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Culture Q&A

John Piper

God strong

John Piper may have retired from the pulpit, but he’s still pursuing Kingdom work, by the grace of God

God strong

John Piper (Matt Crutchmer/Bethlehem College and Seminary)

John Piper’s recent retirement from preaching, after 33 years in the pulpit of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, hardly means retirement from pastoral work through other means, including writing. I interviewed the 67-year-old author of 50 plus books in front of students at Bethlehem College and Seminary.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune referred to you last Dec. 29 as “the fiery preacher of hard-line biblical values.” How would you describe yourself in seven words or less? Desperately dependent on grace, happy about it. 

After 33 years, does the Star Tribune have any sense of what you believe and do? Yes and no. Yes, they get external things, but what makes a hard line a beautiful line, probably not. The natural mind cannot receive the things of the Spirit, so they grope to put words on it—and generally the words they put on it are unhelpful. What comes to their mind is something negative, and therefore they see it not as helpful, protective, healing, Christ-exalting, God-centered, Bible-sensible, but hard and rigid. 

Most college students, if they read anything from the Puritans, read only one Jonathan Edwards sermon that was atypical for him, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I have noticed that journalists seem to know only of your comment when a tornado toppled the steeple of a church where liberal Lutherans were approving ordination of a practicing homosexual: Call it “Tornado in the Hands of an Angry God.” The reporter who interviewed me for that article more recently asked me, “You still want to stand by all that stuff you wrote about the steeple getting toppled?” I said, “Yes,” and she was baffled that after negative push back I would still say, “God was very displeased with what happened that afternoon, and the toppled steeple is emblematic of that.” I don’t know the way God is working providentially in immediate, direct lines, but I do say this particular blasphemous activity by a professing Christian group was striking: God rules all things, and He coordinated that particular tornado.

‘The absence of God in most spheres of life is perceived to be normal, and even Christians feel it as normal—which is why absorbing the culture all around us and its priorities is so dangerous.’  —John Piper

Some folks say Christians should not talk about God (and particularly Jesus) when talking to a general audience, because that will alienate some listeners. They say we should make arguments on natural law grounds without referring to God. Given our need to glorify God, is silence about Him self-defeating, even if it helps us win a particular victory? It certainly would be self-defeating for me to leave that out, because my calling is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God, not to spread a passion for family values. I don’t dictate strategies to politicians who are Christians and care about the common good and want to take the fruit of Christian life and see it enacted in law, but my bent is this: If saying “Jesus” or “God” alienates, it’s still necessary, because if you leave Him out, what have you drawn people to? Family values minus Jesus is just pure Pharisaism, moralism. 

Can the current debate about same-sex marriage be successful without bringing it back to first principles? Not if you define success as coming back to first principles. The Bible never addresses homosexuality apart from its relation to God. Romans 1 is all about what happens to human souls if God in a culture is replaced by other things, especially what we see in the mirror: That chapter has profound reflections on homosexuality.

More broadly: Do you find the natural law argument convincing? Not by itself. To say that the human being is wired a certain way naturally is an argumentative tool that carries the day with a lot of people. Paul in Romans 1 notes that what’s happening sexually is against nature: That’s a subordinate point for Paul so I think it has a subordinate place in our cultural dialogue.

ABC’s evening news now has an “America Strong” segment, and after the marathon bombings Bostonians started saying “Boston strong.” Instead of proclaiming strength should we be acknowledging our human weakness apart from God? Whenever the strength of God is not recognized as the source of our strength, we are breaking the First Commandment: Do not have any gods before me. If “Boston strong” or “America strong” is God-neglecting, God-ignoring, God-minimizing, human-exalting, city-exalting, nation-exalting, it’s evil. That’s the main problem in America today: The absence of God in most spheres of life is perceived to be normal, and even Christians feel it as normal—which is why absorbing the culture all around us and its priorities is so dangerous. 

Paul’s statement, “When I am weak, then am I strong” ... The power of Christ is magnified when I acknowledge I’m needy, I’m bankrupt, I’m sinful, He’s full, He’s strong, He’s forgiving, He’s supplying. God put human beings on this planet to depend upon their Creator and to worship their Creator in every sphere of culture. When they lose conscious dependence on their Maker and start to exalt the strength of something else, they commit treason against their Maker—and nothing will go right when a nation or a family or a person does that.

When so much is going wrong in our nation, how do we come out of that spiral? Revival: the one-sided, supernatural arrival of God to do something extraordinary, to awaken people to their sinful condition and to waken them to the reality of God and then the reality of Christ, the reality of sin, and the necessity of repentance in faith. It moves like an inexplicable wave across the culture. We haven’t seen that for a long time in America, but I doubt that short of that we will come out of a God-ignoring, God-belittling frame of mind, which pretty much grips the whole nation. 

Some people might say: If it’s one-sided and our only hope is that God will show up, why should we make any effort? I say you obey what’s in the Scripture. If it says worship God, you worship God. If it says love your enemies, you love your enemies. If it says practice hospitality, you practice hospitality. You do the hundreds of things that a Christward heart does in the hope that God will cause those little sparks to become a conflagration in a community or in a nation. 

If we see a sign at a church, “Come to our revival the week of _,” that’s suspect? Yes, I would look with suspicion, but I have to speak with tenderness because my father did that. He totally believed that if God didn’t show up on that day there would be no revival, and yes, he used that language of “We will hold the revival on _.” That’s what everybody did, and the roots of it were bad, but we don’t always fix the language of what we do before we fix the substance.

Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with John Piper:

Listen to Marvin Olasky's interview with John Piper on The World and Everything in It: