R.C. Sproul: A Man Called By God
by Burk Parsons
Robert Charles Sproul was born on February 13, 1939, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the second child of Robert Cecil Sproul and the former Mayre Ann Yardis. R.C.’s great grandfather immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth-century from Donegal, Ireland. R.C.’s early childhood years were defined largely by two things: World War II and his extended family. He was two years old when World War II broke out. His father, being too old for the draft, was appointed head of the draft board in his district. Only a few weeks after being appointed to his position, R.C.’s father came home in uniform and announced that he had enlisted in the army air corps because he couldn’t send others overseas into battle if he didn’t go himself. R.C.’s father was an honorable man, and he was known throughout the community for his integrity. Just prior to his deployment overseas, R.C.’s father invited his brother and family to live in the Sproul home, and there they resided for ten years.
One of R.C.’s earliest memories is the day in 1945 when his father returned from war. The entire family went to Chicago to welcome him home. The train station was crowded as families eagerly awaited the return of their loved ones. Six-year-old R.C. saw his father from a distance, and he ran to him, as his father dropped his duffle bag, fell to his knees, and opened his arms to catch him.
Growing up as a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and of the Pirates baseball team, R.C.’s life revolved around sports. No matter the season, he could be found on some ball field somewhere in his neighborhood. He loved to play baseball, basketball, football, and ice hockey. But In 1945, R.C. met the love of his life, Vesta. He was in the first grade, but he waited until sixth grade to pledge his love. In sixth grade they “went together” for a short while (in the 1940s, “going together” largely meant going to the movies and holding hands). They were a couple again in seventh grade, but that didn’t last either. In the eighth grade, it finally worked. They were both involved in the church choir and the youth group, and so they shared many of the same friends at church and school. As they grew up and completed high school, they were together; nevertheless, R.C.’s high school years were filled with sadness. It was one of the most unhappy periods of his life.
In R.C.’s sophomore year of high school, his father had a number of serious strokes making him an invalid throughout most of R.C.’s high school years. Life became difficult for the entire family, and fifteen-year-old R.C. had to go to work to help support his family. In order to make time for his job, he had to give up his school sports. At the beginning of R.C.’s senior year of high school, his father died, and the home he had lived in for eighteen years had to be sold. He and his mother moved into a small two-bedroom apartment. R.C. was angry at God.
It was September of 1957 when R.C. started his first semester at Westminster College in Pennsylvania. The first weekend of school, R.C. and a friend were on their way to a bar when R.C. remembered that his Lucky Strikes were in his dorm room. He went to retrieve them and on the way encountered the star of the football team who engaged him in conversation. R.C. can’t remember what the man said to him, only that he talked as though he knew Jesus personally. R.C. was riveted, and after an hour’s conversation, he went to his dorm room overcome by a need to pray for forgiveness. He got up from his knees a forgiven man. He fell into bed late that night a converted child of God. The next February, from her college in Ohio, Vesta visited R.C. at Westminster College. Though she knew of his conversion, she didn’t grasp all that it meant until R.C. invited her to a prayer meeting. At that meeting, the Lord opened her eyes and her heart to the Gospel, and she was converted to Christ.
At Westminster College, R.C. met Dr. Thomas Gregory, the professor under whom he studied for his major in philosophy. Dr. Gregory was like a father to R.C., and he had a profound influence on his life, particularly because of his commitment to the Christian faith.
It was 1960, and the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. Vesta had graduated from college, and she and R.C. were married. They lived in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, in an apartment that had been constructed prior to the Civil War. Vesta went to work at the college while R.C. finished his undergraduate degree. That next year, their first child, Sherrie, was born, and R.C. began his studies at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary while working in the electrician’s shop at a local hospital. His three years of study at the seminary were miserable because of the school’s hostility to orthodox Christianity. However, it was there that the Lord brought John Gerstner into his life. At that point, the beginning of his seminary career, R.C. had not yet embraced the Reformed doctrines of grace. He hadn’t yet been convinced of Reformed theology — in his own words: “If you scratched me, I was still basically a semi-Pelagian.” Then, after five years studying Reformed theology, it was Dr. Gerstner’s course on the theology of Jonathan Edwards that finally persuaded R.C. of the doctrines of grace during his second year of seminary.
In his third year, R.C. supplied the pulpit at a Hungarian refugee church as a student pastor. During his last year of seminary, R.C. was persuaded by Dr. Gerstner to pursue doctoral studies under G.C. Berkouwer at the Free University of Amsterdam. Although he had planned on being a pastor, R.C. decided to follow his mentor’s advice. He borrowed money from a bank. They sold their car and their furniture, and R.C., Vesta, and two-year-old Sherrie set off for the Netherlands, living among a people whose language they didn’t speak. Their first months there were trying as they attempted to learn the Dutch language, traveled to the store on bicycles, and adapted to a new culture. R.C. sat at his desk in their bedroom for 10–12 hours a day studying books written in Latin, Dutch, and German (Latin being the only language with which he was familiar). He soon reveled in his studies and all that he was learning. While they anticipated staying in Amsterdam for three or four years, their time was cut short because of R.C.’s mother’s illness and Vesta’s pregnancy with their second child, R.C. Jr. At that time, R.C. had been offered the opportunity to take a one-year leave of absence from the Free University in order to teach philosophy at his alma mater, Westminster College.
So they returned to the States. Then, three months after their return to the United States, R.C.’s mother died on the very same day R.C. Jr. was born. Two weeks later, R.C. was ordained to the ministry in the presbyterian church. Their plans to return to Holland changed, and they remained Stateside. R.C. then took a teaching post at Gordon College in Massachusetts, and two years later he taught at the Conwell School of Theology in Philadelphia during which time he received his Drs. degree from the Free University (1968). He had continued his studies under Professor Berkouwer by long distance, returning to the Free University to take his comprehensive exams.
While in Philadelphia, attending a local presbyterian church, he was asked to teach an adult education class on the person and work of Christ. It was during that class that R.C. discovered that the laypeople he was teaching were more excited about learning the things of God than were his students in the seminary, and he caught a glimpse of the great need for lay education. The following year, he was offered a ministerial position in which he would be directly involved in lay education. R.C. took the position of associate minister of theology and evangelism at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
During his ministerial tenure, R.C. began to speak at churches and conferences throughout the Midwest, and after two years at the church, he received the call to begin a study center near Pittsburgh. The idea was to provide a Christian study center modeled after Francis Schaeffer’s European study center, L’Abri. After speaking with Dr. Schaeffer on a couple of occasions, and after much thought and prayer, R.C. and his family relocated to the mountains of western Pennsylvania where Mrs. Dora Hillman had purchased fifty-three acres and constructed a building on the property. In 1971, they moved from the bustling city of Cincinnati to the quiet countryside of Ligonier. There they established the Ligonier Valley Study Center, and for thirteen years students came from around the country to study Scripture, theology, philosophy, apologetics, and church history. The students studied, slept, and ate in the Sproul’s home and in the homes of others in the study
While at the study center, R.C. continued to teach at the Conwell School of Theology (which became Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) and to speak at conferences throughout the country.
In the early seventies, Ligonier hosted a conference at which scholars from around the world drafted a statement on biblical inerrancy. It was known as the Ligonier Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and from this beginning, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy was born. R.C. served as the president of the council, and his long-time friend James Montgomery Boice of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church served as the chairman of the council. The council consisted of men such as Edmund Clowney, John Gerstner, Roger Nicole, J.I. Packer, and Francis Schaeffer. It was a ten-year enterprise, the result of which was a document called the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and many of the relationships that formed over the course of those years still continue to this day.
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, during his years at the study center, R.C.’s writing career developed, and he continued the teaching ministry to which God had called him. At that time, he worked closely with Chuck Colson and served on the board of Prison Fellowship for several years.
In 1984, the board of the Ligonier Valley Study Center decided to move to Orlando, and the ministry was renamed Ligonier Ministries. By that time, R.C.’s audio and video messages had been distributed by the thousands throughout the country, and he continued to speak at conferences and churches around the country.
R.C. began teaching four months out of the year at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and was instrumental in establishing the seminary’s campus in Orlando, Florida, where R.C. served as the school’s first academic dean. He retired from the seminary in the mid-nineties to begin a full-time recording schedule for the new radio broadcast Renewing Your Mind, which first aired in 1994 and now has an estimated international audience of more than three million. R.C.’s classic, bestselling book The Holiness of God was first published in 1985, and over the past twenty-two years many of his more than sixty published works have been translated into various languages and have been distributed throughout the world.
In 1988, a group of publishers envisioned a Bible in the tradition of the original 1560 Geneva Bible containing study notes from a Reformed perspective. They asked R.C. to be the general editor of the study Bible. Dr. Sproul agreed and was tasked with assembling an international team of scholars who would be able to produce such a resource.
R.C. established the editorial committee, and, together with more than fifty biblical scholars from around the world, the New Geneva Study Bible was produced (now titled, The Reformation Study Bible). It was a seven-year project concluding in 1995. Since that time, more than three-hundred thousand copies of the The Reformation Study Bible have been distributed throughout the world.
During the 1990s, R.C. continued to teach theology and apologetics at the graduate level at various seminaries, and he served as the distinguished professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Knox Theological Seminary for nearly ten years. For more than three decades, R.C. devoted a large part of his time to teaching in the classroom. He believed that his primary calling was to teach lay people and those preparing for ministry. Nevertheless, when he was 58 years old, R.C. was called by the Lord to preach.
In 1997, Saint Andrew’s Chapel was established when a group of lay people sought the Lord’s direction in planting a church in the Reformed tradition where the whole counsel of God would be preached and where the Lord would be worshiped with reverence. The small congregation of committed Christians called Dr. Sproul to serve as their senior minister of preaching and teaching. They began meeting in the recording studio at Ligonier Ministries, and from there the congregation began to meet in a local movie theatre. Quickly growing out of the theatre, they moved into the cafeteria of a small private school, and a few years later, in 2001, the congregation built its first sanctuary.
Then in 2002, with the desire to provide a venue for the highest quality of musical instruction, Dr. Sproul established the Saint Andrew’s Conservatory of Music, where more than sixty students are currently enrolled.
Today, R.C. preaches during two Sunday morning services and one evening service, and he is earnestly committed to preaching the Word of God expositionally every week. As Saint Andrew’s Chapel grows, the people of Saint Andrew’s continue to seek the Lord’s direction as they purchase more land with the intention of building a new sanctuary and educational wing to meet the needs of the growing congregation.
In his forty-two years of ministry, R.C. has proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ and has staunchly defended the faith once delivered to the saints. His messages have been heard by tens of millions of people throughout the world, and he continues to serve the Lord God Almighty as he seeks to proclaim the Word of God and to help awaken as many people as possible to the holiness of God by proclaiming, teaching, and defending His holiness in all its fullness — by God’s grace and for His glory alone.