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Tabletalk: How did you become a Christian?
John Piper: God wakened me from spiritual death when I was a child under the faith-filled instruction and example of my happy, Spirit-filled, mentally healthy, fundamentalist parents. I am told I professed faith in Jesus as my Savior when I was six. I don’t remember it. So the reason I know I am alive is because I am breathing, not because I can recall the moment of my birth.
TT: Please describe your call to ministry. Did you always know that God wanted you to be a pastor?
JP: My call from God in September 1966 was a call to the Word. It took eight more years of schooling before I had clarity about the form that would take. But under the preaching of Harold John Ockenga at Wheaton in the fall of 1966, while I was in the infirmary with mononucleosis, God showed me that my life should be devoted to the Word.
Clarity came in 1974 with a call from Bethel College to teach Bible. I did that for six years. Then in October 1979, God broke through late at night with an irresistible passion to herald the Word in the pastoral ministry. Within a couple months, the call to Bethlehem Baptist was clear. And that is where I have been ever since.
TT: What is the mission and goal of Desiring God Ministries?
JP: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ, by teaching and applying the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Or, to put it another way, we try to turn everyone we can into Bible-saturated Christian Hedonists, even if they don’t like the name.
TT: How would you counsel a young man who believes God is calling him to be a pastor?
JP: A true divine call to the ministry (in general, not to a specific place or task) has at least four components, with very rare exceptions.
First, it involves a recurring and increasingly compelling desire for the work, in spite of fears and doubts (1 Tim. 3:1). The desire is more than a one-night flare-up at a high-spirited meeting. It endures through changes.
It involves gifting from the Lord. An elder is to be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). A perceived call without evidence of God’s equipping for the call needs more testing.
God’s call is perceived and confirmed by others in the fruitfulness of a person’s ministry. If God is calling you, He will incline you to humbly do whatever you can in ministry. People will see this passion and the good that comes from it. That will lead to confirmation and encouragement to do more. If spiritual people do not perceive your ministry as bearing spiritual fruit in others (faith, hope, love), it is doubtful that God has prepared you at this time for ministry.
Sooner or later, God opens a door for service in a life of ministry. It may not be the one you dreamed. When I was twenty-eight years old, I had finished formal education and had a wife and a child. One door of ministry opened to me. I took it as God’s gift and confirmation. I had never dreamed of teaching at Bethel College. It was a gift. And it was the next step in my call to the Word.
TT: What are the unique challenges faced by those converted to Christ as children as opposed to those converted later in life?
JP: If you grow up in the Alps, you will have a harder time feeling wonder than a grown person who sees them for the first time. So the challenge is to see with stunning clarity, and savor with passion, what you have heard all your life. This means that for most of us there are stages of “awakening.” It may be that we were never converted and that one of those awakenings is our new birth. But just as often, I think, a truly believing young person opens his eyes one day, and he is stunned at the glory of what he has known and loved all his life. Then it happens repeatedly for the rest of his life as God gives greater capacities for seeing and savoring.
TT: If you could spend twenty-four hours alone with any theologian from church history, who would it be and why?
JP: It would be Jonathan Edwards, mainly to say thank you with all my heart. Edwards is the most influential dead theologian in my life outside the Bible. He has eyes like no one I have ever read. He sees greatness where it is. I look at greatness often and don’t see it. Then I read Edwards and I realize how blind I am.
Most of the greatness that he sees is in God. He is a God-besotted person. The reality of God is so overwhelmingly pervasive in the world that Edwards does not have other themes, but only subthemes connected to God. When I read him, it’s like living in a garden where all the lights just went on. The blazing sun of God’s greatness and glory fills the air with brightness, and every color and fold and angle and tilt and texture and fragrance and color and void between the edges of things—all of it lives with God.
Edwards’ mind was uncommonly capable of holding complexities of reasoning long enough to sort them into threads that he could then weave into compelling arguments for great biblical truth. But what gave explosive power to this use of reasoning was how Bible saturated it was, not just that it was Bible-based. Many scholars say their work is based on biblical truth. But you will look in vain for any clear evidence of that. It is as if contemporary thinkers feel the need to hide the Bible lest they be accused of proof-texting. Edwards was not so insecure. He had more respect and confidence in the Word of God.
Then add to this that his children turned out to be believers. Of course, Edwards married a deeply spiritual woman. Together they achieved what very few pastors do.
TT: What is your prayer for the future of the congregation of Bethlehem Baptist Church?
JP: My prayer is that they would be far more fruitful in every way than they have been under my leadership. God has given us good days. But measured by the need inside the church and outside, there is vast room for greater things. I pray that my successor, Jason Meyer, will be a Christ-exalting, God-centered, Bible-saturated, soul-winning, missions-advancing, justice-pursuing, profoundly loving, joyfully married pastor whose life of sacrificial service will be a magnetic force of grace for the unity of an ever-growing church.
TT: We have heard you say that you read slowly. Is that a disappointment? A hindrance? How do you think about that?
JP: It used to bother me more than it does now. I have tried to stop kicking against this gift of God. The gift of slowness relates to poetry. The fact that hundreds of the pages of God’s inspired Word are devoted to poetry makes me aware that God thinks the sound of language matters.
God has blessed and humbled me with the inability to speed-read. I read about the same speed that I talk. I hear what I read as I read it. Speed-reading consultants say that pronouncing the words—even in your head—turns a rabbit reader into a turtle. No use. I’m a turtle.
So I take heart that so much of the Bible is poetry. It is self-evident to me that poetry is not meant to be speed-read, but ordinarily read aloud. So now I see that God has forced me to hear. He has forced a slow savoring of the way things are written to be heard as well as seen.
Slowness means I can’t do lots of things other scholars and pastors can do. But when I consider what slowness offers, I give thanks. Consider this observation about what happens when poetry is read aloud and read well by a person who understands it:
Even after almost three millennia of written literature, poetry retains its appeal to the ear as well as to the eye; to hear a poem read aloud by someone who understands it, and who wishes to share that understanding with someone else, can be a crucial experience, instructing the silently reading eye ever thereafter to hear what it is seeing. (John Hollander, ed., Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize, p. 1)
I would recommend that pastors develop the habit of slowing down in their reading when they are reading things that were written with craft and not just as information transmission.
John Piper is founder and teacher of Desiring God and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For six years, he taught Biblical Studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1980 accepted the call to serve as pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For over thirty years, he served as senior pastor at Bethlehem. John is the author of more than fifty books, including This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence, Don’t Waste Your Life, and Desiring God. More than thirty years of his preaching and teaching is available free at Desiring God.