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If only as a matter of significant news in the evangelical world, this column must take note of the death on Dec. 14 of theologian and master teacher R.C. Sproul, the founder and leader of Ligonier Ministries. But Sproul was so much more than a name in the news.
I still remember the phone call I got one day in 1986. I was chairing the annual program of the Evangelical Press Association and had invited Sproul to come as our keynote speaker. The phone call was from Billy Graham, who said he had heard good things about this young man (Sproul was only 47 at the time) and wondered if he could slip in and hear him. We put them side-by-side at the head table—and I always wondered what they talked about during that lunch hour before Sproul spoke to a crowd of about 300—including Billy Graham.
The crowd at Sproul’s memorial service in Sanford, Fla., on Dec. 20 was probably 10 times that big. Academicians and noted scholars filled pew after pew an hour before the service began. Hundreds more came in blue jeans and flip-flops, reminders of Sproul’s Martin Luther–like ability to explain the fine points of theology to common thinkers.
It was a measure of the man that the most telling eulogy of the day came not from one of Sproul’s fellow Presbyterians, but from Baptist pastor-educator John MacArthur, founder of the Master’s University and Seminary in California. MacArthur surely spoke for most present when he optimistically reflected:
‘Even when he was looking in the eyes of a very cherished friend, he never wavered on the gospel.’
“People say to me: This is a very sad time, there’s so much bad preaching, there’s so much un-Biblical ecclesiology, there’s so much poor spiritual leadership, there’s so much disinterest in the doctrine of sanctification, there’s no real sense of holiness in worship. You know all these things. At the same time, there’s never been a time in the history of the world where sound doctrine is so available in a split second, anywhere on the planet. And the point of the spear for that entire movement in our time was R.C. Sproul. He is this era’s great reformer.”
At the same time, MacArthur raised more than a few eyebrows at the memorial service when he went back some 22 years for an illustration of Sproul’s determined defense of truth. “I’m the last man standing,” MacArthur asserted bluntly, “of a group of three that gathered in Florida in 1995. It was one of the most amazing days of my entire life. ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ [a loose organization promoting understanding among evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics] had come out the year before, and R.C. was profoundly disappointed because the man behind that was the man who claimed R.C. as his mentor—and he had abandoned the true gospel.
“For some reason, I don’t know why, I ended up there. It was James Kennedy, R.C. Sproul, and myself there representing the true gospel against those who wanted to accommodate Rome’s gospel—Bill Bright, Charles Colson, and J.I. Packer. In 1995 we met in a private room for seven hours. And I sat next to Jim Packer. It was a massive education. The power in the room unmistakably for the seven hours was R.C. Sproul. … As affable, as irrepressibly charming as he was, he was a defender of the faith. Even when he was looking in the eyes of a very cherished friend, he never wavered on the gospel.”
MacArthur’s fiery comments were awkward, I thought, for a memorial service. I couldn’t help remembering, for example, that J.I. Packer—if aging—is still very much alive. And I remembered that when I had asked Sproul not so long ago about that specific event, he had replied simply: “Oh, it was the most painful part of my whole career.”
So I choose instead to remember this man for all he so sensibly taught me—and others—about the holiness of God and His sovereign design. R.C. Sproul was an enormously gifted scholar-communicator whose nuanced approach drove us all to a deeper commitment to the truth of the gospel. Who cannot revel in Sproul’s magnificent grasp of Scripture—as well as his compelling teaching style? He was as carefully bounded by the Scriptures as any preacher most of us have ever heard, although within those bounds he was also a fully liberated Renaissance Man. It’s a combination I don’t expect to see ever again in my lifetime.