Book Review: R. C. Sproul: A Life (Stephen Nichols)

Buy Now: Show Me Your Glory (Steven J. Lawson)

Book Review by Bill Muehlenberg

Bill Muehlenberg operates the website CultureWatch, devoted to exploring the major cultural, social and political issues of the day.

This book review was originally posted on the CultureWatch website.

This brand-new biography of Sproul is a must read:

R. C. Sproul, who passed away late in 2017, was known and loved by millions of Christians worldwide. The Reformed pastor, teacher and author was so very influential in training and encouraging Christians not just in America but across the nations.

Those who know a bit about his life and work as revealed in his many books (he wrote well over 100 – I own almost half of them), will find many familiar stories and anecdotes here, such as those from his times as a university student or a lecturer, but this is the first detailed and full-length treatment of his life, amounting to some 350 pages.

It is always so pleasing to read about someone that so many of us have ‘known’ for so long – at least through his books, teaching videos, and so on. Nichols, who has written a number of volumes, including a biography on J. Gresham Machen, is well qualified to pen this volume, having also worked with Ligonier Ministries for the past decade or so.

So here we have the story of this great Christian thinker, educator, and author. And he really was a master at his craft. As Nichols says in his prologue: “R. C. was a communicator. He not only knew what to say; he knew how to say it. . . . R. C. had always told his homiletics students: ‘Find the drama in the text. Then preach the drama’.”

And to what end was all this work and activity? “The zeal to proclaim the holiness of God and the gospel of Christ propelled him to devote his life to teaching, to preaching, to traveling, to writing. It kept him going even into his late seventies and despite the toll all the miles had taken. He prayed and labored for an awakening.”

We learn of his conversion while a freshman in college, based on – of all things – the reading of Ecclesiastes 11:3. Soon after that he read through the entire Bible in a few weeks. It captivated him, and early on he knew that his life was meant to involve knowing God and teaching biblical truth. His love of theology and apologetics led him to major in philosophy at college.

We learn of his ‘second conversion’ where he became so impressed with a biblical theme that would be with him all his life: the majesty and holiness of God. Passages like Isaiah 6 were to forever shake him, keeping him focused on a holy God who seeks to redeem unholy sinners. That was the message he had to share. As Sproul said: “I owe every human being I know to do everything I can to communicate the gospel to them.”

We learn of his eventual embracing of Reformed theology, especially under the tutelage of Dr John Gerstner and his study of Jonathan Edwards. His theological mentors were people like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Turretin, Edwards, Hodge, Warfield, and Machen. He spent a year studying in Holland under G. C. Berkouwer at the Free University in Amsterdam, founded by Abraham Kuyper.

Says Nichols, “R. C. was a passionate theologian. For R. C., theology not simply permeated and captivated the mind, but it also permeated the affections. When R. C. spoke of knowing God and of being transformed and renewed, he meant more than an intellectual exercise. Theology captivates and permeates the whole person – heart, soul, mind, and strength.”

And his real passion was to teach and train lay people in the churches, not just in the academy. While he did plenty of the latter, his real love was to share biblical truth with ordinary Christians. That was something he did all his life, whether from the pulpit or in the classroom. “R. C. loved theology, and he did not want it to be an exclusive club. He wanted the laity to be part of the discussion.”

The Ligonier Valley Study Center, which began in 1971 in Pennsylvania, and then moved to Florida, was a crucial part of all this. Sproul saw it “as bridging the gap – the gap between the Sunday School and seminary.” Ligonier Ministries was in part modelled after the L’Abri ministry of Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland. However, he sought more to reach non-Christians, while Sproul mainly sought to influence and train Christians.

Those familiar with contemporary North American Protestantism, especially American evangelicalism, will recognise most of the people mentioned in this book – folks like Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, Chuck Colson, J. I. Packer, Bill Bright, James Montgomery Boice, Roger Nicole, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, John Piper, and Joni Eareckson Tada.

And they will know of things like the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy; the fallout with his close friends Packer and Colson over the 1994 Catholics and Protestants Together initiative (“he described the whole affair as the most difficult time in his life”); and the New Perspective on Paul championed by N. T. Wright and others.

The holiness and sovereignty of God would always be among his main emphases. That of course comes out in some of his most important works, such as The Holiness of God (1985) and Chosen By God (1986). Says Nichols, “The holiness of God was central to R. C. The doctrine that gripped him began with a personal experience, but it was nurtured and fostered by a lifetime of study and pursuit.” And again: “R. C. aimed all of his efforts at a single vocation orbiting a single topic: teaching people who God is.”  

As mentioned, those familiar with Sproul’s writing and teaching will find much here that is already well known. And one may find here a bit more on his thought, his beliefs, and his theology than on the actual person. One thing I did learn – and was glad to learn – has to do with his helpful 1990 book on abortion. Says Nichols: “R. C. was truly saddened that this book did not sell well. He was sad not for selfish reasons but because he found that so few in the church wanted to talk about the heinous sin of abortion.”

One thing might be said of this biography: No faults or weaknesses of Sproul are mentioned in it, and the sad fall of his son from his leadership position gets only one brief, fleeting paragraph. Perhaps future biographies will offer more of a ‘warts and all’ approach, as I am sure Sproul would be the first to admit to his various failings and shortcomings.

But we get a good overall picture of the man and his ministry, and some of his consuming passions. As Nichols makes clear throughout, the holiness of God was always at the heart of his thoughts, his message, and his life. Let me close with three more quotes on this:

“R. C. said, ‘The greatest theologians in history were pastors.’ He named his usual suspects—Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Edwards—adding, ‘These were the great geniuses of the theological world. They were all pastors. . . . When I was studying them, I realized they were all world-class scholars, but they were also battlefield theologians. They took their message to the people.”

“He believed theology is for life. 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 in His righteous robe. He believed all the above, and R. C. was passionate about all the above. That is the sum of his life’s ambitions and work.”

“The goal of his teaching was that people would understand the Bible better and, consequently, have a better knowledge of who God is. That was the goal of all his books, that ultimately by reading them – whether the subject was theology, apologetics, biblical studies, or the Christian life – people would come away with a better and deeper understanding of God’s Word and a more intense passion for it and a desire to obey it.”

Those are some pretty tremendous aims that he had. One need not be a 5-point Calvinist – or even a 3 ½ pointer! – to greatly appreciate this man and to give thanks to God for his incredible life of service to the church. He certainly has left his mark.