Under God, I Owe Him Everything
Bill Piper (1919–2007)
My father, William Solomon Hottle Piper — named after a Bible expositor that his father admired — was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on 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.
Besides my father’s conversion at the age of 6, probably the most decisive event in his growing-up years was what happened when he was 15. 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 one of his books:
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 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. . . .
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 about the soul-winning power of God as I was at the age of fifteen. (The Greatest Menace to Modern Youth, 22–23)
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.
Marriage and Ministry Begin
On May 26, 1938, soon after my father’s high school graduation, he and his brother Elmer married Ruth and Naomi in the same wedding ceremony. Elmer married Naomi Werner. And Bill married Ruth Mohn. Bill and Ruth were both 19.
They moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, to attend Bob Jones College. 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.
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.
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 our 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 two hundred 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 imminent 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.
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.
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, the unreality that his dementia created 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. (The Tyranny of Tolerance, 28)
Bob Jones University was and is one of the strongest representations 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 he struck more clearly than all notes was the doctrinal importance of fundamentalism.
Another dimension of fundamentalism that he embraced was authoritative preaching that was willing to name evil and defend truth. And 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. 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 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” (Tyranny of Truth, 10), 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’s homeroom, won the attendance award for the year. The award? The whole class would go to 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.
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.
My father 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.
Rivers of Pleasure
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?
The answer was gospel-rooted, Christ-savoring, God-glorifying joy. Long before John Piper read C.S. Lewis’s 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 talk about 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. (A Good Time and How to Have It, 48)
Long before John Piper ever read, “All men seek happiness” in Pascal’s Pensées, 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” (Dead Men Made Alive, 30).
And what are these pleasures that this fundamentalist was 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. (Greatest Menace, 39)
Christ the Supreme Delight
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” (Good Time, 70).
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. (Dead Men, 62)
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.