A prince has fallen in Israel.
The death of Dr. R.C. Sproul was not wholly unexpected. His declining health in recent years helped to prepare us for his passing. Watching him decline, we sometimes allowed ourselves to ponder what life without R.C. would be like. It always proved a contemplation too painful to consider for any length of time. But now that it has happened, we prove once more that gospel certainty far outweighs the transient pain of loss. With a conviction that rises to full assurance, we believe R.C. is in heaven—that blessed place promised to the dying thief on the cross when Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). He is there because he was a sinner who placed his faith in Jesus Christ alone (and we can hear him even now insisting upon the word alone). Faith alone, in Christ alone—apart from works. Can’t you hear him saying it? How he loved these Reformation solas! He ran the race and finished the course. He endured to the end. And as he passed from this world to the nearer presence of the Lord Jesus, there was laid up for him the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, awarded to him on that day, and not only to him but also to all who have loved Jesus’ appearing (cf. 2 Tim. 4:8).
Like so many others, my first acquaintance with Dr. R.C. Sproul (in the mid-1980s) was through reading two of his most well-known books, The Holiness of God and Chosen by God. The impact of these books was immediate and lasting. Here was a scholar-preacher, or preacher-scholar, touched with a gift for communication that exceeded the ordinary. More importantly, here was someone who understood what was central to the Scriptures and who desired to communicate it with passion. Here was someone who had studied philosophy and could handle and dismantle worldviews without pausing for breath.
Imagine my surprise, then, when—I believe it was 2004—I was asked to speak at a regional Ligonier conference in Seattle, and that Dr. Sproul would also be present. I have to confess, by way of recollection, to being a little nervous. Ligonier Ministries had grown to be a worldwide ministry, and Dr. Sproul’s reputation as a theologian, apologist, and leader in the evangelical-Reformed community was second to none. The only other encounter that I can compare this to was meeting Dr. J.I. Packer in his office at Trinity College, Bristol (England), in 1974.
What I encountered that weekend was a warm, gracious, hospitable, and generous man. He asked about my family and my interests and complimented me on the paucity of what I had said in the conference. And, at the heart of the conversation emerged a mutual love of dogs—large dogs. The bond was immediate. These four-legged creatures stole our hearts, and it was clear that R.C. had an affection for the canine species that I fully understood. At the time, I had acquired my son’s dog, Jake, and every time I saw R.C. thereafter, he would ask, “How’s Jake?” and then we would proceed to ask (and answer in the affirmative) if there would be dogs in heaven. Of course, we would modify the question a little to reflect the new heavens and new earth (after the second coming rather than the intermediate state). And we both felt that our Father in heaven loved His creation more than we did and would not want it to be wasted by annihilation.
My first encounter with R.C. was a discussion about the book of Job. This lengthy and somewhat difficult book of the Old Testament canon took hold of me early in my ministry, and I have made it something of an obsession. What is the purpose of suffering? The personal questions that so often arise in the wake of “innocent suffering”—Why? Why me? Why now? Why so severe? The very last time I heard R.C. speak publicly, at a Ligonier conference in Orlando, he was asked whether he feared death. We held our breath as he began to answer. “No!” he said with absolute conviction. “I know that I will be with Jesus when I die,” he continued. And then he paused and dropped his guard, and suddenly we knew we were listening to a man who had thought about this issue a great deal. “But I do fear dying,” he added. And we all knew what he meant. The gospel assured him (and us) that Christians will be “with the Lord” at the moment of death (2 Cor. 5:8). Immediately, our souls (our conscious, rational, feeling selves) will be in God’s presence. What a joy that is to contemplate.
But dying is another matter. And it was something he said in his response that stays with me. “We are called to suffer,” he said. He was thinking of passages in Scripture such as this one: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
There is always a reason for suffering, even if we cannot immediately comprehend it. More especially, the purposes of God in suffering are designed specifically for each individual. God treated Job severely because He wanted Job to be more useful for Him. After all, we still talk about Job—and study his life. Those whom God intends to use most significantly, He often treats with particular care. The training for those who are to be placed in the front line of battle is all the more intensive and painstaking. And God used R.C.’s suffering for a public display of discipleship at its best. We watched him endure to the end.
Trials are dangerous times. Not everyone is humbled by testing. Job said things that he ought never to have said. He discredited God’s justice (Job 40:8). He spoke words “without knowledge” (Job 38:2). Trials, as the book of Hebrews reminds us, can sometimes embitter (Heb. 12:15). Trials do not contain within themselves the guarantee of spiritual benefit. Our response to them is crucial. Watchfulness and prayer are the keys to ensuring a good outcome. Of the three crosses at Calvary, one atoned, another sanctified, and, just as surely, the third hardened. Nor was Job’s good response initially a guarantee against future lapses. Some sins take time to root. Constant vigilance is required.
And it is here that R.C. left his greatest legacy as we publicly watched his weakening body decline. He showed us Christ where it matters most.
I have very specific memories of R.C., especially those involving dinners in Italian restaurants with his wife, Vesta, whom he simply adored. He would range over the latest theological squabble and pronounce a verdict. He loved theology. He loved distinctions within theology. He was unashamed to call himself a Calvinist. Like B.B. Warfield, he viewed Calvinism as the purest expression of the gospel. He had little time for frivolous novelty in theology. He believed that in order to understand the present, we need to understand the past. And one of his greatest strengths—often the mark of genius—was his recall. Books he had read half a century ago he could recollect in detail and cite accurately. But he was also generous with his time and intellect. He always asked about my wife and children.
We—I—will miss him sorely. But he has left a legacy that is sure to endure for generations to come. Though dead, he still speaks. We will continue to hear his unmistakable voice and profit from his many, many books, writings, and messages. And those of us who knew him personally will thank God and say with affection that we are better for having known him as a friend and mentor.