R.C. Sproul: A Life, by Stephen J. Nichols. Wheaton: Crossway, 2021. 371 pages. Hardcover. $34.99. Reviewed by Jason Elzinga.
I became acquainted with R.C. Sproul through the ministry that he founded, Ligonier Ministries. While not agreeing with him in every single area, I have come to appreciate his ability to explain many of the truths of the Reformed faith in a clear and compelling way. Sproul went to glory in 2017 at the age of 78, and this biography by Stephen J. Nichols gives the reader a clear look into R.C.’s life, ministry, and theology. Nichols was well-equipped to write this biography, having served alongside R.C. for many years at both Ligonier Ministries and Reformation Bible College. I greatly appreciated this book and the insight it provided into R.C.’s life—his formative years, his path to the Reformed faith and those God used to influence him on that path, his passion for helping people understand theology, and his responses during times of controversy.
Robert Charles Sproul was born in Pittsburgh in 1939, the second of two children. He was baptized in a Methodist church, but when he was a child his family joined a liberal Presbyterian church that opened in his neighborhood. Church and spiritual things meant little to R.C. while he was growing up; he was much more interested in sports, where he excelled—primarily baseball, basketball, and football—and in Vesta, his classmate whom he had decided in first grade to marry someday.
R.C. adored his father, Robert Cecil Sproul, and was devastated during his high school years when his father had a severe stroke. Robert never fully recovered, and when R.C. was 17 years old, his father died while R.C. sat by his bedside. Decades later, R.C. recalled the incident:
I remember my father’s final words—how can I forget them? But what haunts me are my last words to him….. What did I say that makes me curse my tongue? They were not words of rebellion or shouts of temper; they were words of denial—a refusal to accept my father’s final statement. I simply said, “Don’t say that, Dad.” In his final moments my father tried to leave me with a legacy to live by. He sought to overcome his own agony by encouraging me…. He said, “Son, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”… I had never read the Bible—I had no faith to keep, no race to finish. My father was speaking from a posture of victory. He knew who he was and where he was going. But all I could hear in those words was that he was going to die (32).
After high school R.C. attended Westminster College on an athletic scholarship for basketball and football. During his first semester, an upperclassman football star asked R.C. to join him and another student as they studied and discussed the Bible—something entirely new to R.C. After some discussion, one of the students turned the open Bible to R.C, and R.C. read the second part of Ecclesiastes 11:3: “If the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.” Nichols describes the effect of that verse on R.C.:
It cut R.C. in two. He saw himself as that tree. He saw himself in a state of torpid paralysis, fallen, rotting, and decaying. He left the table and returned to his dorm room. When he entered, he didn’t turn on the light. He just knelt down beside his bed, praying to God, asking God to forgive his sins…now he knew that his true spiritual condition was death. He had considered himself a Christian. He went to church, after all. Now he knew what Christianity was truly about” (39).
Sixty years later, R.C. recollected his conversion with these words: “As I went to my bedroom that night and got on my knees, my experience was one of transcendent forgiveness. And I was overwhelmed by the tender mercy of God, the sweetness of His grace, and the awakening He gave me for my life” (40).
About a year later, R.C. experienced what he called a “second conversion” where the holiness and majesty of God were impressed upon him in a profound way. R.C. summarized it this way: “I had an awakening to the biblical concept of God that changed my whole life after that” (49). Thereafter, the direction of R.C.’s life changed—his former pursuits faded away and his life passion became to “do everything I can to communicate the gospel” to everyone he knew (41).
After graduating from Westminster College, R.C. enrolled in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS), where his theological convictions would change significantly. R.C. entered PTS with a disdain for the doctrines of Calvinism, especially predestination, but by the time he graduated he had come to embrace and love these doctrines. A major influence on R.C. during his time at PTS was Dr. John Gerstner, who stood nearly alone among the faculty members at PTS as a doctrinal conservative. Like Gerstner, R.C. was a distinct minority among his peers, as only a handful of fellow students shared his conservative views. In one of Gerstner’s classes R.C. was introduced to Jonathan Edwards, and R.C. noted later that “studying Edwards led me to be a convinced Calvinist” (63). Through Gerstner’s influence he also became a classical apologist, and these views would mark the ministry and teaching of R.C. Sproul for the rest of his life.
After PTS, R.C. moved to the Netherlands to study for his doctorate under G.C. Berkouwer at the Free University of Amsterdam. Not knowing Dutch, R.C. had to teach himself a new language while reading weighty Dutch philosophy and theology books, a task that proved to be time-consuming and difficult. After moving back to the States, he was ordained into the United Presbyterian Church USA, but rather than taking up a pastorate, he taught theology at several colleges before founding the Ligonier Study Center, which eventually became Ligonier Ministries. R.C. wanted to teach the “common people” about theology, and Ligonier gave him the opportunity to do just that. Ligonier grew from a small, local study center into a worldwide teaching ministry, making use throughout the years of available technology such as cassette tapes, videos, a radio program (Renewing Your Mind), a website (Ligonier.org), and the Ligonier App. In 1974, amid controversy in his denomination over issues such as women in office, R.C. left and joined the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), where he remained a minister in good standing until his death.
In 1997, a small group of families petitioned R.C. to be the pastor of a new church they planned to start in Orlando, FL. Although R.C. was busy with Ligonier, he accepted, and became the first pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel. The church grew rapidly, and R.C. remained a pastor there until his death. R.C.’s method of preaching was primarily to preach through biblical books. In R.C.’s words, “This method of preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible (rather than choosing a new topic each week) has been attested throughout church history as the one approach that ensures believers hear the full counsel of God” (229). In times of discouragement, R.C. reminded himself that “it’s not my job to convict. It’s my job to preach the Word and to trust that God will honor His Word” (230).
R.C. also had a vision for a small, intimate college that would train students in the Reformed classical tradition, and in 2011 he founded Reformation Bible College. He wanted a college to prepare students to know the faith, defend the faith, and contend for the faith as recovered by the Reformers.
Throughout R.C.’s ministry, he was no stranger to conflict and disagreement. One such example was in the area of apologetics—R.C. was convinced the classical (traditional) view was correct, while his acquaintance, Cornelius VanTil, advocated the presuppositional view, a view that claimed certain presuppositions, such as biblical inerrancy, are necessary as a basis for rational thought. Nichols notes that “it does reflect on both R.C. and VanTil that they could be diametrically opposed and yet remain friendly, respectful, and constructive” (149).
R.C. also became involved in the ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) controversy in the 1990s. Some prominent Evangelical and Catholic leaders in the United States had drafted and signed an ecumenical document to promote unity and affirm areas of agreement between the two parties. R.C.’s first reaction to hearing part of the document was this: “That’s a betrayal of the Reformation. Worse than that, that’s a betrayal of the gospel and a betrayal of Christ” (198). What made this issue more difficult, indeed the most difficult and painful time in his life, was that two people R.C. considered friends, J.I. Packer and Chuck Colson, had both signed the ECT document. The controversy would cost those two friendships, but to R.C. too much was at stake to compromise or yield. After much discussion with a broader group that included both advocates and critics of ECT, the two sides “disagreed on all these points but still regarded each other as brothers” (199). R.C. went on to write a book defending the truth of justification by faith alone, as well as being involved with writing and promoting the Cambridge Declaration, an effort to “recover the historic Christian faith” (207). Nichols points out that a fundamental question in the ECT debate was whether the doctrine of justification by faith alone could be compromised for the sake of unity. “Sometimes there is an assumption that those driven by theology are less concerned with unity. That is not true of R.C., Boice, MacArthur, and others who took a stand against ECT. It was not as though one side of ECT was for unity and one side was for division. Each side defined unity differently” (208).
Another theological controversy involving R.C. was centered around the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and the Federal Vision (FV) movements. In 2007 the PCA was debating NPP and FV on the floor of the annual General Assembly. R.C. made a passionate speech on the floor of the Assembly in which he identified the Federal Vision as a denial of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Fide. The PCA would soon rule that the Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul were out of bounds in the denomination.
R.C. spent much of his life trying to teach people the truths of Scripture in a clear, simple way. He is perhaps best known for his emphasis on teaching people about the holiness of God. His book The Holiness of God, written in 1985, impresses this truth upon the reader in a clear and memorable way. R.C. considered The Holiness of God, along with Chosen by God, written a year later, to be his two most important books out of the more than one hundred he authored. In addition to his work as an author, R.C. also spent much time speaking and lecturing, and Ligonier recorded and made available much of R.C.’s teaching in audio and video form. Nichols sums up R.C.’s ambitions and work with these words: “He believed theology is ultimately doxology. To know God is to worship God. He believed God is holy. We are sinful. Jesus Christ is our perfect sacrifice, who clothes us with his righteous robe…. R.C. was passionate about all of the above” (291). A fellow pastor observed: “This was R.C.’s goal: a heart that is stunned and humbled and captivated by the transcendent greatness and purity of God” (293).
Sprinkled throughout the book are several of R.C.’s well known phrases—phrases that, although short, communicate a truth of Scripture in a memorable way. “Right Now Counts Forever” points out that what you and I do now has eternal significance (156). “If God is not sovereign, then God is not God,” and “There is no maverick molecule” stress the importance of maintaining God’s sovereignty over all things (180, 281). “Sin is cosmic treason” points out the seriousness of sin in the sight of a holy God (281).
The book contains seven appendices. Appendix 1 comprises R.C.’s last two sermons, preached at St. Andrew’s just a month before his death. His final sermon, from Hebrews 2:1-4, is entitled “A Great Salvation.” The final words of that sermon are a fitting summary of what R.C. had proclaimed throughout his ministry: “I pray with all my heart that God will awaken each one of us today to the sweetness, the loveliness, the glory of the gospel declared by Christ” (323).
It is apparent throughout the book that Nichols did not want to criticize R.C.—something that is to be expected from a biography written by a friend and colleague. The discerning reader will recognize that even a gifted teacher like R.C. Sproul had feet of clay, and that he had struggles and weaknesses in various areas throughout his life. Nevertheless, the book is highly recommended, and gives the reader a clear insight into the life of a man who is now experiencing the reality of the holiness and glory of the God he served.