Friends You Need Are Buried in the Past

Q&A on Reading Christian Biographies

Theologians on the Christian Life Conference | Bethlehem College & Seminary

Thank you, Rick. That was a very generous and kind introduction. It’s a real pleasure to be back at Bethlehem Baptist Church and to be sitting with my mentor and friend, Dr. John Piper. Stephen Nichols, who is here and whom you will hear from tomorrow; he and I co-edited this series, and both of us are historians and lovers of church history.

We really wanted to put together these volumes and to get some of our favorite people to contribute to them, not merely so that you would learn more about figures from church history, but so that you would know the Lord more deeply and have these wonderful saints from the past through the means of current friends and theologians and teachers help us all understand the Christian life and how to walk with Jesus and know Jesus better. We are thrilled and we are thankful.

We’re going to start the event with, really, an hour-long conversation with Dr. Piper to talk about history. He was not a contributor to the series, but he has been a friend and supporter of it and has his own personal history with church history and with biography. We thought it might be fruitful and helpful to sit and talk about it together.

I’ll give you my mini-theology of introductions. I believe in keeping them short and sweet. You don’t want to come here to hear introductions, so I will give for each person who speaks just a very short introduction to who they are. Of course, this is a man who needs very little introduction. He was the pastor here at Bethlehem Baptist Church for over thirty years. He is the founder and teacher at Desiring God and currently serves as chancellor at Bethlehem College and Seminary. Thank you for sitting down and having this conversation. I’m looking forward to it.

Let’s start by talking about your own personal history when it comes to biography, church history, heroes of the faith. Did you read missionary biographies when you were a kid? Did you have an interest in history growing up? I’m testing your memory to start out.

I didn’t read anything as a kid. I hated to read. I think I read my first book that didn’t have pictures in it when I was in the 11th grade. I remember sixth grade they put stars on a chart. You get a star for every chapter. And I’ll look for picture books and just flip through them and put my star up there. I hated to read and that is probably because I’m slow and probably more dyslexic than I know I am. So, no, I don’t remember reading any biography in high school or junior high or before that, though I may have. My memory is blurry really when it comes to my youth.

So here’s Wheaton now and I can’t remember reading any back there either. I do remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer coming onto my horizon some time at Wheaton. And I read The Cost of Discipleship, and I wanted to know more about this man’s sacrifice, this man’s life that felt big. I did fall in love with reading in the 11th grade and I’ve never stopped reading since. So something happened. Mrs. Clanton happened, and I don’t know what she said or did, but there she was, an English teacher in the 11th grade, and everything turned on under her teaching.

So I did become a reader though. I’m super slow and we can talk more about that later — how do you do these things when you can’t read much. So a little bit, but when I went to seminary, I started to meet the people that would change my life — Jonathan Edwards — and I don’t remember reading a biography during seminary, but when I headed to Germany I do remember a bunch.

Well, I take that back. The summer after I graduated, or maybe it was summer between junior and senior year, I read the Minority of One by Clyde Kilby, a biography of Jonathan Blanchard, the founder of Wheaton College, and I read it because Kilby was a very moving professor — that’s why I read it. I didn’t give a hoot about Jonathan Blanchard, but I loved Clyde Kilby.

I loved everything that came out of his mouth in class. I love the way he saw the world. I love the way he wrote. I love the way he laughed. I love his rosy cheeks. He looked like he’d been drinking, but you can’t drink at Wheaton. So I assume it was something else. And he wrote this biography of the founder, and I remember sitting on my pink chair in our living room at 122 Bradley Boulevard loving this biography because of how tangible it felt, how living it was, how well written it was, how beautiful it was, how it focused on real life and touchable things.That’s what Kilby was — he was the embodiment of Lewis for me. So I remember reading that one.

I also remember reading since around Kilby, in Germany, he went to Ludwig Maximilian University, and I went through the card catalog looking for Clyde Kilby in Germany because I just felt hungry for Clyde Kilby. And lo and behold, they had a book called Colonial Heroes. And Kilby had written the chapter on David Brainerd.

And I remember reading it and I remember one thing and it was deeply moving. This is why I say books don’t change your life, sentences do. He said with a kind of sigh and ache and almost tears, “Oh that David Brainerd could have seen the world, the wilderness of New England, the way his mentor saw it.” Meaning you read five hundred pages of David Brainerd journals living among Indians in the wilderness and you will not find one sentence about the beauty of nature.

Edwards loved, spiders, clouds, grass, and fields. Edwards saw the world and everything in it as as a type of God pointing to God. And Brainerd was a sick man. He was mentally ill and he had leukemia almost his entire adult life and he died at age 29 and is a tragic hero. And Jonathan Edwards — this is a lesson about biography — takes the life of this broken man, poured his life out for the salvation of Indians, seeing little revivals, he pours his life into a book. That book may have been the most important thing for the spread of the kingdom Edwards ever did — just to tell, just to give to the world that man’s life. But Kilby’s rendering was tragic. It was tragic life to the glory of God. And part of it was because he was so introspective, he couldn’t see sunrises, he couldn’t see sunsets. And so I remember that.

And I read another thing. I read three biographies of Edwards in Germany by Ola Winslow, Perry Miller, and I forget what the other one was. And so I met Edwards in seminary really, but I don’t think I read a biography there, but while I’m all alone, I’m sitting in my little rocking chair with my wife in Germany and loving my friend Jonathan Edwards.

And for people who don’t know your own biography, after you finished your doctoral work in Germany, you moved to Twin Cities and taught biblical studies at Bethel College for six years. Any biographies or history stand out to you in that time period that you made it a point to try to read figures from the past or learn more about certain folks, or not?

I think I read another biography or two about Edwards and may have others, but I don’t remember biography standing out during those academic teaching years. I sort of was trying to be a scholar, meaning to write technical stuff that nobody reads, and so I was really in another world. I was trying to stay up on German scholarship and learning French in the summer or say the latest word on Romans 9. And so I wasn’t spending my, well, I was going to say what spending my downtown reading biography, but I did.

I remember one time I decided. Everybody was talking about C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I was 32 years old. I’ve never read them. So I decided I was going to stop working at 5:15 p.m. instead of 5:30 p.m. — on schedule. Noël, my partner, everything is on schedule. We can eat at 5:30 p.m. I’m going to stop working at 5:15 p.m. and everyday I’m reading fifteen minutes in the Chronicles of Narnia, and I read straight through them. And I’d go upstairs with no else. After, she’d say, “Well, what happened?” They were in a battle and it was 5:30 p.m. She’d say, “I can’t believe you.” But I got fifteen minutes a day. You get it done. Chop the tree down, but got to eat at 5:30 p.m.

Now, 1980, you come to this church, you take this pastorate, you leave the academic world, you become a pastor. You have any thoughts come to mind or memories from engaging with biography? I know, in particular, maybe a prompt for you, as you’ve mentioned reading Warren Wiersbe’s little biographical sketches.

There are three of those biographies, and I got them out this afternoon because I thought you might ask me that. One is called Walking with the Giants. One is called Listening to the Giants. And one is called Giant Steps. And I think he kept writing them because they were popular, and they’re little teeny biographies, like three pages, and, oh my, were they inspiring. I looked at it this afternoon and I thought I hardly put any markings in these. I mean, weird. I don’t read anything without marking it up and it makes me wonder if I started marking stuff up later or not. I don’t know why that was.

I remember being inspired by these because I was utterly green as a pastor, right. I’d never been a pastor. I skipped all the practical courses in seminary and I came here never having baptized anybody, never having visited anybody in the hospital, never having done a funeral, having done one wedding in my life, I maybe preached fifteen sermons. And I’m the pastor of a seven-hundred member church with three hundred old people on Sunday morning. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know anything except my Bible, which is all you need to know. So I skipped those courses again.

I do remember my conscience being really pricked by reading pastors, and The Reformed Pastor is not a biography, but it was plenty autobiographical by Richard Baxter. This man took his whole city and visited everybody in it every year until the place was Christian through and through. And I thought, oh my goodness, how do you do that in the Phillips neighborhood? And so it was about eight years, this may be getting ahead of ourselves, but between the beginning of the pastorate, 1980 and when the pastor’s conference started.

It seems like one possible lesson of application is, you don’t need to read a three-hundred-page biography or four-hundred-page biography in order to be instructed, edified, and inspired. It seemed like you really got your start by reading sketches.

Sketches. Yes, right. In fact, I think, except for really good biographies, you can get discouraged. I’m discouraged right now. I’ve never read a biography of John Wesley and that’s shameful of me. So I checked around. What’s the best biography on John Wesley? Reasonable Enthusiast, I think it’s called. It’s a very technical biography. I should’ve checked. It’s sitting there on my table. It’s been sitting there for months because I’m so bored by it. And I got to finish this.

Now, that’s not good. It’s a disappointing read, but Mark Noll thinks it’s the best one. So the point is that you can get a big thick biography and be really discouraged. The most recent one by a scholar at Edinburgh on John Knox just came out about two years ago. I found that one disappointing. I struggled to get through it because I’d never read one on Knox and you have to know Knox. Why I have not done a biography of Knox here at the pastor’s conference and I said, “Well this is just not inspiring.”

So there’s something about a good biography. If you’re going to hold your mind for 300–400 pages on a life, it better be a good story. It better be a well-told story with insight into heart and mind and relationships, not just facts. It takes an unusual gift to write a good biography. There aren’t many of them.

Let’s talk about good biographies and what makes a good biography. As Dane Ortlund and I were riding over here from the hotel, we were talking together about the fact that, let’s say you have a fantastic biography. You could read someone’s life and write down every principle and lesson of application that you learned from the biography. But why aren’t just a list of the principles effective in and of themselves? What makes biography done well so much more compelling and grip us and give fresh insights, rather than just a list of 22 lessons from the life of Spurgeon or Edwards?

One way to say it would be that in a well-written biography, they used the narrative of a person’s life with an attention to the surroundings, the heart, the mind, the family, and the sufferings, so that how he lives or she lives is what the Bible tells us to do in Hebrews 13:7. So “Remember . . . those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their life and imitate their faith.” There is a lot in that verse and it surely is warranting Hebrews 11, right? So those who spoke to you, the word of God and Abel’s blood is still speaking even though he’s dead. Everybody in Hebrews 11 is dead. They’re all dead, which means that all these people were supposed to consider their lives and the outcome of their faith of dead people.

And we’re supposed to look at something and get lessons or living experiences of how they lived. How did Moses escape from the fleeting pleasures of Egypt? He looked to the reward. So if you spell that out over a lifetime, that would be a powerful lesson to learn. So I think the answer why biography is compelling is because it has a biblical warrant. We should be asking: What’s the point of my life? Why am I on the planet? And the answer is you’re on the planet to become holy and happy to the glory of God. That’s why you’re here.

Then you should ask, “How does the Bible teach you become holy and happy?” And one of the ways is to imitate me, Paul says, imitate me. Fix Your eyes on those who walk according to the example that you have in me. God has appointed that I would become happier in God and holy by looking at holy people. He said so, and most of them are dead, and so choose carefully those people who can best be a part of God’s means of making you holy and making you happy and thus, through your gifts, useful.

The other one is another way to say it, besides the biblical connection is systematic theology, church history, biblical theology, those are all slices of looking at reality. A good biography is psychology, it’s history, it’s politics, it’s family relations, it’s piety, it’s suffering, it’s what makes us smile and cry. People want to live. We want to live. We don’t just want to think, right? We want to be happy, we want to grieve well, laugh well, love well, walk well, and look at the sky well. You don’t get that from a lot of books, but a well-written biography that narrates the life of a person living life fully draws you out of yourself so that you feel the possibilities of life. Maybe that’s it. You feel possibilities of life.

Here’s one more thing that came to my mind recently. If God is calling you, which he is, to grow in the grace and knowledge of God, if he’s calling you to become happier in him, more holy in him, and he’s calling you to become wiser, you’ve got maybe, what, 70–80 years to work on that?

If you learn it all in the last decade, you’ve got no time to use it. So you need to learn it early — early is short, right? Thirty, forty, fifty years? And our experience is so narrow. I mean your little life. I mean there are seven billion people. There are twelve-thousand cultures. There are seven-thousand languages. You don’t know anything, right? We’re all just in our little cocoon of reality in America — the little evangelical pond.

Well, guess what? You can speed up that movie. That’s a slow movie and it’s narrow, right? Your life is a slow movie and it’s narrow. You got to speed it up. You know how to speed it up? Go to school, read a book — meaning put the movie on fast forward by reading a life. So here’s a man, here’s Edwards, or here’s Cowper or whoever, and you can read this book in two weeks — a whole life in two weeks. While it would take you a life to live a life.

And now you get to live a life in two weeks and think: if you learn ten awesome things that he learned from suffering or from success or failure, if you learn those ten things, they would have taken you ten years because you won’t bump into those circumstances until you’re 35 or 45. If you could read a story of someone who walked through their midlife crisis, you could read that story in thirty minutes and be ready to meet it when it comes. Awesome!

So reading biography or taking courses or going to school or having good friends that can tell you ahead of you, it’s all part of the same thing. God has ordained that we not learn all of our wisdom by living it. It’s too late. You just can’t get enough experience in seventy years. You got to have help and you could just put that thing on supercharge with good biographies.

That is really helpful. One of our hearts behind this whole conference is we want people going back and reading the primary sources, actually hearing from these people directly, not just through intermediaries. One of the things about this series is that you have somebody like Tony Reinke, who has read everything that John Newton has written and tried to collate them.

Very discouraging. I love Tony. You here, Tony? Wave your hand.

It’s his wife’s birthday tonight. He’s wisely not with us. He’s a good husband but, you get these guys who’ve read ten biographies and tried to distill the best possible principles.

I don’t do it that way.

You started doing the biographical addresses with Edwards in 1988? Is that the first year? It was here?

Yes. This building wasn’t here in 1988.

This building didn’t exist, but right down there you gave the first biographical address on Edwards to a group of pastors. Do you remember how many were there?


Okay, eighty pastors. You had read a lot about Edwards, what made you want to give an hour-long address on his life with lessons for pastors in particular?

That’s an easy question to answer because in the years from 1980–1987, I was listening to biography or biographical addresses by Ian Murray. Unsurpassed. I just think Ian Murray is off-the-charts effective — in his quiet British way, off-the-charts effective — in telling stories and drawing up lessons. So he was my model. I listened to him on Charles Spurgeon, and can you imagine somebody criticizing Charles Spurgeon? I mean, just think of it. And Ian Murray said, “Now the problem with Spurgeon’s preaching” — I was thinking, I don’t think there were problems — “The problem with Spurgeon’s preaching is that he never preached on the moral law.” Can’t find any series on the Ten Commandments. That’s the sort of thing you get in good biography, like, “Whoa.” Eyes go open and you think something.

I’d listen them on cassette tape while running. And Ian Murray was the model for me, and I thought to myself, “Those are so meaningful to me, so inspiring to me as a young pastor that I want to do that.” And so I did it every year for 25 years, I think, or 27 years, whatever it was.

You conceived of it from the beginning as an annual thing?

I did. Yes, but I didn’t know we could keep doing these conferences. You know, the first time you do something, you don’t know if it’s going to work or not. But the guys who came to it said to do it again. And so we did it again, and we’re still doing it. Edwards was number one because he’s been number one. He’s number one in my life, number one in my influence. So I prepared that for the first conference.

Why not just recommend that other people read biography? What do you think is important about pastors? I know not everybody here is a pastor, but you recommend that pastors actually present to their people biography. Why not just say, “We’ve got a bookstall out there, and I want you all to read Ian Murray on Edwards.” What is it about presenting that is particularly helpful, you think?

It’s short. Half of the people in your churches aren’t readers. I remember sitting one time with a friend at my house from Olivet Baptist Church. David leans over and says — I’ll make up a name — “Tom, what are you reading?” And Tom looked at him and said, “I don’t read.” And David didn’t believe him. He said, “I don’t read.”

You’ve got a lot of people out there like that, but they’ll come on Sunday night. We used to have Sunday night services here and that is where I did William Cowper, and in my experience of doing Cowper before people, not pastors, but people, I got more feedback of encouragement from the life of William Cowper on a Sunday night service than I think anything I’ve ever done. That’s because, first, he was depressed all of his life and tried to kill himself three times and, second, because people love stories. They love lives. They love lessons that are strong meat in good stories. And so it’s good for your people. That’s the first thing I’d say. It’s good for your people. It’s good for their souls and it’ll inspire them then maybe to go get a book.

I find, now that I’m not under pressure to produce a weekly sermon and I’m not under pressure to produce a biography, it’s easy for me to read and its in and out. It’s just in and out of my head because the pressure is not on to prepare anything with it, do anything with it. It’s just pleasure. Well, that’s got its place, but oh my, the fruit for our souls when we’re forced or have the discipline to collect insights, organize them, put them in a useful form. And we took a whole conference to make the point: the effort to say is a way of seeing and so a pastor who tries to say helpful things will see more helpful things. So it’s good for your own soul. It’s good for you people.

What was your method that you used, or would you recommend to others? Somebody who says, “I want to get into a Spurgeon. I want to take this year and make this the year of Charles Spurgeon, the year of Lloyd-Jones, the year of Luther.” What should they do? How did they pick out a biography? How did they make it so that they’re not just data in, and they forget it? What did you do?

Let’s see if I can keep this short because it got down to a science because there were 25 of them. I chose the biography just by what major theological/pastoral figure I didn’t know anything about and thought I should — those who seemed to rise to the surface of influence. So that’s kind of how I chose. George Herbert wouldn’t be in that category, but I love George Herbert. I love poetry. And so let’s do poetry one year. So I chose him at least by the summer before January when the pastor’s conference was, and I took a biography or two on vacation and tried to read it. That’s all I did on vacation when I was reading — wasn’t with the family — this biography and underlining and marking with little things in the margins, not writing anything down usually, with little notes at the front. So I did that.

And then after vacation, I tried to read another one. So if I could, I’d read two, a substantial one and an inspirational one, — one shorter, one longer; one technical, one less technical, and underline them both. And then I knew that if I don’t have any authenticity at all, I need to read some original stuff – letters, journals, sermons. Got to get into what they really say because what people say that people say, good grief, that’s just so off sometimes. And you need to read the original works.

So through the Fall, I’d be reading that. So come January, now I’ve read all that I have time to read. And here’s the great thing: You should know my biographies are not scholarly. They are not impressive. They are what you can do when you have nine months.

And I just want to encourage pastors: Don’t be daunted. Your people don’t know any better. They don’t know anything about Spurgeon. Nine months of reading in Spurgeon, you’ll be an absolute expert as far as they’re concerned and you’ll be an idiot as far as Spurgeon scholars are concerned. Now if you let that daunt you, you’ll never do anything. You’ll never do anything.

So I said to myself, look, what I’m doing is preaching a sermon on a point I want to make and I happen to use Spurgeon, and I’m unashamed about that. I’m preaching with these biographies, so that’s what you got here. I’m not trying to fool anybody like these are scholarly dispassionate, objective stories. Baloney. I don’t even believe in that. So I read as much as I could read and it wasn’t a lot.

And now here’s January and we have these study breaks, where we went off by ourselves for four days to northern Minnesota with the whole staff called study break. And my job on study break was a brain dump from all those books onto the computer. I didn’t start these until post-computer — got my first computer in 1985. We started this in 1987. However, I didn’t think ahead that there such a thing as dictation software. I don’t think it existed. So for years, I’m typing flat out quotes from books onto a document, just quotes, quotes, quotes, quotes, quotes, 60 single-spaced pages. By the end of this four days, give or take, and then that’s as far as I can get.

About ten years into that, I started using dragon dictate. Wow, did that save a lot of time. So I’m just reading these quotes into my computer. Awesome. I love it. And now I’m home and I set aside maybe three or four days before the conference to do something with that sixty pages of quotes.

And here is how I did it, and I would recommend you consider this. I put it in a word doc and I went up to the top and I pushed the button that says number — number the paragraphs. Creates four-hundred paragraphs all of the little number in front of them. And then I read through and I’m aiming now to make some sense out of this hodgepodge of four-hundred paragraphs of quotations from all over the universe on this person.

And so I’ve got this second document and I’ll put a number one and number one is family and everything relating to family. The numbers that correspond to those paragraphs are going right there. When I’m done with that first pass, I’ve got about sixty or seventy numbers with lots of little numbers and this is my first organization of all that mess.

Now while this is happening, ideas are coming to my head of what I want to do — what I should say and how I might say it and I’m making my little notes in there and I have one more pass now and I’ve got to go through there and come out with not a gazillion quotes but enough order that I can start writing. And I start writing, and sometimes the writing just takes over and it goes into a totally different direction, which is okay. The way I did it took us about seven months to do all the reading and writing.

Let’s talk about different approaches to history and biography. You’ve already mentioned Ian Murray and how much you were helped by his work and his approach. George Marsden would be another historian who does biography. I didn’t look up how old the two of them are, but similar age, maybe Ian Murray’s a little bit older. Both have written on your favorite theologian, Jonathan Edwards. How would you describe the differences between the two of them and what you might benefit from one another?

This is a technical debate that historians know more about — way more than I do — between scholars like Mark Nolly, and George Marsden, and Grant Wacker, and Joel Carpenter, and those evangelical historians, and Ian Murray. I love Mark Noll. Mark and I graduated together. We’re going to have dinner together in a few weeks then at Wheaton in our fiftieth reunion.

Mark would call what Ian Murray does tribal history, meaning that he writes with a perfectly open evidence that he believes what Edwards wrote. He believes in providence — controlling events — and he is totally empathetic with Edwards, and he’s not trying to assume a position of neutrality or distance. That would be tribal because the tribe is going to read and like it.

The secular scholars are going to read that and say probably that it is not too reliable because it is too biased. They would want to write with at least visible assumptions that the guild in the universities, who are not necessarily evangelical or Christian, could read with high-level of expectation and respect. You get Harry Stout on Whitefield. You get Marsden on Edwards. This is a continuum and not an either-or, right? This is not one kind of history or biography and here’s the other kind — clear break. No way. When I read Marsden, I expected something like Stout on Whitfield, which I thought was awful – snide. At least the first half. Something happened to him and he got saved or something.

I like Harry Stout too, but something changed in the middle of that book. It’s just snide up front, and I did not like it. I didn’t think it was good history. I didn’t think he used a good attitude, but there’s nothing like that in Marsden — not a whiff. Marsden is about as cutting and is as high-level serious historian as you can get, and I could smell his love for Edwards. I smelled it, and he couldn’t hide it, and I doubt that he was trying to hide it.

So I think it’s probably possible to write an excellent scholarly biography that wins a hearing in the wider world and is not snide about your subject matter. Trying to distance yourself from it in some way. And he just says flat out at the end that he is who he is. And so I think I would love both of those biographies — Ian Murray and George Marsden — and they are different.

Here’s a difference, but I just saw it this afternoon. So somebody would say that Marsden at least admitted that Jonathan Edwards owned a slave. He wrote half-a-dozen pages on that issue right up front. Disappointing and discouraging to discover that, right? I don’t think Ian Murray mentioned it. Guess what? Neither did Perry Miller. Neither did Ola Winslow. Perry Miller is an atheist — was an atheist, doubt if he is now — he’s dead. And Ola Winslow didn’t have a special love affair for Jonathan Edwards.

There is something about — this is so important for all you historians — the times that put pressure on us to see what we ought to see or not see, what we ought to feel, or write about what we ought to write about. And so that Murray didn’t mention slavery may not be owing to a whitewash, but something else. I just throw that out there. It’s good to mention the flaws — the flaws of our heroes.

That was actually the very next question I wanted to ask: How do we think about our heroes, who not only are sinners, as we all are? Nobody should be surprised that our heroes sin — but what do we do with significant ongoing blind spots and sinfulness that is unrepented of?

We’re just coming off of the MLK events, and many white conservatives recoil celebrating King because of his rampant adultery. We aren’t quite as quick to ask about somebody like Edwards, who owned another human being and did that because that other being’s skin color was different from his own. That person couldn’t worship where he wanted or travel where he wanted or organize his day how he wanted. He was owned by Jonathan Edwards or somebody like Martin Luther, who, as far as we know, did not repent of inexcusably vile things that he said about Jews.

How do you handle that as you’re looking at your own heroes in your own so-called tribe? How does that work with sanctification? What sort of lessons does that have for us?

The first thing I would say is that no one is helped by whitewashing our heroes, your heroes. No one has been helped by it. That is true of Martin Luther King with regard to doctrine and sexual immorality. I think the most important questions for white evangelicals emerge from the recognition of his flaws, because the most important question is, Why would a man who was liberal — at that age at least when he was in his twenties — meaning you didn’t believe in the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection. Whether he did later is an open question.

I asked Thabiti Anyabwile about this last week when we were at T4G. I said, “Isn’t the reason we need to just come to terms with that is because the hardest questions for us emerge from that observation, namely, why would a man who doesn’t believe what we believe and was not as sexually pure as we might like, see injustice more clearly and act on it more effectively than we did.” I’m saying we. I don’t mean generic we. I mean we. I was a racist, segregationist defending keep-the-blacks-out of White Oak Baptist Church sixteen-year-old. So I don’t have to imagine what it was like.

And that forces me to ask: So why did he get this so clear and why could he address it so effectively? And why would he be willing to give his life for it when he didn’t believe this, this, and this, and he had mistresses on the road? What would that be? Well, that’s more of an indictment of me than him, because it raises the question: So what was wrong with you?

So the point there is that you don’t benefit by whitewashing your heroes. You won’t ever ask yourself the hardest questions about life if the people you love are whitewashed and you don’t ever come to terms with their sinfulness. That’s the first observation. It will force us to deal with the doctrine of sanctification in a way like not much else will.

What levels of complexity you have morality might God be willing to wink at? And you say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. God doesn’t wink at anything.” Yes, he does. I’ll give you a couple examples. Half of you in this room are wrong on baptism. It’s a sin to be wrong on baptism. Or maybe I’m wrong, and if I am, that’s a sin. It’s a sin to say false things about God and his word. You think you’re going to go to hell for getting baptism wrong? What do you call that? Unrepentant sin is what I call it.

Here’s another one. First Corinthian 6:1–8, remember what they’re doing? They’re going to secular judges to settle disputes. And Paul says, “You idiots. Don’t you know you are going to judge angels? Isn’t there anybody in the church that can settle this dispute, and you’re going to a secular judge?” He’s upset. That’s wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and then he makes it even worse. He says, and why aren’t you just willing to be wronged instead of suing your brother?

So these people are getting at best a C-minus in sanctification. They’re going to judges, and they’re suing their brothers, and Paul says both of those are wrong. You should just be wronged. And he didn’t do church discipline for either of those. Why? I don’t know.

So I’m just raising how complex sanctification is that if you spot somebody in history who did something you think is wrong, you got layers of issues to work through rather than jumping to the conclusion they didn’t repent, therefore, they’re going to hell. And you know, realistically, I think the lesson for us who live is not what do we do with our dead heroes, but what do we do with our living sinners?

If you know somebody who is sleeping around, or if you know somebody who is a racist and hates somebody of another ethnicity, your job is not to write a dissertation or book on how he was your hero and how to handle him. No, you should go to them and warn them they’re going to go to hell if they don’t repent because God knows who is not going to hell and who is. The Bible just says if you don’t repent your’re in big, big trouble. And we got a chance. We’re alive. And so we should go to people and initiate Matthew 18 and try to win them back into holiness.

And another thought comes to my mind, namely, that if you see in Edwards, Luther, Dabney, if you see sin, you should flag it, wave it, acknowledge it. That’s why the book, 27 Servants of Sovereign Joy has the subtitle Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. “Flawed” — put that right on the cover. If you see it, you should wave the flag and then be alert. Where might that have infected the theology I love, right? So I love Jonathan Edwards’s theology, but his theology didn’t keep him from having blind spots. So why not? Is there something about his theology I could discern where it needs to be tweaked so that if he would have had that right, then he would have had this right? That’s a huge benefit from acknowledging the sins. It makes us intensify our vigilance over our appropriation of their theology.

So, really, by taking their sins seriously, their flaws seriously, you can go deeper into their theology and have deeper application into your own heart.

I hope so.

I think of all the people that you wrote about in there, a lot of them are similar to you theologically. C.S. Lewis might be as far to the left of all of the 21 men who were in there. Some folks know that I wrote my dissertation on influences in your life: Edwards and Lewis, the two folks you’ve never met, and your parents as fundamentalist. Dan Fuller is your mentor at Fuller Seminary. My argument was, you take any one of those four away, and you have a different John Piper. At least that was my thesis that I tried to demonstrate.

I think if somebody were to try to think through if John Piper had never read Jonathan Edwards, how would he be different today? We could all probably venture an answer there, but maybe Lewis would be less obvious. If you had only read Edwards and you had the same upbringing and you went and studied under Dan Fuller, how would your life be different with no Lewis as part of it?

Can I say something about Edwards too? I love both of these men. I don’t think I would have liked C.S. Lewis very much in person, maybe not Edwards either. I don’t know. That’s one of the great things about being dead. You can have more friends in the grave than you can in person.

I don’t think I would have a clear grasp on what I mean by Christian Hedonism without Jonathan Edwards’s End for Which God Created the World because my little sentence, God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him is a paraphrase of Edwards who said that we glorify God in two ways, namely, by knowing him truly and loving him duly. Delighting in him, rejoicing in him is how we glorify him. I mean you could read all day long, everyday for a year and not find that in hardly any theologians anywhere. And you find it in Edwards and that was huge.

And secondly, with Edwards, I doubt that I would have preached with a Christian-Hedonist set of assumptions because of his sentence, I regard it as my duty to raise the of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided they are raised by nothing but truth and in proportion to the nature of the truth. When I read that I said that is it, man, I’m done. That is right on. That’s exactly the way I want to preach. I want to raise your affections as high as I can and not have it be emotionalism, but rather warranted by truth and in proportion to the ugliness of hell and the beauty of heaven. That’s Edwards.

C.S Lewis is not a model for me theologically. I don’t think I learned any theology from Lewis — I might have, but oh, I loved when I met Lewis in college. I never read Lewis as a child. I don’t think my parents knew he existed. So I never read The Chronicles of Narnia or anything else. The first thing I read was Mere Christianity in my freshman class. And when I read it, I thought it was amazing.

Here are some of the effects he has. He is more razor sharp, logical than anybody I have ever read — he is just brutal with the law of noncontradiction. Nothing gets by C.S. Lewis — not one width of an illogical assumption gets by him. And you can watch him dismantle craziness after craziness in the modern world, you just laugh out loud with joy at the application of the law of noncontradiction.

And you might think that’s pretty cold. No, it isn’t cold. It’s red hot and warm and sweet and wonderful because the other thing is that I don’t think I would see trees or the quiddity of things or the this-ness of things — like black fake leather — the quiddity of things, soft and squishy. Corduroy that my wife hates for me to buy because the seats get shiny, and I like corduroy and wouldn’t even see corduroy or shiny seats without C.S. Lewis.

I hear the first robin. It’s almost time. I know when the robin shows up. I know what tree he’ll be in between here and my house. He’s always in the same tree. I wouldn’t even hear a robin. I know what a robin sounds like — different from all the other birds around here. They come back, they come back to Minnesota. Lewis put eyes in my head because he has eyes — he has eyes that are off the charts perceptive.

So those two things affected me. I doubt that I would be writing poetry — maybe I would be, but Lewis modeled for me. I don’t think Edwards ever wrote a poem. I’m writing poems all the time. Lewis tried to be a poet. He felt like he was a failure as a poet. So he decided to write children’s books and essays and other things, but he had the eyes of a poet.

Here’s another example: I recently started reading a biography of Isaac Watts. Now you know what Isaac Watts is known for? What did he do? He wrote hymns — hundreds and thousands of hymns. He wasn’t known for writing hymns in his lifetime though. You know what he’s known for? He wrote a book on logic that was used in all the schools. A hymn writer is known in his lifetime for a book on logic that is still in print.

When I heard that, I said that’s my man. I want to read about this because that is what I want to be. I want nobody to come away from my sermons aware of any logical inconsistency — none, and if it’s there, I want to know about it because I think your brains were created by God to think with coherence and clarity and you love it when that happens. You don’t even know you love it. You couldn’t even put names on the law of noncontradiction — what in the world is that? You use it every day. Yes, you do, and you want your preacher to not be stupid.

You know not to say “all cows have four legs. Fido has four legs, therefore Fido is a cow.” If your preacher does that, you’re going to laugh. That’s not good logic. “All cows have four legs. Fido has four legs. Therefore Fido is a cow.” Lots of preachers preach like that. Lewis wouldn’t sit through that sermon. Oh my, what he would write the week after that. It would be vibrant with the flies on the wall in the sanctuary.

So those are at least a few things with Lewis. To this day I’ve got this thick book at home on the shorter writings of C.S. Lewis — essays. It’s huge — nine hundred pages — and I’ve got it on audio on the phone and sometimes I just pull it down to open my eyes.

The other day, I tweeted about this conference and described it as a bunch of my favorite living guys talking about a bunch of my favorite dead guys. The first person to respond said, “I think Packer is still alive.” I wasn’t trying to break some subtle news by saying that. What is it about J.I. Packer? We’re going to hear from Sam Storms tonight about Packer. He doesn’t razzle-dazzle people. There’s nothing gimmicky. He’s the only one of everybody we’re going to consider that you’ve actually met in person. What is it about it that gives his writing and his teaching particular power in your view? Why is it that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to be reading Packer, and won’t be reading the current bestsellers in evangelicalism?

Wouldn’t you go here or read a man if you heard that a seventeenth-century Puritan had been raised from the dead? I would. There is nobody — maybe Sinclair Ferguson comes close — but there’s nobody that embodies the redwoods of the seventeenth century like Packer, which means unashamed admiration for the doctrines of Calvinism and the sovereign grace of God in the salvation of sinners through the substitutionary atonement and the irresistible work of God’s grace. No shame. This is glory. A big, big God. And knowing him changes everything, right? Knowing God and a soul doctor like few theologians.

Packer has never written an academic theology. I think he is closing out as life dreaming of a catechism. He wants to catechize the church. This man is brilliant. He knows all about contemporary theology and he never wrote a systematic theology. He loves the church. He loves the human heart. He loves lost people, and he’s constantly bringing the bigness of God into connection with the practicalities of struggling to live the Christian life. Hot-tub religion, for goodness sakes. That was the latter-day Packer.

He wouldn’t have written that in his early years. He would have considered that as squandering his verbal talents, but he did loosen up at the end with a blood-earnestness about life that isn’t dour. He’s really a quite funny man — in a British sort of way. No offense to Michael Reeves and all other Brits here, but Brits have a hard time yucking it up, and yucking it up is not a great goal and they don’t like us Americans by and large because they think all we do is yuck it up, especially when we preach. Not Packer. His delight in life and his humor are amazingly woven into a blood-earnest seriousness about God in the world.

I think we have time for just one more question. Before we do, just mention this book that we’ve already talked about, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. At Mark Dever’s suggestion, we collected all of these 21 different biographies, published over seven volumes in “The Swans Are Not Silent” series. I think it’s $120 if you were to buy all seven volumes. They’re selling this tonight for $16 if you go out there. What percentage that is? I don’t know for the discount, but it’s good. You can go pick up a copy of this.

John, last question. Of all the men that you have studied, we got 21 collected here. If you could go back in time or bring forward some of those dead heroes, whom would you want to sit down for counsel? Whom would you want to hear preach a sermon? And to whom would you want to ask a theological question?

I would want to hear Edwards just because I love him and I wondered how he did it. I don’t think it would be that great. I’m told he put his elbow on a cushion, held his little notes, and read in a fairly subdued voice. And the reason he had power was his earnestness and his content. I want to hear him and I want to hear George Whitefield and I want to hear Spurgeon because I don’t have any idea how they made themselves heard to 20,000–30,000 people. I would love to hear a voice that could do that and bring tears to people’s eyes. So Whitefield and Spurgeon just for the power that they must have had.

I would go to George Mueller, the orphanage founder who was renowned for answered prayer. It would be 8:15 a.m. in the morning and they didn’t have enough breakfast food for the kids. And he assembled them for breakfast, and expected God to have the truck there, and it came. And he prayed that his wife would not die of rheumatic fever, and she died. And he preached at her funeral and his text was, “The Lord is good and does good” (Psalm 119:68). “He was good in giving her to me, he was good in leaving her with me so long, and he was good in taking her from me.” And I would sit him down and I would ask, “If you had a couple of kids who were not believers, how would you pray?” That’s what I would ask.