Evangelist Bill Piper: Fundamentalist Full of Grace and Joy
Desiring God 2008 Conference for Pastors
The title I have given this message about my father is “Evangelist Bill Piper: Fundamentalist Full of Grace and Joy.” That title is meant to carry several apparent incongruities or paradoxes or ironies. I expect you to feel tension between the word fundamentalist and the phrase “full of grace,” and between the word fundamentalist and the phrase “full of joy.” But the lead word is evangelist. Underneath being a child of God, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, and justified by faith, and possessing all the riches of the glory of God in Christ—underneath that most basic identity, my father’s chief identity was “evangelist.” Independent, fundamentalist, Baptist evangelist—full of grace and joy.
The Paradoxical Christian Identity
It seems to me that any serious analysis or exploration of a human being’s life will always deal in paradoxes. It will see tensions. Again and again, the serious effort to understand another person will meet with ironic realities. Here is what I mean by irony: It’s the “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs." The dictionary gives this example: “Hyde noted the irony of Ireland’s copying the nation she most hated.” In other words, it’s a great irony to imitate the people you like the least.
It seems to me that there are very deep and basic reasons why every serious effort to understand another person—especially a Christian—forces us to deal in irony or paradox. One of the most basic reasons is that Christians are both fallen and redeemed. We are saved (Ephesians 2:8-9), and we not yet saved (Romans 13:11). We are adopted (Romans 8:15), yet we wait for adoption (Romans 8:23). We are pure in Christ, but not yet pure: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7). What an irony that unleavened bread should be told to become unleavened.
Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20); we are sojourners and exiles here (1 Peter 2:11). But the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (1 Corinthians 10:26); and “all things are yours, whether . . . the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours” (1 Corinthians 3:20-21). We were bought with a price and are slaves of no man (1 Corinthians 7:23). Yet, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13). Our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). Yet Jesus prays that we not be taken out of the world (John 17:15). Indeed, “some of you they will put to death . . . but not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:16, 18). In fact, you have already died (Romans 6:8). So consider yourselves dead (Romans 8:11). How ironic that dead should be told to consider themselves dead.
In other words, irony and paradox and incongruities are found in every Christian life because our very identity as Christians is paradoxical. That’s what it means to be a Christian. If you’re not a paradox, you’re not saved. In fact, I would go even farther and say, if you’re not a paradox, you’re not a human. What could be more basic to fallen humanity—and what could be more ironic—than that those who are created by God in his own image should use that God-like personhood to deny their Maker? Like a digging ant denying the earth; or a flying bird denying the wind; or swimming fish denying the sea.
Bill Piper: Human, Christian
So there are these two great reasons why, as I have pondered my father’s life, I have found him to be a paradoxical person: He is a Christian, and he is a human. Does it not seem like a strange incongruity—perhaps not a real one—that a blood-earnest, soul-winner, who hammered away at the temptations of the world and the dangers of the flesh should in his sixties celebrate the body of his wife with words like these:
Her hair is like an auburn sea,
Wind-whipped, waved, mysterious.
Her forehead, like a wall of pearl
Stands majestic, proud, serene.
Her wide-set eyes are like clear, sparkling,
hazel-green pools, calm, compassionate, penetrating.
Her finely chiseled nose stands firmly between
cheeks that are fair,
like pillows of down.
Her mouth is soft, pleasant and ruby rich.
Her skin is like the feathers of a dove.
Her breasts are like rose-tipped apples of ivory,
And her belly is like a ocean wave, smooth and restful.
Her legs are like pillars of granite, strong and firm.
And her feet like those of a deer, swift and beautiful.
Her breath is like sweet nectar,
Her kisses like perfumed flowers,
And her love like paradise.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Bob Jones University should produce soul-winners that write like Song of Songs. Maybe the incongruity is just biblical faithfulness. But almost everywhere I turned in my father’s life, there were these seeming paradoxes. He was human, and he was Christian.
And he lived with other humans and other Christians, who together created corporate paradoxes. Does it not seem like a strange incongruity—perhaps not a real one—that the most fundamentalistic, separatistic, worldliness-renouncing school in America, Bob Jones University, where my father graduated in 1942, should have as part of the commencement celebration in those days a performance of “As You Like It” (1939) and “Romeo and Juliet” (1940) both written by William Shakespeare, who in his own day ridiculed the Puritans, and whose Globe Theater was demolished by the Puritans in 1644? Isn’t it a strange irony how three centuries can turn worldliness into “a delightful comedy”—as the BJU program said in 1939?
So whether personal or corporate, my father’s life appears to be permeated with paradoxes. And under the title “Evangelist Bill Piper: Fundamentalist Full of Grace and Joy,” I hope to capture some of them in a way that gives you hope in the grace of God through the gospel of Christ.
An Old-Fashioned, No-Nonsense Rearing
William Solomon Hottle Piper—named after a Bible expositor that his father admired—was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, January 8, 1919. He was the third and youngest son of Elmer and Emma Piper. His father had been a machinist (I couldn’t forget that he was missing half of one finger), but after his conversion, he became a self-taught Bible student and then the pastor of West Wyomissing Nonsectarian Church. My father told me that he wouldn’t have been surprised if his father could quote virtually the entire New Testament from memory. My guess is that this was an overstatement, but it signals the massive priority of the Bible and Bible Study that passed from my grandfather to my father to me.
The upbringing of the three boys, Harold, Elmer, and Bill, was old-fashioned, no-nonsense, and strict. He gives us a glimpse into the discipline of his father in one of his sermons.
Behavioristic psychologists teach that temper tantrums and defiant attitudes are normal and healthy. To curb them is dangerous. If you discipline the child you will develop within him inhibitions and warp his personality.
I’m glad I had a father who believed otherwise. I got “warped” a good many times, but it wasn’t my personality! . . . O, yes, we had plenty of counseling sessions but generally he did the talking and when he finished I said, “Yes, sir.”
Old fashioned? Indeed it was! Scriptural? Absolutely! Right to the letter.I was reared in a family of three boys. To this day I can hear some of the neighbors and church members say, “Brother Piper, you are just too hard on those boys.” Nevertheless, all three are following Christ and two of them are Baptist preachers. There was no “doing as you please” in our home. My father believed he was responsible for the behavior of his children and as long as we were under his roof we were expected to obey.1
The strictness of his father had some surprising side effects that were profound. He told me about one of them. It turns out that both Bill and Elmer had disobeyed their father. Elmer was the older, so his father said that he was the more responsible and that he would get the whipping for both boys. My father told me with tears in his eyes a few years ago that he could hear the belt on the backside. Though he was just a boy, he said it was one of the most vivid pictures in his life of the substitutionary atonement of Christ in our place.
In a sermon about the salvation of children, he tells us about his own conversion to make the point that young children can be saved.
That children can be saved I know from my own experience. I have a brother who was saved at the age of seven and another who gave his heart to Christ when he was eight. I received Christ as my Savior when I was a boy of six. Certainly there were many things I did not know, nor need to know. I knew enough to be saved. I knew I was sinful and needed a Savior. I knew that Christ was that Savior I needed. I knew that if I would believe on Him and confess Him as my Savior He would save me. That is all I needed to know and that all any child needs to know to be saved. I trusted Christ and he saved me.2
The Call at Age Fifteen
Besides his conversion at the age of six, probably the most decisive event in his teenage life (and I mean even more decisive than his marriage to my mother at age nineteen) was what happened when he was fifteen.
He told me this story face to face several times over the years, and he always came to tears as he said it. He saw it as a moment of supernatural confirmation on his divine calling that never left him and that stamped his entire life. I will let him tell the story from his book The Greatest Menace to Modern Youth.
I can vividly recall the thrills that accompanied the delivery of my first Gospel sermon. I was fifteen years of age and had just surrendered my life fully to the will and service of Christ. The young people of our community had joined together to promote a city-wide revival and had invited a well known evangelist.
For the Saturday night service, the evangelist decided to turn the entire service over to the young people. For some reason I was asked to bring the message and to give the invitation.
I had been reared in a Baptist parsonage. All my life I had heard great preaching but I had never tried to do it myself. This was to be my first attempt. I didn’t know how but I tried. My heart was filled with zeal and I wanted to do my best for the Lord. The big night came. For my message I had selected some thoughts on about a half dozen Gospel tracts. At the time of the sermon I spread these tracts all over the pulpit and I simply preached from one tract to the next.
I don’t recall a thing I said. It probably was a poor sermon. But the thing that mattered was that when I gave the invitation to receive Christ [this is where the tears would inevitably come], ten precious souls left their seats, came weeping to an improvised altar and surrendered to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The thrill that came to me then is still with me many years later. I knew that Jesus had walked on the water but I felt as I left the building that night that I was walking on air! Believe me, I was on cloud nine! And, better still, I’ve never come down. What thrilled me most was the sudden realization that I had immeasurable power at my disposal. That the God of heaven, the God of the Bible, was willing to speak through me in such a way as to touch other lives and transform them and change their destinies.
I never dreamed such a thrill was possible for me. I had not known such power was at my disposal. I said then, “God, let me know this power the rest of my life. Let me be so yielded to Thee that I’ll never cease to know the thrill and joy of winning others to Christ.” And I can say with honesty, I am just as excited right now [this book was published in 1980, forty-six years later] about the soul-winning power of God as I was at the age of fifteen.Young people, believe me, the greatest thrill you’ll ever have this side of heaven is the thrill of leading another precious soul to Christ.3
From that day on, my father’s face was set like flint to be a full-time evangelist.
Beside his name in his senior yearbook are the words: “He wants to be an evangelistic preacher.” He never turned back.
Bill and El: The Gospel Songsters
In the last two years that he and his brother Elmer were in high school together they had their own radio program on WRW in Reading, Pennsylvania, called “Bill and El, the Gospel Songsters.” They sang and preached. Their theme song was a song called “Precious Hiding Place.” Until you hear it, you can hardly imagine how different the teenage world was seventy-five years ago. Listen to these brothers sing the final verse of their theme song, only this time in their seventies, not their teens, and try to imagine two seventeen- and eighteen-year olds singing this song on a secular radio station.
Perhaps my wife is right in her analysis: When she saw this, she pointed out that in 1936 adolescence as a distinct cultural phenomenon hadn’t yet been created. There was no such thing as a vast teen culture. There was no teenage music. Frank Sinatra was born four years before my father. He is usually considered the first teen idol. The beginnings of a distinct youth culture was just about to begin. So when my father was in high school the overlap between the music that mom and dad liked and what teens liked was much greater then than now.
In other words, my father grew up much more quickly than I did. He skipped a good bit of the usually-wasted years called adolescence, or what later was called the “teenage” years—the term teenager did not occur in the English language until 1941. He graduated from high school with his sweetheart Ruth Eulalia Mohn in 1936.
You can see from the note in her senior yearbook that her heart was bound together already in the calling of his life. Hers reads: “She intends to take up evangelistic work.”
Marriage to Ruth, College at Bob Jones
After graduation, my father traveled with the Students’ League of Nations and studied at John A. Davis Memorial Bible School in Binghamton, New York. Then on May 26, 1938, he and his brother Elmer in the same wedding ceremony married Ruth and Naomi. Elmer married Naomi Werner. And Bill married Ruth Mohn. Bill and Ruth were both nineteen.
They moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, to attend Bob Jones College. The school had moved to Cleveland in 1933 from near Panama City, Florida, where it was founded in 1927. Ruth and Bill both enrolled. My father was an average student and a very gifted speaker and actor. He had leading roles in several Shakespearean plays. He developed a deep admiration for Dr. Bob Senior, the founder of the school, and quoted him often the rest of his life. My father loved the education he got at Bob Jones. He never belittled the school as an educational institution. When the time would come for cutting off ties with the school, it was a deeply painful thing.
He graduated in 1942 and entered full-time evangelism. My sister Beverly was born in 1943, and I was born in 1946. That same year Bob Jones moved to Greenville, South Carolina, and our family moved with them. Greenville became the base of Daddy’s evangelistic ministry for the rest of his life. This is where I grew up.
The Rhythm of Leaving and Coming Home
Life, in my memory, was a rhythm of Daddy’s leaving for one week or two weeks or as long as four weeks, almost always on Saturday, and then coming home on Monday. When I dedicated the book Desiring God to him, I wrote
I can recall Mother laughing so hard at the dinner table that the tears ran down her face. She was a very happy woman. But especially when you came home on Monday. You had been gone two weeks. Or sometimes three or four. She would glow on Monday mornings when you were coming home.At the dinner table that night (these were the happiest of times in my memory) we would hear about the victories of the gospel. Surely it is more exciting to be the son of an evangelist than to sit with knights and warriors. As I grew older I saw more of the wounds. But you spared me most of that until I was mature enough to “count it all joy.” Holy and happy were those Monday meals. O, how good it was to have you home!4
He had been elected to the board of trustees of Bob Jones before coming to Greenville in 1946, the youngest board member ever elected at that time. In 1952, the University award him the Doctor of Divinity degree in recognition of the impact of his ministry in the churches of the United States.
Over the next decades, he preached in all fifty states, half a dozen other countries, held over 1,250 evangelistic crusades, recorded over 30,000 professions of faith, and published seven books of sermons.
The Challenges of Full-Time Evangelism
The personal toll this took on him, and what it cost my mother, was extraordinary. What keeps you going to hard new challenges week after week when it means you must leave the ones you love again and again? Here’s what he wrote in his book Stones Out of the Rubbish.
As an evangelist, my work necessarily keeps me away from my sweet wife and children much of the time. Some have asked me, “How can you endure being away from them? Why don’t you get a church and settle down?” There is but one answer. When I was a boy of fifteen, I sold out to the will of God. His will since that day has been the supreme passion of my life. There have been failures, mistakes and sins since then, but His blessed will has remained more important to me than family, home or friends. God called me to be an evangelist. I said, “Lord, this will mean homesickness, separation from loved ones, loneliness and sacrifice, but NEVERTHELESS, if that is your will, ‘I will let down the net.’” The blessings He has given have often been more than I could contain. The fruit I have seen has repaid me a million times over for whatever sacrifices I may have made.”5
Part of the burden he carried was the sordid stereotype of itinerant southern evangelists. It grieved him, but it didn’t stop him.
There is a reason why the words “evangelism” and “evangelist” meet with a feeling of nausea and disgust in the minds of thousands of thinking people today. . . . All emotionalism worked up in the energy of the flesh, deliberately aroused for outward results, or toyfully played upon by the impression-seeking preacher can leave nothing but bitterness in the bottom of the cup.Still others of my colleagues have been guilty of employing cheap vaudeville showmanship tactics which have done permanent injury to the cause of true revivals. Spectacular, misleading, crowd-pulling sermon titles, sensational predictions, erroneous prophetic interpretations, high pressure money raising methods, ostentatious dress and dramatic presentations are but a few of the current evils in evangelism. . . . We serve a spectacular God. The universe He made is full of the spectacular. Christ is a spectacular Saviour. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a spectacular Gospel. The trouble is that some poor sinners saved by grace endeavor to make themselves spectacular, thus injuring the Gospel they preach and the cause they represent. The glorious, beautiful, powerful Gospel of Christ does not need to be garnished with vain predictions or colored with sordid emotionalism.6
Not Your Typical Evangelist
My father was not your typical evangelist. He was a doctrinally driven, Bible-saturated evangelist. When he preached to save sinners, he explained doctrine. One outline from his sermon notes goes like this—and it is typical of the sort of preaching he did:
- Christ is our redemption
- Christ is our propitiation
- Christ is our righteousness
- Christ is sanctification
- Christ is our Example
- Christ is our Expectation
- Christ is our Completeness
He believed that the best way to call for repentance and faith was to unpack the glories of Christ in the gospel, which meant unpacking doctrine. He had about 200 sermons in his arsenal. He told me that about twenty of them were blessed above all others, and he would return to these again and again. What marked out his evangelistic preaching as unusual was not the stories, but basic doctrines of man’s helpless condition in sin, God’s holiness and wrath and the immanent danger of damnation, the glorious fullness of Christ’s saving work on the cross, and the free offer of forgiveness and righteousness to any who believed.
He was the most Bible-saturated preacher I have ever heard. When he took up the reality of the new birth, for example, the message was full of the Bible. Here is what I remember most of all from my father’s preaching—the relentless onrush of the Bible spilling over from his mind and heart.
My father loved the Bible. He believed the Bible. He built his life on the Bible, and he preached the gospel at the center of the Bible with unashamed authority and almost no frills. And God used him mightily in the salvation of sinners.
Separation and Exile
In 1957, something happened that broke his heart and changed the scope of his relationships. I don’t know all the details. I just know that in June of 1957, Daddy called Bob Jones from a meeting in Wisconsin and resigned from the board of the school. The ways parted. I was eleven years old. Before that I had watched soccer games at BJU and seen films that they made. The campus was just across the highway from our home. But after 1957, there was no more connection. We were not welcome.
The larger issue above the particular details was the issue of separation. Christian fundamentalism today is defined largely by the doctrine of separation. The issue of whether to separate from Billy Graham and renounce his work became pivotal in 1957. His New York crusade began on May 15 and ran nightly for four months. The supporters of the crusade were not all evangelical. And the lines of separation became blurred. My father would not renounce Billy. And in the end, there was a division between my father and Bob Jones. This was one of the great ironies of his life. The movement that nurtured him and shaped him, the school that he loved and served, would no longer support him. Only near the end of his life was there a reconciliation as Bob Jones III reached out to my father. It was a sweet ending to a long exile.
Death of Ruth, Marriage to LaVonne
In 1974, my mother was killed in a bus accident in Israel. My father was seriously injured but survived. They had been married thirty-six years. A year later, God gave my lonely father a second wife, LaVonne Nalley. I performed the wedding ceremony in December of 1975.
The effect of my mother’s death and my father’s second marriage was profound on our relationship. It took my father one more step away from closeness to me. LaVonne was a southern lady with deep roots in family and place. In the twenty-eight years of their marriage, LaVonne never came to Minneapolis. My father came twice. Since we only saw each other once a year or so, the relationship with the new relatives was cordial but not deep. It never felt very much like family. So it felt like my father had been drawn into an intimacy that was no longer focused on the family he fathered but the new relationship he had with LaVonne.
My relationship with my father had always been one of admiration and respect and tremendous enjoyment when we played games together or fished. But we never talked much about personal things. And with the death of my mother, and the movement of my father’s heart into a new world of relationships, the distance that I felt grew even greater.
In the Shadow of Evangelistic Effectiveness
It never changed my basic feelings for him. I felt a tremendous affection and admiration for him. In fact, in my adult years, I felt a huge compassion or pity for my father, first because of the sacrifices he made to do the work of evangelism, and then because of the death of my mother, and then because of his increasing dementia. My emotional default reaction to my father was never resentment that he wasn’t home enough. My reaction was: How can I show him that I love him and help him to know how much I esteem his work and the faithfulness he has shown?
I always felt supported, loved, and admired by my father. He spoke well of me. He thought I was crazy for leaving my professorship at Bethel to be a pastor, since he thought I was exactly where I belonged. But when the decision was made in 1980, he supported me and loved hearing news from the church. Most of all he loved hearing stories of conversions.
I have always lived in the shadow of my father’s evangelistic effectiveness. I think it’s been good for me, because my father’s life is like a living parable of the priority that God puts on the salvation of one sinner who repents. “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). My father’s life is a constant reminder of that truth. I am thankful for it.
During the years after my mother’s death and my father’s increasing inability to travel in evangelism, the Lord opened an amazing door with the creation of international correspondence courses that my father wrote. Rod of God Ministries grew up with tens of thousands of people in Africa and Asia taking these courses. That ministry continues today under the leadership that my father put in place. It was a thrilling gift to him as he aged because he was able be involved in writing and teaching into his mid eighties.
Only in the last couple years was his memory so impaired that he couldn’t serve in that way. His second wife LaVonne died August 4, 2003. After a brief stay in independent living in Anderson, South Carolina, near his church, Oakwood Baptist, that cared for him so well, we moved him to Shepherd’s Care in Greenville, owned and operated by Bob Jones University. It was, in my mind and his, a kind of homecoming—to the school he loved and to the fundamentalism he never really left—and paradoxically never really belonged to. I look back on God’s mercy in my father’s final days with tremendous gratitude. The Lord took him on March 6, 2007.
After his deepest identity as gospel-glorying child of God, my father’s identity was most essentially evangelist. This defined his life from age 15 to 88. In the last days, his unreality that his mind created at Shepherd’s Care was not casual times with his family but evangelistic crusades. “Across the lawn there is where the meeting will be tonight.” From beginning to end, he was defined by evangelism.
But he was also a fundamentalist. By his own self-designation. It was not a term of reproach but of honor. In the first decade of the twentieth century, liberalism was gaining a foothold in most denominations. The common word for the liberals then was modernists—those who believed that modern science had made some essentials of the Christian faith untenable. My father defined modernism like this:
By “modernists”, we mean ministers who deny the truth concerning Jesus Christ: His miraculous conception, His absolute deity, His vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind, His bodily resurrection, and His personal visible return to this earth. Modernists also deny the need of regeneration by the Holy Spirit and the fact of a literal hell.7
In other words, in the early days of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, the battle was not for marginal doctrines or behaviors but essential doctrine—“fundamentals.” When J. Gresham Machen wrote his response to liberalism in 1923, he did not title it Fundamentalism and Liberalism but Christianity and Liberalism because he believed liberalism was not Christianity at all.8
Two years before my father was born, the four-volume set of books called The Fundamentals was published (1917). In 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick fired his shot across the bow of the ship of the church called “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” My father grew up in this super-charged atmosphere of modernism threatening the very life of the churches in America. In his early sermons in the forties and fifties, he returned to this battle again and again:
Christianity is in the throes of a gigantic conflict with the enemies of the Lord. The followers of Satan have shown their colors and the Faith is being blatantly denied and rejected. Corruption and disintegration have begun in a dozen denominations where the enemy had spread his deadly poison.9
The breach between modernism and fundamentalism keeps getting wider. . . .
“The faith once for all delivered unto the saints” has been shunned in favor of bloodless faith which glorifies man, denies his depravity, rejects the absolute authority of the Bible and the Deity of Jesus Christ.10
In fact, by the time my father was ten-years old, most people recognized that the battle to save the mainline denominations from liberalism was being lost. Then the question became how to deal with this, and the debates about degrees of separation altered the meaning of the term fundamentalism in the 1930s. It ceased to mean “orthodox Christianity” over against those who denied essentials, and came to refer one group of orthodox Christians, namely, the ones who believed that the biblical way forward was strict separation from denominations, groups, and relationships that were not fully orthodox and were not separated from those who were not fully orthodox.
Bob Jones University was and is one of the strongest representations of this development of fundamentalism. And my father embraced it and was defined by it—up to a point. For him, the heart of fundamentalism was the true doctrine. His passion was evangelism—saving people from perishing in hell by leading them to the divine Savior and his substitutionary work on the cross. In other words, if the fundamentals were not true, the gospel is a false hope, and evangelism is misleading. Therefore, the note struck more clearly than all notes was the doctrinal importance of fundamentalism:
Though fundamentalists do not agree upon every point of doctrine, they are definitely agreed upon the essential elements of the Christian faith: the total depravity of man, the absolute deity of Christ, the vicarious, substitutionary atonement for sin through the blood of Christ, His bodily resurrection, the need of the new birth and the blessed return of Christ to the earth.11
Another dimension of fundamentalism that he embraced was authoritative preaching that was willing to name evil and defend truth.
Too many present-day pulpiteers are soft pedaling the Gospel. Even many who are robed in the vestments of fundamentalism are void of a semblance of holy boldness in their preaching. They handle sin with kid gloves, avoid great issues and shrink from declaring cardinal doctrines. Pussyfooters in the pulpit! What a tragedy! They are a blight to the Church and a blockade to the Holy spirit’s blessing.God wants trumpets in the pulpit, not violins, trumpets that sound the reveille and warn of the judgment to come. . . . The tabooing of negative preaching has taken the fire and brimstone out of the pulpit, dried the tears of repentance and kept the altars empty. I would not for a moment minimize the effectiveness of the positive proclamation of the glorious transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . It is my contention, however, that the sledgehammer preachers of yesterday were not entirely wrong, and that a balanced, middle-of-the road position must be taken.12
Then there was the fundamentalist vision of separation not just from false doctrine but from all forms of worldliness that weaken the boldness and spiritual power of a Christian.
Every Christian who indulges in the sinful pleasures of this world is a compromiser and a stumbling-block. No dancing, theater-going, card-playing, gambling Christian can hope to be a soul winner or have a testimony for God. If men see this world in you, you will never point them to the next.13
I grew up in a home where it was assumed we would not smoke, or drink, or gamble, or play cards, or dance, or go to movies. We were fundamentalists. So why didn’t I kick against this growing up? I have never thought ill of my parents for these standards. I have never resented it or belittled it. When I was in my early twenties, I was indignant in some of my classes at Fuller Seminary when certain young faculty members were cynical and sarcastic about fundamentalism. They sounded to me like adolescents who were angry at their parents and their backgrounds and couldn’t seem to grow up. I never felt that way about my parents or about the fundamentalism of my past. Why?
I think I know why. My mother and my father were the happiest people I have ever known. This strikes many as an incongruity, a paradox. But this is the key to my father’s influence on me and, I believe, one of the keys to the power of his ministry. The fundamentalist forcefulness in the pulpit, the fundamentalist vision of “the razorsharp edge of truth,”14 the fundamentalist standards that move from the Ten Commandments down to dancing and card-playing—all of this was enveloped in a world of joy and freedom.
Freedom? Fundamentalistic freedom? Yes. I’ll illustrate. When I was in the seventh grade, our class, Mrs. Adams’ homeroom, won the attendance award for the year. The award? The whole class would go a movie at the Carolina Theater on Main Street during school time. My heart pounded. I went home and asked my mother—Daddy wasn’t home—what should I do? She said, “Do what you think is right.” I weighed all the factors, and I went.
The next year, in the eighth grade, a girl called me one night and asked if I would go with her to a dance. It was one of those Sadie Hawkins events where the girls invite the guys. She was a pretty girl. My heart pounded again: Uh . . . I don’t dance, I said. She said, We don’t have to dance, we can just sit and watch. Uh . . . just a minute. I went and asked my mother what I should do. (Daddy wasn’t home.) She said, “Do what you think is right.” Then she checked her calendar, and we were going to be out of town. Saved.
What was my mother, speaking for my father, doing? She was saying: We have standards, son, but they need to come from the inside. If they don’t come from the inside, they are worthless. On these issues, you’re old enough now to discover who you are deep inside. When my parents said, “Do what you think is right,” they were not foolish relativists. They were wise fundamentalists.
“Truthing in Love”
Soon I was old enough to start talking about these issues with my father. Daddy, why is there a split between you and some other fundamentalists? One thing I remember above all about these conversations. He went to Ephesians 4:15 over and over and reminded me that in all our devotion to the truth we must “speak the truth in love.” He used to love to play on the Greek verb and translate it “truthing in love.” He felt as if fundamentalism was losing the battle mainly for spiritual and attitudinal reasons, not doctrinal ones.
Already in the 1940s, there had emerged in my father’s preaching and teaching and writing a warning about the dangers of fundamentalism. For the careless listener, this could sound like he was abandoning the ship of fundamentalism. Some would say he did. He would surely say he didn’t. I don’t think he did. Let me try to capture the spirit of this warning from his own words:
Some professing Christians, often those who boast of their fundamentalism, are given to a grievous censorious and critical attitude toward everything and everybody. As one man I knew has said, “Some people are born in the objective case, the contrary gender and the bilious mood.”. . . For one to profess to know Christ and have real religion and at the same time to manifest a sour, critical, negative attitude is disgusting and abhorrent even to the ungodly. Certainly anyone with such an unsavory nature could never hope to be a “savour of life unto life.”15
Then there is this amazing passage that folds the critique of fundamentalism in with a much wider concern and shows the scope of my father’s burden. He is not picking on anyone here, he is groaning over the lost power of the church and longing for the day of great revival.
When backslidden Christians confess their waywardness and return to God; when worldly Christians stop their smoking, drinking, dancing, card-playing and show-going and heed again the message of separation; when pharisaic negative religionists who boast loudly of what they do not do, forsake their contemptuous pride, covetousness and carnality and return again to their “first love”; when slothful, sleepy, negligent Christians are filled with the Spirit and feel again the thrill of their salvation; when stagnant fundamentalism is replaced by aggressive evangelism; . . . when anemic sermons are red again with the crimson blood of Jesus; when the average church ceases to be merely a center of social interest and becomes again a source of spiritual influence, does more praying and less playing, more fasting and less feasting, showers of revival fire and blessing will again fall on America.16
He said that there is a world of difference between being separated and being consecrated. If we don’t move beyond separation to consecration, our separation is worthless. This is what my parents were saying to me when mother said, Do what you think is right, Johnny. The issue in this family is not whether we keep separation rules, but whether we have consecrated hearts.
I have seen many Christians who are separated but far from consecrated. They boast pharisaically of what they do not do and fail to see that they are doing almost nothing for God. . . . Consecrated Christians are Christians who are so busy serving the Lord that they have neither time or taste for the things of the world. They have found their joy and complete satisfaction in Christ.17
Fundamentalism ceased to be a term my father could use for himself without profound qualification. And this didn’t change for forty years. Here are some of the strongest words I ever heard from his mouth about the dangers of fundamentalism, and these were delivered in Greenville, South Carolina, at Washington Avenue Baptist Church, when he was in his seventies.
If Christianity, as he said, is not rules and dogmas and creeds and rituals and passionless purity and degrees of goodness, and if the devil himself is a fundamentalist (because he knows all the fundamentals to be true), then what is the heart of the matter? What is Christianity? What was it that undergirded and overshadowed everything else in our home and in my father’s ministry?
Stunned by the Gospel
The answer was gospel-rooted, Christ-savoring, God-glorifying joy. My father was stunned by the gospel. He exulted in the gospel. Everything in fundamentalism was secondary to the glory of Christ enjoyed in the gospel. The gospel meant salvation, and salvation meant, in the end, total satisfaction in Christ:
Other religions are spelled, “Do,” but Christianity is spelled, “Done.” If you would be saved, you must place your trust in the finished and perfect work of Christ on the cross. In Him all sin was punished and God’s holiness was vindicated. God is satisfied with Christ as to the perfection of His life and righteousness, and as to the completeness of His work in the sinner’s behalf. God’s only requirement for salvation is that you, too, be satisfied with Christ and His work.18
Satisfied with Christ
Where did I learn that delight in God is our highest duty? Before Jonathan Edwards and before C. S. Lewis and before Daniel Fuller, there was Bill Piper, unsystematically, unapologetically, and almost unwittingly saying: God’s only requirement is that you be satisfied with Christ.
Long before John Piper read C. S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory and learned about the folly of making mud pies in the slums because one can’t imagine a holiday at the sea—long before that—he was hearing his father talkabout the cow and the barbed-wire fence by the road.
I have often seen a cow stick her head through a barbed wire fence to chew the stubby grass bordering a highway, when behind her lay a whole pasture of grass. I have always been reminded of Christians who have not learned to completely trust Christ, reaching out to the world for sensual pleasure when rivers of pleasure were at their disposal in Christ.19No, no one is denying that there are pleasures to be had in this world. . . . That is not the point. The point is that there are other pleasures to be had in this life. Pleasures so great in depth, significance, satisfaction and duration, that they far exceed the pleasures of sin. They are the pleasures to be found in the knowledge and service of Christ.20
“Everyone Wants to Be Happy”
Long before John Piper ever read, “All men seek happiness”21 in Pascal’s Penses, he was absorbing from his father these very truths. This from a sermon in the 1940s: “Everyone wants to be happy. Sinners seek it in pleasure, fame, wealth and unbelief, but they seek in vain. Christians have found the answer to happiness in Christ.”22
And what are these pleasures that this fundamentalist is so ravished by? Like Lewis, my father answered: They are everywhere.
The devil never made a rain drop or a snow flake. He never made a baby smile or a nightingale sing. He never placed a golden sun in a western sky or filled the night with stars. Why? Because these things were not his to give. God is the creator and the possessor of them all and he lovingly shares these things with us.23
Christ Himself, The Supreme Delight
Is it any wonder my father was a poet? Poets are people who see the indescribable glory everywhere and will not be daunted in their passion to make language serve its revelation. My father found reason to rejoice everywhere he looked. He had an invincible faith that all things serve God’s wise purpose to reveal his glory. Even in his final years of dementia, he rejoiced. In the last month that he was able to keep a journal (April of 2004), he wrote, “I’ll soon be 86 but I feel strong and my health is good. God has been exceedingly gracious and I am most unworthy of His matchless grace and patience. The Lord is more precious to me the older I get.”
In other words, not the pleasures that lie strewn everywhere in life, but the pleasures of Christ himself are the supreme delight. “Every believer has in Christ all the fullness the world longs for. Christianity, therefore, far from being dull and dreary or a harsh system of rules and regulations, is a gloriously free, real, victorious and happy life.”24
And, he adds, it never ends:
His grace is infinite. It is fathomless as the sea. In glory, throughout the ages to come, we who are saved will behold an endless display of these riches which we now have in Christ Jesus. [Then, always the evangelist, he says, and I say] I trust that you all are sharing this wealth. If not, you may. Simply place your faith in Christ and start reveling in the riches of God’s grace.25
“Fully Satisfied with Him Alone”
One last thing, lest he fail to get all the credit that he should: He preached a very provocative message once called “Sanctifying God” from Isaiah 8:13 (“Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.”). What was his answer to the question, How do we “sanctify” God—how do we esteem him and honor him and set him apart is the supremely valuable Treasure of our lives?
He gives his answer in the form of a very personal discovery: “I knew . . . that God was sufficient, abundantly able to supply my every need and the need of all who would trust Him. But to sanctify Him as such, I realized that day that I must live a contented life, a life fully satisfied with Him alone.”26 Or to quote the echo of the father in the son: God is most sanctified in us, when we are most satisfied in him.
What an evangelist! What a fundamentalist! What a soul full of grace and joy!
Thank you, Daddy. Thank you. Under God, I owe you everything.
1 Bill Piper, The Greatest Menace to Modern Youth (Greenville, SC: Piper’s Evangelistic Publications, 1980), p. 30.
2 Bill Piper, A Good Time and How to Have It (Greenville, SC: Piper Publications, 1964), p. 65.
3 The Greatest Menace to Modern Youth, pp. 22-23.
4 John Piper, Desiring God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003), pp. 13-14.
5 Bill Piper, Stones Out of the Rubbish, (Greenville, SC: Piper’s Publications, 1947), pp. 63-64.
6 Stones Out of the Rubbish, pp. 27-28.
7 Bill Piper, The Tyranny of Tolerance (Greenville, SC: Piper’s Publications, 1964), p. 28.
8 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1923), pp. 49-50.
9 The Tyranny of Tolerance, p. 38.
10 Ibid., p. 19.
11 Ibid., p. 29.
12 Ibid., pp. 10, 11, 17.
13 Stones Out of the Rubbish, p. 62.
14 The Tyranny of Tolerance, p. 10.
15 Bill Piper, Dead Men Made Alive (Greenville, SC: Piper’s Publications, 1949), pp. 28-29.
16 Stones Out of the Rubbish, p. 33.
17 Ibid., p. 62.
18 Dead Men Made Alive, p. 24.
19 A Good Time and How to Have It, p. 48.
20 The Greatest Menace to Modern Youth, p. 22.
21 Blaise Pascal, Penses (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), p. 113, Thought # 425.
22 Dead Men Made Alive, p. 30.
23 The Greatest Menace to Modern Youth, p. 39.
24 A Good Time and How to Have It, p. 70.
25 Dead Men Made Alive, p. 62.
26 A Good Time and How to Have It, p. 17.
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