R.C. Sproul’s Lasting Influence and Profound Wisdom: A Grove City College Tribute

Editor’s note: On December 14, Christian theologian and founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries R.C. Sproul went home to be with the Lord at the age of 78. Throughout his decades of service, Sproul impacted thousands of lives through his teaching. His influence spread across the globe and had a lasting imprint on the campus of Grove City College. To pay tribute, The Center for Vision & Values asked some current and retired Grove City College faculty and administrators to reflect upon the life of R.C. Sproul.

The first of R.C. Sproul’s books that I read was Knowing Scripture, which is still one of the best short books on biblical interpretation. Following that book, I then read the Holiness of God, which taught that we cannot be like God: God is distinct from His creation, including all of us, His creatures. His majesty is so great that we cannot hope to grasp it. I taught R.C.’s Into the Sanctuary, which, for me, reestablished the importance of worship in our Christian life and how it must be done according to the Scriptures. In the mid-1990s, I had the pleasure of hosting a conference on Market Economics and Religious Faith at Grove City College. Dr. Sproul spoke to the group and interacted with the participants, who were pastors, priests, seminary professors, and seminarians. His talk for that seminar, titled, “The Law and the ‘Profits,'” has now been reissued by the Center for Vision & Values. It makes us consider the relationship between the material world of economics and Christian teaching.

Sproul, like many of my colleagues, had a strong and lasting influence on my view of God, worship, and economic policy.

—John A. Sparks, Retired Dean of Arts & Letters, GCC

I took two two-week courses with Sproul at the Ligonier Valley Study Center when I worked with the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a campus ministry centered in Pittsburgh, from 1972 to 1974. Sproul was the consummate teacher—he delivered great content in an engaging, thought-provoking, humorous way. His courses at Ligonier and his books helped to significantly shape the development of the CCO during its first decade. His ministry through the Ligonier Valley Study Center, numerous books on theological topics, and many addresses at conferences has had a huge impact.

—Gary S. Smith, Retired Chair of the History Department, GCC

I grieve over losing Sproul. Huge impact on my life, huge. Francis Schaeffer (who also had a Grove City connection), J.I. Packer, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, R.C. Sproul.

He was magnificent, one-of-kind. I praise God for his life.

R.C. and his wife Vesta were childhood sweethearts; they were an “item” since they met while Sproul was in the first grade. He married her before he graduated college (Westminster College, right up the road from us in Grove City, in the town of Volant, PA), and they were married for 57 years. Can you imagine? I really feel for her in this, she lost the man who has been her best friend since she was seven years old. Wow.

R. C. and Vesta on their wedding day in 1960, from the official Sproul site. He was 21.

On a lighter note, here is a funny story that offers a real insight into R.C.’s personality:

Back in the 1970s it was clear to many conservative Protestants that many evangelical scholars were rushing into cultural accommodation, and to do so they were playing fast and loose with the bedrock doctrines of biblical inerrancy and authority. Many were doing so while teaching or serving in evangelical institutions with required statements of faith which they were, effectively, violating. Meanwhile though, they would maintain all these fundamentalist behavioral standards—no cards, no smoking, no alcohol, etc. So, their theological drift was hidden underneath this veneer of piety.

This concern, and their confrontation of it, ultimately became the base for Francis Schaeffer’s The Great Evangelical Disaster, his final book. In light of today’s defections, to call Schaeffer’s book prophetic is an understatement. But I digress.

In an effort that R. C. Sproul was part of from the start, my old friend Jay Grimstead started pulling together heavy-hitter orthodox evangelical leaders such as Sproul, J. I. Packer, and John Gerstner to confront these liberals and take a united stand for the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. As the effort quickly picked up, including James Montgomery Boice signing on as Chairman of the new International Council of Biblical Inerrancy in 1977, they put together a powerful confessional statement which, if these often-closeted liberals refused to sign it, would place them squarely outside evangelicalism and also outside (for many of them) their own organizations’ faith statements, which they had signed. In the process, of course, the conservatives defended this doctrine and laid out a strong intellectual case for it.  This effort included holding conferences in which the conservatives debated and dialogued with the “progressives.” Some of these were, I believe, private, invitation-only.

However, the interesting thing was that many of these folks giving away the farm on Scripture were cultural fundamentalists. I used to call them “liberals with white-wall haircuts, big Bibles, and wing-tip shoes” when I worked with them in New York City. No alcohol, no smoking, no movies or cards, but at the same time caving on Scripture where it came into conflict with modern trends. R.C. Sproul was, of course, no fundamentalist, and enjoyed good liquor and fine cigars like any self-respecting Presbyterian. He also knew how visceral these liberals were about the “rules” they clung to but they couldn’t admit it; they had to be culturally “cool.”

So, according to Jay Grimstead, on at least one occasion Sproul waited until they were in a packed, windowless seminar room—liberals and conservatives—and then, as the discussion started, he asked quietly, “You gentlemen don’t mind if I smoke, do you?” Of course, the liberals had to say they didn’t mind. At that point, he pulled out the biggest, fattest, heaviest Churchill cigar you can imagine, clipped the end off, and coolly lit it up. They then tried to debate him, pretending the cigar, and the increasingly smoke-saturated room, didn’t bother them. The fact that these bad-boy Churchill cigars take about two hours to smoke added to the drama. It completely threw them off their game, and partly by subtly exposing their contradictory views: to wit, you can’t smoke or drink, but you can claim that the apostle Paul was in error on “X” to placate the feminists, and so on. In other words, the liberals, not the conservatives, were the Pharisees who were “swallowing camels while straining at gnats.”

Sproul was definitely not a dour fundamentalist. He had a wicked sense of humor.

—David Ayers, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, Department of Economics and Sociology; Dean, Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters

My first exposure to R.C. Sproul was on the radio back in the early 2000s. I had an hour commute (one way) to campus out on Long Island, and I would listen to Ravi Zacharias’ “Let My People Think” on Christian radio, followed by Sproul’s Ligonier Ministry radio program. That daily ritual started my gradual movement from “Christian lite” to Reformed faith. I then read Sproul’s Chosen by God, which totally challenged my understanding of salvation and predestination. I read Defending Your Faith as part of my regular apologetics readings. I followed that with The Consequences of Ideas (which is on my WRIT 101 book review reading list here at Grove City College). I then read his What is Reformed Theology, and I was finally convicted and convinced of the basic tenets of Reformed faith. The Reformation Study Bible has been immensely helpful to me, and I use Table Talk Magazine as part of my devotional readings. Now that I live about a 30-minute drive away from Grove City, I have a beautiful commute to campus with just enough time to listen to one of his sermons. I’ve been listening to his sermon series on Mark. Mind blowing.

He will be missed, but we can rejoice in all the Lord has done and continues to do through his faithful servant R.C. Sproul. And, we can be reminded that the Lord always raises up individuals for a season, to address, equip, admonish, encourage, and correct the church universal. God provides us with specific people uniquely gifted to accomplish what the Lord wills within specific historical and cultural contexts. R.C. Sproul has served his Lord valiantly, and now with the many other Gandalfs of this world whom the Lord has sent to accomplish great things, R.C. is in the presence of eternal Mirth:

PIPPIN: I didn’t think it would end this way.

GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.

PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?

GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

PIPPIN: Well, that isn’t so bad.

GANDALF: No. No, it isn’t.

—David S. Hogsette, Ph.D., Writing Program Director and Professor of English
Grove City College

I used R.C. Sproul’s commentary on Romans, which was a collection of sermons he did, as one of the texts for my Romans class at Grove City College the last time I taught it three years ago.

In May 1973 or 1974, I took a two-week course on apologetics taught by Sproul during the May end-session at Gordon Conwell Seminary. Each day my friend and I sat for three hours listening to Sproul and then spent four to five hours going over our notes together. One was never bored listening to Sproul. As I remember it, he went golfing most every afternoon, and had a strong relationship with Arnold Palmer (both lived in the Ligonier, PA area), who he spoke of fondly.

One can praise God for giving him to us for the 78 years that he lived. What an impact he had for the Kingdom!

—Jim Bibza, Ph.D., Professor of Religion Grove City College

R.C. Sproul’s the Holiness of God video series had a profound impact on my spirituality. At the time, I was a young husband, father, elder, and lawyer, and R.C.’s description of Isaiah’s vision transformed the way I thought about God. Up to then, I had been more focused on ideas—good theology and worldview. R.C. opened my eyes to God’s rightful claim on my life. And just this evening (the day of his death), I asked a student, who wasn’t aware of Dr. Sproul’s entrance into glory, what he was going to read during the break. He said, “The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul.”

His legacy continues.

—Paul McNulty, President of Grove City College

Sproul impacted a lot of people, including me, through his teaching ministry. When I was in college, I went to a PCA church that met weekly to watch a Sproul lecture and then discuss it. I also listened to dozens of his lecture tapes while I was driving between Winston-Salem and Durham visiting Betsy (then my fiancée). And I loved his books. He was great at popularizing Reformed theology without being arrogant or a jerk.

Paul C. Kemeny, Ph.D., Assistant Dean, Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Professor of Religion and Humanities Grove City College

I have been an appreciator of R.C. since I first heard him speak during my college days at Covenant College in the mid ‘70s. I had the privilege of hearing him speak several times through the decades, in person and through various media. Something that he said back in 2015 on a panel with some other Christians dealing with the topic of science and faith has resonated with me as much as anything he has said. In dealing with the matter of Natural Revelation, he once posed a question to a group of conservative seminary students who held to the infallibility of Special Revelation: he asked whether they believed that Natural Revelation was infallible. None of them indicated that Natural Revelation was infallible. What they were getting at is that not every scientific theory was compatible with the Word of God. R.C. told them that the same God gave the revelations, and hence Natural Revelation was infallible. The Church’s theology has at times been corrected by a good understanding of Natural Theology, specifically in the case of geocentrism. Even Calvin and Luther believed Copernicus to be a heretic, yet no one today is pleading for geocentricity. The Church can learn from scientists, even non-believing scientists, who study Natural Revelation—especially if the church is ignoring Natural Revelation. However, If something can be shown to be definitively taught in Scripture, without question, and someone presents a scientific theory that claims to contradict the word of God, RC (and I) will stand with the Word of God a hundred times out of a hundred. If scientific theory and theology, interpretations of their respective Revelations are disagreeing it is because one or the other, or both are wrong. Fallible humans can misinterpret either or both of God’s infallible revelations. The catch is that science, a fallible interpretation of Natural Revelation, cannot function AS A CORRECTIVE OF Special Revelation. The same is true of theology: an interpretation of Special Revelation cannot function as a corrective of Natural Revelation.

Losing R.C. is a sad loss for us. One of the finest luminaries of our day has gone to be with the Lord. Thankfully, we have his record of testimony of the goodness, grace, holiness, beauty, and love of God to remind us of the great hope that is within us.

—Jan Dudt, Ph.D., Professor of Biology Grove City College

I used to listen to R.C. every morning on WORD-FM 101.5 Pittsburgh. This was the mid-1990s when I was driving to the University of Pittsburgh campus, where I was in graduate school. I was escaping the clutches of agnosticism and atheism, and R.C. was one of the fine religious minds who helped pull me from the pit. He played a definite role in my coming to the Christian faith. I’ll always remember the distinctive sound of his voice and gruff laugh, which I couldn’t help but spontaneously imitate from time to time. But most of all, I recall one of his talks in which he shared the story of how God’s plan had worked in his own life:

As an undergrad, R.C. had attended Westminster College in Western Pennsylvania (very near us in Grove City). He loved that college in those days. All he wanted at that time was to stay at that college, in that idyllic little town amid farms and trees and Amish country, and spend the rest of his life there as a scholar, a lecturer, a professor. And yet, he was sensing an uncomfortable tug, a call, to go somewhere else, which he resisted and didn’t want to heed. At the same time, he was theologically a firm believer in the sovereignty of God and the certainty that God has a plan to direct our lives. Was this tug part of God’s plan? Was it a true call or merely an emotion, a feeling? Was this God’s will?

Well, R.C. eventually yielded, very reluctantly, to this tug that he initially spurned, that was pulling him from where his heart wanted to stay. He left the Westminster where he had badly wanted to spend the remainder of his life. And in the end, yes, that nudge, that yank, was clearly part of God’s plan, because it worked out for the best. The rest is history. God had a plan for R.C. Sproul, and he fulfilled it uniquely and unforgettably well.

—Paul Kengor, Executive Director, the Center for Vision & Values