Among reformed evangelicals, the name R. C. Sproul is revered as much as the name Terry Bradshaw or Ben Roethlisberger are in Pittsburgh. Best know for his video teaching series published through his own Ligonier Ministries, Sproul has been a blessing to countless souls for decades through his teaching and writing. Yet, his influence in Christendom is more than some may know, but it is there nonetheless. His life and legacy are an example of what the Lord can do in a lifetime when a person is committed to knowing Jesus and making Him known. This is what Stephen Nichols unveils in his new biography R.C. Sproul: A Life, published by Crossway (March 2021).
When reading a biography, it is important to take into account the biographer. Their credentials to write the biography are crucial, especially when the subject has not been dead for very long. The best biographer is someone who has personal experience with the subject, and knew them well enough to write with authority on their life and legacy. Think Walter Hooper for C.S. Lewis, and Eberhard Bethge for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is the case with Stephen J. Nichols, who is the president of Reformation Bible College and a teaching fellow with Ligonier Ministries. He was a friend and co-laborer with R. C. Sproul, and saw much of his ministry up close. Not only that, Nichols is an accomplished writer in his own right who has the talent and ability to undertake a work of this importance.
Nichols takes more of a topical approach to the biography instead of writing strictly chronologically. The book stays fairly chronological at first and follows Sproul from birth through his graduation from seminary. This section of the book lays an important foundation for the reader to understand who R. C. Sproul was and where he came from. To the day he took his last breath, his heart was in Pittsburgh. He loved everything about the city and the region. It was vital in helping shape the man and minister he would become. One little known fact to some is that R.C. was a good athlete. He was even good enough to play sports in college. As a young man, he dreamed of being a professional baseball player. This dream very well could have become a reality if not for the call to ministry.
R. C. Sproul was not likely to be the teacher/minister he would become, who would champion biblical inerrancy and gospel centrality. He was raised in a nominally Christian home. His family were members at a liberal Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh. He became a believer in college while on his way to hang out with friends at a bar, but ended up in an informal Bible study instead. After college he attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which was a liberal seminary. Yet despite all of that, he came out on the other side a staunchly conservative biblically orthodox student of the Word. His journey is truly remarkable
After graduating from seminary, Sproul decided that he wanted to teach, which required a doctorate. Sproul chose to pursue his doctorate at Frie University in Amsterdam under the tutelage of theologian Gerritt Cornelius Berkouwer. Upon completing his doctorate Sproul took a teaching position at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he loved. Yet, the seminary setting what not exactly where Sproul felt that he was most gifted. His passion was to teach God’s Word to average person. It was his love for teaching the Word that led him to start what would blossom into Ligonier Ministries. When Sproul started Ligonier, there was nothing quite like it going at the time. The concept was to host lay believers at a retreat center for the purpose of training them in understanding the scriptures.
The Ligonier Valley Study Center, as it was known at the time, started with humble beginnings but soon blossomed into a thriving resource ministry that would long outlast its founder. Not only did Ligonier host study retreats, but Sproul began video taping the teaching sessions and mailed them out all over the country. Ligonier also began to publish a newsletter Tabletalk, that is still in publication today as a magazine. The vision for what is now Ligonier Ministries was a God thing. The organization would eventually move the Orlando area in order to better accommodate retreats and conferences. The move would also allow for the building of a church and Bible college.
One of lesser known tidbits about R. C. Sproul’s ministry and legacy is his involvement in the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. This statement was a response to the liberal leanings of certain mainline denominations during the mid-twentieth century. It affirmed the verbal plenary inerrancy of Scripture, and is now seen as a litmus test in orthodox evangelicalism. Interestingly enough, Sproul was right in the middle of action as one of the main architects of the actual statement itself that was submitted to the committee for review. His commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture never waned throughout his life, if anything it only increased. He saw his role at Ligonier as a responsibility to be a champion for the Word of God and the purity of the gospel. This is seen in his opposition to a movement in the late twentieth century known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). The movement was an effort to reconcile differences and work together in the midst of an ever changing culture. Yet, Sproul saw this as an affront to all the the reformers championed in the sixteenth century. His stance on ECT caused some of his long-time friendships to cool, such as his relationship with Chuck Colson. While this was disheartening to Sproul, he saw his commitment to the purity of the gospel of first importance.
Later in life, his role at Ligonier changed and he took on new responsibilities as the pastor of the newly formed Saint Andrew’s Chapel. The opportunity to pastor was a perfect one for R. C. who had been faithfully teaching parts of the flock for decades. This was an opportunity to focus on a specific flock church members weekly. All of this added to an already full life for a man fully committed to serve the Lord and his church. It is fitting that R. C. Sproul lived long enough to see the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation on October 31, 2017. It is also fitting that he died in the same year, a man who spent his life as a champion for the tenants of the Reformation. R. C. Sproul: A Life is a great biography and honors well the legacy of a man who was beloved by many. Stephen Nichols does an excellent job of telling the story and continuously point the reader to the true hero: Jesus.
Editor’s Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.