I received my formal introduction to Reformed theology during my sophomore year in college.
I’d grown up more or less a Methodist, a tradition of which I am still quite fond, and until that time had never heard of Reformed theology or Calvinism. My theology was, unbeknownst to me, staunchly Arminian. And so when, during a humanities class, my professor lectured on the Protestant Reformation and carefully described the teaching of Protestant reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and others, I was intrigued. Intrigue soon turned to unmitigated disgust, however, midway through his description of the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism.”
As my professor reached the midway point of his survey of the five point acrostic TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints), my blood went cold. Limited atonement? Not realizing yet that this doctrine, while quite new and scandalous to me, was neither at a conservative Presbyterian liberal arts college, I looked feverishly around at my classmates for anything matching the countenance of shock and confusion slowly taking over my face. I came up empty. I was alone.
Wanting to give my beloved professor the benefit of the doubt, I approached him after class. Masking my bewilderment, I was polite and clear.
“Professor, I think that I misheard something you said earlier. Did you say that God chose, from before the foundation of the world, those for whom Jesus would die? Did you say that the atonement was limited, that some are elect and others are not?”
“Yes. That’s correct.”
The conversation continued, but neither to my satisfaction nor peace. Generously and patiently, my professor offered to meet with me to discuss Reformed theology further. Over my remaining years of college, we met and talked many, many times.
Despite his gracious efforts, I graduated with a deep-seated disdain for Reformed theology. So deep was my disgust that I enrolled in a Methodist seminary to reflect upon it even more critically, that I might savage it. Fittingly, I also made it a point to yell “I hate John Calvin!” from the center of the campus before commencement. I've always had a penchant for the theatrical (and immature).
I expected to confront Arminian-Calvinist debates during my first year of seminary. I did not. For many of my professors and fellow students, these debates were entirely passé. Many of them were in doubt or outright denial of fundamental tenets of historic Christian orthodoxy. One of my earliest assignments involved the study of textual evidence allegedly undermining a historic, orthodox belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture. Many of my friends were universalists in full denial of Jesus as the sole mediator between God and humanity. Needless to say, few saw any need in rehashing 16th century theological debates.
After only one semester in this new and challenging environment, I emerged thoroughly confused. My faith wasn’t lost, but it was battered. When I look back on that confusing time, tears could easily flood my eyes.
I confessed my confusion to a local pastor. After listening to my questions, he suggested that I start my theological reflection again, from the very beginning.
In so many words, he said, “Kevin, either the Bible is God’s Word or it’s not. If it is, then it’s true in all that it teaches. It’s coherent. It can be trusted, even if it goes against our understanding or our sensibilities. If it’s not, then it’s a record of humanity’s thoughts about God. They might be true. They might not. We’ll never know for sure. What do you believe about Scripture? Why not start there, and then build on it?"
He then handed me a tape series (yes, I’m that old) by a guy of whom I’d never heard before: Dr. R.C. Sproul.
I still remember listening to those tapes on my yellow Sony Walkman while out walking or running around campus. The teaching was that of a first rate intellectual, a world class theologian. However, the voice and persona was that of a guy with whom you could share a beer or a smoke. Like me, he was from the Rust Belt. Unlike me, he cheered for a much better football team - the Pittsburgh Steelers. He sounded like a guy from Pittsburgh, too. It was perhaps the whole-hearted enjoyment of that providence that honed his ability to communicate white-hot truth in blue collar terms. It seemed obvious to me that Dr. Sproul, with equal comfort and control, could contend for the Reformed faith at the Sorbonne or in the Steel City. I respected him immediately.
Listening to those tapes, as well as reading the books of authors recommended by him and my exceedingly gracious college professor, resulted in a seismic shift in my thinking about God, humanity, and our world. Shortly thereafter, I decided to transfer to another school, a small Presbyterian seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. I even decided to take a job at a local church - Calvin Presbyterian Church. Can you even believe it?! The irony wasn’t lost on me.
Hearing about Dr. Sproul’s death fills me with sadness for his wife and family, though I know they mourn as those with hope.
It also fills me with sadness for the church, though I know - probably because Dr. Sproul or someone taught by Dr. Sproul taught me - that God will never fail to raise up leaders to contend for the truth of the gospel in every age. Our God has done it before, and he’ll do it again.
However, it also fills me with joy for Dr. Sproul. By God’s grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, he’s home - to the glory of God alone.
Rest and rejoice in peace, Dr. Sproul. Thank you.