What I Learned from R.C. Sproul

What I Learned from R.C. Sproul

I recall meeting Dr. R.C. Sproul for the first time. He was sitting with his wife Vesta and a few other scholars at lunch. A friend took me there and introduced me to him. “How are you, young man?” he asked. I didn’t respond to his question. Instead, I uttered with all the courage I could muster: “Thank you for your ministry.” Indeed I was thankful and still am.

Dr. R.C. Sproul died on the 14th of December, 2017. He died the year we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I have read the many tributes to Dr. Sproul in these last several days. Some of them written by people I know well and who worked closely with Dr. Sproul. Death provides a time of reflection. Sproul’s death at the age of 78 brought back many memories of my days in Orlando. His influence continues in my library. I have dozens of his books and an unending selection of Tabletalks magazines and almost a gigabyte of his audio lectures. His legacy will live on for generations to come.

Introduction to R.C. Sproul

I lived in Pennsylvania in the late 90’s. I had arrived to study a year in America. The evenings were cold in December. The only distraction I had at night was an old radio that worked half the time. One particular night, I turned on the radio to the sound of Handel’s Messiah. The lecturer was clear and poetic in his delivery. I listened intently for 20 minutes or so to a lecture on Augustine. “You’ve been listening to Renewing Your Mind with Dr. R.C. Sproul,” the voice concluded after each episode. I retired to my room early every evening to hear his talks.

Though my curiosity increased with each year, my commitments to my synergistic theology prevailed. I could not embrace a theology that took away my liberty to have a voice in my spiritual condition. The following winter I returned to Pennsylvania for Christmas. It was there that I read Michael Horton’s “Putting Amazing Back into Grace.” His brilliant analysis of John’s gospel pierced me and persuaded me to put down my lingering hesitations of Reformed Theology.

Returning to college after changing my convictions gave me a tremendous sense of liberty to explore and read unhindered by traditions. I immediately read “The Holiness of God” and “Chosen by God” and experienced the closest thing to a revivalistic episode. I was awed as Isaiah was in chapter 6. I cried with the new knowledge of a God who was far more glorious and powerful than I ever believed.

In his 1986 book, Lifeviews, Sproul began with these striking words: “We are all missionaries.” Throughout the book, he labored in thorough style to make a case for the Christian involvement in society. R.C. was an old-fashioned Kuyperian. God created every atom, and therefore every atom had God’s creative tattoo on them. This insatiable hunger to proclaim the exhaustive nature of God’s sovereignty drove much of R.C.’s ministry, and I delighted more and more as I sat under his teaching from afar.

My Time in Orlando

After I had finished college, I had already drunk deeply of the Reformed well. I was attending a PCA church deeply influenced by Dr. Sinclair Fergunson. I had the luxury of sitting under some of the finest Reformed thinkers alive. The Church had an abundance of wealth, and they used that wealth to educate the congregation with the best scholars alive. It was there where I engaged Dr. Jerry Bridges on numerous occasions (may he rest in God’s peace) and many others who were kind enough to talk to a zealous student.

As my time to choose a seminary approached, my church encouraged me to attend a seminary in Philadelphia. But by then I had already consumed a significant portion of R.C. Sproul’s material. I intently listened to the lectures available and was convinced I wanted to study wherever he was. At the time, it happened to be in Fort Lauderdale. He was an adjunct professor, as I recall. I eagerly began the application process to Knox Theological Seminary, and the day I was to turn in my application two things happened: first, one of Knox’s most accomplished Old Testament professor, Dr. O. Palmer Robertson, decided to go to Africa to do mission’s work. I had heard him speak at my PCA church and very much wanted to sit under his teaching in South Florida. But the second, to my great sadness, was that Dr. R.C. Sproul had a stroke. The stroke signaled his shift from the academic world to something closer to home.

These two coinciding news led me to dismiss my interest in Knox and look elsewhere. I had already visited Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and decided not to attend because they were committed to Van Tilianism. As I mentioned, my academic allegiance was for Sproul, and Sproul a Van Tilian was not. I had read Classical Apologetics twice by then and had virtually memorized the conversation at the end of the book between a classicist and a Van Tilian. I had used it many times against my Presuppositional friends.

The one seminary I had not considered– perhaps it remained hidden because it was so close– was Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. Once I learned Dr. Sproul had situated himself in the Orlando area, I thought I could have the best of both worlds: attend a world-class seminary and sit under R.C.’s preaching. And so I did initially. We visited St. Andrews in Sanford, and I began my journey at RTS. For a variety of reasons, we decided to find a closer church. Still, we made the drive to Sanford for every special occasion at St. Andrews and whenever Sinclair Ferguson was speaking. R.C. referred to him as the “Braveheart of our generation.” Still, everything we did had Sproul’s imprint. My wife taught at a classical school started by R.C. Sproul. We attended a PCA church started by R.C. Sproul. The churches we visited early on had pastors influenced by R.C. Sproul. So, I found myself among friends.

I needed a job to help with some of my seminary bills, so naturally, I applied for a position at Ligonier. It was my first official job interview after college. I put on my best tie and drove to the Ligonier headquarters. The interview was bizarre, and the questions were so hypothetical that even one of the interviewers began to laugh. I did the best I could, though left uncertain of my future. It was only four weeks later that I decided to call them back and ask about the job. They told me they were not hiring at the time. I was truly disappointed. My dream of working in the same building with my theological hero fell apart.

The Providence of God

As a good Calvinist, I knew that all things were in God’s hands. I got a job elsewhere and invested myself wholeheartedly into my academic studies at RTS. It was there I was confronted with the awkward charm of Professor John Frame. Frame’s genius did not come through his teaching style. I don’t think anyone would say Frame was/is a captivating communicator. It was, instead, his thorough approach to philosophy and apologetics that drove the point decidedly home. Frame slowly and surely undid my classical apologetics and brought me to the methods of Cornelius

My theology at the time was harmonizing, and the classical apologetics didn’t fit any longer. Little by little Frame was dismantling my sense of neutrality and replacing it with a robust Creator/creature distinction. In other words, the fallen man was incapable of reasoning to God apart from special revelation. The classical arguments brought probability and not certainty. While everyone knew of R.C. Sproul’s Calvinism, most engaged students also knew of R.C.’s severe discomfort with Presuppositional apologetics. It was the first time I began to drift a little from my hero. My exposure to other schools of thought began to take me in a slightly different direction.

But my love for R.C. continued despite my change of theological direction. Many of my classmates worked at Ligonier or were interning at St. Andrews which kept me aware of things happening there. The beauty of it all is that I was able to sit under John Frame and benefit from Sproul in the same town on a frequent basis. It was an endless buffet of theological joy.

Sproul’s Lasting Influence

For those outside the Reformed community, it’s hard to grasp how diverse the Reformed world is. Sproul could preserve friendships with a broad range of Reformed thinkers though he was a unique figure in the Reformed world. As an example, he held to a classic view of Postmillennial eschatology. His book A Taste of Heaven argued for a high liturgy based on Old Covenant patterns. He favored the use of incense in worship. But none of these things defined him. What drew people to R.C. was his commitment to the doctrines of grace, his dogmatic assertion that a man is justified by faith alone, his influential lectures and writings on the holiness of God, and his ability to take the profound and make it understandable for the laity.

As I ponder this giant’s influence in my own life, I conclude with three lessons gained. Perhaps I could gather 100 into a lengthy article, but these three jump at me:

First, R.C. modeled excellent Christian scholarship in writing and speech. It is a rare combination for one to write well and also communicate well. R.C. did both with great enthusiasm. I used to sit around hearing him interact with parishioners about the Pittsburgh Steelers–his cherished football team. I remember how much he knew about them and how he engaged the topic with such enthusiasm, that I, a non-football fan, felt the need to watch a Steelers’ game. He drew me into this topic in a way no one could.

Second, R.C. spoke the Gospel winsomely. It is not enough to talk about the truth. The people standing on a street corner waving Bibles shouting about God’s judgment are speaking the truth, but they are not speaking the truth in love. They are not drawing people to the message, but are perpetuating the idea that Christians are fundamentalists unwilling to engage and prone to shouting down the opposition.

Sproul communicated through the use of logic and rhetoric the beauty of God through a particular display of words and rhythms. He called people to repentance to a God who was beautiful and lovely. He drew people to difficult doctrines instead of driving them away. As a result, a multitude of saints today believe and cherish the glory of God in salvation because of Dr. Sproul’s winsome presentation.

Finally, Sproul taught me to love God. His God was my God. One lesson I hope to communicate to all those who inquire about Sproul in future years is that we are not speaking only of a theological titan, but a man who breathed and exhaled God’s glory each day of his life. He was our modern day Jonathan Edwards.

I remember listening in awe as R.C. worked through the Bible in his famous series From Dust to Glory. Now, Dr. Robert Charles Sproul will no longer taste the dust but will dwell in glory forever and ever amen.

Interpretive Maximalism and James B. Jordan

Last night we had the honor of attending the send-off party for the Jordan family as they move to Birmingham, AL. Jim and Brenda Jordan have been dear friends of mine and my church community for some time. During my first three years as pastor I had the privilege of working side-by-side with Jim at Providence. He was especially encouraging in that first year. Not only did he add his tremendously musical gifts to our congregation, but his Sunday School series for those three years were life-changing.

Part of what Jim Jordan brings to the table is a life-long commitment to Sola Scriptura. He is, to borrow John Frame’s language, a true biblicist. He bleeds biblical theology. The fact that he does not simply repeat old slogans and the sheer fact that he is so innovative in the field of biblical theology make him a target to many.

His book Through New Eyes offers a profoundly rich theology of symbols; a theology, which if embraced, will make Bible studies not only fascinating, but will make the student of the Bible enlivened to read the Bible again and again and to find connections that affirm the remarkable onenes of biblical revelation.

Jim Jordan goodbyeMany have attached the hermeneutic of interpretive maximalism (Hence IMax.) to James Jordan’s theology. In his 1990 article What is Interpretive Maximalism, Jordan affirms that this hermeneutic contrasts with the minimalist interpreter. David Chilton is his famous Revelation commentary was the first to apply directly the rich nature of Jim’s theology to John’s inspired account. Jordan himself had already given a clear example of that hermeneutic in his Judges commentary, which Chilton references.

In fact, in his Judges commentary he contrasts his approach to the modern evangelical one:

“We have to explain this [i.e., the business about types and prophecies] in order to distance ourselves from the interpretive minimalism’ that has come to characterize evangelical commentaries on Scripture in recent years. We do not need some specific New Testament verse to `prove’ that a given Old Testament story has symbolic dimensions. Rather, such symbolic dimensions are presupposed in the very fact that man is the image of God. Thus, we ought not to be afraid to hazard a guess at the wider prophetic meanings of Scripture narratives, as we consider how they image the ways of God. Such a `maximalist’ approach as this puts us more in line with the kind of interpretation used by the Church Fathers.”

So, part of James Jordan’s controversial hermeneutic is an attempt to affirm the inherent beauty of the Old Testament narrative without depending on some New Testament affirmation. Further, as Jordan writes, IMax. offers a richer Old Testament narrative, since the typological images offer a fuller and more robust picture of Christ in the pages of the pre-AD 70 world.

Jordan sees the grammatico-historical interpretation to be valid, but incomplete without the aid of a rich biblical theology. And this was part of what led his break with some of the well-known theonomic figures. Jordan writes:

I think that those who take this kind of typology seriously are the only people doing justice to the Biblico-theological dimension of interpretation, and my criticism of the Bahnsen-Rushdoony type of “theonomy” is precisely that I don’t think they do justice to this dimension. In common with most of my teachers, I believe that the grammatico-historical “methods” of interpretation need to be complemented by Biblico-theological considerations, and that is what I have sought to do in my own work. (On “theonomy” see James B. Jordan, “Reconsidering the Mosaic Law: Some Reflections — 1988,” available from Biblical Horizons.)

In conclusion, James Jordan uses the term maximalist as a way of communicating that the Bible reader can gain more from the pages of Scripture than they can ever imagine. The Bible is given to us by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit does not waste his breath. His inspired data is not given simply to fill in empty space, but to provide a fuller and more beautiful portrait of the Gospel.

Bring Out the Champagne! The Party Has Just Begun!

Easter is gone, right? Actually Easter has just begun! The Easter Season lasts for 50 days. It is glorified in the PENT-ecost season. According to the Christian Calendar, Easter lasts until May 19th (Pentecost Sunday). But didn’t we spend ourselves bodily and spiritually this past Lord’s Day? If that’s the case, stir yourselves unto good works. The party has just begun!

We–who are liturgically minded–tend to carefully attend to the Lenten and Advent Calendar, but yet we forget that apart from the Resurrection Lent and Advent would not make any sense. After all, what are we expecting? A virgin birth to a son who would simply die at the age of 33? What are we expecting? A perpetually closed tomb? A sight for annual pilgrimages to Israel?

I am suggesting we need to stock up in our champagne bottles. Every Sunday meal needs to start with the popping of a champagne bottle. “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! POP! “Children, that’s the sound of victory!”

For every day of Easter, set aside a little gift for your little ones or your spouse. We set 100 Easter eggs aside for our two oldest children and let them open them up each day. Other traditions can be added, of course. We indulge in Easter hymnody and Psalmnody.  Easter is no time to get back to business as usual, it’s time to elevate the party spirit.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for these next 46 days:

First, for evening family readings, meditate specifically on the Resurrection account and the post-resurrection accounts. Digest every detail of the gospels, and also allow St. Paul to add his resurrection theology in I Corinthians 15.

Second, teach one another the art of hope. We live in a hopeless culture. We walk around with little enthusiasm for what God is doing in our midst. We also don’t believe that God is changing us and conforming us to the image of His son. We need to–especially in this season–to rejoice more with those who rejoice and encourage more those who weep with the hope granted to us in the Resurrection of our Messiah.

Third, invest in changing your community. Ask your pastor in what ways can you be more fruitful in your service to the congregation. Consider also your neighbors. Do you know them? If you do, how many have been in your homes for a meal or a drink, or simply to talk?

Fourth, play Easter music in your home and in the office. Here are some selections of great CDs or MP3’s.

Finally, avoid the introspective rituals that are so prevalent in our Christian culture. Do not allow doubts to overtake you. Think of your Triune baptism. Trust in Christ fervently. Allow the Covenant of Grace to shape your identity. The resurrection of Jesus was the confirmation that those in Christ are made for glory. Look to Jesus and serve Jesus by serving others. By doing so, you will not grow weary in doing well, and you will learn to party beside the empty tomb.

Christ is Risen!