The Westminster Confession of Faith
Question: “What is the chief end of man?”
Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”
What would a life examined look like when the greatest pursuit was to truly glorify the Lord and then to enjoy the fruits of the Lord in their life? For 78 years, we have had a prime example of a life well led in the life of Dr. R.C. Sproul.
Dr. Robert Charles Sproul departed time and entered eternity on December 14, 2017 with his loving family by his side. The empty chair left by Dr. Sproul is one that no one who knows him will seek to occupy quickly. At the same time, we were all stretched and made better in being under his teaching.
Robert Charles Sproul was born February 13, 1939, in Pittsburgh, the son of Robert Cecil and Mayre Ann (née Yardis) Sproul. He held degrees from Westminster College (B.A., 1961), Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (B.D., 1964), and the Free University of Amsterdam (Drs., 1969) and received several honorary degrees. He and his wife, Vesta (née Voorhis), were married in 1960. He founded the Ligonier Valley Study Center in western Pennsylvania in 1971 as a place where Christians could immerse themselves in guided biblical, theological, and philosophical study. As its outreach expanded, the ministry moved to Orlando, Fla., in 1984 and was renamed Ligonier Ministries. Since that time, it has grown to be the largest Reformed educational and discipleship ministry in the world.1
The impact of the life and work of Dr. R.C. Sproul in Christendom has been immense. The epoch of time that Dr. Sproul entered into the scene was during the growth of two distinct camps within Christianity:
- The surge of emotion-driven evangelicalism devoid of any scholastic roots which was hostile to the scholastic tradition of the Protestant Reformation birthed by Luther, Calvin, Turretin and others in Europe and the Great Awakening by Whitefield and Edwards in the United States. Evangelicalism of the 70’s and 80’s focused instead on programs, techniques and pragmatic forms of success.
- The tidal wave of historical critical methodology into mainline denominations. This historical critical methodology led to the “demythologizing” of the Bible and the dissolution of the essential doctrines of the faith.
In many ways, Dr. Sproul’s ministry coincided with the work of Francis Schaeffer and together they represented a necessary correction and long overdue renewal of the Christian faith, liberating it from its imprisonment to anti-intellectualism.
In the 1970’s, Dr. R.C. Sproul and his newly christened organization, Ligonier Ministries, entered into a situation where the historically understood Christian Gospel was being systematically redacted and had to be rediscovered in all its fullness. Once the Gospel was properly rediscovered, a reorientation and reeducation needed to take place in the Christian Community. At the same time, because the church had run past a proper understanding of theology proper into all kinds of quick-fix solutions that would not impede “growth” someone needed to come along and sort out all of these new issues with a strong and compelling voice. Another ivory tower theologian looking down from his nose upon the masses would not do: and God provided a rugged athlete, a genius with a love for history, a man with a strong grasp of philosophy, a Biblical exegete of the highest order, an orator with the sense of the dramatic and the dynamic, a warrior ready to battle on the right hills, and a man with a soft heart for the lost and downtrodden. Dr. Sproul bought his listening audience on a journey of rediscovering, and bringing to life the Word of God in their lives. He always sought to place the proverbial cookies on the middle shelf with the intention of aiming for the next highest shelf in future engagements.
Simply stated, God used Dr. R.C. Sproul to guard against doctrinal erosion in Christianity over the course of two generations. Sproul was served as both the lighthouse to warn against the rocks that would sink evangelicalism’s ships searching for safe harbor and at the same time as the giant rock itself to demolish approaching vessels of heresies and compromises that were attempting to find a common harbor with essential Christian beliefs.
The best way to appreciate Dr. Sproul’s work is to examine the “how” and the “why” behind his ministry to God’s people. A few lessons from Dr. Sproul that would be helpful for the Body of Christ to remember are as follows:
- Make your foundation the Word of God. Dr. Sproul embraced and encouraged the practice of expositional teaching in the Church. Expositional teaching is the practice of detailing what the Bible says in a particular passage in the context in which it is found. The context is also dependent on the authorial intent and hence, the original meaning of the passage can be understood from age to age and generation to generation. Application can then be understood by the hearer with the authority of the Scripture being respected. Theology then flows from the understanding of the Word of God as opposed to the changing and varying situations in modern life.
- There are consequences that come from ideas. Dr. Sproul understood that it is critical for Christians to understand the ideas that are shaping them. The greater Christians have familiarity with the streams of thought that have saturated Western culture through the ages, the greater their ability to influence this culture for Christ. The greatest thinkers of all time are impacting us still. From public-policy decisions and current laws to world events, theology, the arts, education, and even conversations between friends, history’s most influential philosophies have wrought massive consequences on nearly everything we see, think, and do. With his classic work, The Consequences of Ideas, R. C. Sproul expertly led the way for thoughtful readers in his overview of Philosophy. Tracing the contours of Western philosophy from the ancients to the molders of modern and postmodern thought-including Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, and Freud-Sproul proved that ideas are not just passing fads; they endure for generations to come and demand our serious attention.2
- Fight with precision on the hills worth dying for. Observing that Biblical scholarship was plunging and seeing that higher critical methods were being employed in Biblical interpretation, Dr. Sproul participated in the draft committee to create a covenantal document purposed to call Christian leaders to embrace the inerrancy of Scripture. Measures such as this helped to preserve and recommit thousands of pastors to acknowledging the Bible as the sole authority in the Church.
- Stand your ground when all around you are on shifting sand. The Evangelicals and Catholics Together document and Manhattan Declaration encouraged Evangelicals and Roman Catholics to ecumenically look past their doctrinal disagreements and strive forward together for the cause of Christ. As Dr. Sproul rightly stated, “there is no concept within the Roman Catholic Church more basally repugnant to the Reformed faith than the concept of the treasury of merit. A person who believes in justification by faith alone weeps at this notion.” Why? Because “we believe in a treasury of merit, too, one that is inexhaustible. But we don’t believe that one nickel of that treasury has been contributed by anyone other than the Son of God. That’s the issue: the sufficiency of Christ and Christ alone to redeem me.” Dr. Sproul, along with Dr. John MacArthur and Dr. D. James Kennedy stood against the decisions of men that they had stood alongside on so many other crucial issues of the faith. Dr. Sproul’s example to stand against a wave of popular coalitions gave all Christians a prime example to not seek the opinion of men but only the favor of God.
- Never stop learning. While Dr. Sproul held several advanced degrees, he never believed that his time of learning or searching for truth “finished.” His constant pursuit of learning led to a consistent self-improvement. Whether in theology, philosophy, music, or business Dr. Sproul continued to outpace those around him – using every situation around him as an opportunity for learning.
- Disciplines matter. One of the first things that Dr. Sproul taught me was a very simple formula to ensure that you were able to “get a leg up” on the day: “early to bed and early to rise.” Not complicating your wardrobe, eating at the same restaurant on a consistent basis, having a consistent schedule. All of these little disciplines lead to more time in study and a focused time in the Word of God. Eliminate clutter in your life and you will give yourself the opportunity to use your mind more efficiently the way the Lord intended.
- Respect the Beauty of the Arts: Dr. Sproul had a keen understanding of the beauty of the arts and the Biblical concept from Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The attention in creation to detail as to how and why things are done was of great importance to Dr. Sproul and his staff at Ligonier Ministries. This rejection of postmodern ideas in the formation of art and the embrace of Biblical concepts of beauty led to his collaboration collaboration with composer Jeff Lippencott on two Spirit-filled orchestrations: Glory to the Holy One and Saints of Zion.
On a personal note, it was a joy for my wife and I to serve Dr. Sproul and his ministry over the last 10 years. I have valued every conversation that I was blessed to have had with him. His love of life, his enjoyment of friends, and his love of his family will forever be etched in our minds.
Dr. R. C. Sproul glorified God and enjoyed Him. May we think on his example and do the same during our remaining days here on earth.
1 Obituary: https://rcsproul.com/remembering-rc/obituary/
2 The Consequences of Ideas https://www.ligonier.org/store/the-consequences-of-ideas-paperback/