R. C. Sproul Goes to College
It took R. C. about an hour to drive directly north from his home in Pittsburgh to Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. Founded by Presbyterians in 1852, Westminster still had markers of its identity when R. C. arrived at Westminster a century and five years later. There was a Bible department. Freshman were required to take Bible survey courses in their fall and spring semesters. They had chapel services. But it certainly did not wear its religious identity on its sleeve. Neither did the vestiges of religion that had remained reflect theological conservatism or biblical fidelity. The Presbyterian confessionalism of Westminster’s roots no longer ran deep and wide.
But R. C. did not go to Westminster to get religion. Or so he thought.
R. C. was in fact terrified of the prospects of college. On autopilot through high school, he did not feel equipped for the academic challenge that lay ahead. It did not help that at orientation the president instructed each of the incoming students to look to the person to their right. Then he said, “One of you won’t make it past your first semester.”
R. C. started as a history major, and he started in the athletic training camps in preparation for the seasons to come. First up would be football, then the long basketball season straddling the semesters, then baseball. R. C. had an athletic scholarship, but that did not secure him a place on any of these teams. He calculated his chances were high for football, not likely for basketball as a freshman—Westminster boasted championship teams—and baseball was too far off to consider. All that to say, whether it was academics or athletics, R. C. knew he had much work ahead.
But what he did not expect was what would happen on a weekend in September early in his college tenure.
R. C.’s roommate was his childhood friend Johnny. Johnny’s father was a bit of a legend at Westminster, a four-sport letterman who would go on to be a successful businessman. Johnny got in as a legacy student, not on the merits of his grades. He, like R. C., trembled at the task ahead. But it was the weekend.
How R. C. Sproul Became a Christian
R. C. and Johnny were intending to head west across the Allegheny River to Youngstown, Ohio. A tough-as-nails city, Youngstown was notorious for its bars—all with a reputation for not checking IDs at the door, making it a favorite haunt for the underage undergrads of Westminster.
As they got in the car, both Johnny and R. C. realized they were out of cigarettes. They hopped out and went back into the lobby of their dorm to get a pack of Lucky Strikes from the cigarette vending machine. R. C.’s quarter dropped in the slot and the pack fell. As R. C. bent down to retrieve it, he saw two guys sitting at a table. They motioned for R. C. and Johnny to come join them. R. C. recognized them instantly, one of them being the star of the football team. Of course, R. C. and Johnny obeyed the summons immediately. The two upperclassmen were hunched over a book.
“What are you two doing?” the football star asked. “Nothing,” R. C. demurred—not about to confess their plans. So Johnny and R. C. were invited to sit and join them. The bars of Youngstown would have to wait.
The two upperclassmen were engaged in a Bible study. R. C. had seen his dad read his Bible daily, but this was the first time R. C. ever witnessed a Bible study. The two upperclassmen talked about Christianity and the things of God and the Bible for well over an hour—all new territory for R. C. Then one of them turned the open Bible in R. C.’s direction, and he instructed R. C. to look. It was Ecclesiastes 11:3. The second part of that verse reads:
If a tree falls to the south or to the north,
in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
It cut R. C. in two. He saw himself as that tree. He saw himself in a state of torpid paralysis, fallen, rotting, and decaying. He left the table and returned to his dorm room. When he entered, he didn’t turn on the light. He just knelt down beside his bed, praying to God, asking God to forgive his sins.
R. C. never made it to Youngstown, Ohio, that Friday night. God had other plans for his life. Ecclesiastes 11:3 is not the first verse one typically thinks of for evangelism. R. C. would say, “I think I’m probably the only person in church history who was converted to Christ by that verse.” I think it’s safe to remove the “probably” from his assessment. While it’s not typical, or even thought of, as an evangelistic verse, it nevertheless fits rather well. The verse has texture, imagery, a hint of drama. Even though R. C. would not consider himself a Calvinist or embrace Calvinism for a few years yet, the verse is also Calvinistic. Better, one could say the verse is Pauline.
God used that verse to show R. C. the true state of his own soul and life. R. C. had felt dead. Now he knew that his true spiritual condition was death. He had considered himself a Christian. He went to church, after all. Now he knew what Christianity was truly about.
R.C. Sproul’s Memory of His Conversion
Sixty years later in September of 2017, in what would be R. C.’s final months, Ligonier Ministries recorded R. C.’s recollection of his conversion:
I’m coming up on the 60th anniversary of my conversion to the Christian faith. It was in September of 1957. And I will never forget, I think I’m the only person in the history of the church to be converted by a particular verse that God used to open up my heart and my eyes to the truth of Christ. It came from the book of Ecclesiastes, where the author of Ecclesiastes describes, in metaphorical terms, a tree that falls in the forest and where it falls, there it stays. And God awakened my soul by considering that passage, as I saw myself as a tree falling, and rotting, and decaying. And that was the description of my life. That’s where I was. Nobody had to tell me that I was a sinner, I knew that. It was abundantly clear to me.
But as I went to my bedroom that night and got on my knees, my experience was one of transcendent forgiveness. And I was overwhelmed by the tender mercy of God, the sweetness of His grace, and the awakening He gave me for my life. And I pray that any of you who have not yet experienced an awakening to the reality of Christ would have that experience in your life. That you would look carefully at the Scriptures and the Word of God, and that that Word may be used in power to quicken your soul and your spirit that you too may be awakened to the fullness of glory, and peace, and joy that is ours in Christ.
Johnny was also affected by that conversation with the two upperclassmen. That night, he too prayed for forgiveness.
The next morning, on Saturday, R. C. awoke a changed man. He was eager to talk to Johnny about what happened and what would come next. Johnny, on the other hand, seemed not even to remember much of what had happened. He didn’t want to talk about it. He just rolled on like it never happened. All Johnny wanted to do was to make it to Youngstown that night. But R. C. truly had been turned from his sin and was turned toward God.
The Life Long Impacts of R.C.’s Conversion
R. C. had never read the Bible. Now he read it through in a couple of weeks. He devoured it. He devoted so much attention to reading the Bible and exploring all that he could of Christianity that he had little time for anything else. He became obsessed.
He had entered college as a history major. In his freshman history course he realized he had no framework for understanding history. The class began exploring the great civilizations. R. C. had no geographical or chronological grid on which to put them. It was time to change his major.
In keeping with his newfound faith, the only subject that interested him was the Bible. At the registrar’s office, he switched to a major in religion.
R. C.’s conversion had a significant immediate impact. It also had long-term, even lifelong, impacts. At least three lifelong impacts stem from R. C.’s conversion. First, R. C. would later say, “I owe every human being I know to do everything I can to communicate the gospel to them.” That dedication led R. C. to devote his life to teaching.
Second, as mentioned, R. C. devoured the Bible in those first few weeks after his conversion. He would continue that intense biblical study throughout his life, eventually undertaking the production of a study Bible. When the revised edition of the Reformation Study Bible was produced in 2015, R. C. said, “We call this the Reformation Study Bible, but we really hope that it causes a Bible study Reformation.” It’s not enough to read the Bible, he would often say; we are called to study it.
The third lifelong impact has to do with R. C.’s understanding of the author of the Bible. He testified how his original, virginal reading of the Bible left him with one overwhelming realization: the God of the Bible is a God who plays for keeps. It’s worth noting that R. C. began in the Old Testament, read it through, and then moved on to the New. He called the Old Testament “the personal autobiography of God.”
R. C.’s life may be characterized by earnestness, even dogged determination. He certainly accomplished a great deal between his conversion in 1957 and his death in 2017. That drive stemmed from his desire, his deep-seated passion, to know God and to make God known. The seed for that was sewn in September of 1957.
The Immediate Impacts of R. C.’s Conversion
Those are the lifelong impacts of R. C.’s conversion. There were also more immediate impacts. R. C. had to tell his steady girlfriend, Vesta. Several months after his conversion, and Vesta knowing about it full well, Vesta visited R. C. at Westminster College from her college, Wooster, in Ohio. That was unusual. He usually made the four-hour trek to see her. But this time, R. C. had invited her to come to see him. She took the bus and arrived on campus. He was then going to drive her home. He asked, however, if she wouldn’t mind going to a prayer meeting before they left for Pleasant Hills.
At that prayer meeting in February, Vesta, convicted of her own sin and need of a savior, became a Christian. She recalls now that she thought it was nice for R. C. that he had become a Christian. Coming off his challenging years of high school and his father’s death, she thought his becoming a Christian would be a good thing for him. She was glad to go along to this prayer meeting.
They had a short devotional; then they began to pray. Vesta thought, “If my friends at college could see me now, they would die laughing.” But during that time of prayer, Vesta had a sudden and distinct impression “like an electric current.” She knew then that the Holy Spirit is real, that the Spirit converts, and that the Spirit works in people’s lives.
Vesta said, “Now I know who the Holy Spirit is.”
R. C. added, “Of course, she had attended church for years. She had heard the Holy Spirit mentioned. . . . In her conversion, she made a transition from understanding Christianity in an abstract sense to understanding it as a personal relationship with God.”
The Holy Spirit worked in her life that night in February. As they left, she told R. C. she had been converted. He was excited. R. C. and Vesta, already with so many shared memories, places, and times, had one new significant place and memory in common. They were both converted on the campus of Westminster College.