Dr. Robert Charles Sproul has been many things over his accomplished lifetime – an acclaimed Bible teacher, theologian, author, radio speaker, jokester, golfer, even artist and musician. As one close associate said, he might best be described as “omni-competent.”
Better known as “R.C.” to his family, friends, students, readers of his books, and hearers of his lectures, Sproul forged a reputation as a staunch, determined defender of the Scriptures, becoming a central combatant in the so-called “battle for the Bible” during the 1980s and 90s. He also was noted for being unusually skilled in distilling theological truths and principles into everyday language.
Born on February 13, 1939, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sproul passed away on December 14 at the age of 78, going home to the Lord whose Word he relentlessly and fearlessly defended.
As a member of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), he helped to draft and later signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978. He then wrote a reader-friendly commentary on that document, initially called “Explaining Inerrancy” and later republished under the title, “Can I Trust the Bible?”
Full of Depth and Life
But just inside Sproul’s sometimes stern, impassioned exterior existed a man who thoroughly enjoyed life and relished a good joke. He balanced his devotion to Jesus Christ with a number of hobbies, including reading, golf, sketching, painting, music (he played piano and violin), and hunting. He typified the view that although the mission of Christians is a serious one with eternal consequences, believers dare not take themselves too seriously.
More than one friend commented that R.C. would frequently laugh uproariously. Chris Larson, president of Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries, observed, “He was always full of life, always finding a way to tell a good joke. He was intimidating at first glance. R.C. was omni-competent, but the human side of him was what made it all work.”
Dr. Phil Ryken, president of Wheaton College and formerly senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia where Sproul attended and taught, agreed. “R.C. exuded joviality, a very warm quality for a Christian believer. He was the same person privately as he was publicly. I had great respect for his analytical abilities, and his tremendous gift for understanding complex truths and communicating them to a broad audience, helping the ordinary Christian to understand profound theology.”
Another friend and avid fan of Sproul is Dr. Harry L. Reeder III, pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian in Birmingham, Alabama. “I’ve known R.C. since 1986. He was one of my professors while I was doing doctoral work at Reformed Theological Seminary. Our relationship grew over the years, and I often took advantage of calling him for insights on theology and practical aspects of ministry, especially apologetics.” Reeder was well-acquainted with Sproul’s enthusiasm for sports, especially golf and baseball. “He was basically a scratch golfer, maintaining a 2 handicap, and when we played together, R.C. was constantly trying to keep me from a reverse pivot on my swing. When it came to baseball, we would often try to stump each other on trivia, especially about the Pittsburgh Pirates, since we were both from that area.”
But it was in grasping the depths of the Scriptures that Sproul excelled the most, according to Reeder. “I marveled at his ability to take profound truth and communicate it with simplicity, being faithful to the Word of God not only in the text but also the context. He was able to see God’s Word as a whole, and yet understand systematic theology and the interdependency of all of its parts.”
Standing for Truth
Ordained as a teaching elder in the PCA, perhaps Sproul’s greatest contribution to the denomination, Reeder said, was “challenging the PCA to be missional without theological compromise, to be theologically accurate and consistent, and to still maintain an evangelical spirit and philosophy of ministry.” He said Sproul was one of several mentors he’s benefited from over his life, noting R.C. was not only accessible but also extremely wise. “I never had a conversation with him that I did not go away with greater insight, whether into God’s Word or how to minister that Word to the church and the world.”
For all his good-naturedness, Sproul proved uncompromising on matters he regarded as non-negotiable. There was a time in the late 1990s when he and several other well-known evangelical leaders had a parting of ways over how to articulate a theological truth while engaged in an ecumenical initiative called Catholics and Evangelicals Together (CET). A lengthy statement of unity was drafted by CET and signed by a number of evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders, but Sproul didn’t approve it, finding some its wording untenable.
In an attempt to heal a widening breach, a meeting was called. A key part of the discussion was Sproul’s insistence that it was important to say “sola fide is essential to the Gospel,” while others would respond only it was “central.” Sproul considered the distinction non-negotiable. He had been good friends with a number of these men, but the inability to reach an accord created a rift that resulted in the termination of Sproul’s relationship with several ministries. This episode, according to Larson, crystallized Sproul’s willingness to stand for truth no matter what it cost him.
One friendship he never lost, however, was with Dr. James Montgomery Boice, longtime pastor at Tenth Presbyterian who died in 2000. Boice’s widow, Linda, said about her husband and Sproul, “as different as their personalities were, for several decades they fought shoulder to shoulder” as they defended the integrity of the Scriptures and other theological issues. She said they had met in the late ‘60s at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and hit it off immediately. They collaborated initially with ICBI (Boice was chairman, Sproul was president) at a time when the view of the inerrancy of Scripture was getting wobbly in so-called evangelical circles. They published statements about the affirmations and denials of inerrancy, and together had a strong influence in the evangelical world. “R.C. wasn’t a pastor,” said Boice, “but excelled at public speaking and preaching, which established a strong bond between him and James.”
Mrs. Boice said the two seemed an “odd couple” in their own right, with Dr. Boice being very precise in his natty attire, organized style, and being more reserved in personality, while Sproul was “much more casual and far more extroverted. Yet they played off each other. R.C. brought out the humor in Jim, and Jim would give it right back. On everything important (biblically and theologically) they really agreed.” In an interview conducted in 2010, Sproul described his relationship with Dr. Boice, acknowledging the odd couple comparison. “Jim was an impeccable dresser; not only that, he was punctilious. We had this thing that he was Felix and I was Oscar (from the film and TV show “The Odd Couple”). I always gave him the Oscar routine. Any time he’d do something particularly punctilious, I would go with the opposite, just to tweak him a little.”
But in dealing with the Scriptures, Sproul said he and Boice complemented each other extremely well. “We did a conference in Maryland where they wanted both of us to speak on the five points of Calvinism. Jim would give his message, and it would be so powerful that it would get me fired up, and then I’d give my message. And it would get him more fired up. We fired each other up so much I felt sorry for the people at the conference.
“We just worked so well together, fit so well together. When he died, it was a huge loss to me. When you’re involved in teaching on the national arena, you’re under the gun all the time. He was my favorite guy to have in my foxhole.”
A Legacy of Truth
Sproul’s education prepared him well for his role as teacher, speaker, and author. He held degrees from Westminster College, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and the Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
He was founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, which was started as the Ligonier Valley Study Center in western Pennsylvania in 1971, a gathering place for Christians to engage in extended periods of study. In 1984 it was relocated to Orlando, Florida, and became one of the world’s leading Christian discipleship organizations.
A prolific author and editor of more than 100 books, Sproul’s writings included “The Holiness of God,” “If There Is a God, Why Are There Atheists?”, “One Holy Passion,” “Five Things Every Christian Needs to Grow,” “What is Reformed Theology?”, the “St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary Series,” children’s books, and was general editor of the Reformation Study Bible. He was executive editor of Tabletalk magazine, was featured on the daily radio program “Renewing Your Mind” (broadcast on more than 300 stations around the world), and had thousands of audio and video messages translated into dozens of languages worldwide.
His teaching career included tenures at Gordon College, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary (in both Orlando and Jackson, Mississippi), and Knox Theological Seminary. He was founder and chairman of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies; founder, chancellor, and first president of Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida; and director of Serve International. For a time he served as co-pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida.
One particular quote captured his theological perspective: “Loving a holy God is beyond our moral power. The only kind of God we can love by our sinful nature is an unholy god, an idol made by our own hands. Unless we are born of the Spirit of God, unless God sheds His holy love in our hearts, unless He stoops in His grace to change our hearts, we will not love Him … . To love a holy God requires grace, grace strong enough to pierce our hardened hearts and awaken our moribund souls.”
Memorial services will be held at St. Andrews Chapel in Sanford, Florida, on December 20 at 2 pm. He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Vesta; their two children, Sherrie Dorotiak and Robert Craig Sproul; 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.