Robert Charles Sproul—called by his parents R. C. Sproul III—was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on February 13, 1939, the second child of Robert Cecil and Mayre Ann Sproul.
An avid Steelers and Pirates fan, sports were a big part of his life. But at the age of 15, R.C. had to drop out of high school athletics in order to help his family make ends meet, as his father, a veteran of World War II, had suffered a series of debilitating strokes. R.C. Sproul II—the most important figure in his son’s life—passed away during R.C.’s senior year of high school. His final words were, “Son, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” R.C., who had watched his father faithfully read the Bible, had never read it himself and did not recognize that this was a quote from the Apostle Paul. He rebuked his father: “Don’t say that!” To his shame, it would be the last thing he ever said to father.
R.C. was reborn in September of 1957 during the first weekend of his first semester at Westminster College, a progressive Presbyterian school an hour north of Pittsburgh. Following freshman orientation, R.C. and his roommate (whom he had played baseball with in school) wanted to leave their dry campus to go to a neighboring town to drink. When they got to the parking lot, R.C. reached his hand in his pocket and realized he was all out of Lucky Strike cigarettes. They returned to the dorm, which housed a cigarette machine.
As he started to put his quarters in the machine, the star of the football team invited them to sit down at a table with him. He began asking them questions. They ended up talking for over an hour about the wisdom of God. What struck R.C. was that for the first time in his life, he was listening to someone who sounded like he knew Jesus personally. The football player quoted Ecclesiastes 11:3 (“Where the tree falls in the forest, there it lies”) and R.C. saw himself as that true: dead, corrupt, and rotting. He returned to his dorm that night and prayed to God for forgiveness. He would later remark that he was probably the only person in church history to be converted through that particular verse.
R.C. was biblically and theologically illiterate. Within the first two weeks of his Christian life, he read through the entire Bible, and was awakened for the first time to the holiness of God, especially through the Old Testament.
In February of 1958, R.C.’s girlfriend, Vesta—whom he met in first grade and had dated on and off since junior high—visited from her college in Ohio. After attending a prayer meeting with R.C., she too committed her life to Christ.
The summer after his junior year at Westminster and Vesta’s graduation from college, R.C. and Vesta were united in marriage on June 11, 1960.
The next year, Vesta worked at the school while R.C. wrote his senior philosophy thesis on “The Existential Implications of Moby Dick” and saw his beloved Pirates win the World Series.
In August of 1961 the Sprouls’ first child, Sherrie, was born, and R.C. enrolled at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which was affiliated with the mainline United Presbyterian Church in the United States (the largest Presbyterian denomination in America at the time).
During seminary, he began taking classes with 47-year-old church history professor John Gerstner (1914–1996), a conservative Calvinist in the progressive school. R.C. was strongly opposed to Reformed theology
I challenged Gerstner in the classroom time after time, making a total pest of myself. I resisted for well over a year. My final surrender came in stages. Painful stages. It started when I began work as a student pastor in a church. I wrote a note to myself that I kept on my desk in a place where I could always see it.
YOU ARE REQUIRED TO BELIEVE, TO PREACH, AND TO TEACH WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS IS TRUE, NOT WHAT YOU WANT THE BIBLE TO SAY IS TRUE.
The note haunted me. My final crisis came in my senior year. I had a three-credit course in the study of Jonathan Edwards. We spent the semester studying Edwards’s most famous book, The Freedom of the Will, under Gerstner’s tutelage. At the same time, I had a Greek exegesis course in the book of Romans. I was the only student in that course, one on one with the New Testament professor. There was nowhere I could hide.
The combination was too much for me. Gerstner, Edwards, the New Testament professor, and above all the apostle Paul, were too formidable a team for me to withstand.
Sproul, the reluctant Calvinst, came to embrace Reformed theology and to view Gerstner as a lifelong theological mentor.
Although R.C. desired to enter pastoral ministry, Gerstner encouraged him to do doctoral work at the Free University of Amsterdam under G.C. Berkouwer (1903–1996), the leading Dutch theologian in the Reformed world. The Sprouls moved to Holland in 1964 to commence R.C.’s program.
But in just his second semester at the university, during the spring of 1965, R.C. was granted a one-year leave of absence to return to the United States, as Vesta was pregnant with her second child and R.C.’s mother was ill. He secured an appointment to teach philosophy at his alma mater, Westminster College, during this hiatus. That summer, on July 1, his mother passed into glory. And on the very same day, Robert Craig Sproul (R.C. Sproul Jr.), their only son, was born. Two weeks later, R.C. was ordained as a minister in the United Presbyterian Church in the USA. (He would join the PCA in 1975.)
Rather than returning to the Netherlands, the Sprouls stayed in the US, where he taught at Gordon College (Massachusetts) and then Conwell School of Theology (Philadelphia). He continued his studies under Berkouwer from a distance and returned in 1969 to take his matriculation exams, which enabled him to receive the “drs.” (doctorandus) degree—equivalent to a masters—which would have enabled him to begin writing a dissertation. But ministry endeavors prevailed, and he never did complete his dissertation and thus did not earn a PhD from Amsterdam. (He would later be granted a PhD from the unaccredited Whitefield Theological Seminary based upon all of his writing for the church.)
From 1969 to 1971, R.C. served as associate minister of theology and evangelism at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. One person influenced by this ministry was Dora Hillman, a 65-year-old widow of an industrial tycoon in Pittsburgh.
In February of 1970, Mrs. Hillman visited R.C. and Vesta in Cincinnati to propose a plan in collaboration with other Christian leaders from the Pittsburgh area: a Christian study and conference center on 52 acres of land an hour east of Pittsburgh in the Ligonier Valley, with R.C. as the primary teaching theologian along with other staff.
The Sprouls accepted this calling and in 1971 moved to the small village of Stahlstown, an hour east of Pittsburgh. The Ligonier Valley Study Center was modeled in part after Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri ministry in Switzerland. Students ate and slept in the Sprouls’ home and the other homes on the complex, while teaching happened both formally and informally throughout the week. A burgeoning audio ministry soon developed, and R.C. began traveling the country giving seminars and conferences.
The mission, passion, and purpose of R.C. Sproul’s life was the same as Ligonier Ministries: “to proclaim the holiness of God in all its fullness to as many people as possible.” He saw his work as a filling a gap between Sunday School and seminary, helping Christian laypeople renew their minds as they learned Christian doctrine, ethics, and apologetics, all in the service of living life coram Deo —before the face of God.
The 1970s saw the beginning of R.C.’s writing career. The first several titles show the range of his teaching and interests: The Symbol: An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (P&R, 1973); The Psychology of Atheism (Bethany, 1974), Discovering the Intimate Marriage (Bethan, 1975), and The Inerrant Word, general editor (Bethany, 1975). He would go on to write or edit over 60 books, including a novel, a biography, and several children’s books.
The inerrancy volume grew out of a conference on the Inspiration and Authority of Scripture, hosted at Ligonier in the fall of 1973, with more than 100 guests. Speakers at the conference included John Gerstner, J. I. Packer, John Frame, and Clark Pinnock. R.C. penned the Ligonier Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which was further refined and developed, culminating in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
On May 6, 1977, he Ligonier Valley Study Center launched a monthly newsletter, called Tabletalk after the informal teaching time of Martin Luther. The newsletter eventually became a magazine, with an estimated readership of a quarter of a million people across 50 countries.
In 1984, the Ligonier Valley Study Center was renamed Ligonier Ministries and relocated to Orlando, Florida. R.C., who taught four months out of the year at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, became the first academic dean at the RTS Orlando campus, which began in 1989.
in 1985, Tyndale House Publishers in Wheaton, Illinois, published The Holiness of God, which may be his most important book.
In 1986, Tyndale published Chosen by God, which argued the case for a Calvinstic understanding of divine predestination.
He would later say that if someone was going to read anything by him, he would recommend these two books.
My biggest concern in writing all of the books that I’ve written is to help people understand who God is and who we are.
Those two books, I think, first of all point out the transcendent majesty of God, and second, the sovereignty of God.
Those two ideas so inform our whole understanding of God, of Christ, of ourselves, and of the whole gamut of Christian thought that it is the foundational material that I use to introduce people to these things.
One of the great distinctions of R.C.’s teaching style was his use of a chalkboard, even when technology had advanced far beyond this classroom tool. It enabled laypeople to feel as if they were in a classroom by Professor Sproul, who refused to talk down to them, peppering his lectures with Latin phrases, but doing so in such an engaging way that listeners were more likely to lean in than to tune out. A master pedagogue, he combined an earnest seriousness with an evident joy over the material and the act of convincing his audience to follow his line of argument. He often had a gleam in his eye, anticipating the “aha” moment when it all came together. He gave the impression that while he was deadly serious about the subject matter under consideration, he never took himself too seriously.
He once talked about his teaching style with Tim Challies:
When we talk about teaching style, I guess some people think about a carefully choreographed style for communication. I’ve never done that. My teaching style is just an expression of who I am. My concern is always to get my message across. The idea of walking around and using a blackboard started in my teaching of philosophy and Bible as a professor in a college.
I made ample use of the blackboard and chalk, and even to this day, I much prefer them over whiteboards and felt pens. I just like the dynamic of chalkboards. You can erase them easily, and there’s action involved.
I remember once I was lecturing in the college and my mind went blank—because I didn’t use notes, or very few notes in those lectures—and I didn’t know where I was. So I turned around and walked over to the blackboard—at that point, it was blank—and I took the chalk and wrote a long line and then put an exclamation point at the end of it.
I turned around and said to the class, “Do you know what that means?” And they looked at me with dumbfounded bewilderment. I said: “Let me tell you what it means. It means I forgot where I was, and I had to do something, so I just wrote this line on the blackboard. But now I remember, so we can continue.”
The daily radio program Renewing Your Mind first aired in 1994.
That same year, the ecumenical statement “Evangelical and Catholics Together” was unveiled, featuring not only Roman Catholic leaders like Avery Dulles and Richard John Neuhaus, but also friends of Sproul like Chuck Colson and J. I. Packer. R.C. saw the document as a compromise of the Gospel, undermining the essential truths of imputed righteousness through faith alone.
In 1995, R.C. served as the general editor of the New Geneva Study Bible (now revised and published as The Reformation Study Bible), after seven years of labor with over fifty biblical scholars.
In 1997, the new, small congregation of Saint Andrew’s Chapel called R.C. to serve as their senior minister of preaching and teaching. He later became the co-pastor with the appointment of Burk Parsons. The church sought to remain steadfast in the Reformed tradition but without the influence of denominational governance, though their pastors are ordained in the PCA. From their initial meetings within the recording studio at Ligonier, to a local movie theatre, they finally established their first sanctuary in 2001.
R.C. called this preaching ministry “the highlight of my life.” The great regret of his life was that he waited until he was 58 years old to proclaim God’s Word from the pulpit week in and week out.
In 2011, Ligonier launched Reformation Bible College, seeking to redefine what a Bible college can be by combining Reformed theology and piety with an academically rigorous curriculum.
On December 14, 2017, R.C. Sproul entered into the joy of his Lord and Savior, following complications from emphysema. He was 78 years old.
Because he preached the whole counsel of God and had a heart to equip God’s people to live before the face of a holy God, he had often taught on suffering and death over his five decades of ministry.
He once candidly admitted his fears when it came to dying:
I recently heard a young Christian remark, “I have no fear of dying.” When I heard this comment I thought to myself, “I wish I could say that.”
I am not afraid of death. I believe that death for the Christian is a glorious transition to heaven. I am not afraid of going to heaven. It’s the process that frightens me. I don’t know by what means I will die. It may be via a process of suffering, and that frightens me.
I know that even this shouldn’t frighten me. There are lots of things that frighten me that I shouldn’t let frighten me. The Scripture declares that perfect love casts out fear. But love is still imperfect, and fear hangs around.
He wrote about what it would be like to be in heaven and identified with Christ:
You can grieve for me the week before I die, if I’m scared and hurting, but when I gasp that last fleeting breath and my immortal soul flees to heaven, I’m going to be jumping over fire hydrants down the golden streets, and my biggest concern, if I have any, will be my wife back here grieving.
When I die, I will be identified with Christ’s exaltation. But right now, I’m identified with His affliction.
And in an article entitled “Death Does Not Have the Last Word,” he wrote:
When we close our eyes in death, we do not cease to be alive; rather, we experience a continuation of personal consciousness.
No person is more conscious, more aware, and more alert than when he passes through the veil from this world into the next.
Far from falling asleep, we are awakened to glory in all of its significance.
For the believer, death does not have the last word. Death has surrendered to the conquering power of the One who was resurrected as the firstborn of many brethren.
A businessman once asked R.C. Sproul, “What’s the big idea of the Christian life?” He answered:
The big idea of the Christian life is coram Deo. Coram Deo captures the essence of the Christian life. . . .
This phrase literally refers to something that takes place in the presence of, or before the face of, God.
To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God.
R.C. Sproul: coram Deo.
For further reading:
- Chris Larson, “Dr. R.C. Sproul, Called Home to the Lord“
- Stephen Nichols, “Remembering R.C. Sproul, 1939–2017“
- W. Robert Godfrey, “A Letter from the Chairman of Ligonier Ministries“
- Matt Smethurst, 40 Quotes from R.C. Sproul (1939–2017)
- Burk Parsons, “R.C. Sproul: A Man Called by God“
- Jack Rowley, “The Ligonier Valley Study Center Early Years“
- John Piper, “Unashamed Allegiance: A Tribute to R.C. Sproul (1939–2017)“
- Sinclair Ferguson, “Have You Heard of R.C. Sproul?“
- Albert Mohler, “A Bright and Burning Light: Robert Charles Sproul, February 13, 1939––December 14, 2017”
- John MacArthur, “A Tribute to My Friend“
- Michael Horton, “R.C. Sproul: In Memoriam“
- Ligon Duncan, “God’s Man, for God’s Work: A Tribute to R.C. Sproul (1939–2017)“
- Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, “Remembering R.C. Sproul” (audio)
- Jared Wilson, “The Numinous and R.C. Sproul“
- Scott Swain, “In Memoriam: R. C. Sproul, Preacher and Teacher of a Thrice-Holy God“
- Rick Phillips, “Lion in Our Midst: A Eulogy for R.C. Sproul“
- Nicholas T. Batzig, “A Tribute to R.C. Sproul“.
- Tim Challies, “Next Time: A Tribute to R.C. Sproul“
- Stephen Nichols, “The Launch of Ligonier’s ‘Tabletalk’ Magazine: 40 Years Later“
- Stephen Nichols, “The Chicago Statement: An Interview with R.C. Sproul“
- Mark Dever, “Life and Apologetics with R.C. Sproul“
- Mark Dever: “Theology and Books with R.C. Sproul“
An earlier version of this article appeared at the Between Two Worlds blog by Justin Taylor.