(This is a narrative non-fiction tribute. You will need 10 minutes to complete this reading)
Hours before Valentine’s Day in 1939, came the birth of a man that would one day stand as an iconic pillar of faith. Admired universally was he; from his esteemed peers, down to the man that possessed a parched soul, desperate and without hope, just needing a few kind words listening 1,000 miles away on the other end of the radio. The latter would describe the beginnings of this great man’s journey of faith. But, as with many a journey, a sojourn (of sorts) would bring his world crashing down before it could barely get going. Let me share with you a small piece of this journey and how it almost never got started:
As a young boy, he had to know the meaning of life, how things worked; wonderful things beyond the physical. As he would tell you, he would ask the metaphysical questions. He wasn’t your everyday boy that wanted to know how to fix an automobile, or maybe take apart a lawnmower. He wanted to know what was real, why we needed it, and how it came into being (as it were). He wasn’t a dreamer. He just wanted to know the “why” behind everything.
For instance, as a wartime child, he wanted to know why his father had to go off and fight the war, while most other kids’ fathers remained at home. It was an important question from his little eyes, as his Dad was merely a picture of a man in uniform from age two to six. He longed for the day he could embrace his father once again.
The young boy from Pittsburgh, PA, now 6, rode with his family to Chicago, where the troops would be returning from a long and arduous conflict over seas in defending liberty on the Homefront. It was just after V.J. Day, 1945. Later on, that young boy would describe that day like this:
“The full implications of their jubilation did not hit me until I stood in a railroad terminal that looked as if it was filled with a million men in uniform, and a lot of weeping women. Then the troop trains came in. In the midst of a multitude of soldiers that looked the same, one of them caught my eye. Fifty feet away, he dropped his duffle bag, dropped to his knees and throw open his arms with a flashing grin on his face. I broke from my mother’s hand and covered the fifty feet in Guinness record time. Dodging servicemen and running around duffle bags, I flew into the arms of my father. The war didn’t matter anymore.”
Once in junior high and high school, this young man tells a story about his youth that is very ordinary and uninspiring. “As a youth,” he would say, ”I had two consuming passions. One was sports and the other was the “why” questions.” The man continued reflecting on that time in his life, and his early days in school, ”From day one I didn’t like school. It is still something of a mystery to me how I ever ended up in an academic vocation. I remember walking to school on Monday’s dreaming about Friday’s…I was a good student, but my heart wasn’t into it. Sports were my passion. Sports made sense to me. I took a sensuous and intellectual pleasure in them.”
Then suddenly, all of that changed when his mother gave him some terrible news. The young man was 16 when he was told that his father had an incurable disease. The doctors could do nothing for him. His mother told the young man he could still play sports, but that he would have to get a job and assume the role as ‘the man of the house’. Different times.
He refused to believe that Dad could not beat this! The doctors must have been wrong, he’d say in frustration. Well, often as frustration does in a young man that is overwhelmed and unsure, he started to act out in anger. Sports did not make sense anymore because they did not have the same level of importance as it did before his father took ill. Bitter and confused at how life was unfolding, he quit sports all together.
He continues: “The last time my father fell I picked him up and carried him to bed, unconscious. Twenty hours later he was dead. No tears from me- no emotion. I “quarterbacked” the funeral arrangements. When we put him in the ground, my soul went under with him. The next year was a year of unrestrained degeneracy. Anger can do a lot of things to a young man. I became the paradigm of the angry young man.”
But everything was about to change.
And this young man, driven by anger, and could not reconcile his feelings for what had transpired…this young man never saw what would come next.
“Sandlot football won me a scholarship to college. Then came radicalizing number two. One week on campus and my life was turned upside down again. The star of the football team called me aside and told me about Jesus. I couldn’t believe this guy. In my eyes ministers were pansies, and “Christian” was a synonym for ‘sissy’.” Nevertheless, this bitter young man read every page of the New Testament with passion and fervor. He described it as a spiritual revolution. For one year, he had a dedicated passion and desire to learn scriptures.
Soon after, he wanted to put his knowledge to the test and engage in dialogue with unbelievers and critics. He believed in the scriptural truths and saw their foundation as rock-solid. “I am awed by the majesty and brilliance, not to mention the power, of the Scriptures.
The man had been transformed through the power of God. The rebirth of a man by the name of Robert Charles Sproul. His colleagues and supporters know him as R. C. And the young man that would pass the time in school went on to become one of the greatest bible scholars of modern times. R. C. Sproul had many gifts and wore many hats. He was an ordained pastor, author, theologian, radio broadcaster, college professor, apologist, and student of the Bible, which R. C. referred to as the inerrant Word Of God.
But I saw R. C. as more unique and attractive than any one title. He was what I refer to as ‘the genuine article’. This is a phrase that others may use. But, coming from my mouth, there could be no higher praise for a man. R. C. had a way about him that could deeply connect with any person from all walks of life. As Ronald Reagan was often deemed “The Great Communicator” in American politics, R. C. was with the Word Of God to the common man.
He had a candidness that was rare. It let the listener or reader inside his heart more than most esteemed theologians. He was a man of the people- but desired that everyone he encountered know of the truth that set him free. But don’t believe me. Listen to the people that were influenced by him. Anyone from an agnostic steel worker in his hometown of Pittsburgh, to world-renowned theologians whom held opposing world views. The reason: his deep-rooted faith and absolute certainty of God’s plan and his purpose within God’s plan. He simply spoke so passionately about it that you could not turn away. You were almost jealous of the gratitude he possessed for what His savior did for him. It was mesmerizing and impactful.
“This was R.C.’s goal: a heart that was stunned and humbled and captivated by the transcendent greatness and purity of God.”, said fellow Pastor and close friend John Piper. “As time went by, I came to realize that the impact of such preaching was owing to R.C.s incomparable combination of allegiances.” Piper went on to say, “…R.C.’s preaching and writing were not artificially concocted to add effect, but strategically chosen to express reality.” In other words, he would keep it real by being underwhelming in his colorful descriptions and simply let the power of the words speak for themselves.
R. C. never left his passion for the Word Of God at home from the time before in which he entered seminary.
He was ordained in the United Presbyterian Church before transferring to the Presbyterian Church in America. Sproul would then bring his theology to the radio through his program “Renewing Your Mind”, and then his ministry Tabletalk Magazine. Then, in 1971, he founded Ligonier Ministries. Authored 90 books and dozens of articles through the years. R. C. Sproul had done it all in terms of ministry within his faith. Then came word on December 14th, 2017, R.C. Sproul, the preacher for every man, had past away. He was 78.
“I think what motivates me to the best of my ability…I can’t get over it, Hank. I can’t get over that God saved me. I can’t sing Amazing Grace without signing it as a biography of my life. And the thing that drives me is my gratitude for what God so graciously did for me.” – R. C. Sproul, with Hank Hannagraf on The Bible Answer Man broadcast in September 2007.
Soon, an outpouring of love and stories of how R. C. Sproul had made an indelible impression on so many. The range of Sproul’s influence was impressive. Preachers, teachers, theologians from the opposite end of the Christian worldview spectrum had nothing but praise for the humble, but deeply devout Sproul. Admirers from many circles of Christianity. They would tell you how R. C. Is the modern father of the Reformed Church. Some may tell you that he was a fervent apologist. Others would tell you how they were influenced by his many books, such as The Holiness Of God, the most notable of all in which he shared about ‘the sovereignty of God’.
In a statement released by Ligonier Ministries, they summed up R. C.’s legacy like this: “Through his teaching ministry, many of us learned that God is bigger than we knew, our sin is more deeply rooted than we imagined, and the grace of God in Jesus Christ is overwhelming.”
Long-time friend and fellow radio broadcaster, Hank Hannagraf of The Bible Answer Man Show, shared how he would spend a day golfing and just hanging out with R. C. and the impressions of the man he knew for so long as both a friend and colleague. “(He’s) had a profound impact on my life! And his legacy continues on…” One of the must touching and heartfelt interviews I’d ever heard from R. C. was on Hank’s show, back in September of 2007. This moment touched me so much that it created a greater sense of commitment than I ever had to this point.
“…And I think about what motivates me to the best of my ability,” R. C. shared on-air that day, “..I can’t get over it, Hank. I can’t get over that God saved me. I can’t sing Amazing Grace without singing it as a biography of my life. And the thing that drives me is my gratitude for what God so graciously did for me, because I didn’t do anything for Him. I had no desire for Him”
R. C. goes on, “He interrupted me in the middle of my paganism and brought me to my knees and forgave every sin I ever committed. And I say I’d crawl over glass to say thank you for that the rest of my days. I just wish I had more years to preach and to teach, because it’s a joy.”
When R. C. Sproul spoke of the story of Christmas, he told his radio listeners of his show, Renewing Your Mind, he never gets tired of it. He lead the sermon with these words, “It’s Christmas Eve. So we might ask the question, ‘why was Jesus born in Bethlehem?’.” From this, you will hear R. C. share passages from the Scriptures that talk about why Jesus’ parents had to journey across the desert, while Mary was nine months pregnant. It was a decree from Caeser. But the journey would fulfill the Old Testament prophets’ words centuries before. Mary & Joseph did what God said and, therefore, they obeyed and began the legendary sojourn to Bethlehem.
R. C. Sproul made a sojourn of his own. Had he not listened, he would have missed out on a life of faith. A series of events going back to his Father’s untimely death lead R. C. on a collision course with discovering the true meaning of life. And then, he proceeded to use that life to impact hundreds of thousands of men and women worldwide for the message that all started with a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, born in a manger, for the purpose of dying for all mankind, that we may have life through Him. The one and only true life. A life that will never end. R. C. Sproul was one of the dozens of leaders that have guided me toward a more meaningful relationship with my savior.
This Christmas, my hope is that you will reflect on the miracle of Christ’s birth from an historical perspective. And when you read Luke Chapter 2, as R. C. did, let it sink in as to how difficult that must have been on Jesus’ parents. And then reflect on why this miracle baby had to be born to die. Then you will begin to feel the magnitude of R. C. Sprouls’ gratitude for what God so graciously did for him; and why he used R. C. Sproul’s life to share that message with us. A life of faith. A life with purpose. A life that will never end. Enjoy eternity, Mr. Sproul.
(Chris Gaines is an author and Editor-In-Chief of Patriot Gaines. He resides in the Cedar Valley of Northern Iowa with his wife, Jennifer, and two kids, Patrick & Megan.)
Photo Sources: Ligonier Ministries, Getty Images
Article Sources: Reason to Believe, R. C. Sproul, Zondervan Books, 1978; Ligonier Ministries; Premier Christianity, Sam Hailes, 12.15.17; John Piper, desiringgod.org, Unashamed Allegiance, 12.14.17