God’s Man, for God’s Work: A Tribute to R. C. Sproul (1939-2017)

Ligonier Ministries founder was a category 5 hurricane of declaration, persuasion, and instruction.
God’s Man, for God’s Work: A Tribute to R. C. Sproul (1939-2017)
Image: Ligonier Ministries

It is singularly appropriate that R. C. Sproul would go home to be with the Lord in 2017, the year in which we are remembering Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg 500 years ago. Many thousands of people were introduced to the teaching ministry of R. C. Sproul through his book and teaching series “The Holiness of God.”

I first listened to it on audio cassette tapes (which dates me), in which he tells the story of Luther at the Diet of Worms. The chapter and lecture are called “The Insanity of Luther.” It is classic R. C. You can listen to it on the Ligonier Ministries website, and you should if you have the chance.

No figure in our generation has done more than R. C. to defend, proclaim, and expound Luther’s insights into the Bible’s teaching on justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. I have met young people on every continent who readily confess their indebtedness to R. C. Sproul (though they have never met him or heard him in person), through the various media of Ligonier Ministries, books, articles, magazines, audio, video, app, and conferences. He is responsible for introducing a generation to the authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, and the glory of the Gospel of justification by faith, salvation by grace, in Christ alone.

I started reading and listening to R. C. as a teenager. My father, a businessman and elder at our local church, served on a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) denominational study committee with him in the 1980s. Dad was somewhat in awe of him after that experience.

My brother John later worked with him very closely as executive producer at Ligonier Ministries for a number of years. My brother Mel also served in church relations at Ligonier during a season. R. C. was unfailingly kind to my mother, whom he regarded, rightly, as the theological matriarch of the Duncan clan (she personally edited his multi-volume commentary on the Westminster Confession).

Mother did not hesitate to disagree with him on certain theological points, informing him of her dissent through her handwritten editorial notes to him in the initial drafts—which he loved! If you know anything about R. C., he loved a good theological debate and he craved riposte with those who dared to go at him toe-to-toe, which Mother, a modern-day Reformed Boadicea, happily obliged.

I began to know him (later than the rest of my family) personally, as friend and colleague, through Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) almost 30 years ago. He and I held, at different times, the John R. Richardson Chair of Systematic Theology at RTS Jackson, before he became a founding professor at RTS Orlando.

Commitment and Conviction

R. C. was a force of nature. Everything he did, he did with all of himself, with every ounce of everything he was. I think that is one thing that congregations and conference attendees sensed in him.

He was a man of copious knowledge (he was an omnivore, after all!) and intellectual brilliance. He had an extraordinary ability to popularize theology and philosophy. He had a deep love for the Bible and his skills as a storyteller were spell-binding, especially when conveying important scenes and moments from church history.

But along with all this, his hearers sensed his passion for and belief in what he was saying. His teaching dripped with commitment and conviction. In a time characterized by cynicism, indifference, and uncertainty, R. C. was a category 5 hurricane of declaration, persuasion, and instruction.

When you heard him, you felt that truth mattered, and mattered to him down to his—and consequently your—bones. He was not playing. This was not an act or a shtick. Eternity hung the balance. Or, as he said, “right now counts forever.” You knew he believed the truth and that he wanted you to believe it like your life depended on it, because it did.

R. C. was also a man with a sense of humor. He loved to laugh, and I loved laughing with him and watching and listening to him laugh with others.

In the early days when I began doing conferences with him at Ligonier, he learned that my brother John and I both loved hip-hop music and had memorized many popular raps. Often in the green room or at speaker dinners, he would insist upon our doing a rap for those assembled. I think it gave him some special delight to watch his guests react with surprise at something they weren’t expecting to hear from a staid Presbyterian theologian.

On one occasion, as I walked up to the platform to give a message at a Ligonier National Conference on, of all things, the solemn, glorious doctrine of the atonement, I heard his distinctive voice call out from the front row: “Lig, do a rap!” I tried to ignore him. He persisted, not to be denied. When my brother John (who was emceeing the conference at the moment) and I obliged, the audience reacted first with shock, then approval, then started nodding along with the beat, while R. C. roared with infectious laughter and joy. I was not a little embarrassed, but I’ll always treasure his smile and happiness at that moment.

R. C. was a great friend and also cared enough about the gospel to lose friendships. During the controversy surrounding ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together), R. C. notably crossed swords with beloved and longtime friends J. I. Packer and Chuck Colson.

What the evangelical public may not know is that he retained a deep, personal affection for these brothers, while profoundly differing with them on matters which he felt compromised the gospel. He was willing to be heartbroken and friendless for the sake of the gospel. I will never forget that. The fear of God was in him.

I doubt that I will ever again, in this life, know the like of R. C. Sproul. He was sui generis. A gift of God. “God’s man, for God’s work, in God’s time.” But his legacy will continue, not because of him (extraordinary as he was) but because of what he believed and taught. Which is truth. And beyond that legacy, I now await (with increased longing) The Reunion.

Ligon Duncan is the chancellor/CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology.

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God’s Man, for God’s Work: A Tribute to R. C. Sproul (1939-2017)