The first time I heard R. C. Sproul teach was several decades ago. I can't recall the exact date, but I do remember his teaching like it was yesterday. Someone had loaned me his signature series, "The Holiness of God" on videotape, and I took it home to watch. Within minutes after I pressed play, I was riveted.
R. C. was speaking to a roomful of young adults. He stood on a slightly-elevated platform. A lectern and a large chalkboard were the only furnishings on the platform. R. C. didn't lean on the lectern. He wasn't tied to any notes. He moved freely around on the platform as he spoke, walking frequently from side to side. His delivery was perfectly paced and passionate. He spoke with a rich vocabulary, never pausing to grasp for words and never wasting a single syllable.
He began in Isaiah 6, a passage I knew well. I had preached on it myself more than once. But after hearing R. C.'s powerful description of the majesty and magnificence of "the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up" (Isa. 6:1), I never looked at that passage the same way again. It was as if R. C. had taken us into the very throne room of heaven to see a glimpse of God's holiness with our own eyes.
The entire series was weighty and deeply thought-provoking without ever seeming abstruse or merely academic. He was giving a detailed lecture on one of the Bible's most grand and lofty subjects, presenting biblical truth with a level of thoroughness and sophistication that would be suitable for a seminary classroom. But the teaching was so clear that even a total novice would easily be able to understand and digest the material. And it was all thoroughly biblical, carefully drawn straight from the text of Isaiah. It was an extraordinary display of the very best kind of theological instruction.
All those things were standard features of R. C.'s teaching style, from the chalkboard to the remarkable clarity and theological depth of his content. I've never encountered a more gifted teacher. He was engaging and personable; simple but profound; thorough without ever being tedious; always deeply passionate about what he was teaching; and always anchored in biblical truth. R. C. was never ostentatious or gimmicky. He was not a salesman or promoter. The one thing he had to offer was straightforward biblical instruction with perfect clarity, powerful energy, and a thorough treatment of the text.
One of R. C.'s most admirable characteristics was his refusal to shy away from difficult doctrines or shape his teaching to suit whatever might be popular or politically correct at any given moment. He was not afraid of controversy and not reluctant to face and firmly answer opposing views. He and I once had a vigorous public debate on the subject of infant baptism. He was as bold and candid with me as he would have been with any other adversary. He clearly wanted me to be equally straightforward and forceful with him. Of course I was. Although R. C. didn't change his opinion on baptism, our friendship was not sabotaged but strengthened by the robust exchange of arguments and rebuttals. That's precisely how our friendship worked behind the scenes as well.
I'm a committed Baptist premillennialist; he was a steadfast Presbyterian with somewhat fluid eschatological opinions. But we agreed on far more than we ever disagreed—especially when it came to the core issues of soteriology and the five Reformation solas. Over the years we stood shoulder to shoulder in full agreement through several major theological controversies. We defended the principle of sola fide against both antinomians and legalists in the lordship debate; we fought for sola gratia and opposed ecumenical compromise when influential evangelical leaders were promoting "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." We challenged charismatic and continuationist efforts to downgrade sola Scriptura and redefine the sufficiency of Scripture. We stressed the principle of solus Christus in response to the neo-Socinianism of the Emergent movement, "postmodern Christianity," and the troubling erosion of evangelicalism's willingness to declare that Christ is the only way of salvation. We shared the same convictions on the vital doctrines of human depravity, substitutionary atonement, the sovereignty of God, and the authority, sufficiency, and inerrancy of Scripture. Above all, we shared an unshakable conviction that all glory belongs to God alone (soli Deo gloria).
No nationally known Christian leader has been a better friend to me than R. C. Sproul. He stood by my side for decades in every major theological controversy I was engaged in. More than I could ever express, I appreciated his willingness to confront important controversies without flinching. He could of course answer the errors, unbiblical notions, and sloppy thinking of theological mischief-makers with the same crystal clarity that characterized his teaching. He had the unusual ability to dissect opposing views and cut false teaching to little shreds without malice or rancor. Indeed, he was always meticulously fair with his adversaries, but relentless in his pursuit of truth.
During the controversy over "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT) in the late 1990s, I participated in a private summit meeting in Florida where R. C. Sproul, D. James Kennedy, John Ankerburg, and I met with Chuck Colson, J. I. Packer, and Bill Bright to express our concerns about the ecumenical drift of the ECT document. R. C. pointed out that the document's discussion of justification by faith omitted the all-important word alone (the sola in sola fide). This was and always has been the central point of disagreement between Roman Catholics and Protestants, he said. By deliberately omitting that word and acting as if it were a non-issue, Protestants who helped draft the ECT document were deliberately capitulating to the main Roman Catholic error and undermining the gospel itself. At one point he became so passionate in making his argument that he literally climbed on the table, making the plea on his hands and knees from the tabletop until each person on the other side of the table had made direct eye contact with him. There wasn't a hint of malice in the gesture, and everyone in the room understood that. The passion that motivated R. C. was his love of the gospel and his zeal for making sure that the message is proclaimed without compromise or confusion.
R. C.'s nickname for me was "Boris." The first time he introduced me at one of the Ligonier Conferences, his introduction began with a detailed recounting of how Boris Yeltsin single-handedly stopped a coup in Moscow in August of 1991. Armed hard-line communist insurgents were rolling through the streets of Moscow in a column of tanks, intending to seize the Russian Parliament building and overthrow Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms they opposed. Yeltsin, recently-elected president of the Soviet Union, intercepted the parade of insurgents, climbed onto the turret of one of the tanks, and made a speech that effectively ended the coup.
R. C. then talked about the lordship controversy, recounting how by the 1960s a noxious variety of antinomianism had gradually all but overwhelmed the gospel among evangelical Christians. This corrupt teaching openly encouraged unbelievers to profess faith in Christ as Savior without yielding to Him as Lord.
"But then," he said dramatically, "John MacArthur stood on a tank." He said he regarded the publication of my book The Gospel According to Jesus as the first major warning blast that halted the troops and began to turn the evangelical movement back to a more sound and biblical understanding of the gospel message. He then introduced me as "the Boris Yeltsin of evangelical Christianity." It was the most memorable introduction I have ever received anywhere, and from that point on in our private interaction he frequently referred to me as "Boris."
Thankfully, R. C. and the Ligonier staff have shown superb skill and foresight in harnessing all kinds of media (including the new media) for the recording and distributing of R. C.'s teaching. Thousands of resources and many hours of serious theological and biblical instruction were recorded for posterity and are now available on the Internet in various forms. R. C. leaves a legacy that I trust will endure for many, many years.
I will miss my dear friend. There is no one else quite like him. We are all blessed for having known him and heard him teach. I rejoice in the knowledge that he is with the Lord whom he loved and served faithfully.
“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. . . Blessed indeed . . . that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Rev. 14:13).