Remembering R.C. Sproul, 1939–2017
R.C. Sproul, theologian, pastor, and founder of Ligonier Ministries, died on December 14, 2017, at the age of 78, after being hospitalized due to complications from emphysema. Dr. Sproul is survived by his childhood sweetheart and wife of fifty-seven years, Vesta Ann (Voorhis); their daughter, Sherrie Sproul Dorotiak, and her husband, Dennis; and their son, Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr., and his wife, Lisa. The Sprouls have eleven grandchildren, one granddaughter deceased, and seven great-grandchildren.
R.C. Sproul was a theologian who served the church. He admired the Reformers not only for the content of their message, but for the way they took that message to the people. They were “battlefield theologians,” as he called them. Many first heard of the five solas of the Reformation through R.C. Sproul’s teaching. When R.C. taught about Martin Luther, it was as if he had met the sixteenth-century Reformer. R.C.’s commitment to sola Scriptura led him to play a key role in drafting and advocating for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). He also served as president of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. Because of his commitment to sola fide, justification by faith alone, R.C. took a bold stand of opposition to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) in 1994. He later opposed the New Perspective on Paul and also the Federal Vision view. Like the Reformers, R.C. was willing to take bold stands for the central and essential doctrines of historic orthodox Christianity. He was a defender of the authority of God’s Word and of the gospel.
As a trained philosopher and theologian, R.C. was a major advocate of classical apologetics. He was known for having a strong pro-life position, once remarking that abortion is perhaps the crucial ethical issue of our time. He was, above all, a theologian. He loved the doctrine of God. Through it, he found the gateway to knowing God, adoring God, and worshiping God. The doctrine of God may very well be the hub of the wheel of R.C. Sproul’s work and legacy, evidenced in his classic text, The Holiness of God (1985). As a father and grandfather in the faith, he helped an entire generation encounter the God of the Bible.
A son of Pittsburgh, Robert Charles Sproul was born on February 13, 1939, to Robert Cecil Sproul and Mayre Ann (Yardis) Sproul. On Christmas Eve of 1942, R.C.’s father, who had an accounting firm in downtown Pittsburgh, landed in Casablanca, Morocco, to begin his service in the Army during World War II. R.C. typed his first letters while sitting on his mother’s lap, striking two keys, x’s and o’s, “kisses and hugs,” across the bottom of letters to his father. From elementary school through his high school years, R.C. spent far more time on athletic fields than behind a typewriter. He received an athletic scholarship to Westminster College, north of Pittsburgh. R.C. went to college unconverted, but early in his freshman year he was led to Christ.
By the time R.C. left college, he was not only converted, he also had his “second conversion” to the doctrine of God. He would later write of this experience in the opening pages of The Holiness of God. On June 11, 1960, R.C. married Vesta, his childhood sweetheart. She had just graduated from college and R.C. still had a year to go. He fell in love with her the very first time he saw her, when she was in the second grade and he in the first. It’s nearly always been R.C. and Vesta.
After college, R.C. went to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he came under the mentorship of John Gerstner. R.C. once said, “I would have been lost without Gerstner.” Before he graduated from seminary, R.C. took his first pastorate at a Presbyterian church in Lyndora, Pennsylvania, consisting of blue-collar Hungarian immigrants, nearly all of whom were employees of the Armco Steel Works. After seminary, he pursued doctoral studies under G.C. Berkouwer at the Free University in Amsterdam. He taught himself Dutch as he listened to lectures and read textbooks. In 2016, his daughter, Sherrie, got him a copy of a Perry Mason novel in Dutch, and he enjoyed picking up the language again.
R.C. returned to America after a year in the Netherlands. On July 18, 1965, he was ordained at Pleasant Hills United Presbyterian Church, into the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA). He would later transfer his ministerial credentials to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He then took up a succession of three brief teaching posts at Westminster College (1965–66), Gordon College (1966–68), and Conwell Theological Seminary, located at that time on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia. While at Conwell, he taught a Sunday school class at Oreland Presbyterian Church just outside of Philadelphia. Next, R.C. pastored for two years at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In 1971, R.C. founded the Ligonier Valley Study Center, in Stahlstown in the hills of western Pennsylvania. The ministry moved to Orlando in 1984, from which it has served national and international audiences through publishing, broadcasting, and teaching. While still in the Ligonier Valley, the ministry produced the first edition of Tabletalk in 1977. The daily devotional magazine has a current distribution of 100,000, with an estimated readership of more than 250,000. Ligonier launched the radio program The R.C. Sproul Study Hour in 1982, then began airing the daily program Renewing Your Mind in 1994, which has reached millions.
From 1971 until 2017, R.C. Sproul was at the helm as Ligonier hosted annual national conferences, regional conferences across the country, international conferences, and study tours; produced teaching series, books, and other materials; and launched a website, blog, RefNet, and the Ligonier app. On any given week, the ministry reaches more than two million people around the globe. As part of its succession plan, the board of Ligonier Ministries announced the Ligonier Teaching Fellows, who now include Drs. Sinclair B. Ferguson, W. Robert Godfrey, Steven J. Lawson, R. Albert Mohler Jr., Stephen J. Nichols, Burk Parsons, and Derek W.H. Thomas. Chris Larson serves as president and CEO of Ligonier Ministries.
From his platform as a statesman, R.C. served on the boards of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, Evangelism Explosion, Prison Fellowship, and Serve International. In 1980, R.C. accepted a position as professor of theology and apologetics at Reformed Theological Seminary. He and Vesta traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, for a few months each year and he taught a full-time load in a concentrated period of time. In 1987, after he was living in Central Florida, RTS opened its Orlando campus. R.C. served as the John Dyer Trimble Sr. Chair of Systematic Theology from 1987–1995. He then served as Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from 1995–2004.
R.C. also returned to the pastorate. As he recalled, “In 1997, God did something I never anticipated.” That thing was the founding of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida. At the time of his death, R.C. was copastor of Saint Andrew’s with Burk Parsons. He preached his last sermon on November 26, 2017, on Hebrews 2:1–4, “So Great Salvation.”
At the time of his death, R.C. Sproul was chancellor of the college he founded in 2011, Reformation Bible College. R.C. served as the first president, giving the college its name, its curriculum, and its mission to educate students in the knowledge of God and His holiness in the Reformed classical tradition. From his office window in the Ligonier Administration building, R.C. could look to the right and see the college and look to the left and see the church.
R.C. published his first book in 1973: The Symbol: An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. He offered the following dedication in it: “To Vesta: To the Romans, a pagan goddess; to me, a Godly wife.” His first book signifies his coming work as a theologian, and his first book’s dedication reveals his original style. By the time of his death, he had more than one hundred books to his credit. These include children’s books, a novel, a three-volume extended commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, commentaries on several biblical books, and books on nearly every topic of doctrine and the Christian life. He coauthored Classical Apologetics in 1984 and wrote Chosen by God in 1986. In 1985, he released one of the twentieth century’s classic texts The Holiness of God. R.C. served as the general editor of the Reformation Study Bible. He wrote more than two dozen hymns. His collaboration with his friend and composer Jeff Lippencott resulted in two CDs, Glory to the Holy One (2015) and Saints of Zion (2017).
R.C.’s writing of hymns was a natural extension of his lifelong love of music. Along with Vesta, he sang in the youth choir at Pleasant Hills United Presbyterian Church and in choirs at school. R.C. also sang bass in a school quartet. He was a pianist, and later in life, he picked up the violin, taking lessons at the newly founded Saint Andrew’s Conservatory of Music. R.C. also painted. He was an avid and rather accomplished golfer. He enjoyed hunting, puzzles, and reading, especially reading biographies.
A consummate teacher, R.C. Sproul loved and lived for teaching doctrine to the laity. He had a deep sense of humor, with a ready supply of one-liners. Conversations with R.C. pivoted effortlessly from deep theological engagement to sports to golf (more than a sport) to jokes. He longed to see minds renewed, hearts transformed, and lives changed by the gospel. He had a remarkable gift to make things clear. He neither intimidated his audiences with technical jargon nor patronized them. He taught deep issues, issues of substance and weight, with clarity and a compelling urgency. He taught his homiletics students to find the drama in the text and then to preach the drama.
R.C. often recalled his first encounter with the God of the Bible. As a new Christian and a freshman in college, he devoured the Bible. One thing stood out from his reading: God is a God who plays for keeps. The Psalms, the story of Uzzah, Genesis 15:17, Mary’s Magnificat, Luke 16:16–17, and, of course, Isaiah 6—the drama of these texts captivated R.C. from the moment he first read them.
R.C. taught us this: “God is holy, and we are not.” In between is the God-man Jesus Christ and His perfect work of obedience and His atoning death on the cross. That was the message and the legacy of R.C. Sproul (1939–2017).
Visit RCSproul.com for memorial service details and for the opportunity to leave a note of appreciation for Dr. Sproul’s ministry.