Thanks for taking this time. We really appreciate it, buddy. In the book, The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges — a book I know that you’re familiar with — in the section on preaching, Bridges draws from the diary of a pastor who is concerned about his heart prior to the preaching event. Here’s what this pastor wrote in his diary, “I have to observe in my mind a sinful anxiety to preach well, rather than a holy anxiety to preach usefully.”
I just want to ask you, are you familiar with this sinful anxiety to preach well rather than a holy anxiety to preach usefully? If you are familiar with that prior to preaching, how do you address it?
“Yes,” is the easy answer. I don’t think the new birth completely renovates the old heart. It introduces a new reality — a supernatural reality. The Holy Spirit moves in, a new nature is imparted we become creations in Christ. But the old man is ugly and real. I think I’ll be fighting him until I die. I think that’s what Paul meant when he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith, I finished my course” (2 Timothy 4:7). You’re saying that right to the end: I’ve been running to the end, fighting to the end, I fully expect to be fighting pride until the end.
Keller is absolutely right that the best and humblest moments of our lives are not the moments when we think less of ourselves but when we think of ourselves less. So what I pray for is miracles of self-forgetfulness, because if you’re aware of yourself preaching and you don’t like it, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re already aware of yourself. You’re already think about how you’re performing. You’re cooked. You can say, “Stop being aware,” but that’s self-defeating.
That’s why I call it a miracle — to be self-forgetful in preaching is a gift. You can’t make it happen because the effort to make it happen is self-contradictory to being self-forgetful. So I pray. My own most-used strategy in the minutes or say the hour or half hour leading up to preaching is A.P.T.A.T.
My way of stating the problem is: The biggest challenge of living a Christian life is how you act in such a way that another is acting through you. How do you act in such a way that another is acting through you? Let him who serves or preaches, serve or preach in a strength that God supplies so that in everything God may get the glory (1 Peter 4:11). How do you do that? Right now as we are talking, I respond in such a way that it’s God responding through me. That’s the biggest challenge for all Christians I think. That’s when you need to walk by the spirit, live by the spirit, put to test the diseases of the body by the spirit. How do I kill you by the spirit? Pretend that you’re sin.
How do you murder sin by the spirit? Anyway, my answer to that question is A.P.T.A.T. That’s Packer’s answers as well in his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit. I sit there on the pew and I say,
A, I admit that I cannot do what needs to be done here. If it’s left to me I’ll be arrogant, I’ll be proud, I’ll be self-conscious, I’ll be thinking about how well I’m doing or bad I’m doing, and it’s hopeless. I admit I cannot do this; it has to be done for me.
P, I pray. I admit. I pray. I pray for liberty, I pray for self-forgetfulness, I pray for power, I pray for the use of the Holy Spirit, I pray for the gift of prophecy as I understand the gift of prophecy in preaching. I pray for love, I pray for humility, I pray for food, I pray for effectiveness, alternate prayers coming out of my head, APT.
T — This is where I think the rubber meets the road. This one is to trust a particular promise. Really trust a particular promise. I have some generic promises memorized that I fall back on. If I’d just read something in the Bible that morning that’s pointedly appropriate for that moment, I’ll trust that one. My fallback is Isiah 41:10, “Feel not frightened; be not dismayed for I am your God. I will help you.” I just imagine God right there on the front pew ten seconds before I’m about to stand up to preach, “I will help you — Trust me. Trust me. Do you trust me?” If you trust him, he comes through. He takes over and you become free in your preaching. It’s a wonderful experience to be free from yourself in preaching. You trust, T.
Then you A, act. My arms are waving, my voice is speaking, my brain is thinking, my heart is feeling — I’m acting. We did a whole conference called “Acting the Miracle” because if it’s happening, if God’s doing this by His power, I’m acting a miracle. I’m acting but he’s really acting. I’m acting but he’s speaking. That’s the other A
And then the T is when I’m done I thank him. Thank you. It wasn’t perfect, but I thank you for what you did. A.P.T.A.T. is my way of acknowledging the truth of that pastor and then fighting against it.
Excellent. Are you familiar with the temptation after you preach? A temptation or tendency to discouragement?
Both ways. If you think you’ve done well — if you nailed one sentence you were hoping to get right — you might think about one thing and feel good about it, and that’s a frightening moment. Unless it is pervasively thankful, which it isn’t perfectly or pervasively with me usually. It’s got a tinge of thankfulness in it, and I’m sure glad I got that one right. I hope they appreciated that kind of thing. I think there is as much tendency to pride afterwards as there is before.
So your strategy when you’re done is?
To preach to myself that if there was anything of eternal significance that happened there, God did it. God did it. I was a mouthpiece. That’s the way Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 3:6 — one planted, another watered, God gave the growth. So he plants as nothing, he waters as nothing but only God gives the growth. You preach biblical truths to yourself about calvinistic theology — like those people are dead. Don’t you love Ezekiel 37? “Preach to these bones.” I love it. “Preach to these bones” (Ezekiel 37:4). He was up there and he said, “You want me to preach to these bones?” You preach to yourself like that. If bones are going to live, God makes bones live; I don’t.
I mean the reason a lot of pride takes root is because our concept of what needs to happen is too small. In other words, you can grow a church without the Holy Spirit — a big church. Thousands and thousands of people without the Holy Spirit, just like you can make a boat go with a motor and not a sail. If you know that people are dead and you want them to live and you know that can only happen by the power of the Holy Spirit, then it really does put you in your place. I think Paul had such a profound sense of sin and a profound sense of helplessness for those who were listening and for himself.
He knew that if a seed is to come to life — I can plant, another can water — a miracle has to happen to make that seed live. If that’s decisive, that’s the only thing that matters to you. How could you boast? If other things matter to you like a big church, and a lot of Twitter followers, and a lot of money, then you can boast because you’re going to achieve those things. You can’t achieve new birth. It’s getting our goals off onto achievable things that makes pride possible. If your goal stays on impossible things that only God can do, then you won’t be as tempted.
Okay. I could happily devote this entire time to preaching, but just one more question about preaching. What advice would you give to a young John Piper on preaching?
I’m trying to remember him. James Denny did give the best advice to John Piper I think when he said, “You cannot show that you are clever and at the same time that Christ is majestic.” Therefore, the tendency to want to put things a certain way in order to sound literary or sharp or pithy or hip. That wasn’t my problem usually, but it is for a lot of guys. I didn’t have a television so I didn’t know how to do it, but I had my own temptations. If you make it your aim to sound a certain way you will sound that way and people will like it and they’ll come back, but Christ won’t be majestic. He won’t be cherished, he won’t be loved, he won’t be admired, because you’re just too distracting. That was really good advice, it didn’t solve our problems but it was very good advice. You can’t make Christ look majestic and make yourself look clever at the same time.
Excellent. You’ve addressed us this evening about honoring the authority of God’s Word. Giving God’s Word functional authority. You just wrote a book on God’s Word titled A Peculiar Glory, and to read the endorsements is to draw attention to the importance of the book. Some are saying this is today even your most important book, so given all that has been written on the Bible, why did you choose to devote your now to this theme?
There are several things — several streams — flowing into that decision. One is legacy and not knowing how much time I have left and trying to think what will keep the church and the mission and worship what it ought to be. The answer is that the only thing that will keep it is a Bible that’s available and believed as authoritative, true, and beautiful. If you pull the Bible out of the equation, the church will last for a little while, but then it will cease to be. When I think about missions, when I think about people groups around the world, if they have the Bible, they always have a chance of finding the truth.
I mean you might look at them in one generation and say, “That’s the most whacko theology I’ve ever seen,” but if they have the whole book in front of them, God can raise up a Luther. He can raise up somebody that says, I don’t think that’s in here.” But if they don’t have this, what can they do? We’re just sitting ducks. That’s one piece.
So legacy was huge.
Legacy meaning, if I’m going to leave something behind which would be better: A book that tries to persuade people to go on trusting and looking at this or a book that convinces them that God is sovereign? I think this is more important. Even if a fourth of the people read the Bible that I hold up and become Arminians, because their children might see the truth about God’s sovereignty. If you take the Bible away and just have all this calvinistic deposit left, it gets blown away really quick without this. That’s what I mean by legacy. Another piece was feeling that I had seen something that I hadn’t seen defended except in Jonathan Edwards and John Owen, and therefore, not for our day in a long time.
Michael Reeves who was willing to cross the ocean to make some videos with us on this book he said, “I don’t think this kind of defense has happened since Owen.” Edwards had gripped me with the sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul” 2 Corinthians 4:4. I said, “That’s the key to everything,” as far as getting saved, as far as you knowing that the Bible is true. Those verses are all important. That’s a book that should be written. It was a burden. I felt I had seen something. And the third thing is apologetics is wonderful. It helped me at numerous points in my life. I’m so thankful for the Edward John Carnell types — that was my generation — and others along the way.
They’ve argued philosophically and historically for the credibility of this book and the worldview behind it. And at certain points in our lives, that’s exactly what we need to keep from being knocked over. Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world can’t read that kind of stuff — they never read it. They’re all supposed to be saved, and they’re all supposed to believe every word in this book, and they’re supposed to believe it with warranted belief — not a shot in the dark or leap off the cliff.
I hate Pascal’s wager, and I think that kind of argument is just deadly in the long term. “What have you got to lose? Believe the Bible.” You can’t believe that way. The very nature of faith is you can’t believe that way. You can walk on a path and not the other path that way, but you can’t believe. You can’t consider something beautiful you don’t think is beautiful.
My burden is for the village in Nigeria and all those people that will never read the historical, philosophical apologetics. The person who translates the Bible for them must believe they can look at this and know it is the word of God. They can know, and it’s a warranted knowing. How so? That’s what I wrote the book to say.
Excellent. Okay, so the sequel is titled Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture. It’s the sequel coming out in April. What’s the point and purpose of that book? Why that book?
As I was doing the first one and arguing that the most fundamental way people have unflinching confidence in this book is because they see — with the eyes of the heart — true glory straining through the meaning of the text, it hit me. If that’s true, there’s a certain way to read this book that would help that happen and there’s a way to read this book that would hinder that from happening. Reading the Bible supernaturally means if we must see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God — if you see that with the eyes of the heart — that is supernatural (2 Corinthians 4:4). What kind of reading sees that? Three hundred pages to answer that question. We all know that reading is about the most natural thing you can do. What could be more natural than reading? You learn grammar with verbs and nouns and objects. There are prepositions and prepositional phrases and clauses and there’s logical structure and there are all kinds of natural brain-processed reading. The last part of the book is about the natural reading of the supernatural Bible.
That’s what takes so many pages — that we are called upon to learn how to read when we’re three, or four, or five years old or later — and that is one of the most precious gifts our parents give us. We take that natural ability, and we do something as we read that causes this to be so compelling in it’s beauty — divine beauty — that when we’re done reading, we know we’ve read the word of God. I want people to know how you can know the Bible is the word of God, and then I want them, on the basis of that kind of knowing, to read the Bible in a certain way. This does not minimize scholarship, it just maximizes utter dependence on the Holy Spirit and ways of laying hold on him to penetrate to the glory.
I had the privilege and joy of reading the manuscript. I know of no other book quite like this book, so I want to encourage all of you to obtain this book, to devour it personally and to encourage church members to read this particular book. I’m not aware of another book quite like it? Are you aware of another book quite like it? Was there another book that inspired you?
I’ve seen some titles that are very similar to it recently, but I haven’t read them so that’s why I don’t know whether the content would be similar or not. I don’t know. In fact, I hope so. I mean I hope I’m not the only one. I think if I’m the only one saying these things it’s probably a problem.
You’ve served us well with that book. You’re consistently saying you are a painfully slow reader. If that’s accurate, then how do you —
There’s no doubt about it.
Okay. How do you determine, besides Scripture then, what books to read? What counsel would you have for pastors about how to read consistently and wisely?
I’m so bad at answering that question. I don’t have a very good method. What have you read lately?
Apparently more than you.
That’s the point. One of my answers is people that I respect recommending books. I was standing one day in the library with one of my professors in Germany. And this is just a small library of the evangelical faculty at the University of Munich. It has maybe fifteen or twenty thousand volumes. And we’re standing there looking at these. The bibliothek downtown has four million volumes and that’s just liberal arts. I said, “How do you choose what to read? He said, Man muss eine gute nase haben. Somebody want to translate that? Man muss eine gute nase haben — one must have a good nose.
What he meant was, you don’t read unless you smell that it’s going to be good. I think for him, it meant a quick sniff like that a dog. He’s got eine gut nase — he’s got a good nose. No bones in there.
Here’s another answer. That’s answer number one. Answer number two is what’s burning in here [my heart] that needs some fuel? Right here in this point of my life the Bible feels big to me. I chose this sermon, I wrote these two books, I’m in Andy Stanley’s face because of how he handles the Bible. The Bible is real big to me right now.
And I saw that Mark Knoll wrote a volume on the Bible in early America. I like Mark. He’s a classmate of mine from Wheaton and probably the best historian alive in America today from a Christian angle, and I bought it. I’m eighty pages in. But really I bought it because I like to have Mark Knoll on my shelf. It looks good.
You do that too? Excellent.
Nobody comes to my study though. I bought it and when I started reading it I saw insights of how the Bible has been read, — from the Reformation into England and now I’m in Colonial America — how it functioned politically. It’s functioning and it’s misuses and abuses are so illuminating, I can only put it down. It’s heavy duty history — you know how he writes. That’s one, what’s going on in here that feels like it needs fuel.
Another one is I read for soul food, not intellectual soul food, but soul food. I’ve got in my phone right now Audible. So I pay fifteen bucks a month for Audible books. One of them right now I’m listening to —
I think it is! It’s just digital! At any rate, I’m listening to Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity because it’s half Bible. It’s half Bible. He makes a point and quotes Scripture. Makes a point, quotes Scripture. It’s catechetical. I don’t listen to it straight through I listen fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there because it’s so dense with the Bible. That’s pure soul food for me. He sees things. Puritans see things in the Bible nobody else sees. I need help. I’m a sheep, and I need pastors. Puritans are generally my pastors.
Last thing I would say is imaginative literature — fiction — has had over the years for me a salutary effect, I think, in quickening my awareness of human life, and nature, and all the things that make life amazing from a human standpoint. So, I’m generally listening on my phone here to some fiction. Wouldn’t you like to know what I’m listening to right now?
Absolutely. Given that high price you’re paying.
Right. I’m listening to Gulliver’s Travels.
Why? In all seriousness, why?
Because I’m a lit major and I never read it. Evidently it’s supposed to be good because it’s a classic and I want to know. I just finished Moby Dick. I’ve never read Moby Dick. Whoa.
What did you study then as a lit major?
This is an easy question to answer. I’ve skipped all the novels courses because they’re too long. Seriously, I couldn’t read it all. They give you a stack of eight or ten novels to read in a semester. There’s no way I can read . . . I can read maybe one novel in a semester, but eight? I never took these courses — ever. I took 17th century poetry. Little teeny sonnet.
That’s what I should have done.
It’s never too late. Except it costs a lot of money.
I can’t afford that.
No. Don’t do it. But seriously — this is mostly encouraging for slow readers, right?
Yes, that’s one of my desires.
Okay. The reason I’m a pastor instead of a teacher in university or college is because I get to take one short paragraph a week.
Yeah I know.
And you know why I’ve written so many books? Because I don’t read anything. Saves a lot of time. I have Audible, and I jog, and I brush my teeth. There’s more truth there than you know. When I’m getting done the truth will come out. “He tricked us. We always thought he was a scholar.”
He is a dope like C.J.
Worse! You read like crazy. Way more than I do and remember it.
No. I don’t retain. It’s discouraging. It’s been three years, has it not, since you transitioned from pastoral ministry?
What did you enjoy the most about pastoral ministry?
A story that somebody had professed faith. The moments where I felt the most gratified would be those moments when I heard that on Easter someone sitting in the balcony there was made to live — was alive. Or that when — his name goes right out of my mind now — but he used to sit right there in front of me in the balcony in the old sanctuary with his wife. He was an unbeliever. He told everybody I’m an unbeliever. I come here because she wants me to. And every time we’d have communion, I would say if you are not trusting Jesus just let the tray go by. And I look right at him — not condemningly just longingly — because I would say, “You know, between now and when the tray gets there, you can be a new person.”
I remember him just because it was so stunning. This is what gave me happiness: One day, I’m standing at the back, and they are coming down the balcony steps, and he stops and takes my hand and he says, “We need to talk.” I said, “Anytime anywhere.” I said how about here, Wednesday night? There are a lot of testimonies being given in the service, and I’ll meet with you after at 8:30. You can come listen to them if you want. So he sat through about ten testimonies of how people came to faith, and then I met him in my room afterwards and he said, “I think I want to believe.” At about 11:30 that night, the deal was closed.
I baptized him a few weeks later, and he dropped dead of a heart attack some months later. His wife has been so happy ever since. There aren’t a lot of those stories, not as many as I would like. Even to this day, if you ask me what gets me excited at Desiring God, it’s letters that people are coming to faith through sermons or Ask Pastor John or whatever.
And my second answer would be preaching, I lived to preach. It was a thrilling thing to announce the word of God. I felt more alive in the pulpit than anywhere else. I worshiped God more, loved him more, enjoyed him more in the pulpit than anywhere else.
A close second — the worship leaders here will appreciate this. A close second would be the thirty or forty minutes before I preach because to me it was all one piece. What we are doing there in going hard after God in song and reading and what I did are seamless. That’s my view of preaching. My view of preaching was I get to continue that over the Bible. That’s all I want to do. I just want to continue that over the Bible. So my definition of preaching is expository exultation.
Yeah, great definition.
I think I’m still married because of corporate worship. We would have periodic, real struggles — not communicating, hurting each other with our words, feeling hopeless that we could be happy. And I would go to church under those awful conditions, and I’m supposed to preach. And in those moments of singing his greatness, his mercy, the gospel I would genuinely be melted and I would feel hope. I would feel like, “What an idiot” that you’ve made that much of that. That’s what happened to me repeatedly in song. In corporate worship, God struck me down with hope. He struck me down. “You proud, arrogant, selfish jerk!” And he did that with the gospel. And then he picked me up, enabled me to preach and go home and press on. We’re quite happy today, by the way. These are good days.
Excellent. Yes, they are, and it brings me great joy. What responsibilities or tasks or pressures did you find most difficult in pastoral ministry or even discouraging?
“Even discouraging?” That reminds me of a song in the 60s.
I’d live for you,
I’d die for you,
I’d even climb the mountain high for you.
Is that ridiculous logic or what? That’s what you just said. I’d live, I’d die, I’d even climb the mountain high. I don’t think he meant to say that. It just sounded cute. Now I forgot what you just said you said. Oh, right, what was even discouraging.
There was a distinction between difficult and discouraging.
Discouragement is a given. That’s why I said what I said. It could even make you want to quit. Even make you suicidal.
Don’t talk to me. This is where I’m gifted: to respond to nonsense like that.
I would like to see it.
I care about you. I’m here to serve you. I’m the person interviewing. I’m modeling humility. You can’t do that.
Okay, yes. I’ll just say it in passing because it won’t help to linger over it. Probably the most discouraging things in ministry are family things. We have already said Noël and I had struggles. And when things are hard at home, everything’s almost impossible. If things are good at home, you can survive anything, right. That’s why home things, kid things, and wife things are the most deadly things in the ministry. If it’s sweet at home — if the kids are where they need to be spiritually, if the wife is happy — bring it on Satan. That’s so obvious it hardly needs to be said, but I resonate with anybody dealing with that.
In the ministry itself, what became the most discouraging and paralyzing and that really eventually caused me to stop at age 67 rather than seventy, say, was: The church had grown. We had prospered. It looked really rosy from the outside. But the complexity and bigness of it was beyond me. I didn’t seem to be able to lead the staff to solutions for problems of pastoral care, small groups, member accountability that were satisfying to me — that we’ve got this figured out; we can do this. Every member cared for, every member disciplined when necessary. And every time we start down a track, something wouldn’t work right.
I never felt completely satisfied with our intra-care, intra-church care so that it looked biblical. The biblical picture of the one anothers of the New Testament. The church kept growing, which is not all that satisfying. I mean it looks great that the church keeps growing because they want to come sing and do missions and hear preaching that takes the Bible seriously and so on. But if they are not loving each other, caring for each other, doing evangelism, what’s the point?
That was a deep discouragement and deep frustration And I finally thought, I think given how complex three campuses is and four or five thousand people and 125 staff and good night! I’m a writer and a preacher. I didn’t think I was doing a very good job figuring everything out.
You pastored for 33 years. So what would you say to young pastors — although it’s applicable to all pastors — that are two or three priorities. In other words, don’t pastor without* this, or don’t neglect this. *What are two or three priorities, particularly for young pastors, but applicable for all pastors.
Right. Well, priority number one is your own passion for God. If you have it, the people will smell it and want it. If you don’t, you are dead. Your church is dead — even if it grows it’s dead. George Müller said, “My first business every morning is for my soul to be happy in Jesus. It sounds selfish, but it’s not it is not selfish. It is worshipful and loving because God is getting honor when you say I need you more than I need anything. I need to have my heart glad in you. Somebody asked him one time, “What’s that all about? And he said, “I just rolled sixty things on the Lord this morning.”
He’s walking through the day free for others. He’s able to touch others, love others because he’s left the burdens back there with Jesus. That’s number one: your own soul. My people need my personal holiness more than they need anything. M’Cheyne said that I think. That’s true, and there are so many pastors today — I look at seminar after seminar and book after book that seem to say you need to be sharp about a lot of things, like figuring out pastoral care.
More than that, the reason I lasted 33 years, even though I was never very gifted at figuring out those things is because the people got fed, and that’s what they need more than figuring out structures. They need food; they need to smell the aroma of Christ. They’ve been with Jesus. “I don’t get these men. They are not educated, but they sure are bold,” and they know that you had been with Jesus. When you walk into a staff meeting, the main issue is not whether you have read the latest Leadership Journal article on how to run a staff meeting. The main thing is, will they smell Jesus? Will they smell supernatural reality?
Either the church is supernatural or it’s nothing. So to maintain that supernatural walk, and to breathe that, preach that, embody that, bring that into every youth ministry you work with and every evangelism ministry and counseling ministries bring it everywhere. This is why I don’t get the hip, funny pastor. I don’t get it because he’s bought into a picture of success and what the church needs that I have no categories for understanding where he got that. I mean I get where he got it. He got it from television.
What the church needs is a witch doctor. I was talking to a missionary one time, and he said, “My only hope for success in my village is for them to view me as a holy man.” Not a well digger or an organizer or a builder of buildings. “Who are you? What are you?” “I’m a holy man. I’m a Christian who mediates God to you.” The church needs holy men — weird men, weird holy men. Spend hours with Jesus and come out do miracles. And instead what they get is comedians. What is that supposed to do? Well, grow crowds that is what it’s supposed to do. For what? To make them think God is the comedian in the sky? I absolutely don’t get it.
There is a kind of joy and a kind of seriousness and a kind of weightiness that the world is starving for— just starving for. And they go from church to church. But when they taste it — pastors who do that. Who get holy and stay serious with the people — mediate holiness and the weight of glory to the people. Of course that means that this book stays central. Your elbows are on either side of it every day. You’re on your knees turning it into prayer for your soul and for your people.
Our internet and media age has put new pressure on pastors, drawing everybody into public conversations about cultural issues and cultural events in particular. So a pastor can feel a pressure to weigh in to give their opinion related to certain cultural issues or events in the news. Tweets are made, blogs are written, controversy is provoked. How would you counsel ordinary pastors? How would you counsel us on how we should view our role in relation to such things? Should we speak? What kinds of issues should we address? How should we speak?
Well the rule that I think I would follow if I was starting today is the same one I followed before there was such a thing as personal computers. Think of your life’s influence in concentric circles, and put the most emphasis on the nearest people. Then move out from there. So live to make sure your wife and your children are well discipled. Next live for your church, write for your church. Today I suppose that would involve some kind of Facebook page for your church or whatever you use. For me, I created — the same week I got to the church — The Bethlehem Star.
It was a two-page piece of paper. We mailed it to every family, and I wrote a one-page article every week, just because I wanted to preach more than once. Well actually, it was twice: morning and evening those days, and I wanted to say more. I wanted to correct things I’d said or expand things I’d said to my church. Nobody else got it. And if anybody else got it, I had nothing to do with that. I didn’t aim at that at all. And so you go for that. I would be very slow to try to be a public figure beyond my church. If God has a public role for you beyond your church, that will happen without your design.
If you strategize for that it will probably have too much vanity in it to be of great service. This is what I say to people when they are finding their spiritual gifts or discerning their call to ministry. I would say, “Look, love your small group like crazy. Do everything the leader asks you to do. Help him in any way he asks you to help him, and if you’ve got a gift, they’ll make you use it. They’ll find you and draw you out. If you replaced your leader when he’s away, and you do a good job, guess what? A few of them will say, ‘Maybe we should split off and have a group.’ That’s perfect. Now you are a leader of a small group, and then you do that faithfully, and they are going to ask you to teach an adult class or something like that.”
Here’s the way it worked when I was halfway through my first year in seminary. I got real antsy because I was doing zero ministry. I went to John McClure at Lake Avenue Church where Ray Ortlund senior was the pastor and said to John McClure, “I need a job. I’ll do anything you want me to do in youth ministry.” That’s all I felt worthy or confident to do he said, “We need a seventh grade teacher.” I said, “I’m in.” For a year, I worked my tail off on Saturday afternoon for about four hours preparing lessons for seventh graders. The next year, they said the ninth graders need a teacher, so it felt like an upgrade for me — I skipped a grade. I did the same. I worked really hard and you know what happened next? The Galilean Sunday school class — that class still exists today at Lake Avenue forty years later. The Galilean young adults came and they said, “Would you teach our class?” And I said yes.
William Lazore approached me and said, “Would you be my teaching assistant in Greek? I said yes. Suddenly, two people had asked me to teach. I said what does that mean? I love teaching. They think I’m fruitful at it. That’s how it happens. So when I finished seminary, I didn’t know what to do, and they said, “Well why don’t you just go ahead and get another degree and then you can do anything God wants you to do.” That’s what I did. I didn’t know what to do, so I just got a doctorate, and one door opened to teach at Bethel College.
I went from seminary, and all I knew was I love this book, and I don’t have a clue what to do with it — preach, teach, missionary, write. I don’t know what to do, I just love this book. I want to understand this book, I want to apply it in some way to people’s lives for their good. Seventh grade, ninth grade, Galileans, Greek TA, PhD, college teaching, and at age 34, preacher. I couldn’t resist anymore the desire not only to analyze the text and teach it to 18 to 24 year olds, I wanted to see this word become living and powerful and effective across all the age ranges in the church.
I think the way that answers your question is, if you are a younger pastor, stay faithful — really, effectively, fruitfully, faithful to your people. Use all of your gifts for them, and if you are fruitful at it, people will draw you. They’ll invite you to speak, and then you have to ask, “Okay, am I going to do that?” It might not be wise, but it might be wise. For you to put yourself forward, for you to try to strategize some impactfulness on Twitter or whatever, that’s crazy. That’s going to backfire big time.
You wouldn’t recommend that?
I would not recommend that.
I’ve heard you say in conversation a number of times over the last few years in particular that you are concerned that complementarianism is becoming just a theological box to be checked rather than a doctrine to be celebrated. Can you elaborate on that concern and describe how pastors can celebrate complementarianism?
Whether that’s true depends on where you look I suppose. I think I’m pretty encouraged within my little tribe, like Reformed evangelical tribe, because in that tribe, complementarianism has a very strong, credible, and I think, beautiful foothold. I think a generation comes up within that, and they don’t feel how difficult it has been, and is to articulate the biblical rationale for that in a way that is beautiful and compelling. It’s kind of taken for granted. “Men are heads of their houses and that’s the way it is” — like the way I grew up in the 50s. That won’t hold the day. That will last another generation and then it will go away with cultural pressure.
I don’t have a television, but I do have a computer, and everything you want to watch on TV you watch on a computer. I have seen enough ads and enough programs — that I turn off eventually. I sometimes despair that our young people today could ever have a biblical vision of manhood and womanhood given what they watch on television. The role of women that is highlighted on virtually every program seems to me to constantly be saying that there are no significant differences here, and she could probably do it better.
She can kill better, do judo better, throw you off a cliff better, shoot this machine gun better, wheel that Ford better, take your head off better. “You’re are an idiot, and she showed you were.” The whole mentality of tough, hard, and sexy women. What are we going to do with that because that’s just so different than the Bible’s beautiful person of a gentle and quiet spirit which in God’s eye is very precious.
Anyway, I would challenge all younger pastors to not just think in terms of how can I prove what many others have proved — that men should be the heads of their homes — but rather what is glorious about this? What is beautiful about this? What is it about men, what is it about women that causes both to flourish most in all the ways God designed in a scenario of complementarianism as opposed to egalitarianism, or worse, as opposed to a secular kind of macho female that is so different. That’s the challenge, and really there’s nothing unique about that challenge. That’s the challenge with every doctrine.
If you’ve been around Sovereign Grace for a long time, then you know lots of doctrines that are distinctive and precious here, but taken for granted for a long time probably for a lot of people. You might have twenty, thirty, forty, fifty people in your parish who are brand new, and they don’t know that’s wonderful. You keep saying that’s wonderful. Have you shown them it’s wonderful? Have you found the words? Have you found the biblically rooted words to describe the reality as wonderful? That’s what we are always doing in preaching, whether it’s complementarianism or election or the sovereignty of God in suffering. This is a continual challenge.
So let’s conclude with this. We find ourselves in Sovereign Grace at a unique moment. We’re about thirty-five years old as a ministry and there are pastors in this room who have been around for the entire run, but many of the guys here have come in recent years. So we are at the beginning of a season where the baton is being passed — a transition is underway. You recently went through your own transition, so what advice would you give to us as we go through these transitional years?
Well, inasmuch as it lies within present leadership’s rights and powers, be ruthless in vetting new leaders theologically and spiritually and morally — ruthless. Set your standards so high that you won’t compromise them. If they look too high, then say, “We trust in God to raise up these people.” When I came to the point of deciding, “I think this is the time for me to ask the elders to make a transition happen,” I did not know who it would be. I didn’t know. I believed God would raise up somebody, and He did.
Jason is a stunningly excellent choice. I think that the church — I mean they voted off the charts positively for him, which just never happens on a closed ballot. You get 796 to eight on a closed ballot. It just doesn’t happen in a Baptist church. Wonderful affirmation.
So the second thing is faith that God will do it. Trust him and pray earnestly. I think the Lord stepped out in a key moment. I laid out four things that we were about to do in April of 2012 or something like that. And for two of them, we didn’t have any answer. What I said to the people was, “Our elders do not know what to do. Me and forty other guys, we do not know what to do about these two issues. But our elders know what to do when we don’t know what to do.” We prayed, and I said, “We are going to meet every Thursday morning at 6:30 and do nothing else but pray about this issues. You may join us in prayer — don’t come to the meeting, it’s just for elders — but get up at 6:30 and join us.” For six weeks we just did that. That’s a simple thing. That’s no big sacrifice. We didn’t pray all night — just 6:30 for one hour every Thursday morning focused on these things.The people knew our elders don’t know what to do. Our elders admitted publicly, and our elders are going hard after God. And God answered. God stepped in and answered. So that would be another thing — just call the, at every key juncture perhaps, call the movement to prayer for something that’s about to happen so that God would be pleased.
Then the last thing I’d say is the old guard must get out of the way. I’ve heard so many horror stories that if you are going to stay in the church like I stayed at Bethlehem — I’m still there I worship at nine o’clock on Sunday morning at the downtown campus — your existence must be circumscribed big time, and I think, documented. I learned this from Kevin DeYoung. So I said, “Here’s what I want to do, elders. You can call me anything you want or you can call me nothing, but I want a covenant between you and me, because I’d like to be there and the covenant will put boundaries around me, and it will tell you what you should do to me and it will tell me what I will not do here at this church, and how I will get permission of marrying or burying or counseling. Your hospital visitation is all going through Jason — nobody can come to me and get there directly. This kind of thing. I’ve got a page and a half document. They did settle on pastor emeritus, which means discharged with good behavior or something like that. So I think getting out of the way and putting boundaries around —
Getting out of the way at the right time though. There are a number of the old guard here that I don’t think should get away right now because they have much more work to do and the young guard need to be appreciative and respectful toward them.
I doubt that’s a problem here. it certainly was not at Bethlehem. I felt lavished with respect and care in those days. People were jealous for me, and I think that would be the case here. In fact, there was a good bit of hard feeling toward the elders when they read the document because they thought they had slapped me in a prison. I wrote it off and said, “Excuse me, I wrote the document.” They just signed it. I put those boundaries around me.” They didn’t say, “Oh, we don’t want Piper around.”
I respect you for that John.