R.C. Sproul (1939–2017)

My final crisis came in my senior year. I had a three-credit course in the study of Jonathan Edwards. We spent the semester studying Edwards’s most famous book, The Freedom of the Will, under Gerstner’s tutelage. At the same time, I had a Greek exegesis course in the book of Romans. I was the only student in that course, one on one with the New Testament professor. There was nowhere I could hide. The combination was too much for me. Gerstner, Edwards, the New Testament professor, and above all the apostle Paul, were too formidable a team for me to withstand. Sproul, the reluctant Calvinst, came to embrace Reformed theology and to view Gerstner as a lifelong theological mentor.

 

Presbyterian minister R.C. Sproul, one of the most influential popularizers of Reformed theology spanning the late 20th and early 21st centuries, entered into the joy of his Lord and Savior on December 14, 2017, following complications from emphysema. He was 78 years old.

Because he preached the whole counsel of God and had a heart to equip God’s people to live before the face of a holy God, he often taught on suffering and death over his five decades of ministry.

He once candidly admitted his fears when it came to dying:

I recently heard a young Christian remark, “I have no fear of dying.” When I heard this comment I thought to myself, “I wish I could say that.”

I am not afraid of death. I believe that death for the Christian is a glorious transition to heaven. I am not afraid of going to heaven. It’s the process that frightens me. I don’t know by what means I will die. It may be via a process of suffering, and that frightens me.

I know that even this shouldn’t frighten me. There are lots of things that frighten me that I shouldn’t let frighten me. The Scripture declares that perfect love casts out fear. But love is still imperfect, and fear hangs around.

He wrote about what it would be like to be in heaven and identified with Christ:

You can grieve for me the week before I die, if I’m scared and hurting, but when I gasp that last fleeting breath and my immortal soul flees to heaven, I’m going to be jumping over fire hydrants down the golden streets, and my biggest concern, if I have any, will be my wife back here grieving.

When I die, I will be identified with Christ’s exaltation. But right now, I’m identified with His affliction.

And in an article entitled “Death Does Not Have the Last Word,” he wrote:

When we close our eyes in death, we do not cease to be alive; rather, we experience a continuation of personal consciousness.

No person is more conscious, more aware, and more alert than when he passes through the veil from this world into the next.

Far from falling asleep, we are awakened to glory in all of its significance.

For the believer, death does not have the last word. Death has surrendered to the conquering power of the One who was resurrected as the firstborn of many brethren.

The mission, passion, and purpose of R.C. Sproul’s life was the same as Ligonier Ministries, the parachurch organization he helped to found in the 1970s: “to proclaim the holiness of God in all its fullness to as many people as possible.” He saw his work as a filling a gap between Sunday School and seminary, helping Christian laypeople renew their minds as they learned Christian doctrine, ethics, and apologetics, all in the service of living life coram Deo —before the face of God.

Robert Charles Sproul—called by his parents R. C. Sproul III—was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on February 13, 1939, the second child of Robert Cecil and Mayre Ann Sproul.

An avid Steelers and Pirates fan, sports were a big part of his life. But at the age of 15, R.C. had to drop out of high school athletics in order to help his family make ends meet, as his father, a veteran of World War II, had suffered a series of debilitating strokes. R.C. Sproul II—the most important figure in his son’s life—passed away during R.C.’s senior year of high school. His final words were, “Son, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” R.C., who had watched his father faithfully read the Bible, had never read it himself and did not recognize that this was a quote from the Apostle Paul. He rebuked his father: “Don’t say that!” To his shame, it would be the last thing he ever said to father.

R.C. was reborn in September of 1957 during the first weekend of his first semester at Westminster College, a progressive Presbyterian school an hour north of Pittsburgh. Following freshman orientation, R.C. and his roommate (whom he had played baseball with in school) wanted to leave their dry campus to go to a neighboring town to drink. When they got to the parking lot, R.C. reached his hand in his pocket and realized he was all out of Lucky Strike cigarettes. They returned to the dorm, which housed a cigarette machine.

As he started to put his quarters in the machine, the star of the football team invited them to sit down at a table with him. He began asking them questions. They ended up talking for over an hour about the wisdom of God. What struck R.C. was that for the first time in his life, he was listening to someone who sounded like he knew Jesus personally. The football player quoted Ecclesiastes 11:3 (“Where the tree falls in the forest, there it lies”) and R.C. saw himself as that true: dead, corrupt, and rotting. He returned to his dorm that night and prayed to God for forgiveness. He would later remark that he was probably the only person in church history to be converted through that particular verse.

R.C. was biblically and theologically illiterate. Within the first two weeks of his Christian life, he read through the entire Bible, and was awakened for the first time to the holiness of God, especially through the Old Testament.

In February of 1958, R.C.’s girlfriend, Vesta—whom he met in first grade and had dated on and off since junior high—visited from her college in Ohio. After attending a prayer meeting with R.C., she too committed her life to Christ.

The summer after his junior year at Westminster and Vesta’s graduation from college, R.C. and Vesta were united in marriage on June 11, 1960.

The next year, Vesta worked at the school while R.C. wrote his senior philosophy thesis on “The Existential Implications of Moby Dick” and saw his beloved Pirates win the World Series.

In August of 1961 the Sprouls’ first child, Sherrie, was born, and R.C. enrolled at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which was affiliated with the mainline United Presbyterian Church in the United States (the largest Presbyterian denomination in America at the time).

During seminary, he began taking classes with 47-year-old church history professor John Gerstner (1914–1996), a conservative Calvinist in the progressive school. R.C. was strongly opposed to Reformed theology.

I challenged Gerstner in the classroom time after time, making a total pest of myself. I resisted for well over a year. My final surrender came in stages. Painful stages. It started when I began work as a student pastor in a church. I wrote a note to myself that I kept on my desk in a place where I could always see it.

The note haunted me. My final crisis came in my senior year. I had a three-credit course in the study of Jonathan Edwards. We spent the semester studying Edwards’s most famous book, The Freedom of the Will, under Gerstner’s tutelage. At the same time, I had a Greek exegesis course in the book of Romans. I was the only student in that course, one on one with the New Testament professor. There was nowhere I could hide.

The combination was too much for me. Gerstner, Edwards, the New Testament professor, and above all the apostle Paul, were too formidable a team for me to withstand.

Sproul, the reluctant Calvinst, came to embrace Reformed theology and to view Gerstner as a lifelong theological mentor.

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