Leaders Q & A with John Piper and Conrad Mbewe

Piper 2 Leaders Conference | Pretoria, South Africa

All right, thank you again for all of the excellent questions. Pastor John, and then Pastor Conrad can join in as well. Good one to get us started. Regarding engaging culture — a very trendy phrase these days — this gentleman says, “I have MacArthur on my one shoulder saying, ‘Take only the best of culture into the church.’ I have Driscoll on my other shoulder saying, ‘Redeem it all.’ How do we navigate the balance?”

John Piper: Well, we certainly should redeem what’s redeemable, and I think best is too high a standard. I don’t do anything best, and I don’t preach best. I don’t act best. I don’t read best. I just don’t live at that level, and I wouldn’t know how to define it either.

I mean, I love John MacArthur, okay? If he was sitting here, I’d just hug him like this and say, “What do you mean best? Best like only classical music? That’s really best, isn’t it? Or is there best rock, best folk, best country, best blues, best jazz?” I mean, what is best? So, I don’t know for sure what to say to that particular counsel. I don’t find that statement giving me much guidance because it sets not only a qualitative standard that I think would rule out most of our hymns.

We were just talking about, over there with Stuart Townend and how he writes songs, and I said, “One of the songs I can’t understand why it has survived, except for the tune, is The First Noel.” That’s really bad poetry.

Even though it’s your wife’s name.

John Piper: I know for a fact it’s not best. In fact, most of the songs that we sing are not best. If you broke the music out and read them as poetry, they would be average. I would say John Wesley was an average poet, and Isaac Watts was an average poet. So, all that to say, make the sieve of what is brought into the church: what’s edifying, what’s loving, what serves the truth, and what serves the spread of the gospel without compromising the gospel.

I think the criteria of the New Testament are not aesthetic-best criteria, but rather they are criteria of love. One more comment, then I’ll shut. I won’t talk too long. I remember somebody said to me when I first came to Bethlehem, “We want to have special music every service, special music, which means a solo or a quartet or something.” I said, “Well, if that’s the way you do it here, I’ll go with that.” And they said, “And we want it to be the best. No mistakes. Nobody misses a note or anything.” And I said, “Well, now my priorities here are this. I want to be excellent in forgiveness.” So if somebody misses a note, the real issue there is, are we excellent in forgiveness and love and care?

So I’m real loosey-goosey when it comes to criteria concerning non-truth things, that is, forms, forms of how you do this or that and most culture is forms. And I’m a real stickler when it comes to truth. Those lyrics better tell the truth, and I want them to tell it well, and well means clear and helpful, and compelling. I don’t know, that’s what best would mean for me: clear, helpful, compelling, edifying, Christ-exalting, and that’s probably what he meant.

Thank you. Hope so. It’s helpful. Pastor Conrad, has your church forgiven you for that first solo that you sang?

Conrad Mbewe: Yes, to last as long as John and myself have lasted in our congregations, you do need to have very forgiving congregants.

John Piper: That’s right. That’s right.

Anything else you wanted to add on that question?

Conrad Mbewe: That’s fine.

Okay, next question. Would you please comment on the role of the personal relationship with the person of the Holy Spirit in producing this passion and joy that you spoke of, Pastor John?

John Piper: Buy the book Communion with God by John Owen. There’s nothing like it on the planet — nothing. I don’t know of anybody that’s written a book that has tried to distinguish how we commune with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. Most of us think in general terms of communing with God or Jesus maybe.

And so I was helped by that book a long time ago to take the Holy Spirit seriously as a person who can be grieved by me and who dwells in me and who longs to make Christ beautiful to me. But honestly, I think what the Holy Spirit wants me to say here is quietly, “He’s the shy member of the Trinity.” He would say, “Just make sure you say I’m in you to help you see Jesus. I’m in you to help you love Jesus. I’m not in you mainly to get you to talk to me. I’m not in you mainly to get you to look at me. I’m in you mainly as the member of the Trinity that is granted to change you so that when you open your eyes in the Bible, you see Christ as magnificent.”

So I think Packer’s book, Keep in Step With the Spirit, with its thesis that the main ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Son of God is right. But when you realize that, it should make you love him. I mean, if when you see Jesus, he’s beautiful to you, he’s everything we just heard, he should be all-consuming to you, and you know that can only happen by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It’s like somebody sets a feast before you, and you know they made this, and you love it, you’re going to hug the cook, going to thank the cook.

And so I do think we should love the Holy Spirit. We should be thankful to the Holy Spirit. We should worship the Holy Spirit. And to that degree, one of the questions that’s often asked me is, should we pray to the Holy Spirit, and we should say things like, “Come, Holy Spirit,” that’s a prayer, and we should say that to Jesus as well. So I don’t think you can love Christ the way Conrad opened Christ for us without loving the Holy Spirit who enables that.

Thank you. Pastor Conrad, I think this might be a good one for you to answer and have some particular context to it typically in Africa. What is your view on the apostolic prophetic model of the church? Is there anything there that you can latch onto?

Conrad Mbewe: Apostolic, what?

They wrote in all caps, so I can’t tell you if this is an official thing or if it’s some of the various apostles and prophets that are all around in churches in Africa.

Conrad Mbewe: Okay. I certainly don’t understand the actual terms that are being used there. Assuming they are nouns that are referring to something current, but whoever asked the question, my answer amounts to this. That God, in his word, discourages us from making much of titles, whether it’s bishop or reverend or pastor or whatever other title you might be going by — cardinal, apostle, as we’ve just heard here. It mustn’t be an issue of what title I am going by because titles amount to what you read on a grave, a tombstone. The grave itself would be full of dead men’s bones, but on the outside, you have been thoroughly whitewashed. The right reverend, doctor, apostle something, something, and everybody thinks, “Wow, this is holiness walking on two feet.” When really your own wife and children don’t want to hear anything from your mouth.

John Piper: They know better.

Conrad Mbewe: They know better, yes. So that’s the first thing that I really need to emphasize. And the Spirit of Christ, you can’t miss it in the Gospels, particularly where he discourages that being an emphasis.

Secondly, as I was mentioning earlier in my sermon, what matters is Christ being preached here? Whatever the title is on the church, on the ministry, is Christ being exalted in this place? Are sinners being drawn to Christ? Are saints being built up in Christ? Once that is there, there will be a lot of other gray areas. We are all still learning. We probably might be in denominations that might go by the name of . . .

Apostolic, prophetic.

Conrad Mbewe: Okay, we may be coming from there, but if Christ is your all in all, a number of these things begin to fall flat as you start centering more and more on what the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures is clearly teaching you concerning our all-sufficient Savior. So that, I think, would be my general answer since I’m not exactly sure, I’ve never come across this particular, if it’s a denomination or group or ministry. I thought I’d just give those two answers, a negative — don’t make much of titles and all that, a positive — major on the Lord Jesus Christ and you won’t go wrong.

Your initial thoughts on the question, does Africa need an apostolic ministry today?

Conrad Mbewe: All right. Again, let’s assume we put aside apostolic as some title that we now have individuals going around saying, I’m apostle something, something. Let’s put that aside. Okay. If we’re thinking of an apostle in biblical terms, that is, a “sent-out one,” with a ministry that’s really establishing God’s work where God’s work is either absent or extremely weak, which is really what the apostles were doing in a general sense, then yes, we do need God to raise up such signal servants who will draw the attention of both the church and the unchurched people to the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ, sometimes at great sacrifice to themselves.

But because they are so taken up with Christ that, as the apostle Paul himself says to the Philippians, some are preaching him out of good motive, others bad motive. To me, doesn’t matter as long as Christ is being preached. So in that sense, yes, we need to pray in our different towns, cities, countries, and indeed as a continent that God will raise up such clear voices, individuals whose ministry will be trailblazing for others. Thank you.

Thank you, Conrad. Pastor John, this person writes: “It seems to me that in evangelical circles, there is a growing division between those who are Reformed and those who are not. This, again, to me seems to be threatening unity in the church. Are you aware of this and does it concern you?”

John Piper: The first part.

There’s a growing division between those who are Reformed and those who are not.

John Piper: I don’t know whether that means there’s always been Reformed and non-Reformed, and the division now is clearer or harsher or whether it means there’s lots more Reformed people coming into being and, therefore, it’s manifest that there’s a difference. The second is true, I think. I speak out of an American context. There’s a heightened awareness of Reformed soteriology and the majesty of Christ and the glory of God and the sovereignty of God, and I consider that a glorious thing. As I see that movement, sometimes called the New Calvinism or the Young, Restless and Reformed, the name of the book that Collin Hansen wrote or the new Reformed is just the younger set, the mindset in that group, the newer, younger Calvinists, they are less divisive than the old ones.

And I love the old Calvinists. I’m thinking of Banner of Truth, “I stand on the Puritan shoulders.” I would give my right arm to be as significant as what has happened through the ministry say of the Banner of Truth Trust, and those guys paid dearly. Now here comes a younger set, they’re all hip and cool and weird and whatnot, and lo and behold, they’re five-point Calvinists and they’re complementarians who don’t have women elders. And you think they’d have to be in the backwater of culture and have no impact and no significance at all because they believe such weird things and don’t let their women be pastors. Wow, that’s crazy in America. And here they are growing six thousand-person churches and you wonder, what in the world.

The mindset of that phenomenon, and really in the world, it’s a small phenomenon, okay, no pretensions here. It’s a little thing, which God can do with it whatever he wants. He can dump it, he can blow on it and bless it, or he can be done with it whenever he pleases, but that it exists is a beautiful thing. And I would take the average younger guy in that movement and say he’s not cultivating animosities with Arminians. He’s just not about that. He is so bent on winning lost people to Jesus and showing them the whole counsel of God that he doesn’t give a lot of time to trying to show other people wrong and beat up on non-Calvinists. So yes, the differences are coming clearer because the teaching is more explicit, but I don’t think that is owing to a divisive spirit.

I mean, Paul said it is necessary that there be some divisions among you in order that the genuine might be manifest. And if somebody is humbly, lovingly teaching the truth, and others are kind of, this is different, and therefore, I feel different from you now. I mean, a lot of you have experienced this. An 18-year-old comes home from college, from campus outreach, and he’s just on fire for the supremacy of God. His two parents, look, “Whoa, what is that?” And now there’s a cleavage in the family, and he doesn’t want that to be. “I love you, Mom. I love you, Dad. Can we just talk?” And they sense the difference.

And so yeah, that’s happening. But I know there are fighting fundie Calvinists and fighting fundie Arminians, and there’s always going to be some ugliness in the church. But I think if you take a message that we just heard here and make that the staple of our lives, we won’t be responsible for that kind of unnecessary cleavage.

I’ll say one more thing. I love this book. I love this book way more than the institutes or way more than Jonathan Edwards, and an Arminian who’s a lover of this book, and you can smell humility on that guy, an absolute submission to this book, man, can I go a long way with that guy. I can talk to him all day long. Whereas a Calvinist that comes along, he never quotes this book, he just quotes Calvin. I don’t want to spend any time with him. I’m not interested. He’s just always blabbering away. He’s read some latest catechism or some latest book, and he’s onto this doctrine and that doctrine. I say, “Would you give me a verse? Give me a verse. I just want to hear God come out of your mouth.”

So in that sense, I hope that I’m a winsome person. If an Arminian says, “Look, I think everything I say is in this book.” Me, too. Let’s talk. Let’s go to this book together. Let’s worship the God we see in this book. And it is amazing how far you can go with those people.

Pastor Conrad, your thoughts? Observing a similar rift in the African church scene, Reformed, non-Reformed?

Conrad Mbewe: I think my comment would be closer to what John has just said towards the end. And it’s the fact that, first of all, attempting to hide the truth for the sake of unity is basically holding hands in the dark. And you just don’t know whether it’s the hand of a human being or some other . . .

John Piper: Creature.

Conrad Mbewe: Extra-celestial creature, yeah. So I think we shouldn’t hide the truth, we shouldn’t dim the light. However, in not dimming the light, what I have seen is that where the word of God has first of all dealt with the individuals, there’s humility, there’s love. So it’s not the kind of individuals who feel they’ve served the Lord because they’ve rubbed people the wrong way. People who feel they’ve served the Lord because they’ve caused people to go off in a huff, I’ve told them that’s not biblical Christianity.

So, there must be truth, but this must be truth told in love. And therefore, those who genuinely are teachable, yielding to the word of God as we just heard, they may not agree with the Calvinistic teaching, but in the midst of all that, there will still be respect and the bridge will still be there for some level of fellowship as we relate to one another.

And my final comment there, therefore, is the fact that what I see, at least in the Zambian context, is that yes, the division seems to be clearer, but it isn’t because the Calvinists are being looked down upon and being seen as the cause of divisions as things are, but rather as those that are being admired, although people still think we need to clear a few things doctrinally before we can really be at one with them.