Podcast: God’s Sovereignty, Pastoral Burnout, and Racism (John Piper)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Addressing Three Pressing Issues

In this episode, John Piper reflects on how it is that God can be absolutely sovereign and yet humans be morally accountable, explains how he sought to protect himself from moral failure and burnout as a pastor, and recounts his own struggle with racism and prejudice as a young man.

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Why I Love the Apostle Paul

Why I Love the Apostle Paul

John Piper

Through short chapters that meditate on the apostle Paul’s awe-inspiring life and teaching, John Piper gives 30 reasons why he loves the person and work of this murderer-turned-apostle.

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Full Transcript

01:24 - Welcome

Matt Tully
John Piper, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.

John Piper
Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here.

01:29 - Talking God’s Sovereignty with the Apostle Paul

Matt Tully
In addition to Christian Hedonism there are at least two other doctrinal emphases that I think have characterized your ministry over the years. And these are doctrines that at times have been controversial among evangelicals and those are complementarianism and the conviction that God is absolutely Sovereign over all things. And I’m struck though that some of the most important passages on both of those issues are passages written by Paul. If you could sit down with Paul face-to-face, are there any questions you would want to ask him about the issue of how God’s sovereignty fits with human responsibility? You mentioned that it’s not essential in this life that we know how to explain the way God’s sovereignty and our responsibility fit together. It’s enough to know that they do. But if you could sit down with Paul and ask him a question or two, what would you ask him?

John Piper
Yeah. The two questions that I am content for now to plead mystery and lack of understanding on are one: How did the first sin in the universe happen? And two: what’s the best way to give an account for the compatibility between absolute sovereignty over the human will and moral accountability of the human will? That’s what I would ask. I’d go to the the first one first because I don’t think Paul addressed it and I think I know what he’d say.

Matt Tully
Well, what is that?

John Piper
But then let me pose the question first just to make sure people see the problem. Adam and Eve did not commit the first sin. Satan did. So at sometime in the distant pre-creation reality–even talking about time is a little bit of a catch–there was a rebellion. Angels were cast down. Jude talks about it. And they rebelled. So there had to be a moment . . . since God didn’t create that. Everything he created was good, beautiful. God didn’t create sin. He created moral agents. Now, one of those moral agents–or more than one–on a clear, beautiful day in eternity the thought entered his mind, "I’d think I’d like to be God. I don’t like being ruled." And my question is, Where’d that come from?

Matt Tully
Because you wouldn’t say God wasn’t Sovereign over that?

John Piper
No, I would say absolutely he was Sovereign over that. There’s nothing he doesn’t know and nothing he doesn’t control ultimately, by permission or by active agency. But even permission is something he could have stopped. So if you can stop something you don’t stop it, you know it’s going to come, then you’re planning it.

Matt Tully
We intuitively would know that if I were to allow my child to run into the street and get hit by a car, I’m responsible for that in some sense.

John Piper
That’s right. Especially if you can see all the results that would come from it, which is why God is so different than us because he can see everything. Like a billion effects of a tragedy. He knows all of them and therefore he’s making wise judgments all the time in view of everything that happens about as a result of everything. So I would say to Paul, "How did that happen?" Because I know calling it "free will" is no explanation at all. It’s just putting a name on a mystery. Even if you believe in the ultimate self-determination of the human being–which is a free will means, ultimate self-determination–that’s no explanation. Why would he do it? He’s good. And there’s no external incentive to do otherwise because the universe is good. I have no answer for how that happened. And so I would ask Paul, "Do you do you want to help me?"

05:42 - Wrestling with Hard Questions

Matt Tully
Do you think he–this is very speculative–do you think Paul knew?

John Piper
I think what he would say to me is, "You’ve made the right judgment not to push into that." Now that didn’t answer my question. And I’d say–if I had the nerve–I’d say, "Right, but got any ideas?" I have ideas. I have ideas. And there’s . . . I’m not going to go there because it’s complicated and my memory is not all that great, but in Isaiah, there’s a couple of passages about God handing them over to their sin. And, in the same context, allowing a cloud to come between people so they can’t see God. And so maybe there’s a way to conceive of some kind of obscuring of God so that the Angels couldn’t see him as clearly. And instead of waiting patiently for the Lord, the mirror was more attractive. But even as Isaiah is not inadequate, it’s just–it’s barking up a tree that doesn’t have a lot of fruit at the top. So that would be one question, and I don’t think I’d get very far in asking that question. And the other one is much more relevant. Given God’s rule over my will, why am I responsible for the sins I commit this afternoon?

And so I would just ask him to unfold his understanding of that if he would. And I think Paul, while he doesn’t ever in a systematic way lay those two things beside each other and give a clear explanation, I think he points toward the fact that both of those are absolutely true and, nevertheless God is just and right, and we are responsible. We are responsible for whether we want evil or whether we want good. Even if we can’t give an account for the root of that want to, we feel intuitively when I want wrong, I’m bad. I’m bad. And we don’t have to figure out, "How did I want this? Why did I want this?" And so all I say to people is: there is a way, and we don’t need to know how it works in detail, that God can govern all of that want to without in fact sinning or taking away your capacity for responsibility.

Matt Tully
You’re known as someone who takes a very strong stance on this topic, God’s sovereignty. You don’t pull your punches in how you talk about this. And yet in some ways, it’s encouraging to hear that the two questions you would ask are questions that do get to the heart of the two hardest questions that we often–all of us–struggle with and it’s encouraging in that there’s a sense in which we’re all wrestling with this. This is beyond all of us.

John Piper
Right. I think one of the reasons that I, and I think all of us can, embrace both a very robust and complete view of God’s governance of all things and human responsibility is because it really does serve us well in times of suffering. Now a lot of people think it creates problems in time of suffering because they have to own that the suffering could have been stopped by God, and he didn’t do it. So he’s a bad God, but if you trust him, trust him instead of blame him, then his sovereignty in the midst of your suffering becomes hope because he’s got purposes in it, and he’ll give you strength in it.

If you say that a plane is flying toward the Twin Towers and is about to cause the deaths of 5,000 people, and God doesn’t see it coming or cannot produce a wind to blow this plane off course by 60 feet, you don’t have a God. At least not one who could comfort everybody who’s going to be hurt and who’d rebuild their lives in ways they never imagined, and create out of ashes gold. You’ve thrown that God away by saying "Well, he couldn’t do it," or "He’s so bad, he wouldn’t do it." So I don’t have that God. I have a God who did see it coming, could have blown the planes off course, left the tower standing, and had reasons not to do it.

11:18 - Why God’s Sovereignty Is Compassionate

Matt Tully
And you would say that’s not a harsh uncaring perspective to have. You would argue that is the most compassionate thing that you could tell somebody.

John Piper
Well, it’s interesting you would use the word compassion because Noel and I, my wife, are reading the Bible together at night, and we’re reading through James. And just last night, we read the passage in chapter 5 where it says, "Consider the prophets, how they were steadfast." And then it gives us an example: "Consider Job and the purpose of the Lord, how he was compassionate and merciful." He killed his kids. Job said that. "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away." Not all wind has taken away. Not some fate has taken away. Not the devil has taken away. The Lord gave me my ten kids. The Lord took my ten kids. Then he took my health. Then he took a good relationship with my wife. And then he took my relationship with friends who are making my life absolutely miserable with bad theology. And then God turned it around. And he’s going to turn it around for all of us. Some of us in this life get a turnaround, a reprieve from cancer. Others don’t. But he’s going to turn it around. And the word he chose was compassion.

Well, I know a lot of people who read that passage in Job, and they just shake their heads and they say, "I can’t say that. If God’s going to take my baby, I’m not going to bow down and worship. And Job did. He fell down, and he worshiped. The Lord gave and the Lord–blessed be the name of the Lord. And so compassion. When you asked me if I can use the word compassion for a God who rules all the horrors of the world, my answers is yes. He’s not only compassion. He’s just. He has all kinds of reasons for doing what he does, and we better be careful we don’t try to sort them out in this life. Like I can’t look at any particular act of providence, say a tsunami that takes out 230,000 people in one night in 2005. I can’t look at that and say, "Well, I know what God was doing there." No, you don’t.

Matt Tully
And that’s what some people do. That’s a danger that maybe leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths on those topics when people do that.

John Piper
Yeah. Providence is not intended to be read with certainty in detail. There are some big things you can judge about providences. But in general we better stay with the Bible when it comes to infallibility and not put our interpretation on providences as infallible. We do not know. I like to say in every single thing that happens in your life, God is doing 10,000 things, and you have no idea what they are. You probably know three of them. If somebody says, "What was God up to in bringing you to Bethlehem, you know, to be a pastor?" I’d say, "Well, this, this, I think about five or ten–no, billion."

Matt Tully
And we look back on our lives, and we start to get a glimpse of that.

John Piper
Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

14:45 - Longevity in Pastoral Ministry

Matt Tully
One of the things about Paul that you love was his single-minded devotion to his calling, even in the midst of suffering. And you draw on Acts 20:24 where Paul writes about finishing the course of his life and ministry with faithfulness and you know, "Is this not a beautiful thing when a man has a great worthy single passion in life and burns for it all the way to the end?" And yet it seems like we look around every day, every other day, and we hear of another Christian, oftentimes Christian leaders, pastors, who have fallen, who have not finished the race faithfully. As you look at your own life in ministry, do you think back to how you’ve approached things? How have you sought to ensure that you burn all the way to the end?

John Piper
Before I answer the how question, let me state the basic underlying reality. I don’t keep myself. You know the newer–they don’t call it new anymore–it’s a newer song: He Will Hold Me Fast. "He will hold me fast. He will hold me fast. For my savior loves me so, he will hold me fast." I love that song. I cry most times when I sing that song. Cause it’s been true. And if it isn’t true, I’m a goner. So Jude ends with a doxology that’s probably the biggest, most beautiful in the New Testament. But I don’t think everybody realizes what it’s saying. "Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only wise God, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time now and forevermore." What are all those big words–glory, majesty, dominion, authority–designed to celebrate? The fact that you woke up a Christian this morning and not an unbeliever. Any Christian that isn’t amazed that he wakes up believing doesn’t understand theology, doesn’t understand his sin, doesn’t understand remaining corruption, and doesn’t understand the absolutely essential keeping power of the Holy Spirit.

So before I say anything about what steps have I taken, little teeny weeny peashooter steps against this Sherman tank of sin, I’m just going to say, "God, thank you." Because when I see those fallen people, I would say, "Could Have Been Me, but for one thing. He kept me." I don’t have any more reason why God would keep me than why he chose me in the first place, which he did from all eternity. The first election includes perseverance. And so it’s as mysterious and gracious as the first act of faith. Okay, having said that, it is clear that the New Testament is designed to preserve the saints. And a lot of people have a crazy unbiblical view of eternal security that says you should never warn or threaten the saints that they might be lost. Well, Hebrews 3:13 says, "Exhort one another every day while it is called today lest there be in you an evil heart of unbelief leading you to fall away from the Living God."

Now, I’m a Calvinist. I believe in eternal security, better, the perseverance of the saints. God’s not going to let that happen to his elect. But how does he keep them? How does he cause us to persevere with warnings like that? So if I get in the face of somebody, and I see them slipping into sin, and I say, "You need to be in a group where people are exhorting you every day so that you don’t have an evil heart of unbelief leading you to fall away from the living God and they say, "Oh, that can’t happen to me. So I don’t need that." I’d say, "That sentence is the sentence of a damned man. You’re on your way to hell." Now, I’m not saying they’re going to go to hell. I’m saying, "You stay in that attitude, you keep blowing off the glorious provisions of God in the Bible to warn you and call you back from the cliff of apostasy, you keep blowing those off like you’ve got this impossibility, you’re going to miss the very means of grace that God designed to get you to heaven. So the basic answer is: every day immerse yourself in God’s Word, pleading with him to open your eyes to glory. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, "Beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being changed from one degree of glory to the next, and this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." That’s the path that leads to heaven. Progressive glorification according to 2 Corinthians 3:18 is the path that gets you home. How does it get you home? Looking to Jesus. Where do you see Jesus? You see him in his Word. Go to the Word, but you don’t see him in his Word unless you ask God to open your eyes.

Psalm 119:36: “Open”–or is it 18?–”Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things." So I’ve got my little techniques I-O-U-S. I used it this morning on the airplane coming down here. Open my iPad to read my Bible and I said, "God, incline my heart to your testimonies and not to gain." That’s the I. O: open my eyes that I may see you here. Unite my heart to fear your name. S: satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love. I pray that almost every day as I open my Bible because it’s both Bible, and prayer, and the Holy Spirit that has kept me. And I’ll try to keep doing that till till I’m gone. And I don’t take anything for granted. I do not take anything for granted. If God let turn loose of me and I apostatize, left my wife, left the ministry, left the faith, I’d go to Hell. John Piper would be in Hell. And you say, "Well, how can that be? How can you lose your salvation? I’d say, "I didn’t lose my salvation. It says plain as day in Hebrews 3:14 right after that text I quoted that "You will endure to the end if you have become part of Christ." And if you haven’t become part of Christ, you don’t persevere. You leave.

22:08 - The Apostle Paul and Breaking Down the Bonds of Racism

Matt Tully
So one of the things that you say that Paul did for you was he helped to break down prejudices and racism of your younger years that you imbibed from the broader Southern culture where you grew up in the 50s and 60s. And you write, "No follower of Jesus has said more important or more explosive things about race and ethnicity than the Apostle Paul." As you reflect on the Evangelical Church broadly today, do you think that we need to hear afresh what Paul says about race and ethnicity and our unity in Christ? And if so, what might that entail?

John Piper
Ephesians 2 is as explosive as you can get–verse 13 to the end of the chapter–about reconciliation with God, with each other, in one new man. Cataclysmically radical. Or Colossians 3:11, or Galatians 3:28, or all the talk about Gentiles and Jews being a massively important issue like Galatians 2 where Peter withdraws from eating with the Gentiles. So you’ve got these texts, and here’s what I think is needed today. And it’s just kind of controversial. There is a turn–I just say in the last year or two–toward more focus on the nitty gritty applicatory dimensions of justice, diversity, harmony, reconciliation rather than the careful textual opening and radical prophetic heralding of what’s there in the text.

Now those are not alternatives, and I don’t mean to create that impression. Here’s my concern. What I think is needed is for every pastor to just get really serious about the text. I mean really serious about the implications of the text. And here’s what I’m thinking. When I was a kid, and in the say 50 years before that, so we’re talking basically the first half of the 20th century, every Klansman in the South belonged to a church probably. What I’m saying is: that was very defective preaching. Because the kind of preaching I have in mind–they could not stay. They couldn’t. You would be saying things that would be so outlandish to Ku Klux Klan members, they’d storm out of your church, or they’d fire you quick. And that’s what ought to be happening today, and you don’t have to get into the nitty gritty of economics, say, or prison reform, or how police behave, and I think we ought to talk about all those, don’t misunderstand. I’m just saying that’s not the radical stuff. Are you kidding me? Read your Bible! You want to see something radical? Go and see what Paul says about you, black man, or me, white man, both under the blood of Jesus, united to him for our righteousness in the forgiveness of our sins and wedded in one family living together forever in heaven and think you could go out and talk bad about me? You’re going to despise me? You’re going to treat me with disrespect? I mean that is not possible. And it’s not being preached like that. Because we’re not good preachers. We’re not good text wringers to get every drop of radical implication out of these texts. So yes. Short answer: yes. The Pauline picture of the new man in Christ. Neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither Scythian, no barbarian, but all one in Christ is so radical that if it were preached faithfully with text-wringing pointed prophetic application, people would squirm in their seats and leave this church or fire this pastor or lay down their racist inclinations.

27:09 - Closing

Matt Tully
Well, thank you, Dr. Piper so much for spending some time with me today sharing really about not just your love for Paul and your understanding of what he said, but really your own life–how God has used Paul to shape your thinking, your theology, and how you actually live as a Christian. We appreciate it.

John Piper
Thank you.

John Piper is the author of Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. Learn more about the book by watching this 18-minute documentary.


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