Questions and Answers

Ligonier Ministries National Conference | Orlando

Paul Sailhamer: There’s always one comment or something that elicits the most amount of questions, and John Piper, you’ve done it again this time. By far, the largest amount of questions have to do with your comment last night about the need for us to simplify our lives. People want to know what you meant by that. How do you do it? How do we do it? What’s the value of it? How does it fit into your topic last night? Can you give us a simple answer on that?

John Piper: I don’t have any single lifestyle in my mind, but I think almost everybody can put governors on their spending. Everybody knows the principle that expenses rise to meet the income, so that everybody is just getting by. If you make $30,000, you’re just getting by. If you make $50,000, you’re just getting by. If you make $100,000, you’re just getting by because you’ve got to put oil in your airplane and rent a hangar, and cash flow is difficult. So if you’re going to keep from being one of those just-getting-by millionaires, then you need a cap. You need some governors. So I’m just pleading with people — though I don’t have any clear, simple, one-size-fits-all criteria for what that lifestyle is — I want everybody to be struggling with it. That’s what I want. I want everybody to be reading the Gospels and looking at Jesus who had no place to lay his head.

He says, “Do you want to follow me? Birds of the air have nests, foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He says, “As the Father sends me, so send I you.” Now, I don’t over-interpret that. I just say there’s a pointer there. There are some issues here for the evangelical church, so figure out how to live a wartime lifestyle. I like that better than the word “simple” because Ralph Winter taught me in war you might need a B52 bomber. It will cost you a few million dollars. You might need a computer and so on. Simple means going to Northern Minnesota, growing carrots, and not being useful to anybody for anything. That’s not the point. Simplicity does hardly anybody any good. But a wartime lifestyle says, “Okay, we’re in a war. And in a war you use metal differently. You use rubber differently. You use everything differently because you got a cause you’re living for.

Most Christians don’t have a cause they’re living for. And then you simplify to give everything above that away. You have hard decisions to make about retirement, your kids’ college, and so on. Every pastor should just be getting his people to think and pray and talk about those things, and to read literature that summons towards wartime lifestyle. So there’s no simple answer. There’s no one-size-fits-all diagram, but rather I have a plea for the people of God to move towards need, not comfort. Move towards need, not comfort, and don’t think you need a fatter and fatter pad to live on. Think rather in terms of streamlining, so that you can give as much away as you possibly can for the cause.

Paul Sailhamer: Al, R.C., you are involved with organizations and Christian ministries that have larger and larger challenges and demands. Is there an application to a Christian ministry? How do you grow and reach more people and be more effective and train more staff while keeping your ministry reflecting and teaching what John was talking about there, just by the modeling in your ministry?

R.C. Sproul: With great difficulty. I was sitting here thinking while John was talking. I agree with what he said, but to me the greatest scandal in the evangelical world is reflected in a poll. The last one I saw said that of those people who identified themselves as evangelicals in America, only four percent of them were tithers. And he was talking about going well beyond the tithe. We can’t even get people to the tithe level. Ninety-six percent of professing evangelicals are systematically robbing from God. And the reality of ministry is that one of the greatest barriers we have to extend the ministry of the kingdom are the financial limits that we have, because it costs money to do ministry, it costs money to put a seminary together, it costs money for John to have his church and to have his ministry, and it certainly costs money for Doug to run his schools and all of that.

In any ministry, if I have $100, I can do $5 worth of ministry and waste $95, or I can do $50 worth of ministry and blow $50, or I can do $100 worth of ministry if I’m efficient. What I can’t do is $105 worth of ministry, so that is a stewardship issue. But again, to second what John was saying, to me, the way I look at it is investment. I’m a conservative economically, and I try to teach that to my kids and students. We have young people learning the principle of delayed gratification, the principle of investing in the future and allowing their investments to work for them from an economic perspective. And I think that the most fabulous and significant investment any person can ever make is in the kingdom of God. I mean, that’s the one place where we know for sure there’s never going to be a bear in the woods to destroy that market, because it’s always a bull market when we support our king. I really believe that we need to see our stewardship, our tithing, and our giving as an investment in the most important enterprise under the sun.

Al Mohler: I want to pick up right where R.C. left with the issue of investment, because I think this is something that perhaps even American evangelicals may understand better a bit now than even years past. There is a sense in which it is clear by our investment pattern where our treasure lies and what we seek to do is to invite persons to invest in something that really matters for eternity. Now, I really like what John talks about with a wartime ethic or mentality. John was recently on our campus, blessed us tremendously, and told us we had far more than a B52. And there’s a sense in which we certainly do. We have inherited a massive campus of great beauty and an enormous infrastructure, and I want to say that we want to understand the demands of stewardship in the most biblically faithful manner.

I agree that we’re in a war. I think it is a war for the long haul, so to speak. We don’t know the Lord’s timetable, but at this point we are the church militant. And I believe there is the necessity of some institutional, a platform accountable to scripture for the church that trains ministers of the gospel and can become a think-tank repository for the equipping of the saints. That does take money. It should be done well and here the standard of excellence should be something beyond our apology. We shouldn’t apologize for seeking excellence, but we should be offended by opulence. And sometimes knowing the difference between the two is difficult, and we need to confess that. And that’s why we need trustees and constituents and churches to hold their institutions accountable in this matter, not just to make sure the books are balanced, but to make sure the funds are rightly invested.

Paul Sailhamer: Thank you. Doug, you’ve been sitting there rather peaceably. Let me direct a question your way.

Doug Wilson: I’m a peaceful guy.

Paul Sailhamer: It’s a very direct question. I’m sure you’re used to getting direct questions because you speak very plainly and directly, so let me just read it as it has been asked here. The questioner says, “You began your talk by slamming brothers in Christ who design seeker-sensitive services. You ended your talk by encouraging us to love our brothers, lest we appear odious to the world. Should we attend to your words or to your actions, or can it be both?”

Doug Wilson: Who is that guy?

Paul Sailhamer: Mrs. Sproul, it says here.

Doug Wilson: In that case, she’s quite right. I thought of mentioning this as an illustration, but I wasn’t sure how many people here were aware of the magazine that I edit, in which some of these same things that I addressed in the talk are treated with imperfect tenderness. The fundamental question that we’re getting at here, the thing that I would like to provide as my answer to this question, is what would Jesus do? Now, however sappily that’s been marketed — and it has — I think it’s a wonderful question. The question that confronts us is what does it mean in a disobedient culture to be prophetic? What does it mean in an insolent and arrogant culture to confront that insolence and arrogance?

Well, one of the first things it means is that you’ll be accused of being insulate and arrogant. People will say, “Who do you think you are challenging? Everybody’s going this way. Who does Martin Luther think he is? How dare you.” Now, the thing that we’ve tried to do is ask this question: How did Jesus talk? How did he address the respected theologians of his day? Well, he called them basically a bag of snakes, right? Now what we do is we gloss over. Jesus is talking, so these are all holy words. So we go into holy-word mode. In my neck of the woods, you can drive up to Coeur d’Alene, which is an hour and a half drive. And sometimes I’ve driven that stretch of road and I find myself approaching Coeur d’Alene, and I know that I had to have gone through a small town on the way, but I don’t remember it. I’ve driven that road. It’s frequently traveled.

It’s the same way with the text of Scripture. We just skate over the surface of many things that Jesus said and did and we don’t recognize, as Chesterton once put it, that Jesus threw furniture down the temple steps. He was not a tame lion. He was someone who confronted hypocrisy. He confronted and rebuked, in the strongest possible terms, the arrogance of man-centeredness. And I believe that we are called to imitate Christ in all that he does.

Now, this is the lopsidedness of our age. Everybody, when we ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” everybody acknowledges that it’s appropriate to imitate Christ in his love, or Christ in his gentleness, or Christ receiving the children. And I believe we ought to imitate him in how we receive the children, and how we bless, and how we speak to people in our family, and how we love our children. I believe that we should imitate Christ and pursue that imitation with a passion, but we should also imitate Christ in how he handled theologians that corrupted the word of God. We should also imitate Christ in the way that he spoke in church that got the people in his hometown so hopping mad at him that they wanted to throw him off a cliff.

How did he do that? In the Gospel of John, Jesus begins by talking to a bunch of people who believed in him, and he begins doscoursing with these people who believed in him. And by the end of the discourse, they’re trying to kill him. Now, what we say is it’s safe to imitate Christ in his love and his gentleness, but it’s not safe to imitate Christ in his sarcasm or in his biting cultural criticism. You can’t imitate him over there, but you can imitate him over here.

Well, I don’t know any biblical grounds for that selectivity. If we’re going to imitate Christ, we should imitate Christ. If we want to be like him, we should want to be like him, and that means the whole thing. Now, I do believe that there are dangers in imitating Christ’s polemic, or John the Baptist’s polemic, or Paul’s polemic, or Jeremiah’s polemic. And it’s very hard to find a biblical character who doesn’t have a polemic to imitate. The other interesting feature is in the modern evangelical world, which has all the doctrinal rigidity of a bowl of pudding, it is hard to find anybody imitating anybody’s polemic. Now, I don’t think we imitate it perfectly. I don’t believe that we imitate Christ’s love perfectly, or his gentleness perfectly.

I don’t believe that we imitate anything he did perfectly, but I do believe that we are called to imitate him across the board, and we can do so confident that God has justified us and receives our imperfect attempts at imitating him because of Christ’s perfect, active obedience and passive obedience in his life and his death on the cross. This is a long way of saying that we want to be like Jesus Christ. We want to be like the apostle Paul. We want to turn the world upside down, and you don’t turn the world upside down by being nice. You turn the world upside down by being biblical. That means you love what God loves, you hate what God hates, you praise what God praises, you condemn what God condemns, and you make fun of what God makes fun of.

One of the most glorious sections in the Bible is God coming in at the end of the Book of Job. He says, “Where were you, oh man, when I created the world? Tell me, since you know so much.” Some of the loftiest sarcasm you’ll find anywhere. And it’s dangerous for a creature to imitate God. It’s dangerous for a creature to imitate Christ, but that’s our calling. We’re Christians, we have to imitate him. So do I slam seeker-sensitive worship? Yes, I do. Do I slam things that people consider right and proper and well-intentioned? Yes, I do that. Do I do it with fear and trembling? Yes I do. Do I sometimes get it wrong? Yes I do. But I think it would be a more grave danger to sit back and get it wrong that way.

Paul Sailhamer: Anybody want to jump in on that?

R.C. Sproul: I wish the people in this room would have an opportunity to spend one week reading my mail and see how they could absorb the nasty grams and the hate letters and come into my office every single day. And I only see a small portion of them because my staff bends over backwards to shield me from them. It’s the old story that if you get 20 letters and 19 of them are grateful and thankful and complimentary and one of them is nasty, the one that you think about all day is the mean one. But I have to understand something. If I write a book, if I give a speech, if I get on the radio and I put my thoughts and my ideas in the public arena, it goes with the territory that I have to be willing to let people critique me, attack me, differ from me, and debate with me in the public arena.

The most serious cardinal sin as an evangelical you can ever do is to make some statement that’s critical of Billy Graham. I know because I’ve done it. And they say, “How dare you criticize Billy Graham?” I said, “Because I think Billy Graham is wrong on that point, and I think he, because of the enormous trustworthiness that he has in the evangelical world, can do a world of damage when he talks like that.” And if he says it in the public domain, then we enter into debate in the public domain. The movement of what’s called shorthand “seeker-sensitive worship” has been carefully thought out, carefully devised, and is being marketed and programmed around this America in the public arena as the way to go to reach a fallen world. And the motives behind it, I’m convinced, are genuinely, sincerely concerned for saving lost people. I also believe that they’re sincerely wrong in terms of their emphasis on adjusting the nature of worship for the sake of the unbeliever. I believe that corporate worship is established by God for his people, and it is God who has established how he is to be worshiped.

I talked to the founder of seeker sensitivity 20 years ago, and he told me that he had done his research and taken the public polls in Chicago. He said he talked to over 2,000 who had left the church. The number one reason they gave for leaving the church was that the church was boring. The number two reason was that the church was irrelevant. So he had a passion to reach those people. And he said, “What I’m going to do is construct a church that no one will ever think is boring. We’re not going to have a chancellor, we’re going to have a stage. We’re not going to have a choir, we’re going to have vocalists. My church is not going to look like a church. I’m going to make a building where people who are unbelievers are comfortable, and I’m going to get through all of the trappings of religion to reach these people.”

That was the strategy born of a passion to reach people for Jesus Christ. And I said to him 20 years ago, “When I read the Bible and I see the records of all kinds of people who encounter the living God, there is not a monolithic response. Some people are giddy with joy, some people pass out, some people weep, some people run, and some people tremble. In fact, most people tremble. But of all of the accounts that we have in the Bible of people meeting God, I see not a single reference in Scripture of anyone ever meeting the living God and being bored. Because the one thing God is not is boring. And if you want to have worship that excites people, then you need to focus that worship on who God is.”

I don’t want to take a strategy to disguise it or to hide it. I don’t want my church ever to be considered a stage, because in this culture, a stage is a place for entertainment, not a place to meet God. And so, though I appreciate very much the motive behind all of this, it terrifies me. I’ll also say this. Twenty years ago I was in the backseat of a taxi cab with Francis Schaeffer in St. Louis. And I said to him, “What is your greatest concern for the church right now?” Unhesitatingly, he responded, “Statism.” That was 20 years ago. If you would ask me that question today, what do I think is the greatest danger to the church of Jesus Christ right now at the beginning of the 21st century, I would say it is this movement of worship in our culture. It scares me to death.

Doug Wilson: I could add something to that very quickly. Not only have we been dumbed down because of this entertainment mentality so that we can’t process doctrinal distinctives anymore, but now there has been a gigantic cultural bait-and-switch operation so that what has happened is that everybody is happy clappy and we’re worshiping Jesus, whoever he is, and nobody’s been told who he is, and nobody’s been taught who he is, because that’s all irrelevant now. And now in the last few years, as John Piper can tell us, we’ve had this open theism that’s now introduced, which presents a radically different Jesus, a radically different God. It’s a heresy with a capital H. And evangelicals are struggling and wrestling with the issue. I wonder why moderates and liberals and evangelicals always wrestle with these issues instead of beating them up, but they wrestle with them, which means that they go into the conflict prepared to lose.

They’ve gone into this prepared to lose. We are about to lose in North America within the next generation. Unless God gives a Reformation, we are about to lose our lamp stand entirely. And it began with a bunch of little secondary things. People say, “Why make a big deal out of the seeker-sensitive movement?” Well, there’s a strategic move here and the doctrinal life and breadth of the evangelical church in North America is imperiled. And that was the first stage in that strategy. We needed people attacking it long before we began attacking it, because when you begin attacking it’s controversial. That means you’re already too late.

Paul Sailhamer: John wanted to jump in here. John, just before you do, let me say, I want to throw out one last question of my own here. In light of our topic on upsetting the world, and your comment about biographies, I’d like to finish by having each of you maybe suggest a world upsetter out of church history and maybe a good biography of that person. It could be someone you respect and someone that we might follow up on here. So be thinking about that while John wades into this current question.

John Piper: I want to go back to Doug’s defense of sarcasm and irony to balance it. One of the reasons I have a problem with simply “do what Jesus did” is that there is one huge difference between me and Jesus, and that is sin in me. There are others, but that one is picked up by the apostle Paul, because when he argues for tender-heartedness and gentleness and forbearance, he grounds it in the fact that you were forgiven, so he says, “Therefore forgive.” In other words, Paul draws attention to the very thing that distinguishes me from Jesus when he’s arguing for my tender-heartedness towards people. Therefore, we must stir into the equation of how I respond to something I regard as reprehensible. In fact, another place he does it is Galatians 6:1, which says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” There seems to be added to “do what Jesus would do” the reality, “Remember, it’s not just dangerous, it’s much more dangerous for you than for him.” Therefore, James says, “Be slow to anger and quick to hear” (James 1:19–20). Anger is a much more dangerous emotion than gentleness or meekness. I think it’s much more explosive. And one of the reasons for that is not only that I’m so wired to exalt myself in being angry towards others or in finding a clever way to put them down. James Denney once said, “No man can give at once the impression that he himself is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.”

Now, Doug Wilson is an absolute genius at sarcasm and irony, and I would just wave a little yellow flag. You’re very clever. I read Credenda/Agenda, and I wouldn’t waste my time on it if I thought it was only contaminating, but I tell you, I can OD on it fast because it is so well done from a rhetorical standpoint. So just a little warning that I think there need to be more obvious tears in Credenda/Agenda. Here’s one illustration I would give. Jesus is in the synagogue and here’s this man with a withered hand, and he wants to heal this man. And the religious leaders that he calls a bag of snakes elsewhere are upset about this. And it says, “He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). And that’s what I want to pull together. What does that look like in a sinner like me?

There is anger for sure when I see what’s being done in open theism. Now, how can I be grieved at the damage and have the grief come out? It has to show with some tears as well as the clever oomph, so that the people in the world see the oomph, and they say, “Well, that’s clever,” or, “That sounds mean,” or, “That’s bright.” But if they see the tears as well as that in some way — and I don’t really know how to do it — then they might say, “Wow, there might be something really personal and caring and eternal and dangerous here, not just the ability to turn a good phrase.” So that’s an exhortation, and a warning really to everybody who clapped for Doug when he said what he had to say. And it’s also for you and for me, because frankly I think I need to say that because I am wired to be a person who puts down stupidity, and I have to work really hard to manifest tenderness.

Doug Wilson: I appreciate that very much. I do want to encourage you, though maybe it won’t encourage you. Every time you read something in Credenda/Agenda, just tell yourself, “They’re holding back.”

John Piper: That worries me. That worries me.

Paul Sailhamer: There’s a little practical thing that’s interesting to do with your small group, or with your church staff, or whatever, and that’s to get one of these little personality tests, a temperament analysis test, a Myers-Briggs test, or something like that, and have everybody in your group take it as if they were Jesus. Have them answer the questions the best way they can as how they think Jesus would answer the questions. And you’ll be surprised at the way the scores come out and how we view Jesus and how often he happens to just reflect our temperament. And it’s an interesting little exercise when we’re trying to think through this question of “What would Jesus do?” We’re out of time. Let’s get down to your suggestions. Who is someone that has turned the world upside down that you admire, and can you recommend a good biography about them? Somebody. We don’t have much time, so jump in, Al.

Al Mohler: I just have to say Martin Luther. I gained more sustenance, humanly speaking, from reading Luther and about Luther than any other saint in the history of the church. He comes as close as anyone I know to a man who never had an unarticulated thought. And it was either recorded, written down by him, or recorded by his students, or included as a part of the entire corpus. But there’s a man who was a real man and in whom God’s glory shined.

Paul Sailhamer: And it’s just recently been discovered he was a Southern Baptist. Is that correct?

Al Mohler: I’m glad you’re onto that.

Paul Sailhamer: I read it in Credenda/Agenda. Would you recommend a good biography? There are so many. What would you recommend?

Al Mohler: Oh, there are so many. For Luther, the most accessible one is still Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. I mean, if you haven’t read that, you’re not serious about understanding church history and you’re just robbing yourself, impoverishing yourself. Some other interesting biographies include Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. And then there’s a massive three volume biography by Brecht and others that’s been translated out of German, and they’re available from Fortress Press. There’s just some fascinating material, but the best thing is to read Luther. Get his material, start with The Bondage of the Will or the Lectures on Romans and just have at it.

Paul Sailhamer: Great. Does somebody else have a suggestion? Doug?

Doug Wilson: I’m currently reading a wonderful biography of William Tyndale by David Daniel. He has recently put out, I think through Yale, Tyndale’s New Testament and as much of the Old Testament as Tyndale translated, and he’s done this biography of Tyndale. And Tyndale is one of the unsung heroes of the Reformation, but certainly of the English Reformation. Nine-tenths of the King James version of the New Testament is his original, and just as much of the Old Testament for the same proportion that he did. Tyndale was a wonderful man of God, a wonderful scholar. He was the epitome of what the early puritans were, scholarship on fire. I would recommend David Daniel’s biography of William Tyndale.

Paul Sailhamer: Great. R.C.?

R.C. Sproul: I have a couple. Before I do, I still have to say something about the “What would Jesus do?” question. I notice that Jesus does not treat everybody alike. When he’s dealing with the lambs, he’s the most tender, gentle person you can imagine. When he’s dealing with the woman caught in adultery, with those who are in shame, with those who are broken, he is so sensitive and tender, it’s unbelievable. When he deals with the leaders who are in positions of power, he asks no quarter and gives none. In fact, he’s far more polemical than any of us could ever be. And so was Luther. The great trick, I think, is to know the difference between when to be tender and when to be tough. And I sure don’t always know. It’s a whole lot easier to be tough than it is to be tender. But back to your question, I would recommend Iain Murray’s biography of Edwards, and also Elizabeth Dodd’s biography of Edwards called, Marriage to a Difficult Man, and Beza’s biography of Calvin. I mean, they don’t get any better than that sort of thing.

Paul Sailhamer: John, we’ll give you the last word.

John Piper: John Bunyan is the person I would recommend, because his book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, is the whole of Reformed thinking and it’s been translated into more languages than any other book, and it’s been sold more than any book of the Bible. It has upset the world. Just get the three volumes of his works from Banner of Truth, and read his own stuff.