The Numinous and R. C. Sproul

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“Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy.”
— R.C. Sproul

We lost another giant yesterday. I suppose we will not know how big a man of God the late R. C. Sproul was for another hundred years, but he seems plenty big today. And he seemed pretty big all along.

Upon hearing of his passing, I began thinking of all the ways my life had intersected with Sproul’s work, and I suspect I could go on counting. I recall as a boy of high school age coming across his preaching on the radio. He did not sound like any of the preachers I had heard before. I did not have the emotional or intellectual capacity to comprehend why at the time, but I was a neurotic kid and pretty fearful, and there was something I could only register as “spiritual” in his tone and topics that resonated. It would be a few more years before I actually pursued in earnest what that something different actually was.

In college as I began wrestling with a lot of my grasp of the Christian faith—determining what I believed on my own as opposed to what I had immaturely inherited and assumed as true from my religious upbringing—a friend who was helping me (primarily in the area of soteriology) recommended Chosen by God. To this day, whenever I talk to men my age who went through the same sort of theological conversion I did, they almost invariably identify Chosen by God as the book that made the difference. I know it did for me. It is still one of the most formative books of my life. And I didn’t stop there.

I am hard pressed to think of another living author at the time whose work I read more of than R. C. Sproul’s. All the Reformed theology stuff. Last Days According to Jesus. Who Is the Holy Spirit? I even latched on to this helpful compilation of (I think) radio call-in show Q&A sessions called Now, That’s a Good Question. I might’ve recommended that book to a hundred people who visited the Christian bookstore where I worked while in college. More recently, I assigned his Getting the Gospel Right to my ministry residents at Liberty Baptist Church.

And then there was The Holiness of God. I read this seminal work for the first time while in college too. Sproul sent me to Rudolf Otto, and I learned about the experience mysterium tremendum, which helped give shape to all of my adolescent “fear and trembling.” The book The Holiness of God seemed to hold the key to unlocking what made Sproul so blessedly different from even the most well-spoken “celebrity preachers.” He was obviously a man who walked in the graciously disturbing orbit of the true numinous.

I re-read The Holiness of God 15 years later with my men in my last pastorate. We all wrestled with it, some of us newly, others of us again. One of our guys was a previously unchurched man who made a profession of faith in our community. Before seeking us out, his only exposure to the Bible was from a radio preacher he’d been listening to. That preacher? R. C. Sproul.

Sproul’s own young testimony in that book of following the late-night draw to his campus chapel and becoming overwhelmed by the sheer weightiness of God seemed to hang over his entire ministry thereafter. As the shadow of the blinding light of Paul’s dramatic gospel hijacking on the road to Damascus falls over all his epistles, as Isaiah’s discombobulation in the temple reverberates throughout his prophecies, has any preacher of R. C. Sproul’s prominence seemed so wondrously weighted by the righteousness of God? (I propose only the two Johns (MacArthur and Piper) come close.)

The cliche “larger than life” could have been invented for R. C. Sproul. And he seemed that way not simply for his towering intellect, his far-reaching influence, and his incredible preaching gift, but also for the way he talked about the holiness of God as a man who had been taken apart and put back together by it. And yet one thing I have learned that the holiness of God does to spiritually in-step souls is that it makes them simultaneously heaven-minded and of earthly good. Has any pastor-theologian of his stature seemed so at once erudite and . . . well, normal? One can just as easily see oneself discussing Cartesian philosophy with R. C. as watching the Steelers game with him. Who else is both a towering intellect and entirely amiable? I can think of no one. (Don’t name any names, because I’ll tell you how socially awkward they actually are.) This is an effect of the holiness of God also.

They don’t make them like this any more. Like Packer before him and the Johns and a handful of others shortly after, he was holding down the fort for gospel-centrality before it was a “thing.” Lots of people act like all this “God-centeredness of God” and “God’s passion for his own glory” stuff is new, perhaps invented by The Gospel Coalition even, while Sproul had been preaching the same thing for almost 50 years. He was country when country wasn’t cool.

We are standing on his shoulders, boys and girls.

A couple of years ago, my friend Steve Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College, invited me to preach in the school’s chapel service. I got to tour the campus of Ligonier and also St. Andrew’s. I did not get to meet Sproul, as was originally planned. It was expected that his poor health at the time would keep him home, but he was well enough at the last minute to travel to Los Angeles for the debut of an orchestral piece he’d written(!), hosted by MacArthur’s Grace Community Church. Steve did give me a tour of Sproul’s study, though. It was as I imagined—big, stately, warm, impressive. Over the desk hung a painting of Melville’s great white whale. I’ve been told that Moby Dick was Sproul’s favorite novel, and it makes sense: the book is intimidating, powerful, and brimming with alternating senses of dread and exhilaration. Has any American novel conveyed the prospect of the numinous like Moby Dick?

The sanctuary at St. Andrew’s, originally designed according to Sproul’s vision, is one of the most beautiful worship spaces I’ve ever set foot in, and the influence of the mysterium tremendum experience emanates from every stone and fixture. The pulpit is like the one in Melville’s masterwork—fit for the prow of a ship. I was in awe.

To the left of the main pulpit was situated a smaller one, more of a lectern really, but one that would serve as a fine enough pulpit in anybody else’s church. This, not the larger, is the pulpit I preached from. I assumed initially this had something to do with a Presbyterian protocol I was not savvy enough to know about. Perhaps only credentialed men got to preach from Sproul’s pulpit. Or maybe it was something as simple as they thought the smaller more befitting the smaller chapel crowd. In any event, I was fairly relieved. I was already intimidated preaching in that massive and massively overwhelming space; preaching from the center pulpit would have flustered me even more. I looked at it like the preaching equivalent of the kids’ table at the family Thanksgiving meal. When I thought back on all this man’s ministry had given me over the last two decades, I really deserved to be under the table altogether. I was glad to be at the kids’ pulpit.

I am grateful for this great man of God, for his legacy of faithfulness and ferociousness in proclaiming the greatness of Christ’s grace and the gravity of his holiness. Now that he has stepped into the numinous space he was so passionate to cast a vision for, let us honor his memory by gladly walking in his shadow.

Really, if we’re being honest with ourselves, compared to R. C. Sproul, all of us are at the kids’ pulpit.

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