2011 Ligonier National Conference - Session 10 (R.C. Sproul & John Piper)
On Friday night, Chris Larson (L), executive vice president of Ligonier Ministries, and Scott Anderson (A), executive director of Desiring God moderated a discussion between Drs. R.C. Sproul (S) and John Piper (P) on their many years of ministry. Here is what they had to say.
L: Dr. Piper, what about the holiness of God has illumined your ministry?
P: The birth of Christian hedonism, summed up in Desiring God, was the tension that shouldn’t have been there between God’s passion for his glory and my passion to be happy. My father oozed love for the glory of God. Every prayer of his pressed upon me the glory of God. But inside of me there was this desire to happy, and I felt bad about that. Jonathan Edwards pointed me to the fact that my being happy in God brought the two together, so that the higher our satisfaction in Him the greater the glory He gets. That is the best of both worlds.
A: Dr. Sproul, do you remember the first time you heard the phrase Christian hedonism. What did you think about that, and did you like the phrase at first?
S: I can’t tell you where I was when I first heard the phrase. It jolted me because in the history of philosophy, hedonism is a very bad thing. The essence of it historically is maximum pleasure. At first, Christian hedonism sounded like an oxymoron. But when I heard it unpacked and read John’s book, it made sense. The first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that we are to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. I thought that was a contradiction the first time I heard it. Until my conversion, that is. What I have found over the years is that the Christian life is not really enjoyable until we love God not only for what He does for us but for who He is. He is altogether lovely. The more we get to know him, the more satisfying and fulfilling it is at the depth of our souls.
The Christian experience for me is a soul kind of thing. It is not purely intellectual and conceptual. It is more about the heart. There is a direct connection between the head and the heart, and a disjunction between them is a bad thing. To know God is not to satisfy curiosity but to enflame the heart. He is glorious — glorious. That is a joyful thing.
P: Knowing what you believe about Him in His majesty and sovereignty and the kind of world we live in, something radical has to happen in you to affirm that truth. He is sovereign over Japan, cancer, and does not dispense with the Devil though He could. Talk about what happened in you not only to begrudgingly admit that He is big, but to find Him beautiful in all that He does.
S: Jonathan Edwards really drove me to submit to the doctrines of grace. I fought the Reformed faith for five years. By nature we are Pelagians, as Roger Nicole used to say. I had a card on my desk that said “You are required to believe and teach what the Bible teaches, not what you want it to teach.” Edwards’ treatment of Romans 9 convinced me. My response initially was that’s true, I have to believe it, but I don’t have to like it. But once my eyes opened to the sovereignty of God’s grace, I found it on every page of the Bible. And I began to see it in its sweetness. I thought, “Where have I been all my life kicking against the sovereignty of God’s grace?”
I read the Psalms the day after returning from being in a horrible train accident in 1993 and David was talking about the tender mercy of God. As men we are not taught to be tender. But in crisis moments, it is a wonderful thing to be treated with tenderness. And it does not get any better than that by God.
L: Link glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.
P: Think of your relationship to your wife. We glorify our wives by enjoying them. “Nothing would make me happier than to spend the evening with you” is the highest compliment you can pay her. We glorify the things we honor by delighting in them.
A: What does it look like for a believer to treasure the holiness of God?
P: I think R.C. is right to make holiness the central theme of Ligonier Ministries because holiness is ultimate. Glory is when holiness goes public. It is when the radiance of transcendent purity goes public.
S: Glory is the manifestation of His holiness. It is His significance being displayed. It is most clearly manifested in His Shekinah, His outward glory.
P: Behind God’s glory is His holiness. That is essential. To delight in the holiness of God, you must know something about it. You must listen to Renewing Your Mind instead of right-wing talk shows. The word G-O-D itself cannot produce delight in anyone. You gotta know Him. That is why we have a book and the revelation of God in history. You go deeper and deeper by going into the work of God in history. If you run far up the beams of glory enough, you end up with an absolute God of absolute holiness. That is a mature response. Baby Christians just see the beams.
S: Edwards said the chief business of the Christian is the seeking of the kingdom of God. What he meant is that the chief business of the Christian is to seek after God. Non-believers only want the benefits of God, not God. Seeking God really begins at conversion. Being on a quest to know God must be a passion, not something we just do in our spare time. That desire takes us every time to the Word of God.
As a philosophy major, my professors emphasized the acquisition of critical reading skills. That is a worthy enterprise. But that does not happen when I read the Scripture. I have to read it carefully, but it criticizes me. I can’t argue against it. It is wonderful because it is saving me, putting salve on my wounds. I am meeting God. He is revealing His mind and heart to me in the Word of God. You have to immerse yourself in the Word.
P: I have been thinking about R.C. and Ligonier in the past few days. One of the unique things about Ligonier is that you have a philosopher who is manifestly devoted to the Bible. When R.C. talks, there is a philosophical rigor and awareness. Yet, it is there in service of exegesis, so that you get a series on Romans, John, Acts, 1&2 Peter. I want to celebrate this allegiance to the Bible. This is what has given him that edge for these 40 years.
L: Dr. Piper, you have a love for the academy and thought initially that the academy was your trajectory. Can you and R.C. walk us through the phrase “right thinking leads to right living”?
S: Once I wrote that I believe in the primacy of the mind and primacy of the heart, but you cannot have the primacy at the same time and relationship. There is a primacy of the intellect in one sense and primacy of the heart in another. The primacy of the mind is in order. There is no genuine faith without wisdom, without knowledge. You cannot have a right heart without a right mind. The primacy of the heart is the primacy of importance. It is more important that my heart is on fire for God than it is for my mind to have all the right answers.
As a man thinks in his heart so he is (Prov. 23:7). The biblical writer knew that the heart is not the organ of thinking. What does he mean, then? It is not just what you contemplate casually but what really penetrates into your heart dictates and determines who you are. That is why I chose Renewing Your Mind as the title of our radio program. Your heart gets changed by renewing your mind. It is hard for people to change. Only the Spirit brings change and He brings it through the Word of God in the mind and heart.
P: God is not honored by emotions based on falsehood, but only by emotions based on truth. Lots of people know things and do not get changed. Change happens when we know things as glorious and beautiful. To know something aright is not just to have all the pieces in the right place but to see the things of God as beautiful. Beholding their glory, we are being changed. Pray that God would reveal Himself as beautiful repeatedly throughout your study. That is what changes us. Prayer is key.
S: I am eating that up John. One place I feel so alone is that I find so few people that have a passion for beauty. God is the foundation for the good, true, and beautiful. You can distinguish these, but you cannot separate them. Our worship is supposed to be for beauty and holiness. One great weakness of our tradition is that we think ugliness is virtuous. Everything beautiful bears witness to God as the beautiful One and foundation of beauty. We have to see how beautiful the God of truth is.
A: Let’s talk about these aspects as related to sin and temptation. How does seeing sin as ugly help us in our fight against it?
S: The enticement to sin is that it promises pleasure but it never delivers it. We think that we cannot be happy unless we are sinning. Yet sin can never bring joy because it is ugly, though it can be pleasurable for a season. We live a world that has been vandalized by sin. We have to see that sin makes the beautiful ugly.
P: Jesus argues that the kingdom of God is like a man who found a treasure in a field, and from his joy sold all that he had to buy that field. That is the paradigm for how you get free from bondage. If you see the kingdom as a treasure more valuable than anything else, you are freed. Before then, you are bound by the pleasure of sin. The power of a superior pleasure in God is what breaks this bondage. Escape from corruption comes from a superior promise. The more the beauty of holiness satisfies, the freer you become from pornography, bitterness, fear of man, and so forth.
L: Dr. Piper, later you mentioned moving to a more Christocentric focus in your ministry statement. Tell us more about the person and work of Christ in your ministry.
P: Both of us have theocentric mission statements, and I worry about that.
S: That is a good point, because we have the fullest revelation of God’s holiness in the glory of Christ. When I talk about the holiness of God, I am speaking in terms of the entire Trinity.
P: A few factors have pushed me toward a more explicit Christ-centered focus in our mission statement. First is the fact that the whole universe exists for Calvary. Another thing is Islam. There are five or six texts in John that are explicit about receiving God through Christ. The litmus test for all religions is whether they know Christ. None of the other religions know Christ. We cannot today, in this religious milieu talk just about God, for everyone will nod. We must become increasingly Christ-talkers.
S: I think we need to change our mission statement Chris. It is not enough to believe the truth of the gospel but to defend and proclaim the truth of the gospel. We have to be prepared to contend for it. If you are not contending for it at the critical point, you are not contending for it. Right now the critical point is Islam. Islam and other religions do not have a Savior.
P: Many evangelicals are going squishy on whether other religions in their earnestness are all going to the same God.
A: Both of you are known for being contenders for the faith. What are the current battles that are emerging for younger pastors?
S: When I was in seminary, Bultmann was the big enemy. I found refuge in evangelicalism because there was a common thread running through it. One was the doctrine of Scripture and the other was the doctrine of justification by faith alone. When I graduated from seminary, I never imagined that the doctrine of inerrancy would be so divisive among “evangelicals,” though I understand that more than the denial of justification. I never thought I would live to see the day when professing evangelicals would deny it.
The doctrine of the person of work and Christ is the greatest challenge today. I think it is going to get worse until it gets better. I never thought that anyone would raise questions about imputation, and yet it is open season on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The world, the flesh, and the Devil cannot stand the person and work of Christ.
P: The place where Christ’s person and work is attacked is at the cross and penal substitution. And that goes to one’s very view of God. Wrath, hell, and cross all stand together. All these things are so closely connected. The very people that call the atonement divine child abuse cannot have wrath or hell. There is not anything new. This is so old. We have seen this so many times before. This is old liberalism.
S: There are tens of thousands of mainline pastors who believe what Rob Bell believes. Bell only gets print because he is a professing evangelical.
P: I look at the quality of what younger guys are writing, so I don’t need to write anything against Bell. I am encouraged at that level. We do not have to jump into every fight anymore.
A: Both of you men have participated with others who do not share your emphases. Why?
S: I was determined at the outset that though my passion is Reformed theology, you cannot be Reformed without being catholic (universally Christian) and embracing those doctrines that the whole of evangelicalism believes. When I came out of seminary, I was determined to cooperate with anyone who is broadly evangelical and who was defending catholic doctrines on the person and work of Christ. Along the line, unfortunately, we got burned a few times, and some speakers took positions that evangelicals wouldn’t take. We do not take the position that people have to be altogether Reformed before they can participate with us. But we do not where people are going to go sometimes, so it is hard to be broad.
P: We do not have a sieve for qualifying other speakers. Some principles are that I do not want to give credence to any doctrine that is outside the evangelical sphere. Methodologically, I am very broad. I also want to influence people. I want to make everyone a Calvinist because it is true. I am hoping that I am talking in such a way that other people see that Calvinism is biblical.
L: What encourages you today?
S: When I go to Together for the Gospel and see thousands of pastors in their twenties and thirties passionate for Reformed thinking. When I see the resurgence of interest in Puritans and Edwards. Though evangelicalism is declining, Reformed theology is rising.
P: I am cautious because history is fickle and movements rise and fall quickly. But globally, the past 50 years have been stunning. The rise of the global South and the growth of Christianity in the third world is amazing. The spread of Christianity means that the spread of biblical truth more deeply has tracks on which to run. Don’t complain that it is miles wide and inches deep. Get on your knees and pray. Evidences of Reformed renewal in Europe and North America are great. You cannot draw lines denominationally where this thinking and ministering is happening. There is broad agreement on sovereignty in salvation, biblical complementarianism, and more across denominational lines.
S: The kingdom of God does not stand or fall with North America. This is our Father’s world.
A: In our day we are blessed with all these conferences and ministries. Tell us now about your passion for the local church. We are part of something in our day that we praise God for. We come to events like this and profit, but redirect us to the primacy of the local church in working all these things out.
S: My first call was to be a college professor and then to be a seminary professor and then to be in adult education. I did not think I had what it took to be a pastor. My career has been diverse, but my greatest joy is to be the preaching pastor at Saint Andrew’s — to have a flock of people and to be involved in expository preaching week in and week out. The most corrupt institution in the world is the church, but that is because it is the most important one. Satan’s arrows are focused on it. The church needs to be focused on godly worship and biblical exposition so that we can make disciples. Preaching the content of God’s Word makes disciples, and the church is the chief vehicle for this.
P: The New Testament is crystal clear that Christ died to become the head of a universal body. The Bible is clear that there should be local churches with elders and deacons that are tasked to feed Christ’s sheep. The main work of the eldership is to feed the sheep. He has ordained people with the gift of teaching, and that happens in the local church. My church begat a ministry; R.C., your ministry begat a church.
L: Tell us about your marriages (42 years for John; 50 years for Sproul).
P: Life as I have lived it would have been impossible without Noël. No one knows what it costs a wife of a pastor and embattled public figure. To link arms and walk with a ministry is something you cannot quantify. We are 65 and 63. We have been through a lot. There have been hard times. It will be glorious one day to go to a restaurant on Lake Superior when we are really old and look at each other and say, with tears, “We made it.” The depth of covenant-keeping strength and love to the end is wonderful. My bride has been so faithful to me through all this. It is more valuable than you can put estimates on.
S: I wasn’t able to breathe a few days ago at 4 in the morning. It was all I could do to wake Vesta up to call 911 and get to the hospital. There was a hard leather chair to the side of my bed and Vesta sat there and said, “I’m going to stay here.” She had to run home and get some things done, and I watched the clock the whole time. When she got back it was glory. She was a rock. I mention that because it is anecdotal and episodic. Our entire lives are anecdotal and episodic. She has been the quintessential helpmate for me my whole life in everything I do. What a blessing!