Many of you will know that today (14th of December 2018) marks the 1-year anniversary of RC Sproul’s promotion to glory. I was reminded of this as I woke up this morning reading a few chapters of ‘Everyone is a Theologian’ in preparation for a summer theology reading group that I host in my home with a group of young adults from church. In this short yet comprehensive book, RC managed to explain sophisticated concepts in such an accessible (and sometimes humorous) way. Our group had a discussion session just last week and almost every member of the reading group commented on how their minds were blown by these amazing biblical truths that RC laid out in a simple manner, and this is of little surprise because this has always been RC’s vision: to make theology accessible to the laity.
Unfortunately, I never had the privilege of meeting or getting to know RC. All of my understanding or knowledge of him is primarily based on the books that I’ve read and the hours of sermons, conference presentations, and Q&As that I’ve tuned into. Additionally, much of this is based on my finite memory so my recounts will largely be paraphrases that I’ve stored in my mind. Nevertheless, I thought I would use this occasion to note down 20 lessons that I’ve learned from RC. Again, I do not personally know the man therefore my observations may be misguided and skewed. However, I trust that those who have interacted with his works and perhaps those who do know him will echo similar sentiments. (note: these lessons are not in any particular order)
1. Do ministry based on the people you have.
The reason I note this is because even after 1 year of RC’s passing, it appears that Ligonier Ministries, Reformation Bible College, and St Andrews Chapel are all still going strong. Typically, when a giant like RC passes away, it is easy for ministries related to that individual to fold very quickly. But it doesn’t seem to be the case with the ministries associated with RC. Instead, it seems like Ligonier is still expanding its reach, RBC is growing in its strength and reputation, and the ministry at St Andrews is remaining faithful. A big part of this, I think, is because RC built ministries with people. Those familiar with RC will also be familiar with names like Chris Larson (CEO of Ligonier), Stephen Nichols (President of RBC), and Burk Parsons (Senior Pastor of St Andrew). Rather than stretching himself thin, it looks like RC constantly included godly and competent men to build on the work that he has started so that these ministries will long outlive his time on earth.
A lesson for me is that I’m often thrilled by ministry opportunities and initiatives. I see things that need to be done and my temptation is to walk through every door that presents itself. But leaders like RC remind me that having the right people is equally as important in starting new ministry initiatives. Do not be afraid to wait for God to surround you with the right people before embarking on a new journey.
2. Learn to pass the baton to the next generation
Related to (1), Chris Larson made a comment in a Q&A session that part of RC’s genius is that he began succession plans way before his passing. Therefore, while his death was painful for his loved ones, his ministries of faithful Bible teaching continued. This of course stands in sharp contrast to certain leaders who hoard their power and influence, so that upon his/her death, people around them ask themselves ‘now what’?
Instead, with RC, it seems like he began giving away power and influence early on – entrusting the next generation with the work that he started so that the ministry of teaching the Bible would not be completely dependent on him.
I pray that I’ll remain faithful and have decades of ministry ahead of me. God-willing. Nevertheless, RC’s life forces me to ask: who am I looking (and training) to pass the baton to? I think any good leader should be multiplying leaders, not merely adding followers.
3. Do not be afraid to take a risk in others
Multiplying leaders means risk. I’m not sure what went through RC’s mind, but I’m confident that there were moments of hesitations due to the risk that he took on younger men. Ligonier is a huge platform and so to open it up for younger people who were less established and competent than he was would have been tricky. RC confessed during a Q&A that this had at times come back to bite him. Nevertheless, he took a risk in building others up.
This is a vivid reminder for me because part of taking a risk in others means putting your reputation and credibility on the line. People will give the leaders you are multiplying a hearing firstly because of their respect for you. Therefore, if they do well then that is a reflection of your good choice. On the other hand, if they do not do well, then that is similarly a reflection of your poor choice. But often, there is no guarantee of the outcome. You can train, vet, and do as much safeguarding as you can. Yet sometimes, you just cannot predict everything. As such, there is always an element of risk. But it is worth it. Take a risk in the people around you.
4. Invest in people around you
In addition to taking a risk, it is important to invest deeply in the people around you. Chris Larson commented in a video that he has weekly meetings with RC where they sat down to talk about life, ministry projects, hobbies, and the like. Larson said that these were remarkably formative for him. Similarly, Parson spoke about his experience of co-pastoring St Andrews with RC, and much of it was characterised by RC’s intentional investment in his life.
It is not uncommon for leaders who are out to build their empires to take from the people who follow them and discard them when they are no longer of use. A brief scan of Christian media outlets will constantly highlight stories of ministry abuse, and it is always sad to read of the latest Christian leader who has done something like this. I am reminded that people are not to be bullied but to be built, not to be used but to be understood, and not to be discarded when no longer useful but to be deemed as valuable and worthy in God’s sight. Give yourself to the people you are developing and do not keep them at a distance.
5. Be courageous
One of the outstanding features of RC and his ministry is his courage. I think there are a number of videos on Youtube of RC connected to the ‘thug life’ meme where he makes a sharp comment that breaches rules of political correctness in order to correct someone’s misguided understanding of God. Listen to his sermons and you’ll know that RC stands valiantly for the truth. He does not compromise, he does not waver, and he will fight if necessary for the holiness of God and the inerrancy of Scripture.
We need leaders like this today. It is not uncommon for Christian leaders to bend their convictions or beliefs to accomodate to their context. To be sure, there are instances where tertiary or even secondary beliefs can be set aside for primary theological beliefs. Yet, when it comes to first-order truths, it is imperative that Christian leaders learn to defend them with as much robustness and acumen as possible. Do not be okay with soft or pad answers. Be willing to debate an issue deeply for the sake of clarity. This will take courage because much of this will not be welcomed. But do it because truth matters.
6. Democratise your authority as much as possible
I’m going out on a limb with this lesson, but it seems like RC sought to democratise his authority in his ministry. This is seen not only in the various leaders that succeeded him in the different branches of his ministry, but also through the army of ‘Teaching Fellows’ who continue to promote Reformed Theology through Ligonier. These fellows include Sinclair Ferguson, Robert Godfrey, Steven Lawson, Albert Mohler, Stephen Nichols, Burk Parsons, and Derek Thomas, and they have all shared the Ligonier platform over the last few years.
I remember it was either Ligonier 2015 or 2016 when there was meant to be a final Q&A session with RC. However, due to ill health, RC had to retire and head home first. Yet, rather than cancelling the session, 4 or 5 of these Teaching Fellows stepped on stage and conducted the Q&A in-lieu of RC. And if you know anything about the names listed, you’ll know that these are men of great calibre and so the Q&A went ahead smoothly and perhaps even better.
And again, it is so easy to build a ministry around one’s name so that once he or she is absent, everything falls apart. Learn from RC to democratise and spread your authority and influence. I mean, if the foundation of one’s ministry is Bible teaching, then surely anyone who can handle Scripture qualifies. Why hold onto your authority so dearly? Do not be afraid to share it with trustworthy men.
7. Lead by example
Those who know RC personally will be able to give a much better account of this, but the impression I get is that RC constantly led by example. He didn’t just tell people to write books, he wrote them himself. He didn’t just tell people to preach good sermons, he preached them himself. He didn’t just ask people to lead a good organisation, he did so himself. I think that is how you win the respect of people around you.
It is sad that even within the Christian circles, it is not uncommon to have leaders who bark orders from a distance. One would expect this in a corporate setting. Yet sometimes, people have more bitter experiences within the church and parachurch organisations than in a common workplace. Therefore, it is imperative that Christian leaders lead by example – walk with people, talk with people, know your people, and do what you’ve asked of them to do.
Quite practically, if you want to build a culture of serving in your church, do so by serving yourself. Pick up a chair and set it away rather than asking people to do it. Approach a newcomer and chat with them rather than asking your leaders to approach them. Wash the dishes, sweep the floor, lock up the building – whatever it is. Do not be afraid to lead by example. Never think that you are ‘beyond’ these tasks.
8. Bring people along with you as you lead so that they can watch and learn
It seems like RC always travelled with people for his speaking engagements. I’m not sure if he has a policy on this, but there is wisdom in it. Billy Graham had a policy and this was to preserve his integrity, but bringing people along serves more than that purpose. It enables people to see you live in action so that they can learn from you.
I can only imagine the pre-event conversations where one gets to see RC in his preparation mode, and then the post-event mode where reflections and analyses are done. ‘What do you think went well?’ ‘How could we have done that better?’ ‘What did you observe?’ I imagine these to be the sorts of conversations that he had with those whom he travelled with.
Personally, this is how I learned much of my ministry skills. It was 18 years of travelling with my father and listening to him preach, observing his deacon meetings, watching his hospital visitations, sitting in on prayer gatherings, looking at marriage counselling sessions from a distance, and the like. Car trips before and after these meetings were always so valuable when dad would outline what to expect, followed by a reflection after on how things went. I learned how to read a room, read people, and read situations – skills that I’ve found increasingly necessary for ministry in our current world. All of this was passed down simply because dad brought me along. I can imagine RC doing the same.
Do not see people as an inconvenience. Do not be afraid to bring them along the journey.
9. Wield the pen well
Anyone who knows RC will probably have their first contact with him through his writings. For me, it was through What is Reformed Theology? That book rocked my world. Previously, I had been exposed to John Piper’s Desiring God and then J.I Packer’s Knowing God. All of this climaxed in RC’s succinct presentation of Reformed Theology or Calvinism. But this would be the first of the many books that I devoured.
RC writes so well, and this is the reason I picked Everyone is a Theologian to be our book of choice for our summer reading group. There are many accessible ‘introduction to theology’ type books, but there is something about RC’s writing style that prompts both ponder and praise. Not surprisingly, RC’s books have a great reach.
Writing well is both a skill and art. It is also something I do not have (but am trying to learn and cultivate). But as RC famously puts it, ‘ideas have consequences’ and if you want to change someone’s behaviour, you need to first begin by changing their beliefs. One of the ways you can change someone’s beliefs effectively is by writing well. The lesson for me is to keep learning how to write. I think part of this comes from reading good writing and books, but it also comes to writing a lot. I wrote a major theology project this year on a Dutch Reformer and it showed me how little I know both in terms of theology and effective written communication. This may take a lifetime to develop but it is worth it.
10. Be open to adopting new technologies and forms of communication
That being said, it seems that for RC, writing was always a platform to bounce off from and not a prison to be bound in. Anyone who knows RC will also know that his voice is not only heard in our heads when we read his writing but also through the radio, through videos, and even through song (one thinks of the ‘Glory to the Holy One’ album that was launched in 2014).
RC noticed the change of times and jumped at whatever opportunity opened up in order to effectively communicate the Gospel. As a result, he has brought Reformed Theology to those sitting behind desks and those sitting behind screens.
In Christian ministry, it is tempting to attribute inherent superiority to one mode of communication over the other. Oftentimes, this is due more to our own preferences. I personally think that the written word is much more powerful because it enables one to go back and forth on an idea and it creates space for the mind’s creativity to flourish. The absence of pictures and movement enables us to imagine our own and thereby enriches the learning experience. It also forces one to take ownership over one’s learning rather than depending on someone else. Also, John 1:1 says in the beginning was the Word, not the screen. I’m kidding.
But RC reminds us that there is more than one way to communicate Gospel truths, and there is wisdom in taking advantages of those means. Learn to be creative in your communication so that you can reach as many people as possible with the Gospel.
11. Be charitable in working with those within the same confessional framework
RC shares his platform with Reformed confessional Christians, be it those who are non-denominational, Presbyterian, Baptist, and the like. There was a funny moment when RC was on a panel with 2-3 other Baptists, and the Q&A moderator commented: ‘wow RC, you’re the only Presbyterian and you’re up against 2-3 other Baptists’ to which RC replied ‘good, now it is a fair fight’. The room roared with laughter but that seems to be the kind of guy that RC was.
He was valiant in defending the truth of the Gospel yet willing to open his arms and platform to people who held to different convictions on certain matters. In Christian leadership, it is once again very easy to be overly tribalistic. I think it would be a mistake to think that it is possible to be non-tribalistic, because that itself would eventually become a tribe. But I think we need to be good at making Gospel partnerships: tribes working with tribes for the sake of Gospel advancement. Often, our unwillingness to do so is borne out of envy, pride, and lack of self-esteem. If it is, we need to repent of it. Within confessional boundaries, be slow to draw lines and quick to make partnerships.
12. Love your wife deeply
One of the fascinating things immediately after RC’s death is the love expressed for his wife Vesta. And in almost every obituary, authors have noted how much RC loved his wife. They could see it.
When one’s ministry platform beginnings to grow broader, it is tempting to focus your whole heart on that because ‘that is God’s call on my life’. We need to always remember, dear pastor, that your wife is your first ministry. To love, cherish, care, and value her – these are things that really matter.
Do not neglect your wife. Care for her in sickness and in health. Build her up. She is not hindrance to your ministry.
13. Always answer a question like it is the first time you’ve heard it
This is exactly what RC said. One of the reasons I hold weekly Q&As after our Friday night gatherings is because of RC’s modelling. He always has time to answer peoples’ questions, and he stated once that he always answers it as if he heard it for the very first time. Why? Because for the questioner, this is his or her first time asking it. I’ve seen Q&A panelists who semi roll their eyes when they hear another question on predestination or another question on justification.
But not RC. He understood that this question really mattered for the questioner. And he dealt with the question with that attitude.
14. Treasure and value the arts (such as literature, music, paintings, and poetry)
RC is a brain. But he also appreciated beauty. This really is one of the contributions of Reformed theology, namely, an elevation of the aesthetics. And I note this because in the Reformed circles I swim in, there is often an underappreciation for beauty. There is instead a lean towards pragmatism – what works. But in doing so, we fail to appreciate that God’s world and his ordering of creation is true, good, and beautiful. RC’s love for the arts is illustrated in the paintings he hangs on his wall (such as the painting of Melville’s Great White Whale above his desk) and his hand in the architectural design of St Andrews chapel, in his repeated illustrations from the Great Works of literature, in his frequent use of poetic techniques in his spoken communication, and in his emphasis of quality music in corporate worship.
Now some have said that RC has gone overboard with this, and that may be true – I don’t know. But let his appreciate of it be a reminder for us to value the arts.
15. Protect your integrity – be above reproach
I’m not exactly sure how RC has done this – though I can imagine. But RC’s decades of ministry have largely gone by without a hint of moral controversy. Now that is amazing given that I frequently wake up to news about another pastor that has fallen due to moral failure such as sexual immorality and/or financial embezzlement.
Because I do not know exactly how RC has protected his integrity, except that he has, the lesson is to do whatever it takes to guard your integrity. The Bible’s command to be ‘above reproach’ is the right principle. Be aware of every situation that you are in, be aware that you are marred by sin, and be aware that you are far more capable of sin that you can imagine. Simultaneously, be prayerful, watchful, and careful.
Someone asked me: what is your goal in ministry? I used to have big dreams, and I like to think that I still do. But apart from what I want to accomplish for God, I’ve now changed to answer ‘I just want to remain faithful to the end’. This may sound like a small goal but it isn’t. Yet by God’s grace, RC’s life shows that it is possible.
16. Love the Word and love it deeply
RC’s ministry is one where if you take the Word of God away, there would be no ministry. That just illustrates how centred his life and ministry was upon Holy Scripture. He fought to defend the truths, infallibility, and perspicuity of Scripture. His writing, teaching, and life oozed the Bible, and I wish that more leaders desired that they would be characterised by this: love of the Word.
To be sure, RC knew and was fluent in theology proper, philosophy, literature, and history. But none of these were his foundation or standard. God’s Word was.
May this be a reminder to us all as well. As our culture and perhaps even churches continue to undervalue Scripture, may we continue to uplift its importance in our lives and in the lives of the people around us. Teach the Word, in season and out of season. Study it deeply. Be excited about it daily. Celebrate it consistently.
17. Study church history
Although RC was always grounded in Scripture, he was also keenly aware of church history and historical theology. He is always quick to point out ways in which the church has done well and performed poorly in the past, and all of this serves to instruct us on how to live in the present and plan for the future.
RC frequently celebrates his heroes like Luther and Calvin, and he appears to constantly draw strength and courage from these characters. We need more of this today. Far too many young men either have no one to look up to or look up to the wrong people. They measure themselves to a standard that falls far too short of the Biblical standard.
I’m reminded to look to the early church fathers and how they combated early heresies, to look to the Medieval church and the dangers to avoid, to look to the Reformers and see how they defended the truth, and to the Puritans to how they sought to live godly and holy lives. Read Augustine, read Aquinas, read Calvin, read Tyndale, read Edwards, read biographies of all these people. God has done great and amazing work in and through them, and we’d be wise to learn from them.
18. Have good mentors and honour them
Those who know RC will know that he was not without a mentor. The name that frequently pops up is John Gerstner. RC speaks fondly of him and even shared his pulpit with Gerstner during his later years. Apparently, Gerstner taught RC so much of what he knew. And we all need people like that.
Do not be a lone ranger. Seek out people whom you love and respect and ask for their input in your life. You are an individual but you are also made for community. Surround yourself with godly men and women who will give you wise counsel. Surround yourself with people who have walked with the Lord for decades more than you. Do not be so proud and arrogant to think that God would only give you wisdom.
Seek these people out and sit humbly before them. Their experience and understanding will spare you many mistakes in life.
19. Be humorous
RC is a funny man. He has a funny laugh, he has funny jokes, and he has funny quirks. And that is who he is. His personality reflects the various biblical genres. Intensity when it is necessary. Gravitas when it is needed. Sarcasm when it is appropriate. And humour when it is fitting.
As a result, RC never came across high and lofty. He has profound truths to communicate and he was speaking on behalf of a high and lofty God. But he was down to earth. Listen to his Q&As and you’ll often laugh till your belly hurts. He just has a way to communicate in a way that is appropriate.
This is important for me because in an ethnic context, humour is often seen as inappropriate for pastors and Christian leaders. To be sure, there are certain forms of humour that are inappropriate and we’d be wise to shy away from that. But good and clean humour is always healthy. This is especially so if you are by inclination humorous. Do not suppress it. Use it to the glory of God.
20. Stay faithful and fight the good fight till the very end
Lastly, stay faithful and fight the good fight. This is so easy to say and so difficult to do. But I just wish I could live a life like RC. Not because of his ministry success. But because of his enduring faithfulness to the end.
I hope and expect that RC will be written in our history books because of his remarkable contributions to modern evangelicalism. Is someone writing a biography on him? I sure hope so.
Dear leaders, make this your goal. To stay faithful till the very end. Not to have a flashy ministry, though God may use that for his glory. Not to grow something bigger, though that is good in that it indicates growth for the kingdom. Not to build your personal platform, though God may use that to win some. But to fight the good fight to the very end.