The Legacy of R.C. Sproul
On December 14, 2017, Dr. Robert Charles (R.C.) Sproul went to receive his reward. He was a pastor, teacher, theologian, and trailblazer. To say that Evangelical Christianity has lost a giant would be an understatement. Born on February 13, 1939, he earned his Doctorate degree from the Free University of Amsterdam in 1968. He is the founder of Ligonier Ministry and has authored over 100 books and articles. I will not spend much time discussing his life and ministry as I am sure there are far more qualified scholars and historians who can do that. I would, however, like to discuss the impact R.C. Sproul has had on my own life and on Evangelical Christianity.
Very early in my Christian life there were two works of Sproul which had a profound impact on my life and future ministry. The first was a video series based on his book The Holiness of God. In those series of lectures Sproul introduced me to what it means to serve a holy God. He helped me fully understand the richness and depth behind the words of the angelic beings who continuously sing before the throne: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). He was the first to teach me that although it is true that Jesus is our friend, our brother, and companion, he is first and foremost the King of kings and the Lord of lords and should be honored and reverenced as such. For a young believer from Southern California who had been greatly influenced by Calvary Chapel churches and the spiritual descendants of the Jesus Movement, this was mind-blowing and life-altering. The idea that Jesus is not in heaven on his hands and knees pleading for unbelievers to come to repentance and believe in him. He is not in heaven pulling out his hair in frustration at the direction of world events and the choices people make. Rather, Jesus sits upon his throne and governs and directs all of world history with a mighty arm, moving everything toward its predetermined end. He is the Sovereign Ruler who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). I found this biblical truth to be enormously comforting. In a world filled with uncertainty, it was profoundly comforting to know that the course and ultimate end of my life is not determined by my ability to make wise decisions or to accurately weigh pros and cons, but instead is being guided by a loving, merciful, sovereign, and holy God.
Sproul’s book, The Holiness of God, also helped me to understand and grasp the gospel in a deeper sense. The gospel is not merely that the Son of God took on human flesh, came to earth, and died on a cross for our sins, though that would certainly be enough. More accurately, however, the gospel is about the King of the universe, the Creator and Sustainer of all that is, the Sovereign Ruler, and Holy God, stepping down from his majestic throne, setting aside his robe, and being willing to satisfy the Law’s demand for absolute perfection and the Law’s demand for death as a consequence of sin. In the words of Sproul, ‘if all Jesus had to do was die on a cross, then why didn’t he just parachute down from heaven and do so?’ Jesus had to live the perfect life of obedience for us, which God’s Law demands, which we could never do for ourselves. The idea that the King of the universe would do this for me was truly amazing, and it catapulted my life to a greater level in the pursuit of holiness and godliness. More than ever before I wanted to be like Christ and glorify Christ.
A second book by Sproul I read early in my Christian life was one which he wrote in the midst of the controversy surrounding the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together Statement” (1994). He wrote a book titled Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (1995). In that book he taught me that God is the just Judge of all the universe and cannot allow even one crime against his divine law to go unpunished. This of course places all of us on the horns of a dilemma. We can either allow someone else to pay the penalty for us or we can pay it ourselves in eternal damnation. However, how can a holy and just God allow sinners into heaven without violating his own standard of justice? How can God remain just and be the justifier of the ungodly? As Sproul explains in his book, the answer is not the Roman solution that sinful humans must earn their righteousness by means of fulfilling the sacraments of the Church. If this were true, then how can people ever be certain they have earned enough righteousness to satisfy the just Judge of all the earth? Rather the answer is found in the biblical doctrine that sinful humans are declared not guilty by the Judge of heaven and earth based on the imputed righteousness of Christ which comes to us by faith alone in Christ alone. In other words, in his perfect life of obedience to the Divine Law Jesus earned the righteousness for us which we could never earn for ourselves. Then at the moment we place faith in Christ, that righteousness is imputed (or credited) to us. Christ did the work, but we--who believe in Christ—receive the credit. As Paul writes in Romans 4, “Now to the one who works [to the one who strives to earn his righteousness by means of good deeds], his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly [to the one who does not strive to earn God’s favor but simply places faith in Christ], his faith is counted as righteousness” (vv.4-5). When Sproul introduced this truth to me it was as if the weight of the world had been lifted from me. For I knew that if the Judge of all the universe had declared me not guilty, there is no one who has the authority to reverse his ruling. I am henceforth forever free! What a glorious truth! This was the second biblical truth in my early Christian life that compelled me to live for God’s glory with every fiber of my being. It was part of what God used to compel me into pastoral ministry. For I soon realized there are a great many Christians out there who do not fully understand the holiness of God nor completely grasp the beauty of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.
In the end, R.C. Sproul was a trailblazer who was instrumental in recovering the gospel for the second time since the Protestant Reformation. He was the tip of the spear in bringing about a second great awakening, as it were. He helped to bring to the forefront of Christian conversation and into the pulpits of Evangelical churches important biblical truths regarding the holiness of God, justification by faith alone, the sovereignty of God in salvation, and the total depravity of all mankind. He will be greatly missed, but I am certain if the Lord tarries, his books and writings will be studied and read for centuries to come. Farewell Dr. Sproul, and soli Deo gloria!