The impact of R.C. Sproul on my life and ministry is owing to an incomparable combination of his unashamed allegiance to the absolute sovereignty and centrality of God, his total devotion to the inerrancy and radical relevance of the Christian Scriptures, his serious and rigorous attention to the actual text of Scripture in shaping his views, and his jolting formulations of biblical truth in relation to contemporary reality.
Let me illustrate. I can remember the very room in which I was standing when this incomparable combination landed on me for the first time. It was a back room of our house, listening to a cassette tape on a Walkman, while doing some chores. The text that R.C. was preaching on was Luke 13:1–5.
I had chosen to listen to it because I was struck by the title of the message printed on the cassette: “The Misplaced Locus of Amazement” (re-preached in recent years as “The Locus of Astonishment”). I had no idea what he meant. Even when I thought about the content of Luke 13:1–5, I didn’t have the wisdom to discern what he would be getting at. Then I began to listen. And as so often happens in listening to his expository messages, I was riveted.
Our Misplaced Amazement
Some people had come to Jesus and confronted him with the horror that Pilate had slaughtered some Galileans and mingled their blood with their own sacrifices. Interestingly, those who came to Jesus didn’t ask any questions. They simply expressed amazement. But inside their amazement was a question: What horrible sin had these Galileans committed that brought down such a judgment?
“This was R.C.’s goal: a heart stunned and humbled by the transcendent greatness and purity of God.”
Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2–3). And to make sure they knew he saw such horrors in the world, he added this: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4–5).
Then R.C. made a devastating — jolting — observation. He said that these crowds, who were so amazed that some people had been judged for their sin, had put their amazement entirely in the wrong place — “a misplaced locus of amazement.” They were amazed that something horrible had happened to a few Galileans. What they should have been amazed at was that something equally horrible hasn’t happened to everybody in Jerusalem — indeed, R.C. added, everybody in the world.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2–3)
The meaning of these calamities that happened to others is that I should repent. The amazing thing is that I am not now, at this moment, in hell for my sin. Jolting.
As time went by, I came to realize that the impact of such preaching was owing to R.C.’s incomparable combination of allegiances.
First, he had a serious and rigorous attention to the actual text of Scripture. He was not making his points in general, as his sermon floated in a fog above the text. He was reading the text. He was pushing my nose into the clauses. He was showing me what is really there. The shocking realities were real because they were really in the text.
Second, over time, when you heard R.C. do this kind of thing repeatedly, you realized such serious and rigorous attention to the text was owing to his total devotion to the inerrancy and radical relevance of the Scriptures. He didn’t believe that the message of biblical texts was innocuous and unexciting, and therefore in need of artificial verbal boosters to make the thunder crack. Oh no. If you take the text seriously, and you realize this is the very word of God, you may expect that its relevance will be repeatedly shocking.
Third, therefore, the jolting formulations of biblical truth that were sprinkled so liberally through R.C.’s preaching and writing were not artificially concocted to add effect, but strategically chosen to express reality. And he would say that the jolting expressions, if anything, fall short of, rather than exaggerate, the reality of the text.
Fourth, emerging from the exegesis, and rising in my heart, was an unashamed allegiance to the absolute sovereignty of God to show mercy or to judge according to his infinite wisdom. This was R.C.’s goal: a heart that is stunned and humbled and captivated by the transcendent greatness and purity of God.
Holy God, Humble Man
Consider one other illustration of this kind of jolting exposition. King David decided to bring the ark of God from Kiriath-jearim to the city of David. But contrary to the law of God, it was carried on an ox-drawn cart, not on poles by the priests (Numbers 4:15). The oxen stumbled, the ark tipped, Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark, and God struck him dead (1 Chronicles 13:10).
“If you take the Bible seriously, you may expect that its relevance will be repeatedly shocking.”
R.C. suggested that the issue here was deeper than a failure to follow Mosaic stipulations. It was a failure to see the depth of human defilement. Why, he asked, should Uzzah presume that his hands were cleaner than the soil on which the ark was about to fall? Soil is only ceremonially unclean. The hands of sinful men are morally and spiritually unclean — a vastly more serious uncleanness.
To the objection that this seems harsh, R.C. answered that there are, according to Jewish tradition, 23 breaches of the law that receive capital punishment in the Mosaic law. This is an absolutely astonishing and merciful limitation on God’s part since, at the beginning of human history, all sins were punishable by death!
Again and again, I heard him draw out such jolting observations from Scripture — all of it in the service of magnifying the holiness of God, and the humility of man. I marveled. The effect was to make me want to handle the Bible with blood-earnestness, to submit to it absolutely, to preach it faithfully, and to unashamedly herald the greatness of God’s sovereign grace.
For me, it was this faithfulness to biblical texts, and this high view of God’s sovereignty and holiness, that made R.C.’s fight for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness so credible and compelling. The bigger and more central and more sovereign and more holy God is in our eyes, the more clearly we see our desperate need for justification by faith alone.
Someday, when the official biography is written, and the best studies of his life and ministry are done, there will, I believe, emerge a remarkably coherent body of truth and devotion. He never allowed himself to go down marginally important rabbit trails (excluding aberrations like a devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers!). He stayed close to the great doctrines of Scripture and their profound impact on life and ministry and church and missions. These have been the girders from which he has built a coherent, God-centered worldview.
“I Love the Chair”
I close with one last personal memory that endeared R.C. to me in a special way. He had invited me to Orlando to be part of one of the Ligonier conferences. I was to preach after he had just preached on the meaning of faith. In his message, he pictured a chair on the platform and illustrated that if you trust the chair, you don’t just say so, you sit in it. That is what faith is.
“We must embrace Christ not only as useful in holding us up, but as precious in being our all-satisfying Treasure.”
In the course of my message following his, I ventured to say that there was more to faith than that: that you must love the chair — find the chair beautiful and precious. You must treasure the chair, not just sit in it — not just use it. After the message, I slipped out the back in a hurry to catch my plane home. R.C. had been watching on a monitor in the green room. He grabbed my arm, whispered his thanks, smiled, and said, “I love the chair.”
How easily he might have been miffed. But he was not that kind of man. His smile and his laughter and his affirmation were real and deep. They were not frivolous. We must embrace Christ not only as useful in holding us up, but as precious in being our all-satisfying Treasure.
I love R.C. Sproul. I am sure I owe him more than I can even recall. My reverence for the holiness of God and the truth of his word would not be the same without his influence. I will miss him (for a short while).