Yesterday I shared the first part of my recent interview with Dr. R.C. Sproul. We discussed his new book, his teaching style, his view on Creation, how he determines where to place boundaries in cooperating with other Christians, and a few other topics. Today the interview continues…
This matter of “Christian celebrity” has come up in the past few years. How have you dealt with the pull toward pride and ego-inflation, and has this been a particular challenge for you?
Well, everybody has to fight the sin of pride. I remember reading Benjamin Franklin’s resolutions when I was in college, where he, at one point in his life, was very committed to improving his moral conduct. He wrote a big list of virtues, and every day he checked off the virtues as to whether he achieved them or not. One of the things that he considered a great virtue was humility. He said he was careful to maintain a humble attitude toward things, so at the end of the day, he would write a check for humility, and then the next day, write a check for humility, and the next day write a check for humility. He said after a while he realized he was getting proud of his humility. Pride can come at you from so many different ways, and get you just when you think you’ve overcome it. It’s always there.
This business about Christian celebrity, I don’t know what that means, really. If you talk about celebrities, you’re talking about people who are extremely well known, usually through national media such as television, movies, or professional sports. Everybody’s heard of Arnold Palmer and Elizabeth Taylor or people in the political arena.
But to be a minister and to have a certain visibility because of lesser media such as radio and book writing, these are two different worlds. There’s the Christian publishing world and then there’s the New York Times bestseller world, and those two hardly ever cross over. So when you talk about Christian celebrity, you’re talking about a very small universe. I’ve had people introduce me to their friends and say: “This is R.C. Sproul. He’s famous.” I laugh because I say, “If I’m famous, you don’t have to tell people that.” So this whole celebrity thing is really overblown, I think. I don’t pay much attention to it.
Looking back over your life so far, and I emphasize “so far,” what are some of your personal regrets? What do the words “well done, good and faithful servant” mean to you at this time in your life?
I can remember—I’m going to take the second part first—that when my mentor, Dr. Gerstner, was getting older, into his later 70s and into his 80s, he seemed to take a second wind. He took on more and more and more labor when most men were retired at that age. I asked him about it, and he said he knew that he didn’t have much time left. He wanted to fill his days with as much productivity for the sake of Christ as could muster. That left a profound impact on me.
I do think about that “well done, good and faithful servant” now more than I ever did because I know that I’m in the twilight of my life and of my ministry. I want whatever time I have left to count. I really want it to count. When you ask me about regrets in the past, I would have to think about that because I don’t spend a lot of time navel-gazing about regrets over what happened in the past. I mean, I haven’t changed my theology over the years. I just teach the same things now I did 50 years ago.
If I think of strategic decisions, I know within Ligonier, I’ve made mistakes in hiring and firing, and where we put the emphasis at different times. Clearly if I had time to do things over with hindsight, I would do them differently. But I don’t dwell on that.
Have you ever written anything that made you stop and reflect whether or not you were living out what you were writing?
Oh, yes, probably every day. I mean that’s the curse of being a theologian and being a professor. Our duty is to teach what the truth proclaims. Of course we’re also supposed to be living that truth we proclaim, but nobody does that fully, and nobody who is a preacher lives fully what he preaches. That’s the danger of preaching.
When we’re preaching, a lot of times we’re preaching to ourselves because we know how important it is to live what we’re saying. I really felt the burden of this when I wrote The Holiness of God. Because of my interest in that subject and my concentration on it, people would come away from that saying, “Wow, he must really be a holy man to be so committed to this concept.” I said: “You don’t get it. One of the reasons why I’m almost obsessed with the holiness of God is because I’m not holy.” The reason holiness and grace go together is that the more I understand who God is, the greater appreciation I have for His holiness, and I figured the more that’s going to make me hate my sin.
But that doesn’t immediately eliminate my sin. I keep my focus on the holiness of God because it needs to be there because I’m not holy. I don’t focus on it because I am holy. I focus on it because I’m not.
In your ministry, how have you balanced pastoral life and family life? What practical things did you do to ensure that your family was not neglected?
When our kids were growing up, I was on the road sometimes two hundred nights a year, and most of that time, when the kids were young, without Vesta. Of course, since then, I call her my American Express card. I won’t leave home without her. She goes with me everywhere I go or I just don’t go.
I remember missing our daughter’s birthday several years in a row because it just happened that there was a conference that I spoke at every year that always came at the same time as her birthday. I had no idea at the time how much that hurt her. But as the years passed, she would ask: “Are you gonna be here this year, Dad? You said you were going to be last year and you weren’t.”
I hate it when we tell our kids that we are going to do something and we don’t do it. I have great regrets about that. After a while, I realized that I just couldn’t schedule things that conflict with matters of family importance.
How could the Christian community pray for you best at this time?
Well, I’m not as strong as I used to be and not as healthy as I used to be, although I enjoy pretty good health right now. I would like to have people pray for my health and strength so that I can continue to minister.
What direction do you see Ligonier taking after you step aside? What are some of the goals you would have for the ministry once you are no longer associated with it?
Well, we’ve been very careful at Ligonier to come up with a succession plan because the board is aware, and we’re all very much aware, that though I plan to live forever, I plan to change my address at some point and not be here. One of the reasons why we’ve done so much work on the internet with Ligonier.org, RefNet, and Ligonier Connect and the educational options and material that’s there is because it will continue whether I’m here or not. Of course, the biggest effort is Reformation Bible College, which I hope will be my greatest legacy here at Ligonier.
We also plan to continue Renewing Your Mind with me and our teaching fellows who are continuing to help teach courses: Sinclair Ferguson, Bob Godfrey, Steve Lawson, and R.C. Sproul Jr. The work with Tabletalk magazine, The Reformation Study Bible and the publishing imprint of Reformation Trust Publishing will continue long after I’m gone.
So where’s the focus of Ligonier, topically, thematically?
Teaching. It’s a teaching ministry to teach Reformed Christianity to the church and to the world.