Farewell Words to Bethlehem Baptist Church
G. K. Chesterton wrote in his Autobiography, “The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed.”
How much more, then, does the enjoyment of a church — not a weed but the bride of Christ — depend on a sense of unworthiness in her service.
Before the Psalmist could exult in his dominion over the earth he had to feel these words: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4).
So I hope you will understand when I say that my joy in knowing you and serving you and feeding you all these years has been the greater when I have seen most clearly my unworthiness for the amazing gift that you have been to me.
When a Christian feels a sense of entitlement, anger and unhappiness are almost sure to follow. I know this not from mainly from seeing, but from sinning. The happy ones are the humble ones. When we know how little we deserve, we look for the gift in everything.
1. So the first thing I want to do in these final words is ask for your forgiveness. I am not aware of any personal grievance that anyone has against me (though I may be ignorant), but what I have in mind is this. Some of you feel more strongly than others the disproportion of tonight’s focus on good things. Others of you will be listening to a message on the ministry in ten years and your first thought will be: That’s right. And your second thought will be: Pastor John wasn’t very good at that.
I know that the true spiritual strengths of this church — not the outward marks of success that even the world with no spiritual taste at all will praise — but the true spiritual strengths of Christ-exalting love and joy and peace and patience and meekness and kindness and faithfulness and goodness and self-control are owing to the mercy of God, not the merit of the pastor. And I know that the weaknesses of this church — and everyone in this room could name some of them — are traceable to my weaknesses. And much less gentle words than “weaknesses” could be used.
Which is why, as those things arise in your mind, whether now or ten years from now, I ask for your forgiveness.
2. And the second thing I want to do is thank you for your merciful response to my ministry. You have welcomed me and encouraged me and followed me and learned from me as your shepherd and teacher and leader. I have no complaints about you. All my regrets are about my leadership, not your response. Thank you for embracing the word of God as I tried to unfold it. Thank you for embracing the calling to pray for me. Thank you for embracing each other in Christian forgiveness and forbearance and delight. Thank you for embracing the world and our mission to it. Thank you, most of all, for embracing Jesus as Savior and your supreme Treasure.
3. The third thing I want to do is thank God for my wife, and honor her as I leave this work. She didn’t sign up for this when she married me 44 years ago. She thought she was falling in love with a medical doctor. The vow she took on December 21, 1968 at our wedding was to be a faithful, supportive wife, for better and for worse. And never once in 33 years of pastoral ministry has she even hinted that she wished I would leave this work. Never has she spoken ill of you as a people. If I saw only darkness, she would point to the light. So, Noël, thank you, it is an understatement to say: This ministry would not have been possible without you.
4. And finally, I want to pay the highest public tribute to my Lord and Savior and supreme Treasure, Jesus Christ. Only because he died in my place and rose again and reigns as the supreme sovereign over every material electron, psychological brainwave, and demonic force have been able to do anything of value. He, with the Father and the Son is the only person in the universe who knows my heart and yours. And he will bring the secret things of the heart to light in the last day (1 Corinthians 4:5). And only because of his blood and righteousness can the believing chief of sinners say with lion-hearted boldness: “There is not now, nor will there be then, any condemnation.”
So I conclude with the final words of the apostle Paul:
The Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom [Join me there!]. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:17–18)
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