Romans

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.

Authorship Thoughts

Over the years both in undergraduate and graduate studies I have been exposed to a host of New Testament authorship issues. I have been bombarded with alternative authorship theories on every New Testament book. From Mark to Paul, everything has been questioned. Yet the more I ponder this issue the more confidence I have in the historical designation of these books. It may perhaps be my naive trust in the labors of our forefathers, but when I consider the 18th and 19th century motives of scholars on books like Philippians, it seems clear that their motives are not shaped by divine authorship as much as the latest critical consensus.

My thoughts on Hebrews are pretty clear, and I am willing to concede some healthy debate on the matter, but to begin to deny the authorship of Paul on what has long been considered Pauline authorship books is rather futile.

Beyond that, we believe that the Spirit of God inspired these men to write. Though their humanity is not absent in their writings, though their personalities show forth, yet they are being led by the Third Person of the Trinity. The Spirit of God can re-direct certain authors to alter their style of writing to fit particular circumstances and to minister to particular groups of people.

It also appears that in order to maintain so called objectivity and scholarship, some thinkers direct their attention away from the obvious author in order to scrutinize the book through the lens of critical scholarship. This tactic seems unhelpful and only adds confusion to the authorship question. Questions like: “Would Paul really write like this,” only accentuate the problem. The real question should be: “Our forefathers have largely accepted Pauline authorship, and if this is the case, though this language may not appear to be as consistent with other Pauline writings, could the Spirit direct this genius named Paul to write in such a way?” When such questions are asked, I believe the answer will be clearer. I am not asserting that there has always consensus in the past (Hebrews as an example), but that the majority position was generally clear (with minor exceptions).

The principle seems clear: when in doubt stick with the most obvious answer and that which has been historically prevalent.

Saturday Night Live (SNL), DJesus Uncrossed, the Romans, the Jews and the God of the Bible

DJesus UnCrossed is SNL’s latest attempt to de-christ Christ. Of course, in our day, Jesus is easy to disrespect. One wonders if SNL would attempt a comedy journey through the life of Muhammad. No further comments needed.

David Flowers believes that the skit has something to teach us, and that we should begin to listen to our critics. He argues that the skit has hermeneutical problems, but that it shows our hypocrisy and inconsistency in our faith. Flowers argues that this is the result of an American-shaped Jesus. He is correct to assert that humor has a way of offending Christians and revealing weaknesses and hypocrisy. We should be aware of them.

The Jesus raised from the dead murdering Romans out of revenge seems bizarre in light of the biblical narrative. Flowers is correct to assert that it reveals the Jesus kick-ass motif portrayed by many in our evangelical culture. It is easy to object to the video’s false portrayals, but in what sense is this skit true, even with its exaggerative and faulty hermeneutics? There is something to be learned here. Flowers is correct that we are to listen to our critics. The point, however, is that our critics don’t go far enough.

Surely the 2nd Amendment Rights’ Jesus is very American and Neo-Conservative like. But that doesn’t even begin to describe the type of justice-driven Messiah we as Orthodox Christians believe.

For starters, we believe in a Messiah that is ascended to the right hand of the Father, and from that place of kingship rules and reigns over us and creation. He is not an unmoved Mover. Further, Jesus did not have the Romans in mind when He judged, He had the corrupt and idolatrous first century Jewish generation in mind. Upon them, He brought a profound tribulation (Mt. 24). The Gospel Lesson this Sunday is Luke 13:31-35 where Jesus laments over Jerusalem. He sought her with love, but she continued to kill and murder the prophets sent with a message of salvation and deliverance. The vengeful Jesus portrayed by SNL has no interest in context, but it should well observe that the Messiah who destroys is first the Messiah who shows mercy.

How Can we Learn from SNL?

First, Saturday Night Live is not a theology show. Its humor is devoid of accuracy, and frankly, that is not their interest. They have been on the air for 37 years because of their exaggerated (especially in the last ten years) view of current events. This is important to keep in mind.

Secondly, use these opportunities to correct false information. Bill Maher, the well-known HBO atheist host, does this better than anyone I know. He takes a portion of Scriptures and twists its meaning in a fashion that would make even the devil jealous. This is a good time for Christians to be hermeneutically savvy. In fact, go ahead and make a t-shirt with that slogan “I am hermeneutically savvy.”

Thirdly, do not allow an exclusively New Covenant narrative to shape your theology. As James Jordan observes: “The division of the Bible into “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is merely for convenience, for the Scriptures are one narrative from beginning to end.” It is important to note also that this one narrative portrays God as a God of justice who says all vengeance belongs to Him. The modern Marcionites have failed us just as much as SNL has.

Finally, remember that the life of Jesus–especially as we meditate upon it in this Lenten Season–is a life of cross before glory; suffering before resurrection. The Jesus that came out of the grave was first a Jesus that came riding on a donkey as the Prince of Peace. But that same Jesus has promised to come again riding a horse of judgment upon Jerusalem and upon all those who despise His Name.