When your eyes are opened to the world of theology, you tend to have an unexpected and voracious appetite for reading. That is a problem if you are a young, brand new university student, fresh out of high school, with little to no money. That was me. I worked two jobs, one of them being a late-night shift at a loading dock. After coming back to my dorm room at 2 am, I hit the bed hard, exhausted from lifting heavy cargo. But in the morning, especially after paychecks arrived, I would rush over to a nearby bookstore that carried shelves of theology books.
Prior to that point, I had found an abandoned copy of Calvin’s Institutes (it looked like the dog ate it) outside the cafeteria and devoured it. I had also been given Augustine’s Confession, which was a theological meal in and of itself. But now I had a little money to buy a few books for myself. I quickly learned that walking into a theology bookstore with only twenty some dollars to spend is more of a curse than a blessing. “Which book will be the one that holds me over until the next paycheck?”, I wondered.
R. C. Sproul was first on my list. Around that same time, I had met a girl (now my wife). She was both pretty and godly (the advantage of attending a Christian university!). She started asking me if I had read the authors she was reading in her theology class. Turning red, I coughed up a “no.” I was embarrassed. She went on about how she was really intrigued by this one author named R. C. Sproul because he had really opened her eyes to the doctrine of election. To my shame, I had no idea how to engage some of the deep theological questions she was entertaining. After that, I may have been on a strict budget (or no budget, really), but each week I walked down to that bookstore, bought one of Sproul’s books, and read it in nearly one sitting. Meeting with Sproul like that changed my life.
When we look back on the resurgence of Reformed theology in America over the last sixty to seventy years, names like J. I. Packer, John MacArthur, and John Piper come to mind, and for good reason. Packer reintroduced us to the Puritans, which was essential because they demonstrated that theology is relevant to the Christian life; theology and doxology is a marriage not to tear asunder. John MacArthur was huge because of his week-in, week-out pulpit ministry revived expository preaching, shaming preachers for their lack of expository exegesis. And then there is John Piper, whose passion for the glory of God was (and still is) contagious, placing a big God back at the center. No one captures the affections quite like John.
However, it was R. C. that sat you down at the table to eat a theological feast. Long before theology was “cool,” R. C. was pumping out cassette tapes, tapes in which he dared to be theological. “Can you do that?” some asked. “Won’t you lose the audience,” others questioned. Not R. C. Sproul. Unfazed, he would even use Latin—that’s right, Latin!—to drive doctrines home for churchgoers. Whether it was the holiness of God, the doctrines of grace, or sola fide, R. C. was proof that if we don’t start thinking theologically, our Christianity will be nothing but a balloon full of hot air. And he was proof that it could be done not only in the academy but in the pews.
Previously, I had nearly given up on “Christian books.” I was tired of walking away from Christian living books feeling warm and fuzzy but starving, with an empty stomach. Sproul brought the meat and potatoes back to the dinner table. Taking you by the collar to his dusty chalkboard, Sproul was like a doctor, dissecting the human soul. With a room full of ears listening, he would open you up and gently, but with conviction, put his finger on the problem. Distinctions, distinctions, distinctions—he was theological precise, avoiding fallacies to the right and left. And his ability to present complex theological issues with crystal clarity was unparalleled.
Theological clarity is one major reason R. C. has been so successful. Few can take a knotty, tangled theological or philosophical conundrum and add such clarity that the listener and reader walk away resolved. Honestly, precision and clarity are hard to come by today. There may be countless books published each year, but few of them strive for theological precision and clarity that has for so long been a trademark of Sproul’s ministry at Ligonier. When dealing with biblical truth, clarity is not optional. In fact, I would call it a virtue, and one that should characterize anyone who is a theologian. A wise professor once warned a classroom of students (me included) aspiring to teach one day, “If you cannot be clear in your theology, do everyone a favor and don’t become a theologian.” R. C. never ran that risk, most importantly because there was too much to risk, namely, the character of God and the redemption of his people.
Many years after those trips to the bookstore, I finally got a chance to meet R. C. I remember having a hard time knowing what to say. Words stumbled out of my mouth. Here was a man whom God had used at a pivotal point in my theological journey. I walked away from our conversation praying, really begging God to help me communicate the great truths about him with the type of clarity and precision of R. C.
R. C., we will miss you. You were bold like Luther, with a fire in your belly; you were careful like Calvin, with laser-like precision. But most importantly, you were compassionate like Christ, loving the sheep too much to let them wander away into the theological fog.
We are theologians today because of you. And you, my friend, now have your reward, forever enjoying the one who is “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Soli Deo Gloria
Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including Salvation by Grace, Owen on the Christian Life, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, and Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. Currently he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more at MatthewMBarrett.com.