John Piper’s Conversion Story
Well, John Piper is a Christian. That’s not a secret. But how was he converted? When was he converted? Where was he converted? All questions you want to know. I see them in the inbox with frequency. And they are questions I think I can help answer today in a clip from a 1998 sermon on the book of Romans. Here, Pastor John is sharing the story of his life as it has been woven into the book of Romans, and as the book of Romans has been woven into his life. It’s a very close relationship, obviously. Here’s what Pastor John said.
I don’t remember my conversion. I was 6, my daddy tells me, at my mother’s knee in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at a motel on vacation in 1952. All I remember is believing. I’ve always believed, as far as I can remember. I’m sure that’s not true since we come into the world bent out of shape by sin, but whatever God did in my life to make me a believer, he did so early that I don’t remember it happening.
Gospel in Four Steps
A lot of you in this room are in that position, and you sort of regret it because you don’t have any stunning testimonies to tell about how you were saved. However, I learned what happened to me from Romans. I’m going to tell you what happened to me. I don’t need to remember; I know from the Bible what happened to me. And as I say what happened to me, would those of you in this room right now who wonder if it’s happened to you listen carefully?
We prayed downstairs that at this point in the service — not just at the end, but at this moment right now, in the next sixty seconds — God would save people. That’s how it happens. God breaks through with the word; he makes plain the gospel and the need and the glory and the sufficiency, and he does it.
“Even though I don’t remember what happened to me, I know what happened to me from the book of Romans.”
There are four things. First, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Second, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Third, God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Therefore, if you will confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and in your heart believe that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Where’s that found? Romans 10:9. So even though I don’t remember what happened to me, I know what happened to me from the book of Romans. The book of Romans interprets life. Life that you don’t even know about, you read about in the book of Romans.
Calling and Confirmation
I went to college in 1964 thinking I’d be a doctor, maybe a veterinarian if my hand shook too much. (Doesn’t matter if you make a mistake on a dog. That’s really the way I thought.) In September of 1966, in a painful and precious providence, I was in the hospital for three weeks, and God changed my life’s direction — powerfully, irreversibly — I testify now these 32 years later. He moved me from that trajectory to the trajectory of the ministry of the word. I won’t go into detail about it, but you can read about it in Future Grace.
The point I want to make is this. That fall, I had planned to move into a dormitory suite with three other guys, and I did. But in January 1967, it was very plain to me, This is not the best circumstance for what God’s doing in my life. I want to study. I want to pray. I want to think. And this dynamic here is not ideal. So I made a special mid-year plea and was allowed to move to Elliot Hall, alone in a single room. And I lived in a single room for the next year and a half so that I could pursue God and read and pray.
“Romans became not only the interpretation of my conversion; it became the confirmation of my calling to the ministry.”
And I can almost smell it, and I can sure see it. It’s yellow, with big black print on the front — nothing very fancy in those days on paperbacks — written by John Stott called Men Made New: An Exposition of Romans 5–8. And I can remember reading those pages at my desk in that room like it was yesterday because of the powerful work that was going on in my life, confirming what happened in September of 1966, that this is my life. This is my life. This handling of the word of God is what I want to do more than anything. I want to know this book the way John Stott knows Romans 5–8. So Romans became not only the interpretation of my conversion; it became the confirmation of my calling to the ministry.
Worthy of Heralding
Then came seminary, 1968–1971 in Pasadena, and the cataclysmic effect of two great classes. There were more than two, but two great ones: Romans 1–8 with Daniel Fuller, where phrase by phrase for fourteen weeks my mind was blown. And then the climactic class called “Unity of the Bible,” in which Romans 9–11 became the substructure of reality, and all the pieces were put in place that have never changed to this day. The great discoveries of the sovereignty of God over all things, and the magnifying of his name, and the enjoying him and thus magnifying him — because that’s the end for which God created the world — everything fell into place, with Romans being the foundation on which it all stood.
Three years in Germany to study, six years at Bethel College, over and over again returning to this theme of the sovereignty of God, and over and over again watching Romans 9 move into center stage, with controversy back and forth about what this chapter is all about — these awesome, awesome pictures of the sovereign freedom of God as a Creator. In the fall of 1979, I was given a sabbatical, and I knew what I had to do with this sabbatical. I had to settle it. What is Romans 9 saying about this God? Because if it’s saying what it looks like it’s saying, then many people don’t know the true God.
So, for four months I labored, and out of that laboring came something totally unexpected — namely, the call to the pastorate. What God said in a sentence, over and over again, along about October or November, is this: “I, the God of Romans 9, will be heralded, and not just analyzed or explained. I, the God of Romans 9, John Piper, will be proclaimed and heralded, not just analyzed and explained.”
October 14, 1979. It was late at night, and God came. And it was one of those times — it was like the time that Blaise Pascal had. He wrote it down after it had happened, and he sewed it into his coat, and he wore it the rest of his life next to his heart. “Midnight fire” is the way Pascal said it. And I just went back yesterday and read my seven pages that I wrote for those several hours that night, and they begin like this: “I am closer tonight to actually deciding to resign at Bethel and take a pastorate than I have ever been. The urge is almost overwhelming.” And by 1:00 o’clock in the morning, it was overwhelming. “It takes this form: I am enthralled by the reality of God and the power of his word to create authentic people.” That was my call away from Bethel to the pastorate.
And then, in the providence of God, this church called — Marvin Anderson — and I answered the phone, and I didn’t know where this church was. And he explained they were in a search process, and I began to talk, and by February it was done. And in June 1980, I came.
So I date my conversion — or I understand my conversion, my theological foundations in seminary, my call to the ministry and its confirmation, and my turn from being a teacher to a preacher and a pastor all out of the milieu created by the book of Romans.