Pastoring in a World of Suffering

Treasuring Christ Together Panel

Bethlehem Conference for Pastors | Minneapolis

John Erickson: Brothers, thank you again for joining us. We prayed that the Lord would meet us in these sessions, not just in the Q&A, but in these two previous sessions, and I’m so thankful for God’s grace in how he answered prayer. We want to spend this next session thinking about the joyful courage that the Spirit gives. These are days that require courage. Brothers, you know that courage is required in the days ahead, but I don’t think any of us quite comprehend how much courage will be needed for the days ahead.

And when days are difficult, the most natural thing is to conserve, to just stop spreading. I’m just struck by the reality that in the book of Acts, on the heels of persecution, there are men filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with joy, and that joy bubbles up into courage that leads them to spread. God is at work every place they go, and everywhere they go there’s suffering. So, brothers, we’re inviting you into this Spirit-wrought work of joy that produces courage that will run right into the teeth of suffering. That’s what we’re asking God to help us with in these minutes.

This little, very weak group of churches, 36 beautiful churches, traces its roots back to the beginning of days when I had the privilege of being on staff at Bethlehem and the Lord was bringing quite a few people to Bethlehem. Pastor John preached a message with the title Treasuring Christ Together. Pastor John, can you just tell us that name, that phrase, where did that come from? What were you thinking about in those days as you were thinking about treasuring Christ together?

John Piper: Paul said, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels in order that the surpassing power might belong to God and not to us” (see 2 Corinthians 4:7). That’s the text, I suppose, where I would go to warrant that. Jesus said, “Whoever loves mother or father more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (see Matthew 10:37). And that love there is not the kind of agape, service love. That’s not the way we love Jesus. He doesn’t need our service. It’s affection love. That’s family love.

That’s what I have for my children, right? I’m supposed to love Jesus more than Abraham and Benjamin and Karsten and Barnabas and Talitha and Noël. That’s massive, and it is not stressed, in my judgment, often enough at the heart of coming to Christ. So, I wrote a book which was controversial and isn’t selling very well called What Is Saving Faith? in which I argued treasuring Christ is part of saving faith. This title is not, in my judgment, icing on the cake or peripheral.

It’s a way of helping people know what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. When we summon you to Jesus, we summon you to trust a Savior that you treasure, and follow a Lord that you treasure, and have a friend that you treasure, and embrace a reward that you treasure. And if you leave the treasuring part out of any of those, it’s defective. That’s the softest thing I can say, defective. I won’t say unreal. I don’t want to overstate the case. I’ll just say it’s defective. And we don’t want to invite people to a defective faith.

There are a lot of nominal Christians in the world. A lot of people are going to be shocked on the last day. Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me,” because they didn’t love him (Matthew 7:23). They just inherited their faith from somebody. They have various reasons for going to church that are not Jesus being their treasure. It’s pretty basic in my judgment. I’m glad it’s right at the front of our name.

Erickson: Amen. As a family of churches, that is the beating heart at the center: that Christ is the diamond, and treasuring him is not cliche, not a throwaway, as you just stated. This is the essence. We’re also united by a big view of God. You wrote an Elder Affirmation of Faith for Bethlehem that is now subscribed to by every elder of every one of our churches. It’s not a short affirmation of faith. It’s about 59 pages, depending on how it’s written up, with 299 footnotes loaded with Scripture. Your aim there was just Scripture, Scripture, Scripture, because this is the document that unites us as churches. Go back and give us a little history of how that document came about.

Piper: I’m glad you gave me that ahead of time. That’s why I have notes. I’m no good at remembering history, but this is really interesting. So, I’m going to take a few minutes to answer this. If it sounds like I’m losing you, I’ll stop — and you can stop me anytime. When you say I wrote it, that’s dangerous, right? One man wrote this thing. What’s that?

Back in the mid-1990s, there were red-hot issues, among them was open theism. I belonged to the Baptist General Conference. The Baptist General Conference, to my amazement, would not affirm the absolute foreknowledge of God as part of their beliefs — that God foreknows perfectly everything that shall come to pass. I was stunned. It so jolted me, and I was shouted down almost at the annual meeting in 1995. I began to think about creeds and affirmations and beliefs that are so precious. Without a good one, conferences can really go awry. I’ll just say at the outset, to have a good affirmation faith doesn’t guarantee the church will be faithful. Many churches embrace the Westminster Confession and they’re not faithful churches because it’s just in name. That was part of the background.

I noticed in the Bible that Paul referred to a “form of teaching to which you were committed” (see Romans 6:17). He referred to a “deposit” (2 Timothy 1:14) that everybody was to pass on. He referred to “the traditions” (2 Thessalonians 2:15), which you have received. He referred to “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). These phrases connoted a body of teaching. Paul could wash his hands of people and walk away from them after two years and say, “I’ve delivered it to you. It’s not my fault if you’re lost” (see Acts 20:26–27), because he delivered “the whole counsel of God.” Amazing. I thought that was a biblical warrant for putting things down as a summary of our precious faith. I love historic confessions, like Westminster, Belgium, Heidelberg, 1689, Philadelphia, and Baptist Faith & Message. These kinds of summaries are precious.

However, the one we ascribed to as a church was the Baptist General Conference Affirmation of Faith, and it had no clear affirmation of any of the doctrines of grace, which in my life had become of paramount significance as a faithful, glorious description of how I got saved. I was dead in my trespasses, chosen before the foundation of the world, bought by the blood of Jesus, kept forever and ever, and drawn irresistibly to him. I mean, I owe everything to these five points. So, I thought we’d need an affirmation that gets that.

The immediate occasion for the writing of it was TBI (The Bethlehem Institute), the precursor for Bethlehem College and Seminary. They said, “We need an affirmation of faith more robust than the one the church has.” And they sent me away to write a draft. I did that in April of 1999. And I wanted to weave into it the doctrines of grace. I thought it should be thoroughly Christian Hedonist. If you go through and mark every reference to joy, you’ll find about 15 of them. So, Christian Hedonism is marking it.

I wrote it. I brought it back. After 10 years, we created elders at Bethlehem. We didn’t have any when I came. There was a new constitution in the year 1990. The question was, “What are these elders going to believe?” I remember meeting with John MacArthur and saying, “How do you handle what you require at Grace Church?” And he said, “You’ll notice the title for our elder book, which is quite thick, is What We Teach.” I thought, oh, that’s helpful, because I can’t demand a front-end believer, a baby believer, who’s just been brought to Christ to embrace this document. They don’t know anything. They hardly know their right hand from their left. So, that’s not what you do.

But what do the elders teach? What are you going to hear when you come to this church? That’s what you lift up in an affirmation of faith. The elders believe it. That’s what we teach. That’s what we operate from. And so I thought, okay, let’s do this.

I wrote the first draft and I brought it back and I sent it to Sam Crabtree and Tom Steller first. Then I sent a draft to the TBI board (The Bethlehem Institute). I sent a draft to the TBI students. I sent a draft to Desiring God theological support staff and to the pastoral staff. And here are the outside readers that read it: Timothy George, J.I. Packer, Richard Muller, Mark Noll, Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Tom Schreiner, Ardel Caneday, David Wells, R.C. Sproul, John Sailhamer, Scott Hafemann, C.J. Mahaney, Tom Rockstead, and Michael Horton.

I did not trust myself in this. This was going to be a historic thing. I wanted trusted teachers like this to read this and tell me if I’m saying anything quirky. I don’t want to be quirky. I don’t want people to just read it and say, “Oh, that was the 1990s.” So, when you hear Piper wrote it, I did write the first draft. It went through four renditions with all these inputs, and finally it was voted on as a TBI requirement for the faculty first. We taught it in the church consistently from 2000–2003. And on December 10, 2003, it was a miracle night in my judgment. The church voted that all our elders would henceforth embrace this.

I mean, for a Baptist Church to have the congregation say, “We want to be governed henceforth by a council of elders who believe this document,” was remarkable. And so, that’s how it came to be an elder affirmation of faith at Bethlehem. Since then, as you know, it’s been the affirmation of faith for Bethlehem College and Seminary, Desiring God, and the Treasuring Christ Together network. The Cross Conference, the missions conference, has used it as the basis of their conference, although we’ve changed the baptism paragraph, so Kevin DeYoung, a really good friend, and other good Presbyterian brothers could sign it. That’s the history of how it came to be.

You can pray about this. One of the faculty at school right now says, “John, this is a historic piece, and we need a new name, so that in the coming days when churches here and there, TCT and other schools and missions, embrace it, they won’t say ‘the Bethlehem Elder Affirmation of Faith.’ They’ll say something else.”

I don’t know whether that’s a good idea. I think it may be. So, if you have input on that, you can send it to him maybe and he can pass it along. You can follow up if you want, but that’s my summary of how it came to be. God was good. I see Chuck standing back there, who is a worship leader at Bethlehem. We’ve been reading it on and off for quite a while. And frankly, Chuck, I think it reads pretty good for Sunday morning. It has a flow to it.

When we read the section on sin for Kenny’s sermon two weeks ago and you followed it with “Come, Ye Sinners,” I was just about to lose it. Because it was so perfect to move from that dreadful statement on sin and to follow it with, “Come, ye sinners, poor, needy. If you wait, you’ll never come at all.” That’s good.

Erickson: Jordan and Nathan, I wonder if you would read two sections from near the end of this statement, sections 15.2 and 15.3. I think they really highlight your heart, Pastor John, in this document. It wasn’t trying to put the cookies on the bottom shelf. It wasn’t trying to reduce this down to a note card. There’s a rationale here for why that is. So, Jordan, if you would read 15.2, and Nathan, if you could read 15.3. Then Pastor John, if you just comment on this after they read it.

Jordan Thomas: Yes, gladly. Section 15.2 says:

“Our aim is not to discover how little can be believed, but rather to embrace and teach — the whole counsel of God. Our aim is to encourage a hearty adherence to the Bible, the fullness of its truth, and the glory of its Author. We believe Biblical doctrine stabilizes saints in the winds of confusion and strengthens the church in her mission to meet the great systems of false religion and secularism. We believe that the supreme virtue of love is nourished by the strong meat of God-centered doctrine. And we believe that a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ is sustained in an atmosphere of deep and joyful knowledge of God and his wonderful works.”

Nathan Knight: Section 15.3 says:

“We believe that the cause of unity in the church is best served, not by finding the lowest common denominator of doctrine, around which all can gather, but by elevating the value of truth, stating the doctrinal parameters of church or school or mission or ministry, seeking the unity that comes from the truth, and then demonstrating to the world how Christians can love each other across boundaries rather than by removing boundaries. In this way, the importance of truth is served by the existence of doctrinal borders, and unity is served by the way we love others across those borders.”

Piper: Let me start with that last one. I had that in my notes to say about the beginning. I’ve always struggled with the importance of and the way we pursue Christian unity. I mean, there are Christians probably in every denomination under the sun because people’s hearts are regularly better than their heads when it comes to what they’ve been taught badly. God has worked in their lives. They’re saved and they’ve just been taught so badly about what happened to them.

So, how am I supposed to love my brothers and sisters everywhere and maintain the truth of Scripture? Francis Schaeffer wrote an article near the end of his life on that issue and he said what I said. I borrowed that entirely from him. We serve truth and we serve unity not by tearing down fences. Because if you tear down fences, you say truth doesn’t really matter. You basically say, “There are no borders around what I believe. It can flow over into error.” In that way, you really don’t know where error begins and truth stops.

And then he said, “But you don’t have to throw hate bombs over the fence.” I thought that was so helpful. At least for me personally, it was so helpful. I’m going to build a fence around this 12-page document. It’s a fence. It’s a pretty significant fence. But I don’t have to devote my life to demonizing the folks on the other side of the fence. I can look for ways to try to help them understand — ways to be cobelligerent. I march with Roman Catholics every January 22 at the Capitol on pro-life. There are all kinds of things that create bridges.

So, that ending there was a Schaeffer-motivated way of speaking. If somebody says, “Don’t you know that doctrine divides, TCT pastors?” I would like to say, “Actually hate divides worse than doctrine divides. Doctrine honors God. And when we build a fence to stay inside here, we believe it’s what the Bible teaches. And if you disagree with that, I don’t want to hate you. I’m going to serve you. I’m going to die for you.” So, that would be the way I would respond to somebody who says doctrine divides. It does, but it doesn’t have to divide in a mean-spirited, hateful way.

With regard to what was read here, I just so totally agree with that. Anecdotally, if I go back to 1995 and remember who stood up at the annual meetings and looked at me like I was the worst person in the Baptist General Conference for thinking that we should fire Greg Boyd, who’s a pastor right here in the cities — he was teaching at Bethel, and he didn’t believe God knows what you’re going to do this afternoon and he still doesn’t. If he were sitting right here, he’d say, “I agree with that.” He doesn’t believe that God knows future acts of free wills. I think that’s heresy, and I was hated for that.

Those people have gone so far left to this day, you can just taste it. They were so anti-doctrine, but the doctrine is a ballast in your boat. The doctrines of grace in particular are such a protection. I mean, there are a lot of bad people who believe the doctrines of grace. Yes, there are, because you can just be a horrible person because your heart is so bad and you’re using doctrine to sell something. But in the best of cases, the doctrines of grace can be a sweet, deep, weighty ballast in your boat so it doesn’t get tipped over by winds that blow along. I like what I wrote there. I don’t remember how much of it was edited.

Erickson: That’s so helpful. I want to hear these brothers’ responses to this, but I just asked Michael if he would read one more section, just one more bit of flavor from this.

Michael Reeves: This is section 3.2:

“We believe that God upholds and governs all things — from galaxies to subatomic particles, from the forces of nature to the movements of nations, and from the public plans of politicians to the secret acts of solitary persons — all in accord with his eternal, all-wise purposes to glorify himself, yet in such a way that he never sins, nor ever condemns a person unjustly; but that his ordaining and governing all things is compatible with the moral accountability of all persons created in his image.”

Piper: I love to hear you read that. Shakespeare, bow down.

Erickson: They’re all going to weigh in, but I just want to focus on that particular paragraph, especially as it’s germane to what you were just describing historically.

Piper: Here’s a little pastoral discovery. If you say to new people, “I don’t believe in free will,” they won’t have any idea what you’re saying first of all, and they’ll think you’re crazy and dead wrong. And they might have good reasons for saying that. To try to help people grasp the sovereignty of God by going the soteriological route of irresistible grace to start with isn’t necessarily the most effective because what I have found is that people who are genuinely born of God are ready to bow down and submit to that paragraph about his sovereignty over nations, his sovereignty over their kids, and his sovereignty over their diseases.

For example, my mother-in-law, who’s with Jesus now, lived to be 101 years old. She died last year. She would never have called herself a Calvinist. She was a little bit nervous that this guy was going to marry her daughter. We’ve been married for 55 years now, and she was okay with me after a while. Right after we got married, maybe three years into our marriage, Noël’s 16-year-old brother was killed immediately in a car crash. To watch Pam Henry deal with the death of her son was glorious. She totally submitted to God. There was not a whiff of criticism of God. There was not a whiff of doubt in his goodness.

Now, to me that’s very close to the heart of Calvinism. Don’t ever get angry with God. Don’t ever criticize God. Don’t ever question God. Don’t ever doubt God. God reigns and God is good in the death of your 16-year-old son. And yet she couldn’t shake what she’d been taught about free will.

So, the point is, over time, if you preach the sovereignty of God and his goodness in the mess this world is in and your personal life and the sufferings you’ve been through, and people begin to embrace that, most of them, I think, will eventually make their way to the full-blown discovery of God’s sovereignty in their own salvation.

Here’s just one other example. Very few people want to proudly answer the question: Why did you believe in Jesus and your sister didn’t? I asked that to a girl named Sharon walking across the bridge after she had gotten in my face after a message. She was angry as could be at predestination. And I said, “Let’s just walk home together,” because she lived in my neighborhood. I said, “Tell me about your conversion,” and she told me about being saved at age nine because she was really tall, and everybody was criticizing her because she was tall. The Spirit of God spoke to her, she said, and assured her, “You’re mine and I love you, and it doesn’t matter what they say.”

I said to her, “So, why did he do that for you?” And she, of course, is not going to say, “Because I’m better than my sister. I’m smarter than my sister. I have more wisdom than my sister.” She just said, “Grace. He just loved me.” I said, “That’s all I’m teaching. It’s sovereign grace that penetrates through your 12-year-old soul and lays hold on you effectively and draws you to himself so that he gets all the glory.”

Erickson: Amen. Michael, share with us from a perspective outside of this little bubble what Pastor John has been talking about about doctrine and how God uses it. As you’re hearing these things, what are some of your thoughts about what Pastor John shared?

Reeves: I love this title, Treasuring Christ Together, and it’s a banner that needs to be held high and waved today because it’s far too forgotten, it’s far too breezed over with thoughts that we can have Christian healthiness without treasuring Christ, maybe with good programs and with hard work and with certain actions, but without that treasuring Christ. Treasuring Christ is an essential mark of the heart that has been renewed, and that truth needs to be trumpeted.

What I see as I read these affirmations is page after page of truths that renewed hearts should warm to. They won’t always, but they should warm to these. And with such good news that is so pastorally helpful, these are truths that are useful for us. Congregationally and communally, they hold the people of God together because it is the word of God that creates the church. It is the gospel truth of God that has brought us new life. So, to be reciting these truths together, we’re holding onto those truths that bind us in the unity of the Spirit. They are pastorally helpful too, individually.

So, just to hear how these truths are being used pastorally and discussed before a sermon or after a sermon or whenever those instances were, strikes me as a really healthy use of such a document. It doesn’t just sit around merely as a fence, but actually becomes a banner and becomes a pastoral support, so that people can be constantly called back to the gospel that gives health.

Erickson: Nathan, you pastor in DC. You’ve recently written a book with 9Marks. You’re right in the splash pool of Mark Dever and our friends at 9Marks, and we appreciate their emphasis on healthy churches. How have you seen this wedding of a healthy church and this big view of God in this affirmation of faith?

Knight: Well, first, I just want to affirm obviously everything that’s been said. When we talk about Jesus, we need to know what Jesus we’re talking about. That’s critical. I think secondly, it’s important to note that, of course, doctrine divides. Christ died for doctrine. He was divisive from the doctrine of the Pharisees and the like.

I think 9Marks has been enormously pivotal in my life, and I love the ways in which they’re highlighting how the Bible teaches doctrine about ecclesiological conviction, which I find few people to have. The more that I read the Bible, the more these things start to pop up. I’ve been preaching through 1 Thessalonians and there’s a little line from 1 Thessalonians 5:15 that says, “Repay no one evil for evil, but always do good to each other and to everyone.” Well, who is he talking about when he says “each other”? It’s the local church. We just skip right past that. So, I think 9Marks has helped us see how the Bible is teaching us a meaningful, definable community, but that is only helpful insofar as it adorns a particular Christ.

I think that’s the thing that I would want to say. We need to have healthy churches that are not centered on the church as such, but healthy churches as we’ve been using this image that is like how the prongs of the diamond are not plastic prongs. They’re platinum. They’re strong. They’re healthy. That’s the ecclesiology that’s really healthy, but they exist for one purpose — not as an end unto themselves, but it’s to hold up the diamond of Christ. And I have found that marriage to be wonderfully beautiful.

Erickson: Jordan, you pastor in one of the hardest areas in Memphis. You went down there to plant 18 years ago. You’ve raised your beautiful family on that hard street, Mill Avenue, and I know you love this affirmation of faith. You’ve taught through it. You’ve taught your teenage kids this. What are some of the ways God has used this at Grace Church in Memphis?

Thomas: I think Pastor John said that you guys are deliberating on whether or not a change of the title is useful or something. Well, you also mentioned that the Treasuring Christ Together churches, DG, and others use this affirmation. So, I don’t know if we should have asked permission, but we just changed the title. It’s called the “Grace Church Elder Affirmation of Faith.”

Piper: That’s what everybody has done, and historically, that’s just going to be a problem because nobody will know you all believe the same thing.

Thomas: Oh, I got you.

Piper: You’re totally free to do that. DG has done it, Bethlehem College & Seminary has done it, and Bethlehem has done it. The North Church will probably do it. That’s just a problem when you think 50 years from now.

Thomas: Right, we’re all united.

Piper: Exactly. This school and that denomination will have renamed it. It’s not Westminster, or another document people know already. So, that’s the problem we have to solve if it should be solved.

Thomas: Got it. It’s been abundantly useful. We did two demographic researches before Grace Church began 18 years ago. I spent a year at Bethlehem doing a church planting residency program. That finished in May of 2006. Then we moved back to Memphis and started some Bible studies in the fall after some basic street, door-to-door, good old-fashioned evangelism. This is our elder affirmation of faith. I taught a 35-part systematic theology class to our church on the Elder Affirmation of Faith.

I did every article from a biblical, historical, and practical perspective. I just tried to show in the historical context that a lot of Christians have believed this stuff for a long time. Practically, I answered how the justifying act of God (one of the articles) applies to our life together as Christ-treasuring people. It’s been super helpful. I discipled my kids through it. I’m teaching a co-op class on Monday afternoon for my two sons and any of their friends that were interested. We meet at our church office for an hour and a half every Monday. I taught them the Elder Affirmation of Faith. We’re just trying to lay it into the souls of our church, including young people.

Erickson: Michael, you referenced the phrase “treasuring Christ.” In the latest article that you wrote for Desiring God some months ago, you referenced this, but I just wanted to read you a quote back that I thought was so helpful and ask you just to tease out this idea. You said:

If people are to cherish and treasure Christ, they cannot merely be told that he is good, true, and beautiful. They must be shown so that they taste and see. Yet showing is a much more challenging proposition for the preacher: such a sermon cannot be aimlessly trotted out; nor can it come from a preacher who is not himself enjoying and adoring Christ. For those reasons, we preachers all too easily settle for telling.

Reeves: In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul talks about how we are transformed as we all with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed from glory to glory. The transformation happens through beholding. And therefore, in preaching, we should seek to set forth Christ so that people behold. It’s more than simply being able to rationally comprehend the three truths you’ve just said. It’s that through the text that’s being proclaimed, they are able to behold the reality of Christ that’s being proclaimed, which means that for the preacher, I need to work much harder to show Christ as I preach him, which means that I’m doing work to think, “What does this mean about Christ? How do these truths intersect to tell me something more so that I can see Christ more clearly?”

It is that sight that will transform. I think that we settle for telling for two reasons really. One is it’s easy for me when I’m spiritually cold to just throw out three truths that I’m not actually enjoying at the time. But if I’m seeking to show Christ, and show Christ in his truth, his goodness, and his beauty, that means that it’s very, very hard for me to show the beauty and goodness of Christ if I’m not appreciating the goodness of Christ.

Therefore, for me to seek to have my people behold the glory of Christ in my preaching actually puts a weight on me as a preacher that I need to be cherishing Christ myself, and therefore holding him out as one who should be cherished. If I’m holding out Christ, who self-evidently I’m not enjoying, I’m therefore effectively holding out a Christ who forever is doctrinally correct but who seems to be unenjoyable.

Knight: Pastor John, you preached a sermon on John Newton years ago, and we have people listen to it. You chided us in a way by saying, “You preach the doctrine of justification like this: ‘It is the imputation of Christ upon us . . .’ and you list the facts. But John Newton says it like this . . .” And you read this beautiful image of Newton that does exactly what Michael just shared with us.

Piper: I am so glad Michael has made it explicit that Christian Hedonism — and that’s the root of Treasuring Christ Together — makes your job spiritually much more difficult. Because you’re just not permitted to go into the pulpit regularly without a passion for Jesus. And to put treasuring or serious joy right at the front of your goal will make that a mandate. So, Friday or Saturday or whenever it is, as the preparation comes and you’re at your desk or you’re standing in your preparation moments, as important as getting your doctrine right is getting your heart full.

That’s the warfare, the fight for joy, and it’s much harder than getting the doctrine right. The devil gets the doctrine right, and therefore we have enormous enemies and sinful tendencies of our heart that are turning us into those raw, doctrinal statements where people can tell, “He’s not communing with the Lord and the doctrine of which he preaches.” That’s an Owen phrase. John Owen said that you have to commune with the Lord and the doctrine with which you contend. And I said, “Oh, I love that phrase.” What a warfare.

I wonder how many of our Twitter warriors are communing with the sweetness of God in the doctrine for which they contend. You called for courage. I just want to say that’s absolutely right, but what we’re after in TCT is a peculiar kind of courage. It’s easy to do courage swagger. That’s just not what we’re about. Deeply delighting people don’t swagger. They’re just so overwhelmed with thankfulness. They’re so overwhelmed that they’re saved.

The swagger is pulled out of the courage. The courage remains. The backbone is steel. It doesn’t get pushed over by any wind, but it doesn’t have the raw, critical, ugly, mean-spirited, swaggering feel to it. That’s the peculiar challenge. That’s a parenthesis in the joy piece. But all that is just to say that what Michael just said is so right, because your job as you enter the pulpit is to get it right doctrinally and to get the passion spiritually, and then find words and illustrations that move people’s hearts.

Oscar Huerta served in Uzbekistan for nine years, and he made the Elder Affirmation of Faith a catechism in Uzbek and used it on the mission field. Right now, I’m meeting every Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m. with an African immigrant who lives in our apartment in the basement, and it’s mainly to teach him English because his English is okay, but he’s hard to understand. I want to refine his English. We’re reading the Elder Affirmation of Faith. He’s loving it. He’s just loving it. I said, “We’re going to meet from 7:30 a.m. to 8:15 a.m.” We get to 8:15 a.m. and he says, “Let’s just do a little more.” This document has potential for more different uses than you probably think.

Erickson: I remember coming to Bethlehem as a very young man and being surprised by a number of things. I was surprised at our first staff retreat when we went out to play volleyball. I was tall, and I didn’t want to hurt anybody who was older than me. And I was surprised, Pastor John, that right away you said, “Spike the ball, Erickson!” I thought, “Oh, okay, you’re competitive.”

Piper: God didn’t make you tall for nothing.

Erickson: That’s right. But one of the things that surprised me just because I was young and foolish was how much you talked about suffering. I remember in several of the biographies in the life of Martin Luther and some of these men, just thinking, “Is Pastor John overemphasizing this? Is this too much?” And then as I went along in ministry, I realized this is just such a huge part of our work.

I think for any of the folks here who are pastors, who are shepherds, or for women who are shepherding women, walking with people through suffering, at times deep, deep suffering, is something very few of us feel like we’ve been prepared for, even understanding what our Father is going to call us to suffer with. As I was thinking of that, I was thinking about how you used to speak about America being Disneyland, and you would say, “This isn’t normal.” I thought, “I have to go back and remember what Pastor John said.” I was thinking about this because they intersect.

So, I just wanted to read you a quote because the call for courage in light of suffering, as you said, is a peculiar kind of courage. But you said:

Will you join the Son in displaying the supreme satisfaction of the glory of grace in joining him on the Calvary road of suffering? Because there’s no other way the world is going to see the supreme glory of Christ today, except that we break free from the Disneyland of America and begin to live lifestyles of missionary sacrifice that look to the world like our treasure is in heaven and not on the earth. It is the only way.

Pastor John, can you just help us think about preparing ourselves for suffering, preparing our people for suffering, and walking with them through our own and their suffering?

Piper: Jesus says:

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11–12)

I didn’t make it up that joy is attached to suffering pervasively in the New Testament.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance . . . and hope does not put us to shame. (Romans 5:3, 5)

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds. (James 1:2)

It comes over and over. I didn’t make this connection up, in this fallen world where the creation is groaning as in childbirth and the horrors are all around us. This is just a horrible world in which we live, in spite of all the beauty. There’s beauty everywhere, and there’s horror everywhere.

If we’re going to try to build a church movement on the basis of some glib, superficial, praise-God-anyhow kind of happiness, that’s just a dead-end street for real people. You can do that for a while on Sunday morning for healthy people. But if you want broken people in your church and you want to deal with your own sufferings, there has to be a “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). That’s the text I go back to again and again. And then to that textual foundation, I would add my experience as I became a pastor at Bethlehem.

I came to Bethlehem saying to the Lord — having just written the book on Romans 9 called The Justification of God, which is about God’s absolute sovereignty — “I want to go to a church and see if this message works.” That’s what I said. I spent nine months there, and then I quit at Bethel and said, “I don’t want to be a teacher anymore. I want to go to herald the God of Romans 9 to see if it works for children, and to see if it works for divorced people and old people and young people.” And it did.

How many young moms have come to me over the years and said, “If you hadn’t taught me about the sovereignty of God in suffering, I would have gone insane when that child was born”? That has been a refrain for years about the sovereignty of God being painfully sweet in people’s real suffering. I think Christian Hedonism is what enables you men in treasuring Christ. It enables you to preach that with tenderness and sweetness. It’s easy to hit people over the head with the sovereignty of God, and that does no good whatsoever.

But if you bear witness to the sufferings of your own life and how God stood strong, it won’t be that way. We’ve all been watching people, maybe online. I’ve heard that the 15-year-old daughter of a pastor was in a coma but now she’s out. To watch him walk through this, like one of your colleagues over there near Virginia, is just glorious. It’s glorious to see someone not lose faith in God, not curse God, but trust God through the worst of times. So yes, I think the New Testament warrants the emphasis on suffering, and experience warrants it.

I’ll say one more thing. I was 22 years old when I got married. I got married three months into the discovery of the doctrines of grace. And the text we chose for our wedding was Habakkuk 3:17–18, which says:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
     nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
     and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
     and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
     I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

It’s a picture of starvation. That was our wedding text. How weird is that? I was 22. I didn’t know anything about life really, and God put it in my heart to put over the banner of our marriage, “Noël, if we starve to death, we rejoice in Jesus.” That’s a glorious beginning. I think that’s why we’re still married, because there have been some pretty lean times, though we laugh now.

Erickson: Jordan, piggyback on that and talk about something the Lord has taught you about pastoring while you’re walking through your own pain.

Thomas: I’ll just be a prisoner to the moment. Right after my little message, a brother came up with commendable things and encouraging things to say and also tethering it to some hard things in pastoral ministry. I said to him what my little cliche, go-to, broken-record summary of being a pastor is. My summary is that it’s God’s invitation to more sorrow. That’s what I think being a pastor is. That’s a narrow slice of the pie to look at. But the reason I say that is because it’s just being a Christian publicly. We have some assignments, like “preach the word” and all those things.

So, there are some particular assignments, but we also get invited into so much pain and so much suffering. There are multiple pastoral care cases going on at our church right now that have our elders in the fetal position. They’re just hard. There have been many of those. May I say with a broken heart, but also gospel hope, we’ve had numbers of excommunication cases. They’re all just devastating. They’re terrible. With all the behind-the-scenes labor that goes into that, I honestly do not know how Christians (and I would say especially pastors) aren’t just in a constant free fall if they don’t have the rock of God’s sovereignty in suffering.

Speaking of pastor retreats with volleyball spikes and things, I went on one of those and we played kickball. I almost demolished this man playing left field. I was the shortstop. It was a pop fly. We were both running full speed.

But it was at that retreat where a side conversation about some Edwardsian thoughts of heaven and suffering and hell came up, and Pastor John said the statement that you’ve probably all heard him say: “If you can’t handle the statement, ‘It is not sin for God to ordain that sin be,’ then you can’t handle the cross.” The cross is just right at the center of everything about everything about everything that we believe. It’s the worst suffering that’s ever happened to the only innocent man, and God absolutely ordained it.

That’s the foundation of our faith. So, we have to have a theology of suffering. It’s the bloody, gory, nasty, nauseating, make-you-throw-up, grotesque cross that for the joy set before him Jesus endured. We are sorrowful, always rejoicing. My wife and I took a sister who has an excommunication case with her husband to dinner last week. She said, “The sovereignty of God has been sweet to me.” And she elaborated on God’s kindness and God’s nearness in Psalm 44, Psalm 45, and Psalm 46. In Psalm 44, the people are faithful, but where’s God? He hid his face. In Psalm 45, I told you about it today. It’s the marriage of the divine king. And in Psalm 46, our God is a very present help in trouble.

Erickson: Amen. Michael, what we’ve learned over centuries is that the only way Christians persevere through this kind of suffering, the only way they would joyfully take up their cross and follow Christ, or spread, or plant a church, or go to the nations is a big view of God.

You have brought us back to the glories of our triune God again and again. You used the word that I’m shocked after you use it that it’s not used much more. It’s the word fullness. You use that a lot, and it’s such a helpful thing. I just want to read you something you wrote and then see if you can talk about why it’s so important and also why it’s so rarely used. You said:

God is so overflowingly, super-abundantly full of life in himself that he delighted to spread his goodness.

That’s just a little quote from a longer section, but it’s this idea of the fullness of God and how he does so much for us. Why does it seem so rare and why is it so important?

Reeves: I think to talk about the fullness of God is rare because when you have a God who is so super-abundantly full, such a God makes us unnecessary. When you have a great view of God, you are humbled by that view.

So, I’m not surprised that sinful hearts instinctively react against such a full view of God. Human religions and heretical beliefs are always and consistently seeking to belittle God. It’s always the characteristic. But with this God, only a God who is so full as to be overflowing, only is such a God truly glorious, and only such a God can truly be enjoyed. Given that this God’s glory is a radiant, outgoing fountain, therefore, we are not contributing, but receiving. And therefore, it speaks of a God of grace and of grace even in our dark times.

I think you talked, Jordan, about the experience of pastoring while clinging onto the sovereignty of God. It is the character of the one who wields that sovereignty that is also great comfort when it doesn’t make sense what you’re going through. The forces of nature, the movements of the nations, the public plans of politicians, the secret acts of solitary persons, all things, this God upholds and governs. He upholds and governs as he’s revealed himself to be, without a spot of imperfection, with kindness, with pity, with righteousness, and with justice.

Holding onto that enables there to be that extraordinary, supranatural sweetness even at the times where it’s hard to hold on. Enduring suffering in communion with such a God and bearing up under suffering is critical then for being able to minister to others who are themselves suffering. It is actually a rare thing, I think, for a pastor to pastor real people without himself having experienced suffering. And that even means to struggle and to wrestle and wonder why and not understand, and yet hold on to God and even appreciate through the tears that sweetness of knowing who this God is.

Erickson: Nathan, I want to close with one of the great grounds for our joy. I want to ask you and then I want to ask Pastor John and Michael to comment on this as well. The Bible calls us to the hope of heaven again and again. You wrote an article for Desiring God that five percent of all the verses in the New Testament call us to the hope of heaven. Talk about the importance of pointing our people to the hope of heaven, if you would.

Nathan Knight: On my last sabbatical, I read the New Testament every day, and I would just circle a verse every time an author was counseling the hope of heaven — not talking about heaven, but counseling the hope of heaven. I’d circle a verse and I’d write it out in my journal. I came back to the end, not including the book of Revelation, and it was something like 5 percent of New Testament verses, which tells us something, right?

That this was a constant, frequent turn of the apostles to counsel us through our sufferings, through our difficulties, through our joys, whatever the case may be. I have found even again, just 15 years into pastoring and preaching, that as I’m working consecutively through books of the Bible that it’s frequently coming up.

We had a family in our church who was 35 weeks pregnant. They went to their regular checkup and there was no heartbeat. They had to deliver the baby dead. Tears were everywhere. And one of the things that we’re able to say amidst the sovereignty of God is a day will come when you will not weep anymore. You can be confident of that. You can be sure of that. Unlike every other worldview that says, “Let’s hope it works out,” the Christian worldview is centered on the truthfulness of what is coming in front of us. We know it’s done.

My mind is littered with 1 Thessalonians 5:24. I’ll preach it in a couple of weeks. It says, “He will surely do it.” And so, we have so much confidence. The apostles are clearly appealing to it time and again, this hope that we have out in front of us. Therefore, it gives us so much help in the midst of pastoral ministry, in the midst of suffering, in the midst of preaching, and in the midst of evangelism to call them to a sure and certain hope that’s out in front of us that Christ has purchased.

Erickson: As we end, Pastor John and Michael, we’re invited to set our hope fully on the grace to be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13). You wrote Come, Lord Jesus not mainly to chart out eschatology, but mainly to call our hearts to be so eager and love the appearing of Christ. It’s so helpful. But could you paint a picture for us in this room, Pastor John, of what awaits us, whether it’s Revelation 7, whether it’s 1 Peter 5:4, or whether it’s John 17:24? Can you just paint a picture in brief of what awaits God’s people?

Piper: Noël and I tried to read through the New Testament together last year just for our devotions in the evening. We’re in Revelation and we were at 16 last night. At the end I said, “That’s about the most horrible chapter in the Bible.” There are frogs and devastation, and the point was that heaven is going to praise God because his judgments are just. Babylon was remembered and they will drink the cup of his wrath to the bottom.

So, I start here just because I think unless we are shaken by the majesty of Christ coming with wrath, we probably won’t feel the excitement of his coming to serve us and save us. He’s going to save us from the wrath to come. He will deliver us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10). I think that’s one of the big problems in our day for painting a picture of the beauties of Christ. We’re painting on a white canvas instead of a black one. So, I would say there’s the dark canvas, and the colors of his coming are radiant with oranges and yellows and gold and red.

It is probably best to focus on the person himself.

We are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 John 3:2–3)

We’re going to see him as he is. Revelation says he’ll have hair like snow, a big belt around his chest, legs like bronze, and a face shining like the sun in the kingdom of God so that you won’t be able to look at him. You’ll tend to fall down dead, and he’ll reach out his hands and say, “You don’t need to fall down dead. Get up, and I’ll give you special eyes to see me.” I think it’s about seeing him.

But the Bible is willing to talk about a new heavens and a new earth and the righteousness that will be there and the peace that will be there and the people that will be there. A man said to me yesterday, “I read Solid Joys every morning. I want to talk to you every time I do it, but we’ll get to do that.” We really will resonate with each other and revel in each other’s beauty in the kingdom, but mainly it’ll be about Jesus with all our sins forgiven.

I’ll just say one other thing that’s controversial. People ask me, “Will there be regret in heaven?” And my answer is that we’re going to sing the song of the Lamb forever, the Lamb slain. That will not be a meaningless event. We will know what that’s about. It’s about our sins being forgiven. You can’t sing the song of the Lamb without in some sense remembering, “I shouldn’t be here.”

So, there will be a special kind of regret that has all the badness taken out of it, a peculiar regret. Will all our tears be wiped away? Yes, except maybe for tears of joy. I mean, wouldn’t you want to be able to weep with tears of joy as you see him or as you periodically are enabled to know the wonder of having been saved from sin without feeling any of the pain of regret? It would be a kind of peculiar regret that I can’t put into words adequately, but I don’t know how we can make much of Christ crucified forever and ever without having some kind of non-painful, very happy regret.

Erickson: So many of these texts are intermingled with the sinfulness of sin. There are myriads of myriads from every nation in Revelation 7:9–14, and they are coming out of the great tribulation. You wrote in chapter nine here in Come, Lord Jesus that Christ is coming “in flaming fire with vengeance and relief.” It’s this full-orbed picture of who Christ is. Michael, tell us about John 17:24 as just the final thing we say, where Jesus requests, “Father, let them be with me to see the glory that you gave me before the foundation of the world.” What is he asking for? What awaits us?

Reeves: Well, that ties right back to 1 John 3:2, which says, “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” Right now we behold him by faith and are transformed into his image from glory to glory, but when we actually clap eyes on him, we will have our treasure. We will have the object of our longing, and sometimes maybe we haven’t even realized it was our longing. We will have the object of our longing. And in that moment of transformation I will be so changed, that all my sinfulness and weakness and depravity will be gone. I will have my treasure and I will be without that which disgusts me in myself, in my fallenness.

That is the hope of the final transformation and achievement of satisfaction that we are inching towards now, which lightens our sufferings. I think we’ve twice mentioned the word “courage” this afternoon, and here’s the sight that gives courage. We need to know courage is not true, biblical courage when it’s merely the temperamental wiring of some who are thick-skinned. That is not courage. C.S. Lewis put it like this: “Courage is every virtue at the testing point.” It’s love when you can’t love anymore. It’s patience when you’re absolutely fed up. Therefore, courage is part of the fruit of the Spirit. It’s love, joy, peace, and patience at the testing point.

Therefore, true courage is to be found not within some individual’s temperamental makeup; it is to be found by all believers in that sight of Christ, which will be fulfilled completely when he returns. And on that day, while we’ve been growing in courage as we’ve been looking to him by faith, we grow both more lion-like (more courageous) and simultaneously more lamb-like because we’re more like him. Therefore, our courage is never bullish or bully-ish. It’s tender and firm like Christ, inching towards that day when we shall be entirely like him. We’ll be lion-like and lamb-like all around and by enjoying him.