Make Your Life Count

Q&A with John Piper

CROSS 2019 | Louisville

What are some practical ways that I can share the doctrines of grace with my friends in a hostile environment? (1:13)

Doctrines of grace — that’s a code word for Calvinism. I’ll sum up the doctrines of grace and then I’ll try to briefly answer the question.

You got saved ultimately and decisively by the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s the first premise. Those words decisively mean you do have a will and you did have to choose and your will matters and you are accountable, but when it comes down to it you were dead and your heart was going after other things. Jesus was not your treasure. Then, owing to something, Jesus became more precious to you than anything else. My Calvinism simply says the Bible teaches God was the decisive cause for why Jesus became your Supreme Treasure. That’s the bottom line.

Then all of the other things give the background and the implications of that. People don’t like it because it seems to call into question, it does call into question, the ultimate self-determination of the human will. If you define free will as I have ultimate self-determination, then I think you’re wrong. You don’t have that. Human beings have never had that and they never will have that. Only God has ultimate self-determination. You have a will. It must incline to the right or you’re guilty. You don’t have ultimate self-determination. Only God does. Therefore, we are utterly dependent on God for whether we live or die or believe or don’t believe.

Now, there’s hostility to that. Your question is what might you do? What you mustn’t do is become a warrior, a fighter, for this. There’s a place and a time to fight. Probably in a campus setting where you got to live with people day in and day out, who are not sold on this, you have to be more patient and more kind. You have to out-rejoice them.

If my Calvinism didn’t produce the kind of joy that can endure through suffering I would give it up. I’m on the earth to be happy forever — ultimately happy. I don’t think there’s any other path to this kind of ultimate lasting happiness than this. Out-rejoicing people is a key to winning them over. Then be saturated in the Bible. Most people who reject these doctrines do it for philosophical reasons, not biblical reasons. You just have to stay with the Bible. Just say, “I may not be able to answer all the questions, but I see it in the Bible. This is what the Bible says. I’m a Bible guy. I’m not going to lay it down because philosophically you think it’s contradictory.” Those are some suggestions: stay with the Bible, out-rejoice them, be patient.

What is your prayer life like? How long do you pray and how important is prayer for mission? (6:10)

Let me answer that in two ways. One is that you go through seasons of life where you venture different kinds of things. Nights of prayers, months of fasting and praying, weeks of fasting and praying. You can’t live on that. There’s fasting in my life every week. This is really dangerous for me to answer, because Jesus said, “Go into your closet and don’t tell people when you fast. Wash your face.” The fact that I tell you that fasting is in my life every week is dangerous. It’s a pride thing, probably. Even though I’m trying not to be glad about that. I’ll say what I can. Build fasting into your life, because Jesus says, “When you fast,” not if you fast. You have to have desires that are strong enough and I’ve got a lot of desires in my life, a lot of brokenness in my family that I desperately want God to move on. Therefore, fasting is part of that.

Every morning I’m in the word and prayer. I put those two together for about an hour. Sometimes a little longer. Sometimes a little shorter. I read through the Bible every year. Started over again three days ago. I mingle the reading of those four chapters with praying. That’s why it lasts an hour. I could do it in twenty minutes if I wanted to just read through it. It is: read, pray, read, pray, read, pray.

When that read, pray, read, pray is over — maybe forty minutes or so. Then I’ve got concentric prayer circles. I’m the neediest person I know. I pray a lot about me. Sanctify me, break me, humble me, protect me. Guard me from the evil one. All these biblical prayers. Then I move out to my wife and my kids and I pray about the needs there. Then I move out to Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary and Bethlehem Baptist Church, my circle of loves that I have. Then I move out to conferences and the wider evangelical movement and the missionaries with the missionary calendar that I have in our living room.

Then, if I’m really cooking with the Holy Spirit, I’ll pray for more global things — pray for your rulers and leaders. That’s the way I go about it. On average I would say in the word and prayer at least roughly an hour every day. Now, that doesn’t count “pray without ceasing.” I’m crying out to the Lord all through this evening. I’m walking up there on the platform, crying out to the Lord. I was praying in my hotel room a little while ago. And I have no idea how to quantify the cries to the Lord all day every day as you move from situation to situation.

For those of us who are discerning a call to missions, how do we discern where to go? (9:28)

It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle why people decide to go where they go. It’s not rational. If you say, “I’m going to go to the most rational place or the place with the greatest need,” or whatever it just never works. It’s a miracle how God burdens people first to go — that’s a miracle — then how he providentially works to get them to carry a burden to go to a certain place. I would simply say take a book that lists the needs of the nations, then take a year and pray through all the peoples or countries of the world. See what God does. Talk with half a dozen agencies, or one or two, and see what opportunities there are. Go to the opportunities page.

“God was the decisive cause for why Jesus became your Supreme Treasure.”

You just start educating yourself and exposing yourself in the hopes and the prayer that God’s going to touch something. Something’s going to take hold. What I always encourage is that you be careful that a momentary fascination doesn’t make the decision. I think callings or leadings are abiding. That’s what I meant about verses that take hold of you and just won’t let you go. Week after week, month after month, year after year, this verse, this truth won’t let me go. That would be the way forward. There is just no calculus to this. Get on your face before God and say, “I am willing to do anything, go anywhere you want me to go.” He will like that. He will not leave you forever in confusion.

How do you share the gospel with people? If you have five minutes or less to tell someone about Christ, what do you tell them? (12:03)

Well, let’s just use real examples. I’m in Minnesota, so I only do this about eight months out of the year. I call it jogging evangelism. I’m a jogger and I mean really slow — thirteen-minute-miles. I jog through my neighborhood. It’s a very poor neighborhood I know where everything is. I know where the homeless people are. I know where the people are under the bridge. I know where they’re getting up at six in the morning. I just start running. I’m praying, “God, show me somebody to do that.” Five minutes. Two minutes, whatever. They’re easy. Most poor people are easy to talk to. It’s rich people that think you’re a jerk and say “get out of my life.”

I basically start by saying, “Hi, I’m John. I live in the neighborhood.” I used to say, “I’m a pastor,” and that helped, usually. I’d say, “I jog and I pray for people how can I pray for you?” Real standard opening. They’ll say, “Pray for my girlfriend. She just left. She ditched me last night. Pray for whatever.” I say, “Okay, I will do that. Now, may I tell you the best news in the world?” I just ask permission. “Can I tell you the best news in the world?” Sometimes I say, “Do you know the best news in the world?” They say, “No.” Then I just say, “The best news in the world is that God made you for his glory. You and I don’t love his glory. We should. Right? Do you love his glory?” “No, I don’t.”

“Okay, you’re guilty. I’m guilty before God. God, in mercy, is willing to send Jesus his son, to die in our place so that his anger and wrath doesn’t have to fall on us. If we will abandon our sin and trust in him, he will forgive all our sins and bring us into his fellowship.” That’s the gospel. It’s the 1 Corinthians 15:3 gospel. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Then we see where we go from there. That may be the end of it. If they look the least bit interested to talk more. What I just gave you is the gospel.

Does marriage help or hinder missions? (14:51)

Paul said that he loved being single. Indeed, he let himself say, under God’s inspiration, “I wish you were all single.” Then he backed off from that. He knew he was not giving a mandate there. He said, nevertheless, if that’s your calling, you don’t sin if you marry. It’s kind of like whoa, that’s not an exciting view of marriage. It was for Paul second best. Then he gave his reason.

Married people must take into consideration their kids and their wives. That complicates single-minded devotion to particular tasks of ministry. Now, I said it that way, “complicates single-minded devotion to particular tasks” because it doesn’t complicate single-minded devotion to Jesus. Every trial that your children bring into your life, or your wife brings into your life, is a golden opportunity to be Christlike or not, right? Marriage is the school of sanctification.

Nothing will knock the rough edges off of your fallen soul like getting married and staying married for fifty years. Holiness is not hindered by marriage. It’s helped. But single-minded devotion to missions will be complicated. Your kids and she or he are going to have different kinds of sensitivities. The answer is it’s a plus in spiritual ways. It’s a complication in ministry ways. I think every one of you just has to discern is there a calling on my life to live a life of single-minded devotion to certain tasks that require singleness, or is it to marry? I think Paul stayed single because of his lifestyle.

He said, “I expect to be beaten and in prison in almost every city I go to.” He couldn’t bring a woman into that life. He wouldn’t do that to her. Imagine being married to a man who insisted on moving from one beating to the next. Five times he was beaten with 39 lashes. Five times. Imprisoned countless times. Beaten with rods three times. Shipwrecked. If you choose that, don’t marry. Don’t marry. That’s too hard on him or her.

Do you see any difference between an evangelist and a missionary? (18:17)

I think in Paul’s mind there is a difference. He didn’t use the word “missionary,” but he was one. The difference is this: he said to Timothy, not in that text but in another, “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). Now, Timothy is a local pastor and he said, “Do the work of an evangelist.” He didn’t mean by that for Timothy to go to Spain and reach an unreached people group. That’s what Paul is doing. Yes, they overlap in the sense that missionaries do evangelism, but they do it among the people who have no access to a local church. They don’t have any place to go to worship or hear about the gospel, so we go to them.

“The gospel itself carries in it the natural impulse to be urgent with good news.”

My dad was a full-time evangelist and was away from home two-thirds of the year, every year of my growing up. For fifty years, he preached, he was a mini Billy Graham. He just went from city to city in churches and evangelized local churches and any unbeliever they would bring to church in the evening. That’s not a missionary; that’s the glorious calling of an evangelist.

How do you navigate the urgency to share the gospel with the argument that it may be more effective to relationally evangelize? And with local campus ministry, should the priority be reaching as many students as possible or to do more evangelizing with classmates you have existing relationships with? (20:04)

I don’t know of any formula that can define or decide for you when you will take an urgent opportunity to share the gospel quickly and fully with a person, versus cultivating a longer term relationship. I don’t know a formula. Both are needed. I think what we need to do is check our hearts. Is the reason I’m cultivating a half-a-dozen relationships in my dorm because I hope that I will have more credibility and lead them to Jesus? Or am I just afraid? If it’s fear we need to change our strategy. Frankly, from my experience over the last twenty or thirty years, friendship evangelism — which is a beautiful thing — has discouraged people from doing what I do in jogging evangelism.

Here’s the problem — it’s my experience anyway. If you move into a neighborhood say, and you got the neighbors on each side and you meet them and you’re just going to say, “I’m going to form a relationship and within a few months maybe the gospel will come up.” When it comes up in six months and they hear how urgent it is they look at you funny and say, “Why did you wait to tell me about this?” In other words, the gospel itself carries in it the natural impulse to be urgent.

I would just encourage you to pray earnestly for discernment as to whether or not, in this moment within the second or third conversation you have with a new friend, you say something like, “Can we do lunch together and share each other’s philosophy of life? You tell me what makes you tick. I’ll tell you what makes me tick.” Just ask for permission.

One other thing, I think we err, I have erred, in not pressing through to tell somebody, “I really want you to believe. We share the gospel de facto. We tell them the facts. We offer it to them and then we stop instead of looking them in the eye and say, “I love you. I would like to spend eternity with you. I want you to be a sister. I want you to be a brother of mine. Would you?” Maybe the Lord would even give you tears at that moment. Very few people ever meet a Christian who talks that way to them.

What are ways that I can be helping and encouraging people to deepen their relationship with God through his word? (23:56)

Hunger for God is a miracle. It’s a gift of God. You cannot coerce it. You can’t make it happen. Let’s just start there. You are totally dependent on God for him to awaken that in someone. But oh, how God uses means, and his word is the key means. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Faith at its core is falling out of love with the world and falling into love with Jesus. It comes through the word, so you will minister the word to them.

Secondly, you will be thrilled by the word. It won’t be artificial. You won’t work it up. I’ve seen people that get around John Piper and they think they got to sound emotional. It’s fake. It’s fake. You got to be real. Kids know whether you’re real or not. What you do is you go before the Lord in the morning and you read whatever passage you’ve designated and you plead with the Lord, “Show me your glory. Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love that I may rejoice and be glad in you.” You find some particular thing to talk to them about.

This morning I read Matthew 1 where the wise men come to Jesus. When they get there it says, “They rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly.” Now, I flipped my iPad over to the Greek and literally it’s, “They rejoiced a joy great exceedingly,” so I tweeted it. The tweet said, “Not just rejoiced. Not just rejoiced with joy. Not just rejoiced with a great joy, but rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly. I was moved by that. I was a wise man leaping for joy and I’m telling you that.

Now, that’s what you do. You tell them off your front burner what did God do to you this morning. He took those four words and just stopped me. I didn’t finish my Bible reading this morning. The first person asked me how often do I pray? How much do I pray? I didn’t finish my Bible reading, which is why I got to go home in eight minutes. I got to finish my Bible reading in Genesis.

If I had a dark year, what would you advise me to do when I feel the darkness coming around me again? (27:50)

I’m known as the joy guy, the Christian Hedonist guy, the satisfaction in God guy. You need to know that my first book is called Desiring God, not having found perfect pleasure in God. It’s called Desiring God. That’s what you want. You desire God. Then you get these black seasons and feel nothing except maybe suicidal, horrible thoughts.

People ask me all over the country, “Okay, you just persuaded me that we ought to be happy in God. But I’m not.” Most people aren’t. That’s not your steady-state experience — I am regularly happy in, satisfied in, content in God. You’re not. I had to go back to the drawing board and say, “All right, what do I need to write?” I wrote the book When I Don’t Desire God. That book has a chapter in it called “When the Darkness Does Not Lift.” That was so helpful to so many people like you, I presume, that they published it as a separate little book. You can get it called When the Darkness Does Not Lift.

I try to address the issue of either depression, that might need medication, or just that the black is dejection that may be just short of a physiological depression. The answer is: be very slow to walk away from the Lord. In other words, understand that seasons of darkness, dark nights of the soul, as they’ve been called by the greatest saints, are relatively normal in the history of the church. Or they might be seasons — and I mean seasons. There was a man in my church, who for eight years came to church, and couldn’t read his Bible. He was dark. He was so depressed that he walked around his house, if his wife went to the bathroom, he would walk up to the door and stand there, waiting for her to come out.

One day God showed up through the word and just lifted it. No reason. No explanation at all that eight years of the blackest darkness, inability to read the Bible hardly, except that he forced himself. From then until he died at our church he was a sold-out Bible memory guy. All he did was try to help people. “Get the Bible in. Get the Bible in. Get the Bible in. Get the Bible in. No matter how dark it gets, God will speak to you.”

I don’t want to burden you with a number of verses to memorize or read. I just want to say darkness isn’t the end of your relationship with God. It is normal for Christians to walk through those seasons. I hope you’ll look at the book to see the practical things. Things as practical as sleep and eating and nature and poetry and sunshine and friends. God has so many ways to lift our dark burdens.

If you doubt your salvation, will that doubt ever get better? And is there a danger of being too transparent about your sin? (31:48)

Yes, there’s a danger, but I don’t know what that level is for you. I don’t know you well enough. If I hung out with you I might say, “You don’t need to say that. You don’t need to go there. You don’t need to be that graphic or whatever.” I think discernment about how much you share of your own struggles in a small group or how graphic you describe your own sinfulness. That’s so needy of discernment.

“God has so many ways to lift our dark burdens.”

Your first question is much harder and much more close. God can handle any level of transparency. He’s not worried about that. He cares much about assurance. He doesn’t want us to doubt our salvation. It’s not a good thing. When I’m scared about hell and my assurance wavers I don’t feel good about that. I don’t say, “Oh, that’s normal. No problem there.” Does it ever go away? For some people. Not for me. I don’t know. Maybe it will. I’m only 73, so maybe it will.

Justification is instantaneous, it is over, it is once for all, you can’t improve upon it, you’re never more justified later than you are at the beginning. To be justified is to be completely accepted by God. I believe that with all my heart. Sanctification, that is becoming holy, is a process. I used to think the progress at seventy would be fifty years more confident and more patient than I was at twenty. I don’t think it works like that.

Here’s what I mean. I don’t want to discourage you. What I mean is that the battle never ends. Satan will never stop shooting arrows at you. He knows your unique vulnerability. He will go after it. He will. It may be that God would so build a fortress around that vulnerability that you will outlive it and you will never struggle with that again. He’s done that with me for sexual sin. This is not a boast. This is just a plain physiological fact. I am never tempted to have adultery. Pornography remains a temptation, but not adultery.

None of you women are attractive to me. None of you. There’s Noël. She is. I’ve told her this, and this is a great gift to your wife, guys, if it’s true. If God touches you so that physiologically the thought of kissing another woman is nauseating, which it is to me — the thought of getting in bed with another woman, besides that woman over there, makes me want to throw up.

Now, that’s a gift to me. It’s a gift to our marriage. Other temptations, she can document my sins and the things we’ve struggled with for fifty years, and they are many. God may do that for you, with your particular bent towards doubt or assurance. I don’t want to say, “No, it will never go away.” It may go away.