Questions and Answers

Angola Prison | Angola, LA

Dr. Piper, in John 15 I’ve been in discussions with men of the Bible and some have the belief that John 15:6 — Jesus Christ being the vine and the Father being a husbandman — is speaking of a man being able to lose his salvation. In that verse, he states that the branch is in him, but if it doesn’t produce fruit, it will be cast away and burned. Is that talking about salvation? If it is not, can you distinguish it?

My, oh my, that’s a really good question. Well said. Good point. The branch that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Here’s the way I go about answering a question like that. It’s a picture, a vine, a branch, and a farmer, and you have to be so careful with pictures, all right? What aspects of an analogy or a comparison are meant to be taken precisely and what aspects aren’t?

So I move out, staying in the same book, and I say, “Okay, the Jesus of the Gospel of John, do you have anything else to say to me about perseverance, eternal security, sticking in?” And you may know where I’m going to go. I’m going to go to chapter 10 and read these verses. John 10:27–30 says:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.

Now my conclusion from there, and numerous other places, is that God keeps us. I’ll just give you one other place. For me, one of the most important passages in the Bible is Romans 8:30, which says:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What does that mean? That means when I put my faith in Jesus Christ, I’m declared righteous. He says that everyone who is declared righteous will be glorified. Nobody drops out. He preserves me. And here’s one more from the same author, though it’s a different book. First John 2:19 says:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

When they went out, they showed that they weren’t of us. Now here’s the hard part. You come back to chapter 15 and say, okay, those who don’t bear fruit are cut off, and they are in the vine. Now, if in the vine means completely united to Jesus in terms of new birth, we have a contradiction. I don’t think there are any contradictions in the Bible. Therefore, I’m going to say there is a kind of being in Jesus that’s not all the way in.

I’ll give you an example. I don’t think I’m making this up. What about the parable of the four soils? One falls on the path and birds pluck it up. The next one falls on rocky soil, the sun comes, it springs up with joy. Is it in? The sun comes out, burns it up, and there’s no fruit. The next one goes in the thorns and there’s a brief flourishing, and the thorns choke it out. Only one soil is good and it bears fruit. I think there are people “in the vine” that aren’t wholly in the vine. They aren’t born again in the vine. They aren’t really drawing sap from the vine. They’re artificial. There’s some of you in this room like that, probably. This room is like a corporate vine. You came here and you’re in and you’re getting the message and you’re getting the influence, and it’s not doing anything. It’s not bearing any fruit. You’re going to go out here just as unborn-again as you came in, maybe.

So my answer, right or wrong, is that I believe that John teaches eternal security. I believe that John teaches the perseverance of the saints. I don’t believe you can lose your salvation. The people in John 15 I think, who got broken off, never were wholly completely in. You just have to be careful with pictures and parables and images in the New Testament.

Dr. Piper, you basically somewhat answered the question I was going to ask concerning the parable of the sower and the seed, but maybe you can give a little bit more response to it. When Mark recorded the parable, in Mark 4:13 he said, “If you do not understand this parable, how then shall you understand all parables?” My question is, what is Jesus saying when he asks his disciples, “If you don’t understand this parable, you don’t understand any of them”? What is the point he’s making? I understand about the soil, which you already commented on, but what’s the point here of why he’s making those statements concerning the parable? If they don’t understand it, how can they understand the other ones?

I really don’t know for sure why he would say understanding this parable seems to be the key to understanding all the parables. He’s saying, “If you don’t get this one, how are you going to get the rest of them?” Could it be that this parable makes plain that when the word of God is preached, it only bears fruit in a certain number, and therefore, the word of God is not going to be totally compelling to everybody that hears it. And that may be a prerequisite for how all the other parables function because those parables have that effect. He says in another place that he is speaking in parables so that not everybody will understand, because some are under judgment and they’re going to be stumbling over these parables. But I’m just thinking out loud with you. Really. I don’t know the answer to why that parable would be the key. And boy, if you knew, come up and tell me afterwards. So I’m sorry. I can’t do better on that one. I’m not sure.

I was reading Genesis 5:4 and it explains how long Adam lived. He lived a total of 930 years. I was wondering why it doesn’t explain the amount of years that Eve lived, what year she died. Why doesn’t it explain how long Eve lived?

I don’t know. We’re getting into a habit here. There is a way to answer the question, but it’s only half an answer. The answer is this is a very patriarchal culture that traces the genealogies through the men. I mean all the way through. The fathers are representative. And I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Adam was created first. He was the one who named Eve. He was responsible as the head of the family. So men are to be, in a unique way, leaders and heads of their families. So the line is just traced through the men. But ultimately why that is, that’s God’s business.

Dr. Piper, considering your message from John 6:1–29 what would be a word to a believer who sees Jesus or considers Jesus to be precious only if he can guarantee the hope of physical deliverance from prison?

How to say it without swearing. He’s been badly taught. There are many preachers of a name-it-and-claim-it sort of message. These are word-of-faith preachers. They go by different names and they believe you shouldn’t be sick. And if any bad thing happens to you, it’s the devil that’s doing it and it’s because of your unbelief. So the root problem with that is that it’s a failure to understand the sovereignty of God and the goodness of God in and through suffering. Let me give you just one passage of scripture that’s very precious to me, and I’m sure to many of you. Romans 8:35 goes like this:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

He doesn’t say out of all those things, we are more than conquerors. So your lot right now under the justice of the penal code is to be here. If God wants to work some kind of legal miracle, he can do it. He’s not committed to doing that out of love for you. Your being here may be the very way he loves you, the very way he loves you. And it may be a curse on people outside that they have so much prosperity and freedom. Satan has two ways to destroy your faith. One is pain and the second is pleasure. He can kill you either way. He can make you so painful you curse God, or so pleasurable you forget him.

I think pleasure kills people in this world way more than pain, way more. Have you ever heard anybody say, “I got to know Jesus more deeply in the bright, sunny days than I did any other day”? You never hear anybody say that. What you hear almost every day of your life is that when the lights went out in their life, that person found Jesus. When things got hard in their life, Jesus showed up. So I just don’t buy the prosperity thing. I don’t buy that you have to be well. You don’t have to be out of prison. You don’t have to get a good job. You don’t have to get a good wife. None of these prosperous things are the sure sign of God’s blessing. Blessing comes in forms that you never dreamed. And if you’re a child of God, I’ll tell you what form it comes in: every form.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

So you keep loving God and you’ll know that everything is working for your good.

Dr. Piper, this is a marriage question.

Good. I believe in it.

Genesis 2:24 talks about how a man and woman become one flesh, and 1 Corinthians 6:16 tells you that he who is joined to a harlot also becomes one flesh with her. It’s been a controversy that Paul was saying that any woman that you sleep with, you marry her according to that Scripture.

That’s a very, very good question. I don’t think that’s true, but that’s a really good question and you’re shrewd to make the observation. So he’s pointing out that man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and the two shall be one flesh. And then Paul, in order to persuade you not to sleep around with prostitutes, says that you become one spirit with her, or you become one flesh with her.

Marriage is more than sex. A man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife. That’s covenant language. A marriage is two things. First, it’s an oath that says, “I will be your husband and you will be my wife, till death do us part.” That’s a covenant. And second, then you consummate it that night. I think that’s a good idea, and the consummation is the putting flesh on the covenant oneness.

So you become one flesh. To separate that one flesh-ness out from the covenant, Paul is saying, “Don’t do that.” You’re not made that way. Women are ruined through that. Men can just jump from bed to bed. It’s much more devastating for women. It’s devastating for men too. So I think the fact that they overlap — Genesis 2:24 and 1 Corinthians 6 — doesn’t mean that both are marriage. Marriage is more than sleeping together. So if a man had 16 harlots before he got saved, and he never made any covenant with any of them and came to me broken, repentant, and forgiven by the blood of Jesus, and he was ready to marry a Christian woman, I’d do the wedding. If he had six wives in a row and came to me to marry his seventh, I wouldn’t do it.

Dr. Piper in this community here, we preach against a person committing suicide. When you said a person that kills themself and is saved gets to the other side compared to a sinner killing themself, can you clarify that for me please?

I’m glad you asked the question. I made the observation earlier that I do believe it’s possible for a Christian, genuinely born again, to be so depressed that they take their life and are still in heaven. That’s what I believe. I’ve done three of those funerals in my ministry. The one I will do the Friday after Thanksgiving will not be that way. And I don’t know yet what I’m going to say. This is going to be very difficult. I don’t know what I’m going to say because I will have 50 unbelievers in front of me, two believers, and a dead person who is probably in hell in the coffin in front of me. This is not easy. But to answer your question about why I think a believer can get there is this: we are not saved by our works. We’re not saved by not killing. And you’re not lost because you killed somebody. People are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and they’re lost by not believing in Jesus Christ.

Now you can lead a life that is so sin-soaked that you show you don’t belong to Jesus, but the last deed of your life is not that decisive demonstration anymore than the next-to-last one. Let me give you an illustration. This is what helped me. Suppose my wife and I get into a really ugly argument. I’ve never hit my wife and never intend to, but we’ve had some really painful arguments. Suppose it’s all my fault and I’m just too proud to admit it, and I say something really ugly to her, slam the door, get in the car, step on the gas, and smash my car into a telephone pole and die. That’s the same thing that happens to a person, I think, that is so depressed for a season that they end their lives. In that situation, I just killed myself because of anger. I was angry. I wouldn’t have died if I weren’t sinning. I sinned myself into the grave when I hit that telephone pole going 60 miles an hour. And would I be lost? I don’t think so. I don’t go in and out of salvation every time I get mad at my wife. The last thing you do in your life is not the decisive thing.

Now, I say this with some hesitation because my guess is the temptation to suicide in this place is higher than elsewhere. If you hear me saying, “It’s not a problem, feel free,” you’re not hearing me. It’s a sin. It’s very dangerous because it might signify, “I’ve never known him. I gave up on him a long time ago and I haven’t looked to him. I don’t trust him for my future. I’ve quit relying on him and I’m out of here.” And you may wake up in hell, not in heaven. So be careful. Don’t hear me saying suicide is not a big deal. It’s murder. And you don’t want the last deed of your life to be murder. You want the last deed of your life to be love.

Dr. Piper, as a Reformed theologian, when you emphasize the sovereignty of God how do you keep out of the trap of fatalism, especially in your preaching, your practice, and your prayer?

How do I, as a Reformed theologian, avoid fatalism? Let’s see if we can put a definition on fatalism. Fatalism I take would mean que sera sera. If God wills everything, then what will be will be and do what you want to do. There’s no point in praying and no point in evangelizing. You can’t have any influence on the future, or whatever. Is that roughly what fatalism would mean to you, or do you want to define it more closely?

I’m not so much talking about the looseness of it, but the logic. When we emphasize the sovereignty of God it is easy when you’re following the five points of Calvinism to go into that attitude of, “Well, what’s going to be is going to be.” We had the language of it when we discussed predestination earlier and you quoted Scripture. You said, “They weren’t of us, so they went out from us” (1 John 2:19). So it would’ve never made any difference how much preaching they heard, or how much witnessing. That doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility. But needless to say, we come into this idea of what’s going to be is what’s going to be. How do you stay out of that?

Okay, the way I stay out of that is by being more biblical than Reformed. That is, I don’t draw inferences from theological logical suppositions or assumptions. I go to my Bible and I look for verses and sentences and paragraphs that tell me the implications of God’s sovereignty. They tell me. I don’t think it up myself. If you tell me, “Well, if God predestines everybody, there’s no point in praying,” or if you say, “If God predestines, there’s no point in evangelizing,” I’ll say, “Well, you can be that logical if you want; I’m being biblical.” God is sovereign. God does predestine, and it doesn’t mean don’t pray. It doesn’t mean don’t evangelize.

Here are a few key verses. Philippians 2:12–13, do you know where I’m going? Paul says:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Now that sounds like I have a lot of responsibility, and I do. And then it gives the ground clause, which says, “For God is the one who has worked in you, both to will and to do his good pleasure.” So you kind of say, which is it? Am I supposed to work it out or is he working in? And the answer is that because he’s working in, I can work it out. So if I say to my daughter, “You have to clean your room,” and she says, “Well, if it’s predestined, it’ll get clean,” I’ll say to her, “You work out your salvation this afternoon.” Because God will enable you to do what he’s calling you to do.

Another passage would be Hebrews 13:20, where he blesses them and says that God will work in you that which is pleasing in his sight. So the short answer is that we avoid logical mistakes, whether it’s reformed theology or any other kind, by just letting the Bible constantly interpret the Bible. Just constantly be biblical. You don’t need to learn a little piece of Reformed theology, close your Bible, and then start being logical. Well, you’re not going to be logical if you do that. You’re going to be human, and it will be sinful logic. Instead, you learn a little piece of Reformed theology, then you read another part of the Bible, another part of the Bible, another part of the Bible, and it shapes and forms the whole thing. Then you wind up being whole and biblical. You believe everything that’s in the Bible. So you believe these texts:

  • God is not willing that any should perish . . . (2 Peter 3:9).
  • [God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).
  • As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked . . . (Ezekiel 33:11).

You believe that and you go here and you believe that he predestined from before the foundation of the world those who should give praise to his glory (Ephesians 1:5–6). And as many as were appointed unto eternal life, they’re the ones who believe (Acts 13:48). The reason you do not believe is because you’re not of my sheep (John 10:26–27). These are all Calvinistic verses, and the others are all so-called Arminian verses over there. And I believe them all. And I think Reformed theology is the best way to believe them all. It’s the one that makes sense out of more verses, but I’m mainly a verse guy. And that’s my answer. I’m a verse guy.

Well that’s my friend Alex, and he basically asked you the same question I was going to ask you. But I had about four questions, so I’ll ask you some more questions. The first one is dealing with your study habits, and the second question is, as far as a modern day theologian, who are you reading, like Ericsson or Grudem or Burkoff? Who would you suggest?

Who am I reading, and what are my study habits? Well, let me think. Right now. My reading is very spotty. I go in spurts because I have little time sometimes and more time other times. I don’t think you can go wrong today reading J.I. Packer. I don’t think you’ll go wrong reading R.C. Sproul. I don’t think you’ll go wrong reading C.J. Mahaney, on another lighter note. Sinclair Ferguson is solid as a rock, and Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is really good.

I just had dinner with Wayne last night. We’ve been friends for 35 years. He’s the kind of guy who, when his daughter-in-law was killed at age 23 in my town, called me to go to the morgue to be with his son. That’s the kind of relationship we have. Wayne shoots a straight arrow, theologically. Oh my, and there’s so much more. You can tell all the ones I just referred to are Reformed because I think that is the more biblical view.

What I would say as far as study goes is be sure that you combine a personal, warm, tender, sweet season with God in his word every day that is a little different than rigorous, academic, hard-nosed, tough-commentary type study. Now, not everybody would give you that advice. John Sailhamer, my good friend, wouldn’t give that advice. He says, “I don’t make that distinction.” I say, “Well, I do.” It’s like if I get a love letter from my wife, it would be like that.

In 1967, I was working as a water safety instructor in South Carolina. I had fallen head-over-heels in love with Noël Henry. I’d get these envelopes at the lunch break that smelled really good. She had put something on it and it would take my appetite away for real, regular food. I wanted the food of the letter. So I would go out in the woods, I’d sit down, I would slowly open it, and I’d pull it out and I’d just feel it. I would just feel it and open it and I’d read it very slowly. Now, that’s what I mean by a meditative, contemplative, sweet, warm time with God in the Bible. But suppose she used a word I couldn’t understand, or I couldn’t quite make it out because the writing was not clear. At that point I have to do some study.

I want to know what she said here. Did she say handsome or weird? That’s not a very good example. You get the idea. So I want to know, does she love me? Does she mean this? So study your Bible in a season, that is, read through texts, make sure you understand all the words and all the phrases, and look them up. Do the hard work and combine those two. That’s just one possible thing to say.

As far as schedule. My life is so different from day to day and week to week. I’ll do all my sermon preparation on Friday, for example. I go Friday early morning until I’m done at night. That’s when my sermons get written. Now I work preparing what I wrote on Saturday, and I preach it Saturday night and Sunday morning twice, and then I take Monday off. Tuesday is staff day, Wednesday and Thursday are classes and administrative stuff and some free study time, and then I’m back to Friday again. So it looks pretty much like that.

Okay, we’re going to transition. I’m sorry to just cut you off, but we could go all night till early in the morning. Dr. Piper, do you have any closing comments or conclusions that you’d like to share?

Well, I’m deeply thankful for the questions. I love what God is doing here in terms of the model that you manifestly are to your brothers across the country in the kind of pattern of life God has enabled you to set here. And I do give God the glory for that. Think of it this way. There are a few that may go out as missionaries from here, but you can’t all just get up and go. But you’re being watched all over the country, probably the world. There’s a calling upon Angola. There’s a calling upon you in order to demonstrate some irrefutable effects of the gospel. Make it that.

I was talking with Warden Cain about the relationship between the gospel and morality. The world can only explain you one way — morality, morality, morality. They think, “We’re going to do some morality stuff here.” Well, you know better. This is gospel, gospel, gospel. This is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. And the fruit of that is a change in behavior. Your mouth changes and your hands change. Things change. But the change of the mouth and the change of the hands isn’t where it starts. That’s a spillover. That’s fruit. The change is right in your heart — knowing him, loving him, trusting him, and treasuring him. So accept the calling that’s on this place for the sake of the nation.