From Smoke to Fire: Igniting a Bible Study Movement

R.C. Sproul1 was ready to escape his dry campus for an evening at the bar when he realized he was out of cigarettes. Recalling the vending machine in the dorm, he returned to pick up a 25¢ pack of Lucky Strikes. We don’t often hear of smoking as a catalyst for good things, but that night Sproul’s nicotine craving led to a conversation about God.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Sproul attended Westminster College not because he wanted to attend a Christian school, but because he had an athletic scholarship. Sproul and his roommate had just completed freshman orientation when they decided to cross the Ohio state border for a drink. Sproul’s quick cigarette run was interrupted when a group of guys—including the star of the football team—engaged them in conversation.

“For the first time in my life, I met somebody who really believed in Jesus as a living person. I’d never encountered that before,” Sproul recalls. “This fellow was telling me about his faith, and in the middle of the conversation, he made reference to a text in Ecclesiastes: ‘Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there will it lie’ (11:3). I saw myself as just like that tree—going nowhere, just rotting away—and I had this fierce desire to know Christ.” Years later, he laughs at the experience. “I think I’m probably the only person in the history of the Church who was converted by that verse.”

The conversation had a profound effect on him. “When the discussion was over, I went to my room, got down on my knees by my bed, and I asked God to forgive me of my sins. I had a powerful experience of being forgiven. That night, September 13, 1957, was the night I was converted to Christ.” Sproul would go on to author 80 books and found Ligonier Ministries.

Falling in love with Scripture

Following his conversion, Sproul experienced many of the struggles that most new Christians face. “That first year was a roller coaster of spiritual highs and spiritual lows. I was frustrated by my ongoing sin and that I still struggled with things I brought into the faith from my old life. At the same time, I couldn’t get enough study of the Scripture.”

“From the day of my conversion, I had this unquenchable thirst to know the Bible. In the first few weeks of my Christian experience, I read the Bible from cover to cover. In fact, that’s all I did. The first semester of my freshman year, I got Ds in all my classes except gym and Bible—I got an A in Bible. I didn’t want to know anything else.”

He spent his nights pacing the hallway and reading the Bible, sometimes until as late as three o’clock in the morning. “Everybody else was asleep, but I couldn’t sleep because I was immersed in the study of Scripture. I was overwhelmed by the portrait of the God of the Old Testament. I had no understanding of who he was.”

“The one thing that was clear to me from my initial reading of the Old Testament was that this God is a God who plays for keeps. I knew that if I was going to be a Christian, I couldn’t mess around. It had to be all or nothing.”

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Spreading the Word: from teacher to preacher

Sproul’s faith soon shaped his future. “From the very beginning, I knew I was going to have to spend my whole life in some type of Christian service, but I certainly wasn’t inclined to think about it as a pastoral ministry. My goal was to be a seminary professor.”

After graduating, Sproul received his MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and then studied for his doctorate at the Free University of Amsterdam. Not long after, he was ordained to the teaching ministry of the Presbyterian Church.

Sproul then taught philosophy at Westminster College, his alma mater, before moving to Gordon College in Boston, where he taught Bible and theology. When he was 29 years old, Sproul finally achieved his original goal: he was appointed to the Conwell School of Theology in Philadelphia. Little did he know that after reaching his goal, he would soon be led in a new direction.

“While I was teaching seminary, the pastor of the local church I attended asked me if I would be willing to teach an adult Sunday school class on the person and work of Christ. I said, ‘Sure, I’d be happy to.’” Sproul was shocked by his class’ hunger to learn. “When I was teaching these lay people, I discovered that their excitement and interest was more manifest than that of the captive audience that I had in the academic world.” He responded to their enthusiasm by making a crucial career shift.

With that experience, he “began to major in lay education and continued to minor in teaching in the academic world.” Although he remained involved in the academic world, Sproul turned his attention to educating lay people. He founded Ligonier Valley Study Center in 1971. Today, the goal of what is now known as Ligonier Ministries is to “help Christians understand what they believe, why they believe it, how to live it, and how to share it.”

Developing discipline

Sproul started his ministry with the acknowledgment that “a lot of people have to work at Bible study to try to get motivated.” He encouraged being involved in a Bible study group or class, which helps develop the discipline needed to get into the Word regularly. He compared Bible study to learning a musical instrument: “I’ve known a few people who have taught themselves how to play the piano, and they’ve done a very good job of it. But most people who try to teach themselves have a fool for a student. If you want to learn how to play the piano, get yourself a good piano teacher and sign up for a course. That’s how you progress in it; that’s how you learn.”

He said the same is true for growing in one’s spiritual life. “If you’re not motivated to initiate Bible study on your own, get yourself in a Bible class—one where you’re given assignments. Self-discipline is a result of first having a discipline under someone else’s authority so you learn to establish patterns on your own.”

A culture of truth

Sproul saw Bible study as one step in becoming an educated Christian—something he deemed a responsibility for all Christians. He saw adult Christian education as the key to eradicating biblical illiteracy and revitalizing the Church. “Christian education is a primary consideration for every Christian and for the life of the Church. That was so in the first century, and it has been so in the great periods of revival throughout Church history.”

He was concerned that a growing suspicion of intellectualism was becoming an obstacle. “We have this undercurrent of people who are opposed to education, partly because they’ve seen educators who’ve committed treason against the faith. They’re leery and wary of becoming involved in education because they think that it’s contrary to the things of God. That’s a very serious mistake. We’re called to beware of the godless philosophies that surround us, but you can’t be wary of something that you’re not aware of.”

Sproul explained, “When I come to the Scriptures, I often come laden down with cultural ideas that conflict with the Word of God. I have to have those ideas expunged from my thinking, and the only place I’m going to get that is from the true ideas that we get in sacred Scripture. We have to constantly subject our own thinking to the critique of the Scriptures.”

“Our culture argues all the time about what’s right and what’s wrong.” Sproul again pointed to the Scriptures as a solution: “The Bible tells us what is right and what is wrong; if we believe that it is God’s actual Word, then that should define our lives and should make us salt and light and influencers of the culture around us.”

The fire that captured Sproul as a young college student burned brightly throughout his life. “The Bible calls us to have renewed minds. We’re called to love the Lord our God with all our minds.  . . . You have to work. You have to study. To be led out of the darkness of the world and into the light of the Word of God, we’re called to seek after the very mind of Christ.”

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  1. This post is adapted from an article by Jeff Goins & Elizabeth Vince in Bible Study Magazine (print Vol. 5 No. 2, March 3, 2018).

    R.C. Sproul passed away on December 2, 2017.

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