.[20] But, if we assume God intended to deliver a message to a specific audience and that audience was able to understand it, than we too should be able to get near that same meaning and message through diligent study. Consider the following episode taken from First Kings.

So he arose and went to Zarephath, and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks; and he called to her and said, “Please get me a little water in a jar, that I may drink.” And as she was going to get it, he called to her and said, “Please bring me a piece of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die.” Then Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go, do as you have said, but make me a little bread cake from it first, and bring it out to me, and afterward you may make one for yourself and for your son. For thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain on the face of the earth.’” So she went and did according to the word of Elijah, and she and he and her household ate for many days. The bowl of flour was not exhausted nor did the jar of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD which He spoke through Elijah. (1 Kings 17:10-16)  

Are we just to assume this is simply some strange story about Elijah raiding the cupboard of some widow and her son? They feed the prophet and in return get a year’s supply of flour and oil? Later on the son gets sick and dies. The prophet heals him. How touching. Right? Or is there more? Why this widow and her fatherless son? Why did the prophet show up on the doorstep of two of the most disregarded people on the planet? Why, in the midst of a divinely commissioned drought, would God show up way out in Zarephath? Is not the message one of God’s grace and faithfulness to save? Even the most insignificant people. There’s more here than meets our people’s eyes. Great messages about the grace and love of God.

Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” (1 Kings 17:24)

[1] Renewing the Mind Ministries, “Ministry Purpose”, One Place, http://www.oneplace.com/Ministries/Renewing_Your_Mind (accessed May 2009).

[2] Sproul, Interview.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sproul, Interview.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Smith, Robert, Doctrine That Dances, p. 73.

[9] Sproul, Interview.

[10] Sproul, Interview.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God. (Tyndale: Wheaton, 1986), p. 31.

[15] Sproul, Chosen by God, p. 37.

[16] Heath and Heath, Made to Stick, p. 75

[17] Ibid., p. 75.

[18] Ibid., p. 76.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning In This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1998).

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