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A conversation with John Piper

David Starling: I want to begin by saying thank you for your books and your sermons, and for making the trip out here to Sydney. We really appreciate all that’s involved in coming across the world to see us.

John Piper: Thank you.

DS: I was reading a little book by Anthony Trollope recently, which he wrote after a visit he paid to Sydney in the 1870s, and I was amused that he said everyone in Sydney always asks visitors: “What do you think of us? Do you like our city, do you like the Harbour?” So I’ll resist the temptation to ask what you think of us. Instead, I’d like your thoughts on the phenomenon of the ‘travelling preacher’ and the globalization of preaching that seems to be accelerating these days. I guess its not an entirely new thing—we read Spurgeon sermons in print all around Australia years ago in the 1800s—but the internet obviously has accelerated the process.

JP: Well this has become the Christian culture. As I look out at all the people at the Engage Conference here in Katoomba—as we look at these young people, young professionals—you couldn’t tell that you were not in America. The songs are the same, the dress is the same, the hair is the same. And I found much the same when I spoke in Samara, Russia, or Bonn, Germany. The media, and YouTube, and the internet has caused the music to be almost uniform, and the style is uniform, and there is so much similarity in the way people go about connecting with each other and God.

In fact, my sense is that the ‘internet preacher’ is now more significant than the ‘travelling preacher’, because what I’m hearing from these young people is that they deeply appreciate having access to resources for free on the internet.

DS: When you preach back home in Bethlehem Baptist, are you quite conscious of focusing the application of the Word on the particular people who gather in your church, to whom you are the pastor? Do you think about the people listening in around the world, down the track on the Internet, and do you consciously preach to the global church, or do you try to discipline yourself to preach exclusively to your church, and to see what the Lord does with it after?

JP: ‘Exclusively’ would be an overstatement, but ‘predominantly’ would be an accurate statement. I know that the ‘other’ audience is there, and because there are the cameras sitting out there, but I want to preach to this people, the ones I’m looking at, and the ones that I’m responsible for before God. You have to give an account before God to these people. I don’t think I’ll have to give an account for people in Sydney who happen to tune in. And so I’m thinking about what I know about this church, what I know about my city. But I can’t deny that if a global event has happened or I know that this is going to be streamed live on Saturday night, and several thousand folks are tuning in… I’m aware of that, and therefore if I say something, I might, you know, give it a twist that would be more universally understandable.

DS: What do you think is the best and worst of that changed environment for preaching and for the church globally?

JP: Well, the best I suppose is that people who are places where they have little access to faithful preaching, can listen to preaching. And I’m told this regularly by people in smaller towns, or out of the way places, or in Nepal. Lots of missionaries tell me: “You’re our pastor, we feed on you, there’s no church here, and we get together to listen or watch you”. I think that’s a good thing.

I think the bad is that you get a cluster of superstar preachers, and it probably causes a sense among the tens of thousands of pastors who don’t have any notoriety that they may have to struggle with their own sense of value. And I sure want to encourage those guys: God’s measurement of faithfulness isn’t whether you’re on the web, and thousands of people are tuning in, but whether you’re faithful to your calling.

And then I just think that there’s nothing new about the sin of pride, but it has new faces and new expressions. The love of praise of man is addressed by Jesus repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount, and we need a new measure of vigilance for people who are public. The danger is that we will become addicted to the kinds of notoriety and the love of the praise of man that comes with having an audience. And it can go to your head in a terrible and destructive way, and humility is undermined, and God just hates pride you know. He will just break it down. He has his ways, I think, to humble the proud.

DS: Can I ask a question about theology, and perhaps about personal calling as well. You spoke to the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society a couple of years ago, and you set out seven theses that you said were pretty close to the heart of what you felt God had put you on the earth to preach. The theses were mainly about God’s commitment to his own glory, and in that, God’s pursuit of our joy to his glory. I’m curious: Do you understand that seven-point summary as in essence what you, John Piper, are put here on the earth to preach? As the particular one of all the big important biblical themes that God has given you the burden of preaching and preaching again? Or would you say that it’s the summary of the Bible’s main message; that it is the big thing that the whole church is put on the earth to say?

JP: That’s a good question. I want to be careful, and I don’t want to be devoting my life to marginal things [chuckles]. And I don’t quite remember all the seven theses, so I can’t answer your question fully. But I would say that I do think the point of the Bible is that God has done and does all things for the sake of his glory. And that is central, and I think everybody should get that, and I would want everybody to get that. I do think the Bible makes it plain, and I think it’s essential to human psychology and the nature of the Trinity and the nature of the church, that God is glorified in our being satisfied in him, and I would like the whole church to get a handle on that. And the third thing, that I dealt with in last night’s talk, that the life that God calls us to live—let your light so shine that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your father—that life flows from those two convictions about the supremacy of God’s glory, and being satisfied in the life that flows from that. So I would like everybody to get that.

But now, when I say those three things—I don’t think everybody’s got to sound the same, not by a long shot.

DS: And not every biblical writer configures things in the same…

JP: Oh no, exactly. This is kind of discerning the sub-structure of the Bible, at really deep levels. And then there are lots of other layers—biblical, theological layers—that provide just hundreds and hundreds of ways to talk about these things. One of the reasons I’m so happy that I’m a pastor is that if you were to go to our people, they don’t hear what I’ve done here at Engage over and over and over and over again. Because at the moment I’m working though the Gospel of John, and I’m just trying to say what’s there in the text, but I am aware of theological themes that I’m tuned in for. So when John says:
“We beheld his glory, glory as the only son from the Father, full of grace and truth, and from his grace we have received all this grace from grace”, I’m hearing that with biblical, theological categories that are formed by the way that I see the whole Bible. So I’m doing concrete, practical exegesis on texts week after week, so it doesn’t feel like I’m riding hobbyhorses. And I don’t think our people feel that way.

I really believe in the particularity of the text, and I think that’s what I want to train guys to preach.

DS: In the article that I’ve written for The Briefing that I sent you, I spoke about a series of sermons on Acts you preached back in 1990, and your anguished reflections about the signs-and-wonders movement. In the original draft of the article I incorrectly referred to those comments as reflections on the Toronto Blessing, but then I figured out that was impossible, because Toronto was later. So was it the Third Wave ‘signs and wonders’ movement more generally that was the context of those 1990 sermons?

JP: Yes, the ‘Third Wave’ movement of John Wimber was the context. There were other movements subsequent to that—like Toronto, Brownsville and, and a few other things—but I always thought they were… odd, you know, more marginal. Whereas, as long as Wimber was alive, he didn’t allow for too much foolishness. I mean, a lot of people would say it was foolish because they don’t have any place at all for charismatic manifestations, but with Toronto and so on I’m talking about the ‘gold growing in your teeth’, and the laughing and the falling down and the barking—I mean, that was not the first expression of the Third Wave. The Third Wave was charismatic gifts without tongues. It was Pentecostalism without tongues, and what I did in those days was preach a sermon series called “Compassion, power and the kingdom of God”. They’re all online, you can hear everything in them… that’s one of the great things, or horrible things, about the internet…

DS: [laughing] Yes, you never escape your legacy…

JP: … yes, everything is online. I put a stack of books up on the pulpit, with Wimber and John White and all the books being written by Third Wavers on one side, and all the anti-charismatic stuff  on the other side (MacArthur, and the historic stuff by Warfield and so on). And I said “Now, those are the two things, and what I want us to do as a church is…” and I put my hand between them, “I wanna know where we line up here. [laughs] And that’s what I’m preaching these ten messages for. Join me in the struggle, because I want us to be biblical. Biblical, biblical, biblical. I don’t care what people say about this group or this group, I want us to be biblical.”

And so, we sent a busload of fifty people out to a Vineyard conference to listen. I went to that, and then they came to town and we went over there. I just encouraged my people, and said: “Be discerning, your Bible is your authority, don’t let anyone sweep you away, don’t fall down because they tell you ‘you should fall down’ or anything like that, but check out and see what’s discerning, what’s biblical here and what is of the Lord”.

And I think that’s the way we should handle all awakenings and renewals. And I think there was genuine there and there was chaff there. Anytime God seems to be doing something unusual, it gets messed up pretty bad by the devil. It did for Jonathan Edwards in his day, and it has today.

Now that was the context of the Acts messages. I can’t remember exactly what I preached, but it was about discernment as to the place of tongues, the place of prophecy, the place of gifts of faith, and miracles, and so on. And to this day, I’m convinced that the arguments that those have decisively ended are not compelling arguments.

However, it seems to me, both biblically and experientially, that there was an extraordinary outcropping of supernatural blessing surrounding the incarnation, which has not been duplicated at any point in history. Nobody has ever healed like Jesus healed. He never failed, he did it perfectly, he raised people from the dead, he touched and all sores went away, and he never blew it. He didn’t go around lengthening legs, you know…

DS: … or easing back pain for a day or two…

JP: … and clearly, in the rest of the Bible, not all diseases went away. My theology of healing is rooted mainly in Romans 8, in that we groan, waiting for the redemption of our bodies. And so, you know, when I came to Bethlehem in 1980, one of the first six sermons that I preached was ‘Christ and cancer’, and it was because I wanted my people to know where I stood on healing. So that if I walked into their hospital room and they were dying of cancer, they would not assume “Piper’s going to say ‘I don’t have enough faith… I’m a defective Christian cause I’m dying of cancer at age 45’”, and I don’t believe that. So I believe in healing, and I ask God to heal people, and I’ve seen some  healings—nothing stunning or remarkable that you couldn’t argue away, but I believe God hears and answers prayers for healing, and he does it when and how he wants. And I think some people are more gifted than others. What the gift of faith is, you know, ‘the prayer of faith will heal the righteous’, will heal the sick man, what is that? I suspect is has to do with some kind of special, arousing of strong faith in one of the elders, that they know that God’s going to do something here, and therefore they believe for it, and he does it.

DS: A quick footnote question: when the Toronto Blessing did come on a few years later, at the time did you immediately feel that it was a total aberration?

JP: I never felt inclined to go, so I didn’t travel up there. None of our people went, as far as I know, and I think it was marked mainly by the laughter, as far as I recall, and that just struck me as odd. I wasn’t attracted to it. I thought, “That’s weird. I don’t see anything particularly edifying in that.” It seemed marginal, peripheral. I look for what’s being cultivated.

You know, if somebody laughs and you put them over to the side, and you kind of say “Okay, that’s a strange thing”, that’s what I think Jonathan Edwards did. If somebody fell down on the ground, Edwards didn’t say “Oh wonderful! Let’s all do that!”, he would probably say, “Why don’t one of the deacons take him to the back because that’s… who knows what that is”. But when you start cultivating the marginal at the centre, and you want people to laugh, you want people to fall down, or bark or have something weird, then I think the locus has shifted. Here is an example: Paul Cain was a prophet in those days, and he’s been utterly discredited. And I went to an event of Paul Cain, and he prophesied over me. And he missed it. I watched him preach twice, and the way he used the Bible was to use it as a pump primer to get to the real thing, and the real thing was, “The man at the back with the red t-shirt, he’s going to Australia in three weeks, and he’s nervous, and I want to assure him that his visa will come through”. Now, that happened, and I believe it really happened. I have a place in my theology that the Holy Spirit can do that, and Paul Cain can be a charlatan. He was a charlatan, I think. But he really prophesied.

DS: “Signs and wonders to deceive even the elect… if it were possible.”

JP: Exactly. So as I began to see the ‘prophetic’, as they called it, that pushed me away. Because if you’re not more excited about what God has said authoritatively in his Bible than you are about what he’s doing through the Bible, then something is fishy. Something has been skewed, and that’s going to go wrong, and it has gone wrong. I mean, the Vineyard isn’t in the place today that we wished it were—women’s ordination and things like that. The shift happened. So I think by the time Toronto came along, the word of God written was being marginalized, where Wimber, it seemed to me anyway, tried to keep it prominent.

DS: A question about the future; if God gives you another 20 or 30 years of ministry, are there particular mountains you want to conquer? Tasks that you’re praying for strength to do in the next season, the next 20 to 30 years, God willing?

JP: Well, there’s a season left at Bethlehem, and I feel really jealous to leave the church strong when I’m finished. We’re a multi-campus church, and I really want to leave three strong ‘anchor’ campuses. We’ve got a central one downtown, one north (it’s purchased and living and vibrant), and one south, with about 800 people, and they’re in a high school. I’d love to see that campus anchored in its own locale. So that’s a church goal, that when I’m done this church is left theologically strong, financially solvent, and positioned for another 140 years of ministry, which is as long as we’ve been around.

At the scholarly or at the publication level, there are things I want to say that I haven’t got in writing yet. I want to do a book on providence, or sovereignty, just a big biblical book, kind of “okay, that’s what made him tick”, kind of the whole Bible. I’ve got this idea in my mind of what I might call it, and it’s a project that would take more than what I can do alongside my ministry.

I’d love to write a big book on preaching. I’ve a little book on preaching, a larger book on preaching and the ministry, and then I’ve got these series that I’d like to get in a publishable form. One on Romans, which would be a four-volume set like Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s, and maybe John.

The last thing is something that we just started, a Bethlehem college and seminary. I’m the chancellor, which is kind of titular, but I teach, and I would love to see that school on a really strong footing so it would be there for decades to come for the Lord, if the Lord would carry it. So teaching there is important.

And trying to discern, by travel like this, if doing a couple of international trips a year is a good investment of my life. I mean, for pastors who are in places where they don’t have conferences. We have about a dozen in America, conference after conference after conference, and there are places around the world where that is just not the case. So strengthening the global church by just being there, and teaching, preaching, praying. Those are some of my dreams.

DS: Can I ask a final question about battles and polemics? There have been a number of them that you’ve felt compelled to engage in. Which would have been the one or two that were most defining for you, and which helped you most in understanding the big things of the cause of Christ?

JP: Well, my memory’s always lousy, so you can correct me. But I would say that manhood and womanhood, open theism, and justification are the three that come to mind. There may be others, but those are the ones that I went to the mat on, and I’ve been profoundly gratified with all three of them.

Frankly, the battle fought in the late 70s and early 80s on manhood and womanhood, I’d thought we’d lost. And I mean, we did lose at one level—I mean culturally, I don’t think the culture is where I am—but I never dreamed that there would be anything like the ‘Young, Restless, Reformed’ guys who were complementarian. Unashamedly complementarian! I look at this and I say, “This is amazing!”

And when I see Matt Chandler, I say, “How did a young, cool, hip guy like you believe that men should lead their homes, that men should be pastors, when that would have been called obscene in the late 70s and early 80s? And he said: “The big blue book”.1 [Laughs]. I said “Really?” So that investment was worthwhile, and it was not an easy thing to do. I mean, Wayne Grudem and I used to take a lot of heat in those days for the kinds of things we were trying to do.

The battle with open theism was the most discouraging one because it was in my own denomination, and we lost it. I feel alienated basically in my own denomination. I mean, they’re not pushing me away, but I feel that our denomination has said that it doesn’t matter if we have a pastor who is an open theist, who says that God doesn’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow afternoon. I mean, this is wildly wrong. It’s blasphemy. So I’m disappointed that our denomination tolerates it.

And as for justification, well we’re not done with that one, not by a long shot. But I don’t think in his rejoinder to my book, NT Wright really came to terms with what I tried to say.

DS: Can I ask finally, as we pray for yourself, Noel, your family, and the church—what are the big, important things that we should praying for?

JP: Yes, well there’s no doubt what’s most important, ultimately: “hallowed be thy name”. But emotionally, what is on the front burner is that all my children would walk with Christ and love Christ. Everyday I would pray that. I’ve got kids from 38 years old to 15 years old, and they’re not all where I’d like them to be, and so if you could to remember to pray for anything, that would be it. You know, I dream of the day when I’m maybe 80 years old and all five of my children, and their spouses and their children, are on a pew together with us, and we’re singing with our hands lifted together in praise; one heart, one mind, one soul. Nothing would be better.

And that God would help me finish well, not blow it, you know? That nothing would go to my head, that I wouldn’t do anything stupid or immoral, that I wouldn’t just become lazy. I took an eight-month sabbatical a year ago to try and discern my own soul, and in many ways it was good, but in some ways it was frightening, because I didn’t do much. The church didn’t want me to do much, the elders said “stop working, you’re a workaholic”, but I just think laziness is a real danger in old age. Our culture’s saying “retire, kick back, get a new pace, play with the grandchildren”, and I feel like I tasted that, and it had a good taste, but it tasted like dessert. If you eat too much dessert, it tastes good while you’re eating it, but when you’re done you feel like ‘bleugh’ inside. And I thought, “I don’t want it, I don’t want to go there”. So I’d like to find a pace that doesn’t wreck the family or offend Noel, a really productive pace that draws her with me.

DS: There’s much more that I’d like to ask you, but I’m afraid our time is gone. Thanks so much for speaking with me.

JP: Thank you.

  1. Otherwise known as Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

5 thoughts on “A conversation with John Piper

  1. David, thanks for the interview. Some great questions and what a turn of phrase in some of the answers. Our culture’s retirement ethos is like eating too much dessert! Loved it.

    I was also encouraged to read what he said about healing. very helpful. And although what I experienced of Wimber in the end I judged more problematic, I was still helped by his remarks on how he approached the various waves of the charismatic movement.

    So Piper seems like a generous principled man, even when in polemics.

    One slight tangent prompted by the interview.

    I really enjoyed the KCC Oxygen Pastors and Leaders conference. However I wish they had got John Piper to do the expository preaching slots instead of John Lennox, and let Lennox do the topical slots.

    In regards to Piper’s comments in your interview, many Australians had already got reasonable exposure to his big themes through his books and conference audio downloads. I would have preferred to hear him

    just trying to say what’s there in the text, but I am aware of theological themes that I’m tuned in for

    Since he is confident his big themes he looks for are just about everywhere, and he’s got a pretty good case with the topic of glory and joy in general terms, then we would have still hard something typically Piper, but with the added bonus of his excellent exegetical work and particular application, as he preached through a couple of successive chapters of the Bible.

    My 2c worth.

  2. Pingback: A conversation with John Piper | The Briefing – speakingintonguesblogs

  3. Pingback: A conversation with John Piper | The Briefing – Charismatic Feeds

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