We grieve today at the news of R. C. Sproul’s departure from this life, while so blessed at the knowledge that he basks in the glory of the Savior he served and loved.
In mourning our loss of this great preacher and church leader, my mind searches back to the early 1990’s, when what is now called the Reformed Resurgence was only an envisioned hope. I was converted to faith in Christ in 1990 under the preaching of R.C.’s close friend, James Montgomery Boice. This meant that I soon was exposed to the live phenomenon of R. C. Sproul in the pulpit in the prime of his vigor. I had never and never will see again such a combination of passion, intellect, and theological courage. Those of us who were swept up into the Reformed faith during those years were blessed with a band of true pulpit heroes: Boice, Eric Alexander, J. I. Packer, John Gerstner, and others. But even in that band of astounding men of vision and gospel power, R. C. Sproul stood out. He was a lion in our midst, and when he roared we lifted up our hearts to God in faith. For so many of us in the generation that followed these prophets, experiencing R. C. first hand at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and then the Ligonier Conference, inserting the much-anticipated tape-of-the-month cassette into our car stereos, and hearing the life-changing audio recording of R.C.’s The Holiness of God impacted us so deeply that we raced forward to lay our own swords at the feet of Christ. God dramatically changed our lives through the voice of R. C. Sproul and we have loved him for it.
I have been one of many who are privileged to have known R. C. personally, though I would not claim to be an intimate. A few remembrances might illuminate the personal charm that accompanied the pulpit brilliance. In late 1997, council members of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals gathered at a hotel in Orlando to draft a response to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement (ECT II). I was present as aide-de-camp to Dr. Boice, being still in seminary and new to the organization. Our first night, Boice thought it appropriate to introduce me and so he started in on a lengthy bio of Rick Phillips. About 10 seconds into it, R. C. interrupted and said, “Jim, is this your guy?” Boice testily replied, “If you don’t mind, R. C., I’d like to continue.” Twenty seconds later, R. C. interjected, “Jim, we don’t really care about any of this. Is Rick your guy?” Boice again brushed aside R. C.’s interruption and continued. Finally, R. C. exclaimed, “Jim, we really don’t want to listen to this. All we want to know is if this is your guy.” Boice replied, “Yes, R. C., he is my guy.” At this, R. C. gave me that impish grin of his and said, “Hi, Ricky. If you’re Jim Boice’s guy then we’re pals!” And so we were, much to my blessing.
For that meeting, Boice and Sproul each brought proposed replies to ECT II and all we did was put them together into a unified document (“An Appeal to Fellow Evangelicals”). Then we held a conference call with the evangelical leaders who had participated in and were promoting the joint accord with Rome. To describe this conversation as alarming and distressing is an understatement, and we went to bed dejected that evangelical scholars could, in our view, so terribly compromise the gospel. The next morning we slumped together in the hotel breakfast area. But R. C. perked up and said, “Boys, we have found a hill to die on! We sing Luther’s hymn, ‘let goods and kindred go,’ and now’s the time to do it!” For a young minister in training, it was an electrifying experience. R. C.’s stalwart leadership in defense of justification through faith alone was one of his great accomplishments, and his clarity of insight and courage of spirit were essential in rallying the gospel cause. Only a few short years after that experience, I had the task of giving R. C. daily reports on the rapid decline of Jim Boice’s health, and we wept together on the phone after I had told him of his best friend’s passage into glory.
These experiences come to mind as I thank the Lord for the life and witness of R. C. Sproul. I might add numerous personal acts of kindness that he and Vesta performed for my wife and me, together with his warmth of heart and humor that made his great ministry so wonderfully human. Because he took hard stands for gospel truth, there have been those who disliked R. C., just as Spurgeon had enemies and critics. But he was a lion in our midst and the call of his voice will resound in our hearts until we are rejoined to this captain and leader in the glories about which we have so joyfully sung here below.
But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
— Richard D. Phillips.