Q & A (with Russian Interpretation)

Samara Preachers Conference | Samara, Russia

In some of our churches, people are using pirated software. Those who oppose it are labeled as legalists. What is your opinion on that? Can we justify the use of pirated programs by the fact that we, as individuals or churches, cannot afford the real thing?

The principle that I operate under is that Christians ought to obey the authorities that exist unless the authorities that exist require us to do sin or forbid us from doing righteousness. So I would think that Christians would not want to be known as people who pirate software. There probably is a better solution if you need software.

Could you please describe your typical day? Are there any specific things you do to find satisfaction in God?

In the pastorate, there are no typical days. But the answer to the second half of the question is yes, there are things that I do to nurture or to build up my satisfaction in God. I don’t think it’s been translated yet, but that question has been given to me so often that I wrote an entire book to answer it. The name of the book is When I Don’t Desire God. The main answer to how we strengthen and deepen our satisfaction in God is to know God through meditating on his word. So every day, I decide how long it will take me to get ready in the morning to do what I have to do. And then I will set my alarm an hour earlier than that so that there will be time for this word.

There needs to be time in your life when you don’t just study the Bible academically in preparation for a lecture or a sermon, but you meditate on it personally for your own soul. And the aim of those moments of meditation is to see Christ more clearly and to have your heart open to the beauty of Christ and to love him more dearly when you come away from the word. And of course the whole time that you’re meditating on the word, you are praying that your eyes would be open, that you would see wonderful things out of his word. The short answer is to meditate on the word of God and pray earnestly that your heart would be opened.

Can you please explain the essence of the Seeker-Sensitive and Emergent movements? What are some of the prominent USA churches that belong to those two movements? How should we evaluate those movements from the biblical standpoint?

Seeker-Sensitive and Emergent are not at all the same. Seeker-Sensitive would be characterized by the Willow Creek movement, and that has been around for about 30 years. And what characterizes them is that the church services are designed to be very simple and very culturally relevant to certain middle class American people. And the music would be popular and the preaching would be very, very simple, so that unbelievers could always understand the message. So the focus in the services is on the visitors, on the unbelievers, so that they could be made to feel comfortable. The focus is not mainly on going deeper with the saints and building them up. The impact of the Seeker-Sensitive movement in America has been huge and I would say most evangelical churches have been influenced by it in some way or the other. But I think its influence probably has crested and has reached its limit, and now certain kinds of reactions have set in. I’ll mention two.

The Emergent church would be one of the reactions. The Emergent church is not in my judgment a very large or a very strong influence, and I don’t think it will have a very long life. Probably the most well-known spokesman for that wing would be Brian McLaren. What marks that church differently is that they put a very low emphasis upon doctrine and upon thinking. They see the Seeker-Sensitive church as artificial and impersonal and large and, for them, relationally out of touch. So Emergent fellowships would be small, they would be informal, and they would not have typical sermons. There would be sometimes artistic work and sometimes conversation and sometimes lower lights and food. It’s all very warm and relational.

They would very happily accept the label “postmodern” and that would signify for them a resistance to an over-rationalizing of the Christian faith. But since they don’t have a very clear message and they are not evangelistically aggressive, I don’t think they have a future.

The other reaction to the Seeker-Sensitive movement that I feel very encouraged about would be a strong rise among younger Christians of interest in doctrine. So I think there’s a very bright future if that movement is encouraged and grows because they are doctrinally intense and eager, they are evangelistically aggressive, and they are culturally aware and sensitive.

What are the main reasons for the weakness of the contemporary church in your thinking?

The first thing I would want to say is not all contemporary churches are weak. I think we should be very careful about generalizing, whether it’s America or Europe or Russia. But there is much weakness in contemporary American evangelicalism. And probably there is much weakness among the churches in Russia as well.

I think the primary reason is that our strength comes from the Holy Spirit, mediated through a deep knowledge of his word, and this knowledge of his word has decreased and our reliance upon the Holy Spirit has decreased. In America at least, for the last 40 years or so, confidence in preaching the word of God in its fullness has gone down. And confidence in pragmatic or practical methods of trying to get people to come to church have increased, and that weakens the church. I think the main remedy for weakness is to restore our confidence in this Word and to restore our ability to understand it and to proclaim it with passion and a sense of contemporary relevance.

I am a church pastor. Lately, I have been having doubts whether or not I’m born again. What would you recommend?

That’s a very serious concern. Not to be born again is to be in a frightful condition. Of course, nobody should be a pastor if he’s not born again. And one of the ways I think the devil assaults ministers is to awaken doubts in their hearts about their own spiritual standing with God. It’s not wrong to test yourself because Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith.” And we need to be very clear that being a born again believer is not the same as having full assurance at every moment. It is possible to be a true, born-again believer and yet struggle with assurance and have doubts about your salvation.

So when those doubts arise, we should examine ourselves to see, “Are there things in my life that are contradicting what God has been showing me in his word? Am I living in a way that is out of step with the Scripture?” If we find any sins in our hearts, we should renounce them, repent, and claim 1 John 1:9, which says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” And then we take our stand again in the cross of Christ. In my preaching, I usually linger after the sermon and pray with people for about 45 minutes or an hour while they come to me with the questions that they have and the spiritual concerns that the sermon has raised. This issue of assurance is the most common one I deal with.

What I have found over the years is that there are personality types, kinds of people for whom doubt is so natural they can hardly ever feel confident about their salvation. They’re just so wired, as it were, to doubt themselves. What I say to them and to everybody is stop looking at yourself. Rather, look outside of yourself toward Christ, toward his cross, toward his resurrection, toward his promises. Stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about him. And assurance then becomes a reflex, as it were, to focusing on the cross. The last thing I usually say is from Romans 8:16, which says that the Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are the children of God. That means, in the end, assurance that we are the children of God is a gift of God and we should ask for it as we focus on the cross.

Oftentimes you might hear someone complain that he has no desire to pray or study the Bible, should he force himself to do it? If he has no joy in his heart and no satisfaction in God and he just forces himself to do those things, it will be hypocrisy and religious formalism. Is that right?

Life in Christ is made up of both disciplines that require willpower and spontaneous overflow of love to Christ, and both are necessary. There’s a difference between hypocrisy and doing what you don’t feel like doing while being honest with people and with God that that is the case. In other words, hypocrisy is doing what you don’t feel like doing and wanting to hide that from others, so that they think you feel like doing it. Honesty does what you don’t feel like doing and is broken by it and is telling other people, “This is the way I am, pray for me.” And it is telling God, “I don’t feel like this. I want to feel like this.”

There are many times when I am very eager to read the Bible and many times when my heart is going towards some new computer program or some new gadget that I have, and I have less desire to read the Bible. When I am in that condition, I think it is right to make myself do what I ought to do. Second, I confess that it is a sin that I don’t want to read the Bible.And third, I ask God while I’m reading it to give me joy in it. What I’m opposed to is, by discipline and willpower, doing what you ought to do, like reading the Bible, and thinking that all by itself is a virtue without any joy. That’s not a good situation to be in. Instead, when we’re in that situation of just using our willpower and discipline to do what we ought to do, at the same time we should be confessing that we are sinners, that we wish joy would be given. And then we say with David, “Restore to me the joy of my salvation” (Psalm 51:12).

Is there such a thing as contextualization and preaching? If yes, in what sense is this term applicable? We learn how to study the Bible and preach from the Western teachers, thereby we borrowed the “Western method of preaching.” How do we create the Russian style of preaching?

The person who asked the question has already answered the question. If you believe that there is a Russian kind of preaching, then clearly you believe in contextualization. And you are right. The term contextualization is very broad and clearly we must contextualize. This translator is my contextualization. I’m speaking English. And he’s contextualizing. If he didn’t contextualize, most of you wouldn’t understand what I’m saying. So the first obvious meaning of contextualization is to use the language of the people you’re talking to.

Now, language, what comes out of your mouth, is just one part of culture. How you dress is another part of culture. What I’m wearing is culture. Why am I wearing this? This makes me hot. I am trying to notice how the leaders dress. I’m trying to do what I’m supposed to do. I don’t want to put a stumbling block by wearing a T-shirt in the pulpit. But I can imagine a situation in which I would wear a T-shirt in order to minister to someone. So we adjust our language, we adjust our dress, we adjust our illustrations in order that people will understand us and feel some sense of identification with us.

What we need to guard against is a kind of adaptation or contextualization that would undermine or compromise the truth of the message. Now with regard to listening to non-Russian preachers and becoming a more effective Russian preacher, I would say be sure that you listen to and read the sermons of a broad range, both historically and culturally. Don’t just pick out one favorite preacher like MacArthur, or Piper, or Hybels, or Driscoll, or whatever.

I teach preaching in my church to young men. And what I say to them is, please don’t try to imitate me. Be yourself. Get the core issues of the gospel down and then be yourself. So mainly be gripped by the truth of this Book and let that truth come through your personality and your cultural setting.

Are you aware of any critics that write or teach against you? If yes, how do you respond to that?

Yes. Jonathan Edwards said that in every criticism that you hear, there is probably a grain of truth. And before you defend yourself against the criticism, look for the grain of truth in it. So let me give you a specific example.

About a month ago in our city, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America voted to ordain practicing homosexuals to the Christian ministry. While they were voting on that, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, a tornado struck outside the building and tore up all the tents where they had been gathering earlier. I saw the tornado from about two miles away and was amazed that this dark cloud had landed just a few blocks from my house and near that building.

So I wrote an article and posted it on the web at our website. I posted an article in which I said that this tornado was a divine warning, a gentle warning to the church that was voting on ordaining practicing homosexuals, and that God strongly disapproved of what they were doing. Over the next 24 hours, about 700 people commented on that article, and 90 percent of them were disagreeing or disapproving of something that I had said. So I wondered, could I have done this better?

And my son, Abraham, who is in charge of the website, said “Maybe you should check with some of your respected colleagues around the country, whether they think you did the right thing.” So I wrote an email to about six pastors around the country, pointed them to the website, and said, “Do you think I should have written that?”

I think four out of the six responded to me, and they said they appreciated and agreed with what I said, but I could have probably avoided some misunderstanding had I done a few things differently. So the answer to the question is, in response to criticism, I want to listen and learn from those who are criticizing me. But I want to go to the Bible and have God’s approval as more important to me than man’s approval.

If you have a hard time dealing with being criticized, you probably shouldn’t go into the ministry. You are going to be criticized every time you open your mouth. To be a public person with convictions is to be criticized. Jesus was criticized, Paul was criticized, and everybody who has ever taken any stand for the truth has been criticized. I would just encourage you not to become embittered and not to become so combative that you’re always responding to criticism. Let the pulpit where you preach week after week mainly be felt and known as a place of positive proclamation of the great things of God, not a negative reaction to criticism.

Right religious affections flow out of the right thinking, and that is the truth. But what do you do if the truth is being preached but there is no visible response? What if the right knowledge does not penetrate into the heart and produce change?

The first thing I want to do is to look into my own heart to see whether or not there is some sin or some attitude that might be making the truth harder to hear. I ask, “Is my treatment of people and my demeanor contradicting the truth that I’m saying?” That’s the first thing I would do. I would try to search my own heart to see if my life is commending the truth that I speak.

The second thing I would do is earnestly pray that God would send his Holy Spirit and open people’s hearts to the truth. And the last thing I would say is be patient, keep loving the people, keep speaking the truth, and don’t become embittered or angry.

Here’s one historical illustration. There was a pastor in Cambridge, England named Charles Simeon. He ministered at a church called Holy Trinity in Cambridge for 52 years. In the first 12 years, he was so hated by his congregation that they locked their pews. They had locked pews in those days. They locked their pews and wouldn’t let anybody sit in the pews. And the people who appreciated his word had to stand around the pews for 12 years every Sunday. But Charles Simeon patiently endured and his joy and his truth overcame in the long run, and he had a great ministry there for five decades.

What about your personal evangelism in your life? Could you please give the details in different periods of your life? How do you combine it with your pastoral service? Do you specifically look for chances to evangelize personally, or just use those that you have occasionally?

I think if you believe in the horrors of hell and you believe in the glory of the gospel and Christ crucified, you have a deep concern about lost people around you. So my own personal evangelism has perhaps three focuses. When I’m preaching to lots of people, I know that there are unbelievers there and I would love to talk with any of them after the service who have been convicted of their sins. At the end of every service, as I’m closing, before I pray, I say that I’m willing to stand there at the front and pray with any of those who have any question, any concern for their soul, and I’ll stay as long as they would like. Along with other pastors in the church, we stand at the front and I will pray with people for 45 minutes or an hour after the service. Some of those people are seekers. They’re unbelievers who are full of questions about what it means to be a Christian.

The second focus is just in my own personal neighborhood. The most specific way I do it is that I have several little booklets. One is called For Your Joy, and another is called History’s Most Spectacular Sin. I put those booklets in my back pocket and I jog. I do my morning running through the neighborhood, praying that if I see people who are just standing around, I might stop and talk to them about the Lord. My most recent strategy for starting that conversation is to stop — and I’m all sweaty and I’m tired and I have on shorts and a T-shirt and I look ridiculous — and I say to them, “Hi, I’m John Piper, a pastor of Bethlehem across the highway over there, may I tell you the best news in the world?”

People almost always say, “Sure.” So I’ll just say, it’s the greatest thing in the world to have your sins forgiven and to have God not be against you anymore. And Jesus Christ came into the world to die for my sins and my sins are forgiven and he could forgive yours. And that’s the greatest thing in the world.

And I pull out my little books, For Your Joy and the History’s Most Spectacular Sin. And I say, “I wrote these little booklets, may I give you one? I like to give these away.” And people will accept them.

And the third focus of my personal evangelism is what I would call immediate and wider family networks. I want to evangelize my own family, my children as they’re growing up, and my sister and brother-in-law and her children. I have a connection with these people and not all of them are believers as my family expands. And I want to be an instrument in sharing the gospel with my wider family.

Which biblical truth in your opinion is the one most endangered in contemporary Christianity? How are we to defend this truth?

I don’t know that I could pick just one that’s most in danger. Let me pick two. Jesus said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). That truth is always being attacked directly and indirectly. The authority and the sufficiency of Scripture is always being called into question. I think the best way to defend that truth is not primarily with a list of arguments for the inspiration and the authority of the Bible, but with a faithful, compelling proclamation of the whole truth.

And the other truth that I would say is always under attack is the supremacy and the centrality and the majesty of God. I think in the evangelical church, not only is the word of God often lowered, but God himself becomes smaller and smaller and smaller. And the best way to defend the truth of God’s majesty and supremacy and centrality is to build and grow a church where he is supreme, and to preach sermons in that church where continually the feel the sermons have is that there is a great majestic, glorious, sovereign God under everything he says.

Dear Pastor John, can you please elaborate on how to learn to be satisfied in God in practical life?

I think that’s the same as the question we started with, but it might be good to end with it as well. The answer I gave an hour ago was that we immerse ourselves by meditating on this book and praying that our eyes would be open to the beauty of Christ in it who satisfies us. Maybe the only thing I would add to that is that I, as a pastor, need other pastors to feed my soul on the beauties of Christ. And the pastors that do that most for me have been dead for 200 years.

In other words, find the writers in church history who have known God most deeply and have written most profoundly about him and that awaken your own soul, and then immerse yourself in those writers. It might be Augustine, or it might be John Calvin or Martin Luther. It might be John Owen or Charles Spurgeon or Jonathan Edwards. Or in our day, it might be J. I. Packer. But find the writers who have lived in this Book, known God personally, and have written deeply about him and let them feed you. The book of Hebrews has in it an encouragement which tells us to be strengthened by the faith of our heroes (Hebrews 13:7). And the men who are going to do that best for you are going to be the ones who are most saturated with the Bible.