Podcast: Verses That Changed My Life (John Piper)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Trust and Christian Hedonism
In this episode, John Piper reflects on key verses that have had a huge impact on his life—passages that helped him trust God in the midst of a cancer diagnosis, understand Paul’s message in the book of Romans, and grasp the connection between our joy and God’s glory.
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Why I Love the Apostle Paul
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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John Piper, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.
Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here.
A few years back you had a routine checkup with the doctor. And little did you know that appointment would start you on a journey that ultimately led you to receiving what you’ve called, “An exquisite, perfectly timed, perfectly expressed gift.” Can you walk us through what happened and what that gift was?
Well, what a privilege to talk about this. I had had prostate issues for years, and had other minor surgeries, so I go to visit my urologist once a year. This particular time he does his exam and he says, “I think I want to do a biopsy.” I look at him and I say, “Why?” And he says, “Just a little irregularity.” I said, “Okay. When would you like to do it?” He said, “Now.” I thought that was very strange. I said, “Okay.” He said, “Well, just put on that gown over there and I’ll be back with the machine.” They’re gonna do a biopsy machine now without any preparation! So he walks out of the room and I’m left alone for maybe five or ten minutes.
That morning, if not one or two days before, I had read 1 Thessalonians 5:9, “God has not appointed you for wrath.” I mean, just that negative statement came to me with sweetness. God: “You are not appointed for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. So that whether you live or die you belong to the Lord.”
So I received no word from the Lord that this is going to be benign or not going to be a death sentence. It was just, “I’m here. And you’re not condemned.” And that’s really central to my theology of suffering, my theology of life: what Christ bought for me is not escape from trouble, or sickness, or death. He just took care of the most important things.
Comfort in Cancer
You write in Why I Love the Apostle Paul, “What I needed at that moment was a comfort far more solid, and lasting, and unshakable than a few more years of life after cancer. I needed just what I got. That’s not wrath. You’re destined for salvation.” Are there times since that diagnosis you’ve felt like you needed to return again to that solid, lasting, unshakable comfort?
Yes. Regularly. And what’s sweet about it as a pastor—I was a pastor when that happened, it’s been twelve years since that moment—is that not only do I circle back to 1 Thessalonians 5:9 as a memorable gift but it has come to me for the sake of others. As pastors, I think that’s why the Lord brings us into many of our difficulties—along with other reasons—namely that with the comfort with which you have been comforted by God you may now comfort others.
So that verse was given to me not just for me. It was given to me for anybody that he brings me into contact with. In fact, I can’t remember the timing of it but I wrote a little booklet with Crossway called, Don’t Waste Your Cancer. Well, I just got back from Argentina about four weeks ago. Two women asked, begged to see me. Both of these women were about in their forties. And someone said, “okay, you can have about five minutes. He’s going to speak in fifteen minutes, so don’t take long.” And they come in and with tears they said, “We both have cancer. We don’t know what the future holds. And somebody gave us your little book Don’t Waste Your Cancer”—this is all in Spanish through a translator to me—“and we were in a church—in a prosperity-type church—where we were perfectly miserable with our diagnosis and got little help. And when we read your book we felt exactly what we needed was here.” So I would say my little bout with cancer—which had to come out, I mean it was cancer—that little bout was not just for me. It was for Argentinians twelve years later.
You emphasize that in the book related to Paul. Paul’s own suffering serves as this example for us, this encouragement for us, to trust in the midst of that. And we see that in our own lives, people who have walked through hard seasons of life for all kinds of reasons. On the other side they see how God then can use them in a unique way to comfort others.
Absolutely. That passage in 1 Timothy where he recalls why God had saved him—namely in order that the mercy that had been shown to him might cause others who doubt the mercy of God to have encouragement because God had saved him out of a Christian-killing life—is incredible, I would say like a paradigm for how we should think about our own suffering. And from my standpoint, and what I hope comes through in this book, is that Paul had been chosen, it says in Galatians, from his mother’s womb by Christ for this mission. Which means that Christ, who is omniscient and knows everything that’s going to happen, that Christ let Paul become a Christ-killer—as a chosen apostolic spokesman—to become a Christ-killer before Damascus road salvation. Why did he do that? And Paul tells us why: “So that others who are Christ-killers will take heart from the mercy shown to me.”
Yeah, that’s amazing. That view only comes from this confidence in God’s sovereignty over these things.
Right. And Paul had no doubt that God was absolutely sovereign over all things and especially over the great work of salvation.
Preaching through Romans
I want to return to that in a little bit but before we get there, you, kind of famously, spent eight years preaching through the book of Romans, which means you spent a lot of time with Paul. When you started did you know it was going to take that long? Did you have a sense for the scope that that would entail?
I didn’t have any plan to go eight years, but I had put off Romans for about twenty years. I thought, “You come to a church, you must preach Romans. It’s the Mount Everest of the mountains of the New Testament and you must climb up this mountain with your people.” And I kept saying, “I can’t do this because it’s too big, it’s too heavy, I’m not ready.” And finally I said, “If I put it off much longer, I’m not going to be able to do it.”
How long did you wait before you started?
I did Hebrews, I think, in 1998 or 1999, so I probably started Romans in 2001 or 2002. I can’t remember exactly, but right around then. And I came to that church in 1980, so twenty-two years or so had gone by and I had not preached all the way through. I hadn’t done a series on Romans. I’d done 1 Peter, and I’d done the Thessalonians, and I’d done part of Acts . . .
But you would say it’s because you were intimidated by it?
Yeah, I was intimidated by it. That would be exactly the right word. I was intimidated both by the magnitude of the kinds of controversial yet central questions. I mean, you better get justification right if it’s the doctrine on which the church hinges, like Luther said. And it’s central to the book of Romans.
And in those days it was a very heated discussion how to understand justification, with the New Perspective being very prominent, more than it is now. And there was a lot of talk at our church about the precise way to understand imputation. And I knew that at every text I’m going to have to take a stand, take a stand, take a stand, take a stand. And take a stand with authority and confidence. You can’t just waffle on justification and say, “Well folks, I’m not sure what it means, but let’s try to do it anyway.” You better have a firm, clear idea. So intimidated is the right word. Doctrinally, size-wise—sixteen chapters—historically, it's considered to be the most important thing he ever wrote, or the letter that’s most important of all the letters in the history of the world. Romans has had a bigger impact than any other letter on the planet. I mean, there are enough reasons to think, “Who am I to tackle this?” And then you realize,“You’re just wimping out. C’mon. Get serious.”
And so if you had asked me I might have guessed it would take four or five years. Eight may sound a little inflated because I did do Christmas things, Thanksgiving things, Easter things, other things.
So take a few Sundays out of there I guess.
Yeah, I wasn’t like Martin Lloyd-Jones, “We’re plowing ahead no matter what the holiday is.” Mother’s Day probably got her shake.
The Impact of Romans
As you look back, if you were to summarize what you learned from that experience, how would you do that? I know it’s probably impossible to do.
Well, here’s the first thing that comes to my mind and it may not be the most helpful thing, but it’s the front burner. Everywhere I go around the world where they have internet access—which is everywhere—somebody says to me, “I listened to all 250 sermons on Romans.” They’ll either say something like, “It turned my theological world upside down” or they’ll say, “Nothing has solidified me like Romans.”
So what’s unexpected to me is that there’s something about this series. I’ve preached on half a dozen other books that are complete packages at Desiring God on the web. Nobody says a word to me about those. I mean, my Hebrews sermons . . . nobody comments to me, “Oh, Hebrews is great! Blah, blah, blah.” It’s evidently not great! Whatever the reason is, it’s not!
But everywhere I go I hear about it. And that’s a lot of sermons! And a guy, a young guy in his thirties, said, “I listen to two everyday going to work.” Another guy said, “I’m a painter. I listened to Romans for months!” and on and on. So the surprising thing was not so much what I learned from the book—at least I’m not talking about that yet—but what I learned about when you do a whole book, a series of expositions, and leave out nothing, there is interest. I mean, there’s a lot of detail there—if anybody wants to know something about what I think about any phrase in the whole book, you can find it in that series.
You slowed down where you need to slow down to really untangle every little bit.
I think I did around six sermons on verse 5 of chapter 5. There were several. And that’s where it says “God pours out his love by the Holy Spirit into our hearts.” Because I just think the experiential nature of the objective love of God, the juxtaposition in verses 5 and 6 there, he pours out the love of God by his Spirit into our hearts and then he says, “For”—and he refers to the historical work of Christ dying for our sins! Like the historical work becomes the ground of the experiential work and that just caused me to settle in there and say, “Folks, we can’t just talk about the cross as the apex of the love of God and not stop and say, ‘Has it been poured by the Holy Spirit into your heart? Do you know what that means? Have you tasted that? Can you bear witness to the reality of that experience?’” That’s very threatening to people. It’s easy to talk about the love of God. It’s easy to lift your hands and sing about the love of God. But to bear witness to the fact that God Almighty, by his Spirit, has moved into my life and has poured an experience of divine love into my heart and I’ve tasted it. So that’s why, in some of the places in my pilgrimage through Romans, I slowed down a lot.
And it wasn’t just about communicating any of the information, you wanted to make sure that your people got it.
Yes. And the “it” in “got it” is reality. In my other book Expository Exultation, I explain why in the world I care that people "get it." Here’s what I discovered: I was teaching through Philippians a few years ago to the seminary guys at our school and teaching them rigorously how to pick apart the argument and trace it with all the logical connectors, in order that they could trace how every proposition relates to another proposition, and it hit me that the study questions I was asking them were driving them through argument, and logic, and exposition to reality. And they didn’t know what I was saying. They said, “What do you mean? What do you mean? Push through to reality?” And I wanted to say to them, “Look, you can sort out an argument at the grammatical level and not know what you’re talking about.”
Take Romans 1:15, “I’m eager to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome. Because I’m not ashamed of the gospel. Because in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” There’s two becauses, so you’ve got three layers in the argument. 1) Paul was eager to preach the gospel. Why was he eager to preach the gospel? 2) Because it’s power of God unto salvation. Why is it power? 2) Because in it is the righteousness of God.
People are wowed by that, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. They haven’t paused to say, “What do you mean by ‘power’? How is it power? How is it power at your mother’s funeral? How is it power at the airport when you were talking? What do you mean power?” We so often just use words and sentences and logical relationships and that’s our only exposition. But when you want to make sure that your people “get it,” you must push through words like love, and heart, and spirit, and pour, and camp out on every one of those. What’s it like to have something poured in to your heart? Where’s your heart? Can we point to it? What in the world are we talking about with the word heart? What does pour mean? What? Like lemonade?
I picture myself taking a text like a rag and twisting and just twisting until every single juicy drop falls out of it.
Too Familiar with Scripture?
For people who have been Christians for a long time, who are more familiar with these words that we so often use—Scriptural words, good words—is there a sense in which you’ve noticed, in your own heart perhaps, a familiarity that breeds a surface-level understanding and not a heart-level understanding?
Absolutely. And it’s inevitable. Unless you take steps to slow yourself down and ask questions, you will pass quickly over glories. You will rake instead of dig. Imagine there are diamonds to be found in the soil: if you use a rake, you’re not going to find them. And most people read like raking. They don’t read like digging.
I’ll give you an example. Yesterday I preached in chapel at Bethlehem College and Seminary. My text was, “Worthy are you to take the scroll for you were slain and purchased people for God from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and language." I spent half an hour on this text and when I got to the phrase “Worthy are you to take the scroll for you were slain and purchased people for God,” I paused and I said, “For God. For God. What does that mean? Like, God got himself some slave labor. Is that what it means?” And of course they say, “No, no, no.” I said, “Why not?”
The reason I do that is because I’ve probably read that text one hundred times and never paused to ask, “What does ‘for God’ mean?” We just kind of assume this or that, but it’s not obvious. It is not obvious what “for God” means. And I think the text itself implies “for his treasure, for his family, for his kingdom, for his priests, for his magistrates.” But unless you stop and ask what appears to be an obvious question like, “What does ‘for God’ mean?” you might think everybody knows what it means. No, they don’t. There are a lot of people who think Christ needed help to get his work done and so he bought some helpers called Christians and now we got to work our tails off to make sure God succeeds in the world. It’s nothing like that.
A Verse That Changed Everything
When you were relatively young, one verse that you had read probably hundreds of times finally clicked and it resolved one of the greatest unresolved tensions of your life; namely, how it was that we could be called to do all things for God’s glory and yet we have this insatiable urge to pursue happiness. What was that verse that changed everything to you? That’s the language you use, “It changed everything” for you. And how did that verse help you deal with that tension that you’d been feeling?
The verse I circle back to most often to capture the coming together of those things is Philippians 1:20, where Paul says, “My heart’s desire and hope is that I might not be at all ashamed, but that Christ may be magnified in my body whether by life or by death.”
Growing up in a home with Bill Piper, my dad, who every night that he was home—he was an evangelist, he traveled a lot—prayed that God would get glory. He pronounced it glo-ry not glor-y. It would ring in my ears from the time I was little, “God is demanding that I live for his glo-ry. 1 Corinthians 10:31, ‘Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glo-ry of God.’” So I felt that growing up. But then I was headed off to college and I had a burning, undeniable desire in my heart, “I want to be happy.” And you could put a lot of other words on that. Satisfied, content, complete, free . . . I don’t want to be miserable all my life. I want to be happy. So—and this is just my problem I’m not blaming anybody—they felt like they were at odds. I’m supposed to live for God’s glory and my heart is saying, “You got to find a way to be happy.” And I can remember lying in my bed Saint Hall my senior year, pondering motives . . .
This was at Wheaton College?
Yeah, Wheaton College. And I couldn’t figure out the motives—glory of God, happiness of my soul. And Philippians 1:20 comes along (plus Jonathan Edwards, plus Dan Fuller, plus a lot of experiences) and it says, “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Now, that’s an argument. There’s a for. Christ is going to be magnified in my body by my death, but you can’t just take the death half and not the life half. And I thought, Okay, he’s magnified in my body because my experience of death is experienced as gain . . . how does that work? I was wringing it. C’mon! I gotta figure out how this works! Why is my experience of death as gain make him glorious? And as you keep reading it says that to die is to go and be with him which is far, far better. Better for whom? Me! So “gain” there means when you die you get all of Christ. And he calls it “gain” and “better” and that “gain” and “better” is the ground for why Christ is getting glory. He’s being shown magnificent. And then it just clicked. Oh! He is most magnified in me when I’m most satisfied in him! Especially in times of suffering and death.
That changed everything. That’s been my whole life. My whole life is devoted to Christian Hedonism and trying to unpack that. Because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt—my dad taught me, the Bible taught me, Paul (bless his heart) taught me—that I exist and the universe exists for the glory of God. Which means to reflect that he is the supreme value, beauty, and greatness in the universe. Show that. Make him look great. That’s what “magnify” means. Make him look like he really is: great. How? By being satisfied in him above sex, above money, above fame, above everything.
Duty and Delight
What would you say to the person who hears that and it almost seems impossible for them, when they think about their own life? It maybe even feels like an undoable burden to them.
How can the enjoyment of a Butterfinger Blizzard be a burden? I mean, to even talk about the duty of delight—which I do, I wrote a book called that—and call it a burden misses what delight is. If God comes to me and says, “Now, I do have a commandment for you. I do have a yoke. It’s a light yoke and an easy burden—you need to enjoy me.” What could be easier . . .or more impossible? Matthew 11 says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” But in chapter 7 it says, “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
That’s another one of those tensions that I’ve spent a long time thinking about. How can the way be hard and the yoke be easy? And I think the answer is this: what could be easier than enjoying the infinitely enjoyable unless you hate it? It’s impossible. That’s why when the rich young ruler walked away Jesus said, “It is impossible with man. How hard it is for the rich to get into the kingdom of heaven. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than the people who love money to get into heaven.” The disciples throw up their hands and say, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus didn’t say, “Oh, you misunderstand me.” He said, “Right. It’s impossible. But with God all things are possible.” And so when I find myself maybe experiencing the duty of delight as a burden, I know I’m in big trouble, because that means I’ve got it all wrong. I’ve got to get on my face before God and say, “Have mercy! I’m turning this thing upside down. Take away the heart of stone. Take away all the creeping love of money and things and comfort and restore yourself as the central value and beauty of my life.”
How did you land on the term Christian Hedonism? I know some people have been somewhat critical of that term. They don’t like it. They don’t like the connotations or maybe the ways that it can be misunderstood or abused. How did you land on that and do you still think that is the best way to describe what you’re talking about?
I don’t know if it’s best, but I still use it. I’m using it more now than I ever have, probably. I’ve never said that anybody needs to embrace it in order to embrace the reality that it stands for. I’ve always tried to use an escape hatch for people. I want them to believe the truth, I don’t care about the moniker.
I chose it probably because I read the word hedonism in a few places. C. S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer says something like, “This is what God requires of us. And if it be hedonism, then so much the better.” I read it in Vernard Eller, a book I was reading on possessions and simplicity and he called the Christian life “hedonism.” And then I said, “Well, I better look this up in the dictionary of philosophy. Is this even fair? Is this legitimate? I’m just twisting this word all out of reality.” The first definition in my tenth-grade Webster’s dictionary was, “A life devoted to pleasure.” “Well,” I said, “Okay, if that’s the first definition, I’m not twisting anything. That’s exactly what I mean.” Hebrews says about Jesus, “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross.” Now that’s a life devoted to maximizing eternal pleasure by enduring the worst suffering imaginable.
The first critical review I got from this back in 1986 came from a missions executive in California who said, “Ah, just another American prosperity book.” And I wrote to him and I said, “Did you read it? This book is designed to blow up prosperity preaching from the inside out. You didn’t get it if that’s what you think.” The first edition of Desiring God did not have a chapter on suffering. When people hear the word “hedonism” and they hear the word “happy” and they just blow the book off. “Oh, another how-to-be-happy book. Blah, blah, blah.” They don’t have any idea what they’re doing. And so I added a chapter on suffering. And ever since then I’ve said, “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him, especially through times of suffering.” In other words, God is made to look glorious not just when Christians are happy in the best times, but happy in the worst times. That’s what’s inexplicable and makes God looks magnificent. So I chose it because it’s true and I chose it because it’s provocative.
Yeah, it does have that effect because it feels like an oxymoron, but it does capture that so well. Well, thank you, Dr. Piper, for spending some time with us today to discuss the history of Christian Hedonism. We appreciate it.
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