In 2006, I had been attending a non-denominational evangelical church largely influenced by John MacArthur and the Master’s Seminary. The church placed a heavy emphasis on the inerrancy of the Scriptures through expository preaching and taught a Calvinistic soteriology. Yet the church also held to a dispensational hermeneutic and eschatology, which was a challenge for me as I was becoming increasingly and confessionally Reformed. I was planning to move to Philadelphia to attend Westminster Theological Seminary in the summer of 2007. I already had taken a couple distance courses but until I moved, I was largely feeding on Westminster’s pre-seminary reading list and resources from Ligonier Ministries.
As so many others, I greatly admired Dr. R. C. Sproul. He was such a clear and convincing teacher who led me to a fuller understanding of the Scriptures and the system of doctrine contained therein. I was profoundly influenced by his wonderful book, The Holiness of God, which I continue to commend to people who struggle to accept the biblical doctrines of grace. For many, their reticence stems from a deficient doctrine of human sin and God’s holiness. Dr. Sproul presents our total depravity and great need of a holiness that can only come from Christ.
In 2006 I had the opportunity to attend a Ligonier National Conference near Orlando, Florida with my wife. While I previously attended a regional conference in St. Louis, this was a much bigger deal to me. I was elated to see Dr. Sproul teach along with John Piper, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, and others on the theme of apologetics. I would even line up before the volunteers would open the doors just to make sure I could get a seat near the front. This is Reformed nerddom.
During the conference it was announced that R. C. Sproul would be signing books. You could head over to the bookstore, get in line, and he’d sign something for you. I’m always a sucker for reformed books, and while I was already a committed Van Tilian, I did not yet own a copy of Classical Apologetics, the book Dr. Sproul wrote along with John Gerstner as a criticism of presuppositional apologetics. I figured this was the book for Dr. Sproul to sign.
I waited in line, watching Dr. Sproul sign books, sharing pleasantries, listened to person after person tell of his influence in their lives. It was a reminder to me of how profoundly the Lord had used this servant for the benefit of his Church. Like the many before me, I wanted a few moments to express my thanks to Dr. Sproul.
When it was my turn, I said, “hello” and expressed my gratitude. I also handed him my new copy of Classical Apologetics. Without looking up, he asked me to whom he should inscribe it. Maybe I was being too clever or brash, but I simply didn’t want to have him sign it with my name in a book he may have thought I just happened to grab. I wanted to let the good doctor know I was somewhat conversant with the issues addressed in the book. So I asked him to inscribe it “to a true Van Tilian.” This threw him off of his rhythm. Seated, he paused and looked up at me with a multifarious expression part bewilderment, part amusement, and part annoyance. I explained to him briefly my apologetic commitments and the fact that my friends would think this was funny. He indulged me and began to sign the book—though he did so with an expressive growl.
If you’ve listened to Dr. Sproul teach at all, you’ll already know that his lower register can reverberate with great conviction. It is one of the many reasons he is such an effective teacher. This was different. This rumble was a guttural expression of theological and apologetic fervor, a proleptic roar. It was certainly delivered in a spirit of Christian love and charity, though it was clear he wasn’t giving an inch. This was neither the time nor the place, but he was willing to engage.
I’ve witnessed Dr. Sproul speak several times, the last of which was when Westminster awarded him an honorary doctorate. As special as was that occasion, I’ll never forget the moment in Orlando. The book sits on my shelf, and whenever I discuss classical apologetics, I remember that encounter. I’ll miss Dr. Sproul and I’m thankful that I’ll see him again in glory. Perhaps then I will have the opportunity to growl back in the Lord.