At one level, all Christians are the same. We are made in the image of God, saved by the grace of God, and live for the glory of God. We are blood-bought brothers and sisters, members of the same family, children of our heavenly Father.
On another level, we are each unique. The apostle Paul said that the body of Christ is like, well, a body: many parts, each with different shapes and sizes, each indispensable in characteristic and function.
The differences between R. C. Sproul and John Piper are easily discerned, even for the casual observer. I’m tempted to enumerate some of them, but it will be more fruitful to focus on the common threads that tie together their remarkable ministries.
Both men became Calvinists during seminary, as their resistance was overcome by God using a professor who insisted on taking God at his word. Both men discovered and were deeply impacted by Jonathan Edwards during their seminary days. Both men pursued doctorates in Europe before returning to the United States to teach at the college level. Both men started ministries—Ligonier and Desiring God—designed to serve and strengthen the church of Jesus Christ. The landmark books for both men —The Holiness of God (1985) and Desiring God (1986)—are about trembling before and delighting in the one true God. And both men found their ultimate calling not in the classroom but behind the pulpit (though it happened for Dr. Piper at the age of 34 and for Dr. Sproul at the age of 58.).
Theology is not something they merely study and teach. It is something they breathe. The Bible is not something they only read and preach. It is the food upon which they feed. R. C. Sproul and John Piper love Jesus Christ. They love to glory and revel in their Redeemer. Yes, they are extraordinarily gifted preachers, prodigious authors, talented theologians. But they have never gotten over the stunning fact that they were treasonous rebels who were graciously summoned to the King’s banqueting table and clothed with the righteous robes of the King’s Son. They have now walked with Jesus for decades, but they have never lost their childlike wonder that they have been called God’s sons. For them, to teach and preach God’s Word is not a duty but a delight. And they will continue to do so, as Dr. Sproul has said, until someone pries the Bible from their cold dead fingers.
Some thought it was hyperbole a few years ago when Time Magazine’s feature on Top 10 Ideas Shaping the World included “New Calvinism” (a contrast not to “Old Calvinism” but more to doctrinally ambivalent “Old Evangelicalism”). But in reality, Time had stumbled upon something true. Each year thousands of young people are discovering and celebrating the doctrines of grace and having their world turned upside down. Ligonier Ministries and Desiring God have been two of the means God has used to shape and transform our view of God.
As believers in secondary causation, it’s appropriate for us to ask why. Why, under God, are people attracted to the teaching of Dr. Sproul and Dr. Piper? Why do so many folks see them as “spiritual fathers”?
One reason is that younger believers, in particular, have highly attuned “boloney detectors” (to use the technical term). They are hypersensitive to hypocrisy and phoniness. And when they hear Dr. Sproul and Dr. Piper teach and preach, they hear authority and authenticity, truth and love, passion and power, combined in a compelling and arresting way. It’s not merely the God-centered, biblically saturated content. It’s that this deep theology is creatively presented and passionately believed. These men do not merely teach; they herald, they summon, they exhort, they plead, they yearn. In a way that’s difficult to describe in a non-clichéd way, the timber of their voices contains both sorrow and joy. And in that sense, I think they echo the tone of their sorrowful-yet-always-rejoicing Savior.
John Piper turned 65 this year, and R. C. Sproul recently turned 72. They will not be with us forever. What will we say of them when they pass from the evangelical scene? Their mutual mentor Jonathan Edwards put it best when he instructed his flock about the blessing of godly pastors:
Useful men are some of the greatest blessings of a people. To have many such is more for a people’s happiness than almost anything, unless it be God’s own gracious, spiritual presence amongst them; they are precious gifts of heaven. . . .
Particularly, I would beseech and exhort those aged ones that yet remain, while they do live with us, to let us have much of their prayers, that when they leave the younger generations, they may leave God with them.
When their earthly course is completed, I believe this will be the legacy of R. C. Sproul and John Piper: they labored by the grace of God to leave us with a vision of God.
To Him alone be the glory.