Remembering R.C. Sproul
The first time I met R.C. Sproul, I was nervous. Like so many, I had been deeply and profoundly affected by his book The Holiness of God. I have vivid memories of where I was the first time I read it. I was overcome. Tears streamed down my face. I was so affected that not long after, I announced to the church I was serving that we would embark on a new sermon series unlike any other in the history of our church. We would consider every passage in Scripture where God himself executed someone. Understandably, this announcement was met with not a few perplexed looks. However, when the series concluded, we were no longer puzzled by these difficult passages and what they reveal about the justice and judgment of God. Instead, in light of God’s holiness and our sin, we all wondered why we were still breathing. And we knew the only explanation was the mercy of God as displayed in Christ and him crucified. We understood like never before what R.C. meant when he wrote:
“If we stagger at the wrath of God, let us stagger at the Cross. Here is where our astonishment should be focused. If we have cause for moral outrage, let it be directed at Golgotha. The Cross was at once the most horrible and the most beautiful example of God’s wrath. It was the most just and the gracious act in history.”
The Holiness of God left us freshly amazed by the grace of God. If my memory serves it wasn’t long after this that, when asked by someone how I was doing, I began to respond, “Better than I deserve.” As the years have passed this gratefulness for grace I don’t deserve has only deepened. Reading this book proved to be a defining moment in my life. And ever since that initial read, I have not stopped encouraging others to read this book.
So perhaps you can understand why I was nervous about meeting R.C. I wondered what a conversation with him would be like. I purposed to greet him warmly and thank him specifically. And try not to say something stupid. Well, it turns out I had no reason to be nervous. R.C. warmly and cheerfully greeted me and immediately put me at ease with his skillful use of humor. The man made me laugh. I didn’t expect someone who wrote so powerfully about the holiness of God to also be funny, but I would soon discover that his joy and humor were the norm for this man. Over the years I would accumulate a number of stories as I observed his joy and experienced his affectionate humor up close and personal.
I can’t resist telling at least a couple of R.C. stories. At the first T4G conference I was sitting in the first row directly in front of the podium. I don’t remember who was preaching but I was happily giving him my full attention. But I was soon distracted as I noticed in my peripheral vision that a note was being passed down the row toward me. When it reached me, I was about to pass it along but just before it left my hand, I noticed that my name was on the note. Inside the folded paper someone had scribbled this verse:
“He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying ‘Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead.” 2 Kings 2:23
Naturally I wondered who would choose this moment to encourage me with this little bit of Scripture. Looking down the row, I saw R.C. He was leaning forward, looking right at me, with a huge smile. The man who taught me about the holiness of God also possessed an unusually pronounced sense of humor. Go figure.
Please allow me to tell one more story. I was honored and stunned when R.C. kindly accepted my invitation to speak at a Sovereign Grace Pastors Conference. I wanted to mark the occasion, and knowing R.C.’s western Pennsylvania heritage, I was able to obtain a legit Pittsburgh Steelers helmet as a gift. Everyone who knows R.C. knows he loves the Steelers. R.C. was grateful when I publicly presented this to him but suggested that it might have been helpful if he could have been given the helmet before the singing began. We didn’t have to wait long for the punchline: he explained that he had been standing next to me during the singing and the helmet would have protected him from the flailing hands and waving arms that I would abruptly raise at different points during each song! I still laugh at that story but after years of reflection, something else stands out to me. Though R.C. wasn’t one to raise his hands as he was singing, he was not reluctant to participate in a conference with those who did, even the guy standing right next to him. Because of the gospel, R.C. was a humble and big-hearted man. He had an infectious joy and a gift of humor; whether in private conversation or at a large conference, he deployed his joy and humor to serve others. I could go on telling stories but everyone who knew him has their own R.C. stories and no doubt they’ve been telling those stories since we heard the news that R.C. was called home to be with the Lord he loved and served.
And perhaps the most appropriate way to conclude is by quoting R.C. himself about what heaven will be like. In his book Saved from What? (my second favorite of his books), R.C. writes about a dream he had after his father died:
“When he died, it was as if my soul died with him. From a teenage boy’s perspective, I thought he was the greatest man that ever lived. After he died, for years I kept having a terrible nightmare that would wake me up in a cold sweat. In the nightmare my father would appear. Every time my emotions were the same. I would be so excited to see him. Then my joy would turn to despair, because he was in the same condition as when he was dying. In the dream I knew there was no hope. He was dying, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Those dreams stopped about twenty years ago…and I never dreamed about my father again until about three years ago.”
Now, before I quote R.C. about the subsequent dream he had (and in case my friend John MacArthur happens to be reading this), he makes clear he assigns no authority to this dream:
“We have all sorts of dreams. Why we dream is anybody’s guess…Some dreams are so vivid and intense that in the morning we can remember them exactly. My last dream of my father was one of these. I don’t believe for a second that it was some new revelation from God. All I know for sure is that it was a dream. But it got my attention.”
Then, R.C. goes on to describe the interaction he had with his father in this dream. It’s too long for me to quote in its entirety but you can find it on page 116–117 of Saved from What? The following excerpt will suffice:
“In the dream my father appeared for the first time with a perfect body. I recognized him instantly…And I said, ‘Dad, you’re alive!’ He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes. He smiled and said, ‘Of course I’m alive. What did you think?’ I asked, ‘Dad, what was it like the first time you saw Jesus?’ He said, ‘Oh, Son, it’s just like in the book of Revelation…The whole place is illumined by the glory of God and by the Lamb.’ He continued, ‘And, Son, when I first saw the dazzling glory of Christ, it was just incredible.’ And I said, ‘You mean you saw it just once, and then you had to go to some other corner of heaven and merely remember it?’ He answered, ‘No, the incredible thing is that it doesn’t matter where you are in heaven; you can see Him as He is.’”
Now R.C. wouldn’t want me to conclude this tribute with his dream. He constantly pointed people back to the Book. And so, in the midst of the sadness of losing R.C., it serves my soul—and I hope it will serve yours as well—to contemplate the promise and vision described in Holy Scripture. It is the hope of all who trust in the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins. It is a vision of the reality R.C. is enjoying right now and the promise for every sinner who has trusted in Christ alone for eternal salvation. There will be much to look forward to about heaven, but this will be best of all:
“They shall see His face…” Revelation 22:4.
C.J. Mahaney serves as the Senior Pastor for Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville. He has authored several books, some of which you'll find on our resources page. C.J. and his wife, Carolyn, have three married daughters, one son, and twelve grandchildren. C.J. cheers for the Washington Redskins, Washington Nationals, and University of Maryland basketball, and he cheers against the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, and Duke basketball.