Hello everyone, and welcome to this special episode of the podcast. I just returned home from Brazil. There we launched my new technology book in Portuguese at a conference hosted by our friends at Fiel. In fact, I discovered that thousands of Brazilians listen regularly to this podcast. There’s even a Portuguese version of APJ. So hello to all of you listening right now. It was a delight to meet so many of you in Atibaia, and to receive your gratitude for APJ, which you wanted me to pass along to Pastor John, which I do now. So on behalf of at least the hundreds of Brazilian Christians that I met, thank you, Pastor John, for your decade-long investment in this podcast.
While I was in Brazil, big news broke here in the States. Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the Supreme Court. On Friday, the SCOTUS ruling was made official. We knew it was coming. Back on May 2, a draft opinion of the decision was leaked. I texted you immediately when that news broke, Pastor John. That’s now official. Roe was overruled Friday, on June 24.
This is not the end of abortion. This simply turns the legal status of abortion back to individual states. The work of defending the unborn is far from over. Discerning Christians will continue to ask, “What should Christians be doing?” Our work is urgent. And our work is now more local. So it might be helpful for our listeners to know something of what you have done, Pastor John, over the past four decades. As the work continues, what has been your answer to the question “What should I do?” How have you answered that question in your own life and ministry?
Well, I don’t see myself as the ideal pro-life person because I am fallible. I am sinful. There are things I’ve left undone in the last forty years. Things could have been done better. But as you and I have reflected on this, and as I’ve thought about my own life, looking at imperfect examples has often proved very helpful, very inspiring to me in my Christian walk. So I will go ahead and venture to say some things that I’ve done, imperfect though they have been. And hope that they will be a help to others. So here are the sorts of things that I’ve done in the last forty years or so, and I think they are the sorts of things that will probably need to be done now for years to come, long after I’m gone.
Thirteen Pro-Life Efforts
Beginning in 1987, I preached at least one explicitly pro-life message every year — with, I think, two exceptions along the way in my pastoral trek — until my stepping away from pastoral leadership in 2013. The last one I preached was January 2021 because the church invited me back for that Sunday. It was called “Doing the Right Thing Never Ruins Your Life.” I looked at it the other day, and I’m really persuaded that message is super important. It’s there at Desiring God. That’s about 25 morning messages on Sanctity of Life Sunday over my pastoral life. I recall the very first pro-life sermon I preached was from James 4:2: “You desire and do not have, so you murder.” I still think that text is one of the most penetrating biblical texts about the origin of abortion in the Bible.
Second, I tried to spread those messages by putting a few of them in a little book called Exposing the Dark Work of Abortion, which I think is free at Desiring God. Then when Desiring God came into existence in the mid-1990s, we put all these sermons online, where they are today.
Third, I wrote articles for Desiring God and for other outlets. The one that I think is still about the most helpful is “Fifteen Pro-Life Truths to Speak,” which I think is available there at Desiring God.
Fourth, since we started this podcast ten years ago, there are at least ten episodes related to abortion.
Fifth, I love to write poetry about the things that move me — and I mean move me positively and move me negatively. I’ve written two relating to the pro-life cause. One is called “It?” about a young woman who goes in for an abortion and they keep referring to her baby as “it.” Then after the procedure, she lifts up her head and sees this little tiny torso on the tray and notices it’s unmistakably female. And this overwhelmed her. This is not an “it.” This was not an “it.” Experiences like that, hearing things like that, have moved me over the years to write poetry about the cause of life.
Sixth, I’ve tried to pray and lead our people in praying against the sin of child-killing and for the spiritual miracles that will have to happen in people’s lives so that it is overcome in what they want, not just what they do.
Seventh, I mobilized our people to be part of major rallies, and I participated in them myself, like the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) rally at the capitol here in Minnesota every year. Usually, it’s below zero. It’s just absolutely unforgettable to march with five thousand or ten thousand other people when the wind is howling and everybody is bundled up like Eskimos, and you’re walking in the cause of prayerful support for the opposition to child-killing in this country.
Eighth, there was a season of about three years where I was part of direct action and civil disobedience, sitting in front of abortion clinics to block the way into the place of death. I was arrested several times and spent one night in jail.
Ninth, I encouraged and shared in sidewalk counseling, where you simply stand peacefully outside abortion clinics and offer literature and conversation to anyone entering, in the hopes that perhaps one last obstacle to overcome would help and might change their minds.
Tenth, I took an abortionist doctor out to lunch. This is one of the most memorable things in my life. I felt so inauthentic not dealing directly with abortionists. So I found a way to contact a local abortionist doctor about four blocks from my house. I took him out to lunch. I told him, “I’m a local pastor. I’m pro-life. I want to understand you. Would you go out to lunch?” And he was willing. I went with my ten points to make the case that he was killing children. And he disarmed me immediately by saying, “I know I’m killing children. It’s the lesser of two evils. The other evil,” he said, “is that it’s unjust that men can have sex and bear no consequences, but women can have sex and have to bear all the consequences. That’s unjust. Killing the child is the solution to that injustice.” He really was unbelievably honest with me. He said, “I wouldn’t be doing it except my wife pressures me to do it. She believes it’s the path of justice.”
Eleventh, I give financially, regularly, to several pro-life organizations.
Twelfth, while I was a pastor, I tried to cultivate a life-affirming culture, which included things like a strong, positive view of adoption as a beautiful and normal thing, and a strong ministry to the disabled to combat any notion that it would have been better if they’d been aborted. I tried to encourage the most pro-life-engaged people so that they didn’t feel like they were marginal in this church, but crucial. And generally, I tried to create the atmosphere that this church community is unashamedly pro-life and anti-abortion, without any fear that this would have offensive effects on some people. I’m sure those people just migrated to other churches where this issue was completely neglected. And that was sad. I would rather have them change their mind. But we weren’t going to mute this crucial reality.
And finally — and this may be the most important thing, Tony — we did not turn the church into a political or social think tank or action group for the sake of any earthly cause, including the cause of pro-life. For the sake of preserving the power and effectiveness of our prophetic witness, we did not make the pro-life cause the main thing. The main thing is the glory of God — and under the glory of God, the salvation of sinners from the wrath of God through the glorious substitutionary work of Jesus Christ dying for sinners on the cross. The glory of God — shining through the salvation of sinners by the blood of Jesus — is the main thing.
Far greater than the danger of abortion is the danger of hell. Rescuing people for eternal life is more crucial and more loving than rescuing babies from abortion. In other words, we care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. I think it is precisely this maintenance of spiritual proportion that keeps in clear view that our citizenship is in heaven, and we’re rescuing lost people as we wait for our Savior. That spiritual proportion, that maintenance of spiritual priority and proportion, is what gave us Christian credibility over decades in the cause of life, rather than simply sinking down to the level of being a world-oriented band of do-gooders.
“The aim for us is not just the end of abortion, but the eternal joy of forgiven sinners.”
We are Christians before we are pro-life. We are Christ-exalting before we are life-exalting. We want to save souls, the souls of mothers and fathers, as much as we want to save the bodies of the babies. The aim for us is not just the end of abortion, but the eternal joy of forgiven sinners.
Amen. You’ve been in the fight against abortion for a very long time. So now the court has effectively struck down Roe v. Wade, making it possible for states to legally protect the unborn. Many states are doing that very thing right now. So what’s your own reaction to the SCOTUS decision and this most recent news?
I am thankful. And the reason I am thankful is mainly because this was the right thing to do. A federal law that prevents the legal protection of children from being killed is an evil law. An evil law has been in place for fifty years. It is a good thing that the evil law is gone, and I am thankful to God — thankful to God in his glorious providence — that it is gone.
If someone says to me — which I thought they might, so I say it — “Aren’t you thankful, John, because lives are going to be saved? You seem distressed. ‘It’s the right thing.’ Aren’t you thankful that lives are going to be saved?” My answer is that I hope they are, and I will be thankful if they are. But there are too many variables at play here for me to know what is really going to happen in America as far as the loss of life goes.
For all I know, we may be entering an era of such visceral rage, and coldness of love, and multiplication of wickedness — both on the right and on the left — that a civil war right here in America could take hundreds of thousands of lives. It happened just 160 years ago. The issue of killing millions of children is as explosive as the horrors of slavery.
Or another upshot could be, over the next ten or twenty years, that the morning-after pill — or some new pill for weeks after or months after — becomes so cheap, so effective, so free from side effects, that abortions may double, triple, quadruple in their frequency over what they are now, with no need for Planned Parenthood at all. I don’t know whether that’s going to happen or not. It could.
Or another possible scenario is that this kind of freedom from consequences of pregnancy unleashes a new tidal wave of premarital sex, and some new lethal strain of venereal disease arises with hundreds of thousands of young people dying every year. That’s an easy possibility.
In other words, I don’t know. I don’t know if the overturning of Roe v. Wade will save lives. I hope so. I pray so. It was absolutely the right thing to do, whether more lives are saved or not. But the wickedness afoot in America is very deep. Where it will take us as a culture, I do not know.
Lives are destroyed by sin. Abortion, whether with suction or a pill, is only one kind of sin that destroys life. There are so many more. Over 100,000 people, for example, just recently now are dying every year from drug overdoses. And most of those people are not people on the street anymore; they’re middle-class opioid users who can’t find meaning in life. There will, I don’t doubt, arise other new ways of destroying ourselves as wickedness multiplies.
New Birth Needed
Yeah, the dark side of our potent technologies, amplifying our self-destructiveness. And this leads to my last question as we wrap up this special episode. I heard you say recently, in a meeting, that the real post-Roe challenge will not be how to make abortions hard to get, but how to make them hard to approve of in the human heart. Explain that. What did you mean?
I meant that the main battle for human righteousness is not fought at the level of human behavior but at the level of human desire. Jesus said in Matthew 15:19, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”
“An evil law is gone, and I am thankful to God in his glorious providence.”
Now, at least four of those sins relate directly to abortion. “Murder”: that’s what abortion is. “Adultery and sexual immorality”: at least 85 percent of abortions are owing to sexual immorality, because 83 percent of abortions are done on single women, not counting the cases of rape and incest. Those women and their boyfriends sinned by having sex, which God has protected by putting it in the happy bounds of covenant-keeping marriage. “False witness”: that too comes from the heart, and the entire abortion industry is built on false witness — namely, that the unborn are not human persons.
We can build legal dams to keep the river of sin that pours out of the human heart from flooding the world with actual behaviors like abortion. And that’s a good thing; that’s a good thing to build those dams with laws. That’s what all good laws do — they make it harder for the sinful heart to overflow in outward crimes. That just happened with the overturn of Roe v. Wade. It was a good thing.
But we should remember that if the river of sin that flows from the human heart is simply dammed up, and nothing changes the heart, that river is going to build behind the dam until the reservoir is so deep and so heavy that no legal dam, no mere law, can hold it back. And a tidal wave of wickedness will overflow the land.
So what I meant — and I’m thinking of Christians now, especially pastors — is that’s our job: preaching to change those hearts. That’s our job: to portray the glories of Jesus Christ so clearly, with such spiritual power, that people will see and their hearts will be changed. Second Corinthians 3:18 describes that miracle. It says, “Beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed . . . from one degree of glory to another.” Our main job is not new laws, good as they may be, but new hearts. That’s our main job. If that doesn’t happen, new laws will collapse under the pressure of unchanged hearts. It’s only a matter of time.
But even that way of saying it bothers me. It skews the reality in an unbiblical direction. It gives the impression that we want to change hearts mainly to preserve good laws. That’s not the main reason. The main reason, to quote Jesus in John 3:3, is this: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Without a Christ-exalting heart change, people perish. We perish.
It is a loving thing to work for good laws. It is more loving to help people enter the kingdom of God. The overturning of Roe v. Wade will have its greatest effect if its limitations give life to the Christian truth “you must be born again” (John 3:7).