Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio transcript

Well it’s not easy to find examples of Christians who got the tough and tender balance just right in the Christian life. Jesus is the supreme example of this, of course. Another example, a fallen example, comes from England in the 18th century, in a pastor named John Newton, as John Piper explained in his 2001 message to pastors titled, “John Newton: The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness.” Here’s what he said:

John Newton was born on July 24, 1725 in London. So picture at this time his godly mother and his irreligious, seafaring father. She died when he was 6 years old.

Left mainly to himself, he became a debauched sailor, a miserable outcast on the west coast of Africa for a couple of years, a slave trading sea captain until an epileptic seizure ended his seagoing career, a well paid surveyor of tides in Liverpool, a devoted and loved pastor of two congregations in Olney and London for a total of 43 years, a devoted husband to Mary for 40 years until she died in 1790 and, last of all, the writer of the most famous hymn in the English language, Amazing Grace, which you heard and sang exactly as he wrote it, not with that wonderful last verse which we love and he did not write. And he died in 1807 at 82 years old.

So why am I interested in this man? What is my agenda before you this morning? I am interested in him because of my great desire to see Christian pastors be as strong and durable as redwood trees and as tender and fragrant as a field of clover. I want to see you become rugged in the defense and confirmation of the truth and relentlessly humble and patient and merciful in dealing with people.

Ever since I came to Bethlehem in 1980 I have had this vision of what I want to be and what I want to be the means of others becoming. Because, in the early 1980’s, I read Matthew and Mark in my Greek testament, writing in the margin, TE and TO beside every tender thing Jesus said or did and every tough thing Jesus said or did. And when I got done the mixture was amazing. No man ever spoke, no man ever lived like this man spoke and lived. There is nobody like Jesus pastoring today. And I want to be more like that and I want you to be more like that and, therefore, as I look at pastors in history and I find one who got something that we need, then I bank on it for a while. And that is what I have been doing since July with Newton.

And I know that this drunk peasant who can’t stay on the donkey is where we all are. Everybody in this room is falling off the horse on one side or the other on this matter of toughness and tenderness. And so it is risky business in this room to say what I am going to say. There are a lot of us who are wimping out on truth when we ought to be lionhearted, and there are a lot who are wrangling with anger when we ought to be weeping. And so I know I am going to say some things that are not what some of you should hear. Some of you need a good, tender kick in the pants to be more courageous with truth. And some of you need to realize that courage is not what William Cowper, Newton’s good friend, called a furious and abusive zeal.

O, how rare are the pastors who speak with a tender heart and have theological backbones of steel. O, how rare it is. And it ought not to be rare. And I don’t want it to be rare. Theological truth with biblical backbones of steel, and as soft as clover so that children come to you and broken people come to you and homosexuals come to you.