Sometimes the best questions are the simplest ones, like “Who is John Piper? Where did he come from? How was he saved? How did he become a preacher?” These are the very types of questions asked of Pastor John during a recent ministry trip to Belfast. Keith Getty, the Northern Irish Christian singer and songwriter, asked the questions. Here today is the interchange.
Keith Getty: I suspect most people in this place have been influenced by you over the years, either directly by your preaching, your books, and your podcasts, or indirectly through those who have. And so we want you to know that we owe you a debt of gratitude for your faithful service. But by way of broad introduction, tell us about yourself: your journey to faith, a short biography, and what you’re doing now.
Miracle of Sight
John Piper: I don’t remember being converted, which I am happy with because I think we learn the wonder of conversion not primarily through remembered experiences, but through the word of God. If you think you have a handle on the majesty and magnificence and wonder of your conversion because you remember it and how glorious the transition was, you don’t know a fraction of it, because you can’t know the miracle without being told by God what happened there.
So my mother told me that when I was six in a motel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I became convicted of my sin and asked her what I could do. And she knelt with me by the bed in the motel room and led me in a prayer of confession of my sin and faith in Jesus.
“You can’t know the miracle of conversion without being told by God what happened there.”
I don’t remember any of that, but it doesn’t matter to me whether that’s a true story or not. What matters to me is that today I see. When I began to see is not of the essence. Once upon a time, the devil was blinding the mind of an unbeliever, and God said, “Let there be light” (2 Corinthians 4:4, 6). He said, “Let there be light.” And whether it’s a 6-year-old or 14-year-old or 23-year-old discovering God-centeredness, the first seeing doesn’t matter much to me. What matters to me is that I see by grace. So, I’m not sure what the pilgrimage was. I never remember being an unbeliever, and I’m thankful for that. I never remember rebelling against my parents.
Happiest Man I’d Ever Known
I think one of the most helpful things for me to say here in this context would be that my father would have self-identified as a fundamentalist of the good old southern American variety. And you would think that a fellow like me would grow up and kick against the standards that were used. And I never did. I’ve tried to figure out why that is, because I know a lot of people who grew up in homes sort of like mine who did kick, rebel, leave, and never come back.
But I think one of the means God used to keep that from happening was that my father was the happiest man I’ve ever known. He and my mother would sing in the front seat of our old Buick driving from Greenville, South Carolina, to Daytona Beach for our annual ten-day beach vacation. And my sister and I were in the back seat, listening to my mother and father sing gospel choruses. I mean, that’s extraordinary. That’s extraordinary.
And not only did he sing, but when he came back from evangelistic crusades (he was an evangelist) he would come back with stories of triumph about the gospel — and a new joke. And he laughed harder at his own jokes than anybody. And my mother laughed next hardest until the tears would roll down her cheek, and my sister and I would sit there looking at each end of the table, thinking, “They’re having a good time enjoying Jesus.” Why would anybody want to go to a movie or dance or smoke? I mean, I just never kicked because I lived in a glorious family.
Schooled in the Scriptures
Keith Getty: You went to college then?
John Piper: Yes, I went off to Wheaton College as a literature major. I met Noël Henry on an auspicious date: 6/6/66. We just celebrated our 53rd 6/6/66. I got mono and was in the hospital for three weeks and decided not to be a medical doctor, but to go to seminary, because I was listening to Harold John Ockenga preach two hundred yards away in the Wheaton Chapel.
And as I lay there with my big yellow tonsils and my palpitating spleen, I said to myself, “I’d give anything to do what he’s doing right now, opening the word of God.” I said, “That’s glorious.” My girlfriend had fallen in love with a premed student. And so, I did a bait and switch on her and said, “I think I’m going to go to seminary, not to medical school.” And she was okay with that.
So we went to Fuller Seminary, and I had the most influential teacher of my life there, Daniel Fuller, who did two things: He showed me a magnificent view of a sovereign God, especially through the lens of Jonathan Edwards. And then he gave me an exegetical method called arcing, which takes every word, every phrase, every sentence in the Bible with blood-earnest seriousness, and wrings it until every drop of life-giving blood falls out of it on the page.
And I’ve never been the same since. That’s why I talked last night about being 23 years old, because I was 22 when I went to Fuller. And by the time I was 23, I was a different human being, and Noël was walking on that pilgrimage with me. Then I went to Germany for three years and got a degree in New Testament. Then I taught Bible and Greek for six years at Bethel College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
From the Classroom to the Pulpit
And then God stepped into my life in a most remarkable way on October 14, 1979. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Pascal’s conversion story, but he carried all of his life long, sewn into his coat, a piece of paper where he had written down the date and “Midnight, fire.” He had met God. And I didn’t meet God, but I met a call to preaching that was, at that point, irresistible.
I waited for Noël to wake up the next morning, thinking, “Okay, this is another bait and switch here. Because being a teacher is cool. You know, Mr. Academics, no big pressure on the wife if you’re a professor. But if you become a pastor — whoa. This is big for both of you.”
“While I still had energy and life, God did a miracle.”
And so, I’m lying there at 6:30 in the morning, having been up half the night wrestling with God and thinking she’s got to say yes, because if she doesn’t say yes, we’re in big trouble, because God just spoke. But you don’t go off without your wife. Right? The two have become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). And I leaned over when she got up, and I said, “What would you think if I resigned at Bethel and looked for a church?” And she said, “I could see that coming.”
What she meant was that after a couple of years of watching me in church, she noticed that after a mediocre sermon, I’d say, “We’ve got to do better than that.” And if it was a great sermon, I would say, “I would love to do that.” So I went to my denomination and said, “I’m available. Find me a church. Help me; help me.” And they sent me to Bethlehem, and I was there for 33 years until 2013.
Passing the Baton
In 2013 I stepped away, not because I was tired of preaching, but because the church was big and complex and prosperous. And I think I had Peter-Principled myself out of a job. I mean, it’s a big church. It’s complicated. It had three campuses, 125 employees, twenty pastors, forty elders. And I just thought, “Oh my goodness, this is just over my managerial head.”
And so, while I still had energy and life, God did a miracle. There are a lot of people here in this room right now who go to Bethlehem, and they will remember what a miracle he did of bringing in a man named Jason Meyer. The church voted, in a closed ballot — these are Baptists now; they don’t agree on anything.
Keith Getty: I’ve heard. I think these guys have heard of Baptists.
John Piper: And I think out of 890 votes (or something like that), there were seven no votes on a closed ballot. He was in tears, and we were all thrilled that God had found a person. I still go to the church and love every minute of it. I love corporate worship like crazy. So I was there for 33 years, and now I attend there and enjoy it.