Interview With John Piper on Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian

Catalyst Podcast

Well, let’s jump in, and let’s talk about your latest book, latest project, entitled Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. Talk about this project and really why you chose to write this game-changing book at this time.

The time, I’m not sure, except that things get explosive enough in your own soul, thick enough, and heavy enough that they have to come out one way or the other. I’ve been preaching yearly on Martin Luther King weekend for about seventeen years on this, putting it back to back with Sanctity of Life Sunday in order partly to show to Republicans and Democrats that I’m neither because one is a cherished issue of the right and the other is a cherished issue of the left. And I want Christians to address both effectively and not be typed by either. So that’s what’s been going on strategically in the pulpit for these years.

Secondly, I’m in a downtown setting where diversity is everywhere. The Phillips neighborhood slash Ventura neighborhood where I live is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. The most recent influx would be Somali Muslims by the tens of thousands, so we look like East Africa here some days.

So I’ve lived there for 31 years and raised my family in a very diverse neighborhood and feel the challenges. And then I’ll read the statistics. Maybe this will be a third thing. I just read a document, 62-page document put out, called “One Minneapolis: On Educational and Professional Disparities between Races in the Twin Cities.” And this is nothing new. These things have been around for decades, and they’re heartbreaking when you see the dysfunctions that are out there and the disadvantages that some labor under.

Maybe two more things. I adopted Talitha when I was fifty, sixteen years ago. She just had her sixteenth birthday. She’s African American. And one of the pledges that my wife and I knew that meant was this is no longer an issue. This is home. This is family. And it doesn’t go away as long as Talitha or we are alive. So, we are locking in to this issue so that we can’t ever avoid it. A real human being really different from us sleeping in the bedroom across the hall for sixteen years.

And then the last thing I’d say as far as why is that the Bible makes this not a marginal issue. I mean, I’ve been preaching from John, and I just preached last Sunday again, where it says it will be better that one man die for the nation, “not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:52). And I said, “Now, who’s that? The children of God who are scattered abroad and the atonement is going to gather these people in.”

And I went over to Revelation 5 because I think John wrote that. And it says, “You ransomed people for God from every tribe and tongue and nation and made them a kingdom,” not a bunch of kingdoms (Revelation 5:9). So, right at the heart of the aim of the cross is the gathering of diverse peoples and ethnicities into one body, one kingdom, one priesthood. And so it’s pretty close to the center. I mean, if it’s a blood-bought reality, you can’t say it’s much more gospel-oriented than it is.

So that’s a cluster of things that just eventually came to a head, and say, “Okay, it’s time. I may be dead and not get this thing done, and I just want to say something about it.”

Well, and I know you mentioned your family. There’s also a deeply personal connection for you as you share in the book and share in the documentary, the video interview, which if people haven’t seen that, I just encourage people to watch because it is one of the most powerful videos I’ve watched in a long time. But talk about that part of the book for you personally.

I probably should have included that in the “whys.” It’s no doubt huge. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, born in 1946, moved to Greenville in ‘52 as a 6-year-old, and left there to go to college in 18. So my childhood years, my teen years were all in a setting that was pervasively segregationist — separate water fountains at the Woolworth Five-and-Ten store, separate restaurants, separate bathrooms at gas stations, if there were any bathrooms for the blacks, separate swimming pools, separate schools, separate everything. And that was simply taken for granted by me.

And the bottom line rationale that persuaded a 15-year-old that was a good idea, which I thought it was, being utterly racist, was that interracial marriage was wrong. “God wouldn’t have created the races for nothing. Why would you turn them all into milk chocolate?” And so anything that might lead to interracial marriage would be wrong, and that would be everything. Can’t go to church together. Goodness gracious, you might fall in love. And you can’t go to school together where people fall in love. And you can’t live in the same neighborhoods because then the kids play with each other and they expect to go to school together and that’s going to mess things up.

And so it’s amazing what that issue produced, I think. I mean, it wasn’t the only issue, but for me it was a huge issue, and I just bought into it hook, line, and sinker. And contrary I think to much of what my mom and dad were trying to get into my heart just because of how influenced I was by those around me. So I feel like the process I went through to wake up to the horrors of racism perhaps needed to be put in a book as well. So that forms a big hunk of the book.

Well, and again, just thank you for responding to that and sharing, and it’s a great book. We highly recommend it. Another kind of benchmark for you is this 25th-anniversary edition of Desiring God, which has deeply impacted so many of young leaders, old leaders, I mean, across the board, and really around the idea of Christian Hedonism. I’d love to ask you just to talk a bit about what you mean by that for those who may have not read the book, and even for those who have, and why it’s still such a radical upside-down idea in the evangelical church.

It is striking how surprising it is to some people. I’ll try to give you the gist of it first and then maybe come at why it’s controversial. The gist of Christian Hedonism is that not only is joy in God permissible, and not only is the motive of joy in doing what we do permissible, it’s necessary. And if you try to renounce it, you won’t be able to worship God or love people.

So I turn what most people consider to be icing on the cake of commitment, like you get saved by making commitments and decisions, and then if you’re really lucky, you get happy at the end. And that can go and come. And whether you’re glad or not about being saved is a bonus, but it’s not part of that essence. And I come along and say, “If you don’t delight in God, you’re disobeying God.” Because the Bible says: “Delight in the Lord with all your heart” (Psalm 37:4). “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

And so I find that the mandate of joy puzzles people because it’s liberating on the one hand because people say, “Nobody’s ever told me that God demands that I’d be happy in him.” And another way it’s devastating because millions of Christians aren’t happy in God, and I’m telling them they have to be, and they feel scared.

I mean, one of the biggest things I deal with is when I’m done with three talks on this, half the people don’t feel saved anymore. And I take that very seriously because they may not be. They may have turned Christianity into a sheer willpower religion with no transformation of the affections at all. And I’m telling them, “You really must be born again, and that means get a new heart that has new values and finds pleasure in new things starting with God almighty.”

So the key phrase that has helped me, and I think it’s part of the controversy, is God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. I’m arguing that joy is not mandated merely because God wants us glad, but because he wants himself to look great, and we make things look great by whether we are thrilled by them or not.

If we have modest enthusiasm for a person, we make them look modestly interesting. If we are thrilled with a human being and their gifts and skills and personality, we make them look really good. And so God means to look really good in the lives of his people. And I’m arguing, if you don’t have profound pleasure in God, if you don’t treasure God more than you treasure anything else, you’re making him look bad. And he created the universe in order to look good.

And that brings us to the really most controversial thing I think is that underlying my Christian Hedonism is my God-centeredness because God created the universe in order to be maximally glorified. And I’m arguing that he’s glorified not only being known truly, but being loved duly. And people find themselves, “Oh my goodness, now my emotions have ceased to be marginally important and they become centrally important. And frankly, I’m not an emotional person, and I don’t have a lot of feelings for God at all. And therefore, Piper’s view is very threatening to me.”

And I want to ask you too from that perspective, because so much of what you’re talking about and you talk about this is changing the affections of your heart. Can you give us some examples for you even personally about how the affections of your heart have been changed over the course of even your lifetime? I mean, I think that would help some of our listeners and leaders.

Right. Let’s see, two things come to mind. There probably should be lots more, but I’ll start with these two, see what else comes to mind. When I was seeing, for the first time, these things in the Bible, which would’ve been age 22 to 25, 1968 to 1971 when I was in seminary and I was being pointed this way by Dan Fuller and through Jonathan Edwards, and I began to see these things all over the Bible, I became a Calvinist — and I don’t care about the terms — but meaning I fell in love with the sovereignty of God. It became absolutely central to me.

Up until that time, the sovereignty of God was just a name. It was a troublesome concept. It got me into all kinds of trouble trying not to believe it. Predestination was a pain in the neck, and all those things that related to God’s supremacy were problems to me. They weren’t pleasures, and they weren’t a ground of worship.

And when I saw that God created the universe, like it says in Isaiah 43:7, he created Israel for his glory, and I got over the offensiveness of that, I fell in love with it. So to this day, when I’m reading my devotions, which I try to do every day, the thing that leaps off the page to be most consistently with pleasure and delight is how massive God is, how great he is, how glorious he is, how strong he is, how wise he is, and how utterly in charge of everything he is.

Just read the other day in the Psalms, “All things are [his] servants” (Psalm 119:91). So I started naming them, like all the galaxies are his servants and the oceans are his servants and tsunamis are his servants, and amoeba and bacteria and viruses are his servants. And therefore, you’ve never walked into any situation where God’s not serving you, whether it’s pain or pleasure. Those kinds of things have ceased being a problem for me mainly and have become a ground of joy and delight and worship.

So that’s one thing where a significant change in my heart happened. I delight in the sovereignty of God. It’s the ground of my hope and the triumph of the gospel, which is the second thing, namely if God is sovereign and if he’s after me to do me good with all his heart, the way he did it was by Christ dying for me. And therefore, the sovereignty of God conspires at the death of Christ at the cross to manifest things about himself, which are thrilling to me now.

So the way I think about it is this. Acts 4:27 or so. They were praying. It said, “Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Jews and the Gentiles were gathered together to do what your hand and your plan predestined to take place.” So, everything that happened in that last week in Jerusalem to put Jesus on the cross was planned by God and designed by God. So now his centrality and his sovereignty to pursue his glory is resulting in a Son of God giving his life to save this sinner, John Piper, and what is more amazing than that? So the gospel that is the substitution of Christ for me under the wrath of God flows straight from God’s pursuit of my gladness in his glory.

So that would be two illustrations. The gospel is more alive to me, more pleasurable to me today than it was growing up, and the sovereignty of God is.

That’s great. I want to shift gears a little bit. We’ve got a few minutes left. I want to ask you about your leadership. And at Catalyst, we’re about leaders and about leadership. And you’ve been at Bethlehem Baptist Church for, I think, 31 years now since 1980. You’ve led a lot of people. You’ve been a part of lots of leadership teams, and as you look back on those 31 years, what lessons for you stand out over time that have shaped you as the type of leader you are today?

What comes to mind? I don’t give a lot of thought to this, which is why I’m not as good a leader as I could be, probably, because I’m not a self-reflective one. I’m more intuitive. But what comes to my mind is that my understanding of how Christ is honored in people’s behavior and how people experience joy in service governs the way I lead. And basically, it comes down to I try to lead by drawing connections between what’s being proposed as a goal or a vision and the profound radical things we see in the Bible about God. In other words, I try to lead by the Bible and lead by explanation and persuasion.

If you came to Bethlehem and poked your nose around in the archives or in the minutes of the elders, what you’d see is paper after paper after paper from John Piper, a three-page paper arguing that we should do this, and a ten-page paper arguing we should do this, another paper. And in one sense, you might say that sounds heavy-handed. My sense is that it honors human beings as people who think and need reasons for what they do. They don’t want to be pushed around and coerced in any way. They want to be honored as those who have ideas, think clearly, and therefore they’ll respect the leader who gives them five reasons, especially biblical reasons, if we can move in a certain direction.

So understanding that people honor Christ by acting freely, joyfully, and with their whole minds being persuaded of a vision affects the way I go about trying to get them on board to that decision.

And one other thing I would say, I think the pulpit is just massively important in all leadership in the church. If you’re trying to get the church to give or you’re trying to get church to build a building or get the church to form a new outreach or change the constitution or welcome people of different races, whatever, the whole tone of the church and the ethos of the church is governed by that explosion in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday after Sunday over time.

So, I don’t think I could overstate the mindset that the pulpit creates as a milieu where a certain kind of leadership can take effect.

That’s really good. I want to ask you too about young leaders. You spend a lot of time with young leaders. And when you’re sitting in front of twentysomethings, is there a piece of advice that you are consistently giving to the next generation of church leaders or just leaders in general? Is there things on your heart and on your mind consistently that God is giving you that you want to pass on and you consistently pass on to twentysomethings?

Absolutely. There’s just no doubt in my mind that the word of God, the written word, the Bible, needs to be supreme and central and foundational, whichever one of those metaphors, at the top, in the middle, at the bottom, and that long-term feeding of a flock will depend on whether that pastor is able to feed himself and be thrilled by what he sees in the Bible.

My concern is, whether it’s old or young, is that a lot of pastors don’t get thrilled by the Bible, and that’s why they have to go to movies or videos or social events, just anything that would be exciting because they don’t get excited when they read the Bible and therefore they can’t get others excited about the Bible. And that’s a huge concern that I have among an age today, that it has infinite access to YouTube, you know?

“That’s so clever.” “Oh, that’s so funny.” “That would have a funny effect on Sunday.” Well, I’m just totally not going to go there because I think that’s going to wear out. You can’t keep it up, and it’s not going to create the kind of ethos that helps people grasp what hell is and what pain is and what the sovereignty of God is. All the weighty things of the Bible are harder to communicate after a funny clip, I think, than before.

So my plea is become the kind of person that, when you read a page of the Bible, are more moved, thrilled, excited, blown away than when you watch the latest movie. I think a guy can measure the spiritual nature of his heart by what thrills him, what blows him away, what makes him want to get up and say something to people. Is it something he’s just read in Romans 3, or is it the latest movie he just saw because it blew him away? And I think we are in danger today of being more thrilled by the exciting media possibilities that are out there than we are by the work of God in history and the Bible.

Well, such a great word. Thank you for that reminder. Thank you for the legacy that you’ve created, and again, for so many leaders who have been impacted by you, and especially within our Catalyst community, we’re grateful. Thanks for taking a few minutes to allow us to catch up with you, and thanks for the continued work you’re doing.

Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure to talk.