Skip to main content

Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Sensible teacher

Remembering R.C. Sproul, ‘this era’s great reformer’

Sensible teacher

R.C. Sproul (Ligonier Ministries)

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.


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  • CJ
    Posted: Fri, 01/05/2018 10:39 am

    Amen. I was privileged to hear him on the radio on the way to work. He explained difficult concepts by approaching them from all angles. By the time he was finished explaining, I owned my understanding of the concept. He gave that to me.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sun, 01/07/2018 02:37 pm

    I believe that one is just as likely to find Christ-followers within as without the Roman Catholic Church, so the head-butting saddens me.  But good doctrine is good doctrine, and humility is humility, and R. C. Sproul was one of the best and humblest theologians of our age.

    Posted: Mon, 01/08/2018 02:53 pm

    We all have a tendency to live by the questionable gospel of "Jesus and...". The Holy Spirit uses fellow believers to effectively correct and chastise one another, like the confrontation of Paul and Peter. I am the most loved when confronted with that situation in my life to which I am blinded. Lord, please give us humble and courageous hearts to follow the prompting of your Spirit, and thank you for your servant R.C. Sproul, as such a great example.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sun, 01/21/2018 08:50 am

    Scripture + theology is not the same as scripture only. I found his philosophical bent, long talks on theology with a smattering of Scripture and forced conclusions divisive in the church. And not on issues that we should be divided over. When listening to his talks you hear as much or more about the Westminster Confession and historical theology and not solo scriptura. I will take an inductive Bible teaching over his so called "for the common man" theology any day. Let Scripture speak, not Calvin, Luther, Westminster or others. It seems we confuse erudite theological teaching as solid biblical truth. It isn't. And thus the enigma of his divisive and all too often seeming arrogant teaching portrayed as defending historial Christian teachings. I don' t think so.  Maybe in person he was different. And I assume I might have missed some teaching somewhere that is more inductive. But what I have been exposed to by those who love his teaching never has brought these to my attention.