I first remember encountering R. C. Sproul while a student at “The Truth Project.” The founder of Ligonier Ministries was one of an ecumenical cast of guests that Focus on the Family’s Del Tackett had assembled for a tour de force course on the contours of a Christian worldview. Dr. Sproul made numerous powerful contributions that sparked group discussions—discussions that helped shape my thinking and devotion to Christ fresh out of high school. But his greatest contribution to the study wasn’t in any of his segments, but in Dr. Tackett’s introduction.
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple,” said Tackett, reading from Isaiah 6. He chose this passage to open the Project because, before the prophet receives his commission, he must encounter God. In the same way, participants were asked to come to terms with the God we were studying before beginning our journey.
There’s no other way to put it: The insights Del extracted from these verses rattled me. God, he said, is wholly other. “Holy, holy, holy.” The seraphim’s threefold repetition of this attribute is unique in Scripture, and it broke the Hebrew language. It is superlative beyond superlative. It is emphasis for which English lacks a fitting equivalent.
To gaze upon God’s thrice-holy face is to endure devastating humiliation. “Woe is me!” says Isaiah. “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” His distress is palpable—and just as urgent for us. How can we, who have spoken curses, slander, and blasphemy, dare to enter the throne room of God Almighty and speak of His mysteries? How can we, inhabitants in a world of deafening sacrilege and insults directed at the Source of Being who dwells in unapproachable light, have the audacity to pollute His temple with our words?
Only by undergoing cleansing can we gaze upon the face of God. Only if the blood-soaked coals from the altar touch our lips can we speak His mysteries. Only if our sins are seared away by the fires of righteous judgment quenched in the flesh of the sacrificial lamb can we approach this God upon whom even the penultimate powers of heaven dare not gaze.
I found out some time later that Tackett’s treatment of Isaiah 6 is lifted almost verbatim from R.C. Sproul’s book and lecture series, “The Holiness of God.” Long before I joined a Reformed church, I pored over Sproul’s talks and books, at first belligerent toward his ideas about God and gradually, as Scripture itself burned its way through my objections like the coal from Isaiah’s altar, surrendering.
This God Sproul taught was not the God of popular piety. He was not a heavenly grandfather, always eager to laugh off the high treason of his kiddos. He was more like the Emperor over the sea in C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia”—the Author of a moral order engraved in His scepter “with letters as deep as a spear is long”—a God who not only would not overlook unreckoned sin, but could not.
“The minute the idea comes in your head that God owes you mercy or owes you grace,” Sproul said in one memorable sermon, “let a bell go off in your brain that says ‘whoops, I’m confusing these concepts,’ because grace by its very definition is voluntary. God is not required to be merciful.”
The great insight of Reformed theology, which I first heard in Sproul’s gravelly voice, is that God is under no compulsion to forgive my sins or redeem me. He would be perfectly just to condemn me, along with every other rebel whose heart ever pumped the blood of Adam. Instead, He elects to send His Spirit to replace the stone hearts of His people with hearts of flesh, awakening them to freely and gladly accept His Son’s priesthood on their behalf.
Grace becomes a lot more amazing when you realize it’s not your birthright. Sproul’s popular-level apologetics in The Truth Project opened up for me a temple of sound theology whose extent I never could have imagined—a temple built by the Scriptures and filled with the train of a holy God’s unbounded glory.
Several years ago, I had the honor of visiting Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, on a Sunday when Sproul was preaching. Afterward I lined up with other parishioners and visitors to shake his hand and tell him I appreciated his sermon and his work. I was sure he regularly heard people say he’d shaped their lives and faith, so I settled on a simple, “Hi, thanks for all you do.” With, as it turned out, just five years left on this earth, he was already toting an oxygen tank with nasal cannula. Sproul turned to greet the next person before I had even stepped aside. It must be exhausting to receive so much appreciation in declining health.
Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. For me, it was a passage from Isaiah, unpacked by a pastor and theologian I didn’t even credit at the time, that taught me to fear the Lord. I’m still at the beginning of knowledge and likely won’t approach Dr. Sproul’s grasp of this awesome God before I die. But one day I will join him and the seraphim in beholding and praising God’s holiness.