Knowing R. C. Sproul: My favorite books by R. C. and the extent of his influence yesterday and today (Matthew Barrett)
Last week I wrote about R. C. Sproul’s influence upon me as a young Christian, reflecting on how R. C. was pivotal in turning my attention to theological precision. Today I’d like to share with you some of the books by R. C. that I have cherished. I know many of you will resonate, having been touched by any one of these books as well. Yet I also hope that a few young readers new to the world of theology will pick up these books and fall in love with theology through the master communicator himself.
I’ve divided the books into five categories, each of which gives us a better glimpse into the man himself.
R. C. Sproul, the resurgence of Reformed theology, and the defense of Protestantism
If you are being introduced to Reformed theology for the first time, reading John Calvin’s Institutes is a must. However, you will also find yourself eager to understand the issues at stake historically and philosophically as well as theologically. I cannot recommend R. C. to you enough. With precision and clarity, R. C. will walk you through the careful distinctions Reformed theologians find in scripture, helping you wrap your head around the tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom. Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will is indispensable. There R. C. will introduce you to the arguments of Pelagius and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Arminius and Edwards, and many others. This may be my favorite book by Sproul, as he turns to these historical figures to shed light on how we should (and should not) define the freedom of the will.
Equally significant, however, is R. C.’s well known works What is Reformed Theology? and Chosen by God. These are fantastic. The former is more theologically concentrated, not only unpacking the theological rationale behind the doctrines of grace but Reformed theology’s commitment to sola scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, and covenant theology. Chosen by God is a more focused look at unconditional election, one that is winsome and powerfully persuasive. If you had to pick one of Sproul’s books to give to a Christian just introduced to the doctrine of election, this would be it. Putting his arm over your shoulder, R. C. shows you just what is at stake in God’s sovereign decree.
Some have labelled R. C. the Luther of our day. How fitting. Long before there was “young, restless, and Reformed,” there was R. C. Yet R. C. not only devoted his pen to introducing the beauty of the doctrines of grace, but defending sola fide as well, as manifested in books like Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification and Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie that Binds Evangelicals Together. It’s no secret that R. C. took issue with Evangelicals and Catholics Together, at times even pleading with evangelical representatives not to give ground and compromise in their desire to build a bridge with Rome. These two books will give you a thorough grasp as to why R. C. felt sola fide was at stake in such dialogues. R. C.’s most recent treatment of the controversy can also be found in the short book, Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism. I commend these three books to you not least because you will leave each of them understanding the doctrines of justification and imputation with far greater accuracy.
R. C. Sproul’s timely defense of biblical inerrancy
When most talk of R. C., they think of him as a popularizer. There is truth in that statement. However, I fear we may oversimplify the man. We must not forget that the same man who wrote The Holiness of God also spent countless hours contributing his mark to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. R. C. played a critical role in starting, writing, and interpreting the CSI and his contribution will be felt for some time still as debates over inerrancy continue (see this interview with Sproul as to how he helped assemble the men who signed the document). That statement is still, to this day, the statement on inerrancy that academics look to, either to defend or refute. That alone demonstrates that R. C. could very well have devoted his life to the ivory tower, and that would have been a very worthy cause if he had (one can only imagine what that might have looked like).
Nevertheless, R. C. transitioned from academia to his role at Ligonier, communicating the truths of academia to those in the pew. Yet R. C. did not “water down” doctrine in the process. Two great examples are his books Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine and Knowing Scripture. The latter is R. C.’s approach to hermeneutics; the former is R. C.’s attempt to explain, defend, and apply the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Personally, Scripture Alone has been an aid to me, one that I point readers to in my book God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. I especially appreciate Sproul’s logical argument against the view that would assert scripture’s infallibility in its message but not in its totality, while still claiming sola scriptura. Sproul’s argument is a devastating one, as he picks the view apart piece by piece.
R. C. Sproul, theology professor for the Christian life
R. C. was excellent at connecting the dots between doctrine and doxology, theology and the Christian life. The Holiness of God illustrates R. C.’s commitment to bringing the believer before the infinite being of God so that he might live coram Deo. R. C. not only opened our eyes to a big God once more—a task far overdue given modern theology’s domestication of divine transcendence—but he demonstrated why God’s otherness is essential to a biblical understanding of our own finite identity.
R. C. did this in countless other books as well: The Work of Christ, God’s Love, The Mystery of the Holy Spirit, Pleasing God, What’s in the Bible?, The Invisible Hand, Enjoying God, The Last Days According to Jesus, Surprised by Suffering, The Truth of the Cross, etc. While R. C. never wrote a full systematic theology, he did write an introduction called, Everyone’s a Theologian, a book accessible and applicable for every Christian, big or small, as the title itself reveals. (Also consult his 3 volume reader’s guide to the Westminster Confession: The Truths We Confess.)
R. C. Sproul the philosopher and apologist
Listening to R. C.’s lectures, first in cassette tape, then CD, then DVD, and finally online at Ligonier, one might have sensed that R. C. became especially animated when he had the opportunity to put on his philosopher’s hat. R. C. tells the story about his first philosophy class in college, how he hated it at first, sneaking Billy Graham sermons into his textbook during the lectures. Then one lecture, the professor turned to a philosopher by the name of Saint Augustine. You know the rest of the story. From that day forward, R. C. saw the incredible ministerial use of philosophy for theology.
To those struggling to appreciate the deep wells of philosophy, I am in the habit of pointing them to R. C.’s The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mark, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Darwin, Freud—each of these voices is heard and critiqued. This side of R. C. may be the most overlooked talent of the man. It is an accomplishment to be a theologian, but how many theologians can wax just as eloquently in the deep waters of philosophy, let alone communicate the importance of the discipline to the average Joe? R. C. did and it was exciting to watch.
R. C. did not stop with philosophy, but pressed into apologetics as well. Known for his position “Classical Apologetics,” and having written a book by that same title, R. C. gives a lengthy critique of the presuppositional position with the help of John Gerstner and Arthur Lindsley. Grab your popcorn, take a seat, because R. C. and Cornelis Van Til put on the boxing gloves! Yet if you find your head spinning amidst the intricacies of this face-off, you might also want to consult R. C.’s Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics (Crossway). Here we find R. C.’s positive case, more on the offensive than defensive, as well as an integration of his philosophical thought with his apologetical commitments.
R. C. Sproul the family man
Honestly, some of my favorite books by R. C. are not the ones mentioned above, but the ones I’ve read to my children. Without fail, every time I’ve read one of his children’s books to my kids, they are on the edge of their seat.
I recently re-read The Donkey Who Carried a King and The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, and each time my kids, some older, some very young, never lost their interest, always eager to see what would happen on the next page. At the end of each story, R. C. never missed an opportunity to bring home the gospel. That is a testimony to R. C.’s remarkable ability to take grand doctrines and put them in the hands of babes. In my estimation, that is the true proof of a theologian. So sit down with your children by a warm, toasty fireplace, and pick up The Lightlings, The Prince’s Poison Cup, The Knight’s Map, The King Without a Shadow, or The Priest with Dirty Clothes. Your family will love it.
A gift to the church
I don’t know what the total book count is—I’ve heard R. C. wrote as many as 60 books. That does not include the endless number of radio programs and video series R. C. completed in his lifetime, or the innumerable conferences he spoke at (it is always best not just to read R. C. but to listen and watch him; he was a fabulous communicator). Clearly, I have only touched the tip of the iceberg to be sure. But I hope this short survey reveals the diverse talents R. C. possessed and the gift he really was to the church. May the Lord raise up another R. C. to communicate his ineffable glory to a lost world.
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.