I could take you to the exact spot where I first heard R.C.’s name and to the place where we had our first conversation.

Forty years ago, at a conference I was speaking at in Scotland, a friend who had studied in the United States came up to me and asked, “Have you heard of R.C. Sproul? He’s said to be the best communicator of Reformed theology in the world.” I hadn’t, but I was immediately intrigued. What did R.C. stand for? The best communicator of Reformed theology? In the whole world? “This man,” I thought, “I would love to hear!” But for me as a twentysomething, visiting the United States and hearing R.C. seemed to be almost as unlikely as going to the moon. Little did I know. How good and kind God has been to me in the years in between. Not only did both of these unlikely things take place, but in due course, R.C. became to me a dear and esteemed friend and a beloved elder brother in Christ.

Several years were to pass before I heard R.C. speak and then had my first conversation with him and Vesta. It was on the steps of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Fla. We were both speaking at the old Pensacola Theological Institute, held at the McIlwain Memorial Church, in the early 1980s. R.C.’s presence had mightily increased the attendance. A much larger sanctuary had to be rented for the evening meetings at which he was preaching. Meanwhile, the other speakers had to give each of their daily addresses twice in the McIlwain Church. My first memories of his preaching are still with me. His powers of illustration were remarkable; the depth of conviction in his preaching was palpable; his ability to communicate complex philosophical ideas and trends and their effects with clarity was unique; and in addition—a trait I have always admired in his preaching—he never said too much.

Some readers of Tabletalk will remember that in those days, R.C. would sometimes make a point by transforming himself into the TV detective Lieutenant Columbo. He did this superbly well—the only thing missing was the raincoat. He described Columbo as “the greatest American detective.”

In the course of our first conversation, I rather naively offered a different detective for that accolade: “I thought Hiram Holliday was the greatest American detective.” I should explain that Hiram Holliday was a somewhat wimpy-looking newspaper proofreader who despite his appearance was in fact a great man of action with unexpected skills. He was the creation of the author Paul Gallico and had appeared on TV in the United States in the 1950s. A decade or two later, the series was run (in black and white) in the United Kingdom, and I had watched it as a youngster. He was in fact the only American detective I knew. “Hiram who?” R.C. responded in astonishment. Half an hour later, as he rose to speak, he told the crowded sanctuary that he needed to settle a difference of opinion he had with one of the other speakers. He asked the congregation how many of them had ever heard of a detective by the name of Hiram Holliday. My hand went up—and to her credit, so did Vesta’s! But I think we were in a minority of two. Case closed.


His ability to communicate complex philosophical ideas and trends and their effects with clarity was unique.

The following morning, when I was called to answer my first question during the daily speakers’ Q&A session, I decided to take my life in my hands. “Before I respond to the question,” I said, echoing R.C.’s opening words from the previous evening, “I would like to try to settle the dispute that began last night over the identity of the greatest American detective. How many of you know the Christian name of Detective Holliday?” A sea of hands went up. “How many of you, then, know the Christian name of Lieutenant Columbo?” The blank response delighted me. And with victory in my grasp, I went on to the question. As I returned to my seat, R.C. barked affectionately at me, “You were up all night thinking about that?” I think he knew I had been willing to take a risk. Shortly afterward, to my amazement (and pleasure), I received an invitation to speak at a Ligonier conference in Canada with him. And so began a treasured friendship that lasted through four decades of shared conferences and many hours of conversation.

I suppose it was in the Q&A sessions at conferences, and perhaps only there, that most people saw that the men R.C. invited to preach alongside him were not only invited guests but friends and brothers. He led that fellowship of brothers, and we all reveled in it. I certainly feel this for myself. Preaching is demanding and can be very costly. Travel is wearying, and the glamour of long flights and hotel rooms soon grows old. But the compensations, largely hidden from public view, have been for me very substantial indeed—behind-the-scenes times of fellowship, shared concerns for the cause of Christ and for one another, and mutual affection, appreciation, and encouragement.

In more than one letter, John Calvin described times with close friends by writing (perhaps surprisingly), “We had a good laugh.” I could certainly say the same about times with R.C. He was the epitome of the whole-souled Christian. He took even his laughter seriously, and he excelled in it. Indeed, one memorable night when several of us were having dinner together, there was such joyful humor and side-splitting laughter that we had to call Steve Lawson’s brother Mark, a physician, to come over to the restaurant to make sure that R.C. had not seriously injured himself laughing. Perhaps men who can never laugh together are not likely to be able to cry together either. It was not so with R.C.

Many of R.C.’s qualities were obvious. There were the intellectual gifts that enabled him to grasp dense and difficult subjects; the powers of mind and expression that enabled him to articulate them with such clarity; and his sense of the penetration of the world of philosophy into the day-to-day world-and-life views expressed in contemporary culture. But all of these gifts were placed in tribute to God and served his passionate commitment to communicate the truth and power of the biblical gospel to ordinary people, because he understood that how we think shapes how we live. And behind that was the profound impact on his soul of the biblical truth that in so many ways was the melody line of his life’s work—the holiness of God. No one has done more to put the knowledge of the Holy One front and center in the thinking and living of Christians today, and for that I for one am deeply grateful to and for my friend.

He was the epitome of the whole-souled Christian.

But I would like to mention several of R.C.’s special characteristics that perhaps one would need to have known him personally over a number of years to appreciate fully.

The first was that over the decades, I felt I saw him “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Paul urged Timothy to minister in such a way that “all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15). It is one of those hidden statements in the New Testament that is so easily (and perhaps all too readily) overlooked. But I am glad to be able to testify that I saw in R.C. a progress in Christlikeness and in the fruit of the Spirit. He was not only a great communicator; he was a man who had communion with Christ and therefore grew to be more like Him. The fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—were increasingly evident to me as he grew older.

In that context, I tasted one of those fruits in R.C.’s life in a way that reminded me of words written by Augustine in his Confessions. In one of Augustine’s soliloquies, he reflects on Ambrose the great preacher-bishop of Milan (under whose ministry Augustine eventually came to Christ). He notes that Ambrose left an indelible impression on his life. But the reason he gives is illuminating. It was not so much that the bishop was a great teacher (although he was one of the greatest)—for Augustine did not expect at first to discover truth in the church. Rather, he notes, what first impressed him was that Ambrose “was kind” to him. I felt that myself from R.C. And I stumbled on the same grace in his hidden deeds of kindness to others. For example, I was playing golf one day with Edmund Clowney, president of Westminster Theological Seminary (who, humanly speaking, was responsible for bringing me to the United States). “These Ping clubs,” he told me, “were given to me by R.C. Sproul.” R.C. had played with Dr. Clowney on one occasion and told him he would never be able to play decent golf with such bad equipment. And then he gave him a set of top-of-the-line golf clubs.

Another feature that endeared R.C. to me was that he was not only a public stage Christian teacher and apologist but an everyday witness to Christ. One of my favorite stories in this regard comes from a mutual friend who had experienced this firsthand. His initial encounter with R.C. was at the golf club where they both played. R.C. was sitting with a group of men. When the topic of the Christian faith came up, our friend commented that the Bible was a book full of contradictions. R.C. responded wisely, “Oh? Why don’t you look up several them, note them down, and come back and we can talk about them.” That was being wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. Some years later, when our mutual friend told me this story, he was himself leading a regular Bible study on Romans with a considerable number of men.

There is space to mention only one further quality of grace that I saw the Lord work into R.C.’s life over the years. In many ways, I think it took both of us by surprise—so much so that I am not sure which one of us it surprised more. After a lifetime of teaching college and seminary students and providing a library of teaching materials through the Ligonier Study Center and then through Ligonier Ministries, R.C. became a church planter and the pastor of a local church. As the result of a series of providences, Saint Andrew’s Chapel was born and has flourished.

I have never forgotten his telling me years ago how much he loved being a pastor. It was as if he had been given a late Christmas present that turned out to be the best of all those he had received. He flourished in the ups and downs of ordinary congregational life; he rejoiced in growth; he was thrilled to be able to craft a liturgy that gave expression to his long-held passion to find ways of exalting God and exulting in God in worship; and he found the deepest satisfaction in the long-term, week-by-week, consecutive exposition of God’s Word to the eager congregations that he delighted to feed. Blessing for Saint Andrew’s was blessing for R.C. I appreciated and loved him the more for this, that the most fundamental ministry of all for him was serving among people he loved and who knew him not as the world-famous international speaker, theologian, and author that he was to others, but as the undershepherd of the flock of Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep—their own pastor, teacher, and friend.

Many years ago—I cannot now remember when or where—I found myself having dinner with a young Christian couple. The husband was keen to tell me the story of his pilgrimage to the Reformed faith. And then he related a marvelously vivid dream he had one night. In it, he had seen some of the great heroes of the faith coming over a hill toward him, like a mighty army ready to defend the truth and advance the gospel and the cause of Christ. As happens in the strange world of dreams, he was apparently able to recognize some of the great figures of the past, including Augustine and Calvin. And then, at the front of these great theologians, and leading them all toward him, he saw another figure he recognized—but this time from life, not from books. Yes, it was R.C. Sproul. For he was the one who had first introduced him to the wonders of the gospel and the privilege of belonging to the church in every age.

That young man’s experience has been repeated in hundreds, thousands, yes, tens of thousands of lives. Only the last day will make clear what blessings the Lord gave the church through R.C. and how many Christians were first introduced by him to the wonderful world of the story of the church, to the teachers of the ages, and ultimately to the endless riches of God’s Word.

I have been privileged to call R.C. Sproul a friend and father in the faith. I think I can echo Paul’s words and say that his friendship has encouraged me to “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18–19).

R.C. wrote a hymn, “Saints of Zion,” for the bicentenary of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., where both Derek Thomas and I have served as ministers. We sang it especially when our elders greeted new members arrayed at the front of the church. Now I am especially reminded of its penultimate verse and refrain:

The church of God triumphant
Shall in that final day
Have all her sons and daughters
Home from the well-fought fray.

Then come, O saints of Zion
In sweet communion wed
The bride awaits her Glory
Lord Jesus Christ, her Head.

R.C. was never afraid of or shrank from the fray. He fought well, and his faith conquered. Now he beholds the Lord in His glory and is fully like Him. We do not begrudge our friend the fulfilment of his heart’s desire to behold the Holy One. Long ago, by faith, he “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa. 6:1) and pursued “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Now that faith has become sight and he sees the Holy One in all His infinite majesty. Those who loved him best will miss him most; we will all miss him. But we would not keep him back from that vision of God for which he lived and in which he has died. Soli Deo gloria!

Editor’s Note: This post was first published on December 15, 2017.

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