The following is an edited transcript of a panel discussion on September 26, 2008, at the Desiring God National Conference. Justin Taylor’s questions are in bold.
John, was there anything in particular from Sinclair’s message that stood out to you as something you need or want to apply personally to your life? What convicted you? And then, Mark, you can answer the same.
Piper: Let’s start at the structural level, not the heart level. Homiletically, Sinclair moved from a list of twenty resolutions (setting us up like good legalists) to the gospel through James 1:18. He observed that it’s the new birth through the Word (which, of course, is the word of the gospel, as 1 Peter 1:23 makes plain), and then went back to Isaiah to let Isaiah flesh out the Savior role of the content of the Word. That was all very helpful for me. James is not an easy book to preach the gospel from, because it’s a sort of wisdom literature, and it alludes to the gospel more than it opens it directly. So at the homiletical, structural level it was exemplary and challenging and helpful and satisfying.
At the heart level it was his emphasis that we want to walk out of a room or an elevator and have either our breath or our accent leave people with questions — “Where’s he from?” And that will happen, he said, if we are taking in the Word of God so that it so shapes us, so that what comes out has a Bible accent or a Christ accent. That, I think, will bear fruit in my life.
Driscoll: I was convicted that as teachers we’re going to be judged strictly [James 3:1]. I’ve had some notable failures, so I found that deeply convicting but very helpful. And the solution, he said, is to have Scripture come in so that appropriate speech comes out. Personally, I found that very helpful and convicting. Sometimes as a teacher — I think a lot of teachers may struggle with this — we study so that we can teach, or we study so that we can learn, or we study so that we can inform others. And it was convicting that I need to have the Scripture saturate my thinking for the sake of living as a Christian, not just as a Christian teacher. Those are conviction points I noted and have to pray through. I was helped, I was served, and I’m sincerely thankful.
Sinclair, I’ve never heard the story of how the Lord drew you to himself and then how he called you to pastoral ministry. Could you tell the story of how God brought you to the gospel and then to pastoral ministry?
Ferguson: Well, it’s a long story, Justin. But the short-form version of it is this:
I was brought up in a very small, loving, highly disciplined family without gospel. I think my parents thought they were Christians. But until I was converted, I have a memory of being at only two religious services with them. One was my grandmother’s funeral when I was seven, and the other was a rather bizarre service that my mother and father took me to.
I was born in 1948. In the early fifties in Scotland, most parents still thought that a decent part of a child’s upbringing was to send him to Sunday school, and so I was just sent to the church at the end of the street. It was very mixed but had some particularly impressive Sunday school teachers, and I sensed that from the beginning. (Only when I was converted did I realize why they were so impressive.)
One of them said to me, when, I think, I was about nine, “You should join the Scripture Union,” which is a Bible reading society very well known in the British Commonwealth countries. (It exists in the United States but not very prominently.) It provided very simple commentaries on Scripture for nine-year-old boys, fifteen-year-old boys, twenty-five-year-old people. And so I just started reading the Bible, and in the next five years I probably missed no more than five days. But for all those years I thought being a Christian was reading the Bible, saying my prayers, and helping old ladies across the street or giving them my seat on the bus. It seems almost incredible to me now that I could have read the Bible so much and not actually seen Christ in the Bible.
Then when I was fourteen, a number of things happened. There was a minor awakening in the church, and I began to make connections between what I’d been reading in the Book and what I was seeing in other people’s lives. While I was reading along, I remember — very vividly — reading the Lord saying, “You search the Scriptures and you think that in them you’ll find life, but you won’t come to me” [compare with John 5:39–40]. It was just like an illumination. I realized this was exactly where I was. I think it was that which then sent me on this quest for Christ. I then went through a period of about four or five months when I was very deeply convicted of my sin.
And I remember one night I was coming home — I started going to the evening church services as well as the morning services — from church. It was a very frosty, icy Sunday night in January 1963, and I almost lost my balance. Just as I regained my balance there was this man standing there dressed from head to toe in black. He looked at me, and then he glanced down and saw the little Bible in my hand. And he said to me, “Are you saved, son?” I burst into tears. I just couldn’t grasp how this total stranger that I bumped into because of the ice could see right through me into what I was longing for.
Then I went to hear the gospel preached from John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness but of life.” That was really the text that clinched my sense that Christ was mine and I was Christ’s. So that was when I was fourteen.
Then, within the next eighteen months, I had this very profound sense that God was calling me into the ministry. That was a strange thing for me, because speaking isn’t very natural to me. Writing is very natural to me. I was educated to write, not to speak. We almost never spoke in class when I was a boy at school, so it was a great challenge to me how this could possibly be.
The other great challenge was that I knew I would have to go to university in order to become a minister, and I didn’t know a single soul in my whole family tree who had ever gone to university. So as far as I was concerned, this was like climbing the Himalayas (in those days there were very few places to go to university in Scotland). But by God’s grace I went to university.
By the time I was seventeen I had become absolutely convinced of the absolute infallibility and authority of Scripture. If that was the case, the whole Bible must be preachable. But I didn’t know anybody who either believed or practiced that.
In those days there were six universities in Scotland. I was determined I would go to one of the four ancient universities (i.e., one that was five hundred years old). I lived in Glasgow, and I thought it would be good for me to be away from home. People from Glasgow are very prejudiced against Edinburgh, and I shared that prejudice, so I wasn’t going to go to university in Edinburgh. I played golf competitively, and therefore I decided it wouldn’t be wise to go to St. Andrews because I might be tempted from this calling God had given me. And so I went to Aberdeen, which was about 150 miles away from home. I really thought I was going to the ends of the earth!
My folks had started coming to church and trusted in the Lord, and somebody had said to my dad, “When Sinclair goes to university, tell him to go and hear Willie Still.” He was a minister in Aberdeen. And by God’s grace that was the best thing I did. He was a most eccentric man; he just lived in the presence of God but in a completely eccentric way. His preaching style was totally eccentric. But he must have preached through the Bible three times in his ministry. The church prayer meeting was the most amazing phenomenon I think I’ve ever experienced. It was like being taken up in a helicopter, and for two-and-a-half hours on Saturday night this group of ordinary people would just tour the world crying out to God for places I’d never heard of. The stamp that left on me was just phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal.
And there’s many years after that, but that’s the short part.
John, in Sinclair’s message he talked about the twin dangers of speaking too much and speaking too little, and I was thinking about this in terms of controversy. How do you avoid the extremes? There are some who love controversy too much and some who are cowardly about controversy. How do you walk the biblical path in the middle?
Piper: I think Sinclair’s first resolution is to pray for wisdom, and so that would be the first step. I would say, “Lord, there’s no clear statement in the Bible — ‘Engage in that controversy and don’t engage in that one’ — so I need extraordinary wisdom.”
Second, I think it would relate to the seriousness of the issue — the ripple effect on the hurting of people and the dishonoring of God. That’s usually defined by how close it is to the gospel. (Not always. The manhood and womanhood issue might not look like it’s close to the gospel, but its implications feel pervasive to me. That would be one). So I pray for wisdom and try to discern: if this catches on and succeeds, how many people will be hurt and how much will God be dishonored?
Third, I would ask, Am I suited for this? A lot of debates I’m not even touching because I don’t know enough to be useful there. And so I consider my own bent, giftedness, time, and location as a pastor. There are some issues where I’m going to have to lean on other scholars because I don’t have the time to be as much of an expert in it as you would need to be. So my own situation would be the third criterion.
The fourth thing that comes to my mind is, Is it burning in me? When I lie down and get up, is it there?
The fifth would be, Is it affecting those nearby in my life? Is this something my son is dealing with, my church is dealing with, my staff is dealing with? If it’s that close, you don’t have an option anymore. And if you’re going to deal with it for one person, you might as well put it on the Web and just multiply your usefulness.
So those would be some of the steps. But really it’s the first one, where it’s going to boil down to whether or not I should get involved with this and to what degree I should get involved.
Mark, as one involved in a fair bit of controversy, what have you learned from those who have criticized you well and those who have criticized you poorly, both in terms of how best to receive criticism and then how best to give it to others? What has some of the criticism taught you?
Driscoll: I once read a biography on Billy Graham entitled The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, and it had a really good section in there on how Billy handled critics (Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham [Zondervan, 2005], 79–90). I learned a lot from that. He oftentimes turned his “critics into coaches.” He would consider what they had to say, and he would prayerfully spend time with God, basically asking, “Is there any truth in this? Even if the tone is bad, if the intent is bad, if the heart is malicious, if the facts are misconstrued, is there anything in here that is of truth that I need to heed?” And then he would meet with his critics.
He would actively pursue his most vocal critics in an effort to hear them, to repent or consider anything that was worthwhile, to answer any confusion that they may have. And in so doing, Billy Graham became Billy Graham, a guy who was able to build bridges with a lot of different people who started off as very vocal opponents and critics. I was convicted that, in the providence of God, what is intended for evil could be used for good if there’s humility enough to consider and discernment enough not to believe everything that’s said.
So, for me, it’s continually trying to learn how a critic could become a coach and, in the providence of God, how the critic could be of assistance in helping me to grow.
Also I think it has made me more tender toward those who are criticized. I was watching Sports Center the other night. And they were talking about an NFL quarterback who was injured and basically had had a nervous breakdown, and the team was worried about him because he couldn’t handle the pressure and the criticism. Probably for the first time in my life I actually felt like praying for an athlete. So I’m sitting there praying for this athlete, that if he does know Jesus that Jesus would comfort him, and if he doesn’t know Jesus that he would meet Jesus so that his identity could be in Christ, not in his performance, and that he would live for God’s glory and not for the approval of the fans who criticize him. We live in a world, though, where communication is instant, constant, global, and permanent. That changes everything.
Can you say those four again?
Driscoll: I stole this from Rick Warren.
- Instant: communication now goes out immediately. I mean, people are live-blogging as we speak.
- Constant: twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
- Global: once it’s out, it’s out to the world.
- Permanent: once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.
This changes the dynamics of criticism in a way that preachers and leaders and politicians and athletes didn’t have to deal with in the past. In past years if you were upset, you’d write a letter and send it to the newspaper, and they could only print a few. If nobody read it, it was done forever. It’s not that way anymore. Now it’s instant, constant, global, permanent. It can make you so timid and careful that you really lose your ability to speak with any authority. And when you do make a mistake and sin, as I have, you have to live with that forever. There’s a certain sorrow that comes with that, if I’m totally honest. There’s a grief, a regret, a conviction, and a hope to do better.
What have you learned from those who have criticized you well?
Driscoll: Proverbs says, “The wounds of a friend are to be trusted much” [compare with Proverbs 27:6]. When criticism comes from someone who has love for you and hope for you, I think those two things define a friend. When they criticize you, it is really helpful. Dr. Piper is that kind of friend. C.J. Mahaney is that kind of friend. They have hope for me and love for me, and so when they criticize me it’s not to destroy me; it’s to help me. And that’s what I think Proverbs is talking about. Others — they don’t have hope for you, they don’t have love for you. Some of them don’t even make time for you. They’re just snipers for Christ. They are just always looking for somebody to shoot, and you don’t even see it coming. They use words like discernment and stuff.
Sinclair, I know that in times of discouragement the Psalter has been particularly sweet for you. Can you share the way in which you use the Psalms to work through dark seasons or through periods of discouragement in your soul?
Ferguson: Somewhere fairly early on in my Christian life I realized that afflictions, in general, and the kind of thing Mark has been speaking about, in particular, have the function not only of correcting me but also of giving me a deeper sensitivity to Christ.
I am not an Old Testament or New Testament scholar. I probably have not thought as much about hermeneutics as other people have. But I think that, by God’s grace, I’ve learned these basic instincts: to think about the Psalter in a series of different dimensions that all will get me to Christ. To me, that is really an absolutely fundamental aspect of the lenses through which I’m trying to look at everything. What is this teaching me about Christ? How is this meant to make me more like Christ? If I have no idea what’s happening in my life, what patterns might I see in this teaching that can keep this principle fixed in my mind: there is absolutely nothing that can ever happen to me but that God means to take it and use it and make me more like Christ.
You know, when Mark was speaking, I was thinking about his friends who say, “You are this . . . but you shall be that.” That is the Christlike way [John 1:42]. So I think, in all criticism, whether it’s true or false, you are able to look for this kernel of divine providence. That means as you respond to it in grace, you can never be the loser from it, because at the end of the day it will shape you.
So at the end of the day the resurrection is the inside of you that Christ has forged bursting outside. One of the things I delight to think about as I see friends who have often been wrongly criticized is to say to myself, What is it going to look like when Christ shows me what he was doing inside him or her and turns it outside? So we are living for that day, living for Christ, understanding that the whole of the Christian life involves an ongoing communion with Christ of being conformed to his death in order to be conformed to his resurrection [Philippians 3:10–12].
Those are just lenses that I think you see patterned always in the Psalter and consummately found in Christ and then taught in the New Testament. Those are lenses that I think help to keep me looking at the world and at my own life in a relatively stable way.
Pastor John, Matthew 12:36–37 says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” If we have to give an account on judgment day for every careless word, how is that not massively discouraging?
Piper: I don’t believe that “give account for” here means they become the ground of our acceptance with God. I think that because of other things Jesus says, especially to the publican who “went down to his house justified” because he just cried out for mercy, knowing he had failed with his tongue ten thousand times and wouldn’t “even lift up his eyes to heaven” [Luke 18:9–14]. Jesus said he’s accepted. So my understanding of justification by faith alone apart from the work of the tongue stands.
Having said that, I don’t think the bottom will fall out in discouragement. You can be discouraged at one level, but the bottom is not going to fall out. You’ve got your feet on the rock of the sovereign, free grace of God, purchased by One who never spoke amiss and whose righteousness with his tongue will be counted as the righteousness of my tongue. So that’s the basis on which we stand.
Now you have manifested in the New Testament “judgment according to works.” And “according to” is not the same as “on the ground of” or the “foundation of” your acceptance. We will be, I believe, rewarded according to the good or bad that we’ve done with our tongues. And my understanding of how that works is that the reward consists in our greater or lesser capacity to enjoy God and all the benefits of heaven. Jonathan Edwards’s analogy is that everybody will be perfectly happy, but some will have bigger cups to fill than others (Jonathan Edwards, “Sermon VIII” [on Romans 2:10], in The Works of Jonathan Edwards; 1834 [Banner of Truth, 1974], 2:902).
So we’ll all be perfectly happy, and nobody will be living a life of eternal frustration in heaven because they were saved like the thief on the cross — who will have to give an account for his tongue (all he ever did with his tongue except for the last half hour was sin). So my picture of the last day is that there will be tears at that moment of sorrow and regret, and I think the Lord will look at me, and I will just crumple, in one sense, because of how much I’ve let him down. So in that sense it is discouraging. It’s just not decisively, eternally, horribly, suicidally discouraging.
There are passages that apply here, and one of my favorites is in Micah 7 where the prophet says, “When I fall, I will rise and the Lord will execute judgment for me and not against me, even though I am now under the darkness of his disapproval” [compare with Micah 7:8–9].
My picture is that the filing cabinet for John Piper’s life will be pulled out on the last day. Everything’s written down — sixty-two years’ worth. And the folders will all have grades on them: F, D, C+, maybe here and there a B-. And God will take everything that does not function as an evidence of my new birth, and he’ll pull it out and show it to me. I’ll be grieved, and he will throw it away. He’ll cover it with the blood of Jesus. And he’ll take this little, little bundle that’s left, like from B- down to C-, and he’ll hold it up to the entire universe and say, “This is proof positive he was born again.” That’s the way I understand the judgment according to works. “Since he’s born again, he’s united to my Son, and my Son never spoke anything amiss, and therefore, all of John Piper’s failures are covered here.”
Mark, this glorious doctrine of Christ’s substitutionary atonement is being mocked in some quarters, and yet you preach it, and your church continues to grow. How do you counsel people from the cross?
Driscoll: In the book Death by Love I retell some stories from people that I pastor and then I write them a letter talking about how Jesus’ death on the cross is really the answer for them. The preface to each is on penal substitutionary atonement from a theological perspective, and the letters are very pastoral. So, for example, I write a propitiation chapter to someone who’s a convicted pedophile.
I think the most painful for me personally was a very dear woman, a friend. She was raped and always felt dirty and defiled and unclean, and it affected her marriage very negatively. And I write the expiation chapter to her, how Jesus cleanses us from our unrighteousness and how the bride in Revelation gets to wear white, and so does she in Christ. About a third of the women in our church were raped or molested. It’s a huge part of our ministry. A growing part of what we do is to try to help them to serve. We’re convinced that apart from the cross of Jesus, we have no help to offer anyone. All we’re left with then is just Christus exemplar: Jesus lived like this; try your best — which is nothing but despairing.
Instead, we teach that Jesus died to give new life, and so we connect the atonement with regeneration. This is what Jesus did so that you might live. All our counseling, all our shepherding, comes out of that. And we are seeing people saved by the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, upwards of a couple hundred people baptized on certain days just in the last year. I don’t take any credit for that, but I’m glad. I’m getting to see people meet Jesus, and I’m getting to see them deal with real issues, sin they’ve committed, sin that’s been committed against them. And it’s encouraging.
Those who want to give away the cross want to give away conversion and just be left with a vague spirituality that leaves Jesus as a great example. Whatever religion you’re in, you could just give it an effort. And I think that’s where a lot of theology is going.
But I see this other resurgence of a love for the Scriptures, a love for Jesus, a love for the cross, a love for very hard doctrines like the wrath of God and substitutionary atonement. And where I see those doctrines being believed and preached, we are seeing churches planted and growing, reaching very young, very pagan, very lost people. So I have good news. I guess the gospel is still powerful!
When I talk to people outside theological circles about these sorts of things and tell them that there are people denying substitutionary atonement, they ask what the alternative is they’re putting in its place. How would you answer that? What is the alternative to substitutionary atonement and the full-bloodied doctrine of biblical atonement? What are they arguing that’s different from what you’re saying?
Driscoll: One guy put it well: it’s moralistic therapeutic deism (Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [Oxford University Press, 2005]). Moralistic — try to be a good person. Therapeutic — God just gives principles for better living. And deism — he doesn’t really regenerate you or live in you by the power of the Holy Spirit. God is sort of far away and intervenes in crisis moments. Other than that, you’re pretty much on your own. And I would say that moralistic, therapeutic deism dominates with Oprah, it dominates with a lot of prosperity teachers, it dominates with a lot of psychologized theology. It doesn’t work, but it’s popular and it pays the bills for some. So I think that’s what is in place of substitutionary atonement.
As soon as that’s in place of real Christ-centered, Bible-centered, atonement-centered, repentance-centered, regeneration-centered Christianity, then the distinction between who is and who is not a Christian and what is and what is not Christian becomes almost indistinguishable. And in this age of pluralism there’s a great thrust to carve out some center like mortality or therapy or spirituality as a unifying center — because Jesus as the center is only unifying for those who repent. For everyone else he is not a unifying center; he’s a dividing line. The first mark of a Christian is repentance, turning from that kind of life toward Jesus. So when it’s all said and done, those are the only two alternatives: walk toward him or away from him.
Piper: What goes first before the cross is the wrath of God. The only reason you need propitiation is if God’s mad at you and will send you to hell. When that goes, you do something else with the cross. Consider Steve Chalke’s book where he got in trouble for calling the penal substitution “divine child- abuse" (Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus [Zondervan, 2003], 182–83). Clearly from that one paragraph he had already abandoned the wrath of God as it’s biblically understood. He says — and this is my answer to your question what’s in its place? — “God keeping his own commandments.” God said love your neighbor as you love yourself, and love your enemy. Chalke says sending anyone to hell is clearly not enemy love.
So I think the alternative is universalism and the abandonment of the wrath of God. If you keep central the holiness of God responding in justice to sinners with omnipotent wrath justly meted out in eternal torment, then the cross is understood and gloriously true and helpful.
Ferguson: It strikes me how fragile contemporary Christians are, because we think that the gospel came about ten years ago.
In 1999 there was a fascinating poll in the United Kingdom asking the British public to name the two most significant figures of the previous millennium, from 1000 to 2000. You have some giant human beings in the last thousand years, but the result of the poll was that Nelson Mandela was the most significant man and Princess Diana was the most significant woman! And that really confirmed something I suspected about the great British public — they know almost no history.
There is a kind of a parallel in the church. People who purvey an anti-penal substitution doctrine of Christ don’t seem to realize that men did that in the nineteenth century and destroyed the church. They did it in the eighteenth century and destroyed the church. They did it in the seventeenth century and destroyed the church. And they did it in the sixteenth century and destroyed the church. We’ve really seen it all before, and we know in advance what the fruits will be. It will be the destruction of radical Christianity. It will be the destruction of a radical sense of the forgiveness of sins. It will lead to a commensurate destruction: when you destroy the wrath of God, you absolutely destroy the heights of joy and glory that a Christian may experience in this life. Just a little knowledge of the history of the church would be just such a help to us.
Sinclair, with this new resurgence of younger Reformed evangelicals, we hear a lot about the centrality of the cross but not as much about union with Christ — its importance as a doctrine or its practical effects. Can you say a bit about the importance of union with Christ for our growth and holiness?
Ferguson: I come from a kind of old-style Reformed church — John Knox, John Calvin. I live in South Carolina. I don’t even know what emergent or non-emergent is! As a kind of sideline observer I see people becoming the “New Reformed” of our time and people from the “Old Reformed” sometimes jumping on their heads because they don’t get it all together instantaneously. And I want to say, “I thought you believed in the sovereignty of God and learned to be patient with people!” So I do think it’s true that when people really do come to realize and get back to the centralities — the wrath of God, the penal substitution of Christ, the absolute necessity of regeneration as a sovereign work of God — in the ordinary course of events as people keep processing the Scriptures, then the other pieces eventually get into place.
Calvin was like that. He saw the judgment of God; he saw the necessity of regeneration, the necessity of faith in Christ, but it was quite a while before he began to work through the implications of what it means to believe in union and communion with Christ and to understand that from the moment you become a Christian you are somebody who has died to sin and been raised to newness of life. You are somebody over whose life the dominion of the power of sin has been broken.
You begin to learn to interpret your life in terms of what God says about you because you are united to Christ instead of interpreting the gospel in terms of where you are in your struggle. I need to live the Christian life out of a center of being united to Christ. And, therefore, the whole of the Christian life is stamped with participation in sufferings, “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” [compare with Colossians 1:24] — not in any lack in their atoning significance, nor any lack in Christ at all, but what remains of me being brought to full Christlikeness by participation in the sufferings of Christ. And almost cyclically I then experience participation in the resurrection of Christ until those two realities are consummated when I’m finally delivered not just from the power of sin but from the very presence of sin and then actually physically conformed to the likeness of his glorious resurrection body [Philippians 3:21].
That is a long, slow process. When Peter said there are some things in Paul’s letters that are difficult to understand [2 Peter 3:16], I think maybe he was thinking about passages like Romans 5 and Romans 6. It can take a long, hard look into the notion of union with Christ before, you know, the little grey cells begin to grasp this amazing reality that I’m united to Christ the same way the branches are united to the vine, that this is not some spooky, mystical thing. It is grounded in what he has done. Then, as I realize what he has done, it really does become a mystical (or spiritual) reality for me, and out of that I learn to live the whole of my life in union and communion with Christ.
To me this is just the totally amazing reality of the Christian life: that my union with Christ emerges into a daily communion with Christ. I am so united to him that in everything I am making reference to him. I sometimes think if people could see inside my head they would think I was absolutely off my head and ask the question, “Who is this other in his life?”
That would be the blessed reality for every Christian believer if we only just believed the gospel that we believe!