Mourning Dr. R.C. Sproul, with hope

Evangelicalism lost one of its best modern-day Bible teachers on Thursday with the death of Dr. R.C. Sproul, founder of Ligonier Ministries and host of the Christian radio show, “Renewing Your Mind.”

I pray for God’s comfort for the Sproul family and the whole Ligonier Ministries family, because their loss is profound.

So is ours. I am just one of many thousands of people who is greatly indebted to this gifted theologian for teaching me about Jesus Christ, the gospel and the holiness of God. Everyone who’s ever benefited from Dr. Sproul’s teaching, I know, feels the same grief over his death. Those who knew him well feel that grief most acutely.

Years before I started doing a daily radio show, God used Dr. Sproul to help mold and shape my Christian faith. I read many of Dr. Sproul’s books, appreciating especially “Knowing Scripture” and his classic, “The Holiness of God.” I heard him speak at many Christian conferences, including Ligonier conferences. I listened to him teach the Bible on his radio show. And I watched and admired him from afar, as he publicly stood in 1994 against the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) document, rightly proclaiming that the heirs of the Protestant Reformation can never compromise on the gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.

I watched, I listened, and I learned. But never once did I leave a Sproul book, speaking engagement or radio show with the overwhelming thought, “R.C. Sproul is so impressive” (although he most certainly was). Instead, his teaching always left me thinking, “The Lord is so much greater than I even realized!”

This changed a little bit a few years later, when I began my own Christian radio show and had the chance to interview Dr. Sproul on several occasions. I tell you the truth when I say that I’ve never interviewed anyone, before or since, who intimidated me as much as he did. It wasn’t because he was mean or curt or arrogant. In fact, he was the opposite: very kind, patient and always unfailingly amiable and conversationally approachable. But it was never lost on me that he was R.C. Sproul, and I was, well, not.

This is how it sometimes works in life. We say we love certain Bible teachers because of the way they’ve faithfully pointed us to Jesus, only to become tongue-tied by the teacher himself when we encounter him up close. I confess I fell into that weird absurdity when it came to Dr. Sproul. He did faithfully point me to Jesus, but because he did it so well, I had a hard time quelling my awed-fangirl inclinations.

Of course, I recognize the overwhelming irony here. After all, Dr. Sproul probably was best known for teaching the holiness of God. He was the one who taught, over and over again, how amazing it is that we sinners can boldly approach His throne of grace, and all because of the finished work of Jesus Christ.

Yet as he wrote in “The Holiness of God,” access to God never means we dare approach Him in a cavalier way. As he put it: “For the Christian the holy war is over; the peace has been established. Access to the Father is ours. But we still must tremble before our God. He is still holy. Our trembling is the trembling of awe and veneration.” Knowing that our holy God forgave him of his own sins and transgressions because of Christ, I’m sure Dr. Sproul would have found it ridiculous that he — a forgiven sinner himself — made me feel any intimidation at all. Had he known what I was thinking, he might have rightly admonished me that every Christian must reserve all holy intimidation for the only One who truly deserves it. I do understand that. But then again, the reason I understand that is because of Dr. Sproul. (See my dilemma?)

Ligonier Ministries later became a wonderful partner with my radio show, and I had a great time broadcasting live from the Ligonier National Conference in Orlando on two occasions. Dr. Sproul, by that time, was beginning to have some health issues, and I didn’t think it appropriate to ask to interview him again. But how I would have loved to talk to him just one more time.

Dr. Sproul himself affirmed that Christians most likely will recognize each other in heaven, and I hope he’s right. He wrote: “No specific biblical reference declares explicitly that we will recognize each other. But the implicit teaching of Scripture is so overwhelming that I don’t think there’s really any doubt that we will be able to recognize each other in heaven.”

If (or when) I see you in heaven, Dr. Sproul, I expect I’ll recognize you. I hope I’ll get to talk to you. But largely because of you, that is all of secondary importance to me.

What I really want to do in heaven is worship the holy, triune God who saved me from my sins, redeemed me, justified me and loved me enough to go to the cross for me.

So thank you, Dr. Sproul, for teaching me about the holiness of God, for standing faithfully on the Word of God, and for defending and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. I mourn your loss, but because of Jesus, I do not mourn as those who have no hope. I look forward to one day joining you in the company of the Church Triumphant, who will forever praise His holy name.

What a wonderful day that will be.

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!”

Isaiah 6:3