John Piper

How Can We Best Change Culture?

What good do missionaries accomplish in the wider culture when their primary focus is on calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus? In a recent blog post over at Desiring God, John Piper connects the dots between spreading the gospel and seeing renewal in societal structures and systems.

Piper points out that sociologist Robert Woodbury published his findings about missionary impact around the world after a decade of research. Woodbury found that the greatest change in culture occurred where “conversionary Protestants” had a presence. While Woodbury did not explicitly define “conversionary Protestants,” Piper concluded that they must  be “missionaries…who believe that to be saved from sin and judgment one must convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ.” I think this is a right definition.

In all the conversation about cultural renewal or societal transformation or whatever you want to call it, Christians are often divided on how best to go about it. Woodbury’s research provides outstanding insight. Piper sees a “significant implication” in the research, and he points out what the implication is. He hits the nail on the head:

[T]he way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Or to put it another way, missionaries (and pastors and churches) will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.

There is a biblical reason for this. The only acts of love and justice that count with God are the fruit of conversion. If repentance toward God and faith in Jesus does not precede our good works, then the works themselves are part of man’s rebellion, not part of his worship.

If we understand mission, conversion, and cultural renewal this way, we will have an impact on culture, but we will go about it by seeking internal, Spirit-wrought, grace-driven internal change. We won’t neglect the social, political, and personal needs, but these things won’t consume all our energy–or even the majority of it. We will focus our time, energy, and resources on seeing people converted to Jesus. And as we see people turn from sin and idolatry to Jesus, we will see re-ordered love and re-ordered lives and pockets of culture changed for the better.

Take a minute and read Piper’s whole post.

My Theological Journey

Over the past several months, I have reflected on my journey toward a gospel centered, Reformed theology.  It’s fascinating to me to listen to other people’s conversion-to-Jesus stories. But I also love hearing stories of theological development, particularly, what God used to draw them to one theological persuasion or the other. That’s what this post is about: my theological journey, or conversion, if you will.

In the summer of 2006, I went on a mission trip to San Diego (rough place for a mission trip). Before that, I would have never called myself a Calvinist. I grew up in a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, had a healthy fervor for “free will,” and generally had no knowledge of what Reformed theology was all about (but knew it was wrong, obviously!). On that fateful mission trip everything changed. I was given a copy of John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your LifeThis book came with a weight of glory that is still hard for me to describe. I was also given a CD (yes, a CD) of a Piper message from Passion 2000. The book and sermon motivated me to be centered on the person and work of Jesus in everything. I wanted to hear more from this Piper guy, so I dug into his blogs, sermons, and other books when I got home. Desiring God showed me that glorifying Jesus by treasuring him was the point of Christianity. God Is the Gospel opened my eyes to see that the gospel is not just about the gift of forgiveness, but about the gift of getting God himself. If you know anything about Piper, you know everything he writes or says is saturated with Bible and God’s glory and sovereignty. I feasted on it. By God’s design, John Piper is the main reason I am persuaded by Reformed theology and Christian Hedonism.

During my senior year of college, 2006-2007, I was preparing to join staff with Campus Crusade for Christ. Our campus director, Bill Kollar, encouraged me to buy a book to help me understand the grand narrative of the Bible. I loved systematic theology–I had been given a copy of Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem earlier in the year–but this idea of biblical theology (big picture narrative stuff) was foreign to me. The book was by Vaughn Roberts, a British Anglican. I had thought Anglicans were weird (and wrong), and Brits even more so. The book was called God’s Big Picture. I devoured it, finding joy in one-plot storyline of Scripture. Today, it’s probably one of my most-recommended beginner resources.

As I shopped for Roberts’ book on Amazon, I found one in the “related” section called Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics by another Anglican, this one an Australian named Graeme Goldsworthy. I was intrigued by this “gospel-centered” phrase, thinking, That’s what I want to be. So I bought the book. Yet unlike with Roberts, I was devoured by Goldsworthy. I couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t until some four years later in 2011 that I finally finished–and loved–the book. Happening upon Goldsworthy’s text was the first time I had seen or heard the term “gospel-centered.” The Gospel Coalition had not been founded yet; but Goldsworthy, as I found out, was one of scores pastors and scholars, dead and alive, who were “gospel-centered” before it was cool. I wanted to learn from them. Luther. Calvin. Edwards. Spurgeon. Stott. Lloyd-Jones. Packer. Sproul. Bridges. Keller. Carson. And, of course, Piper. 

Finally, two major things shaped me during my short time as a Campus Crusade staff. First, my Cru staff team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We weren’t a “Reformed” campus ministry, but we might as well have been. This team was committed to a high view of God and a low view of man, deep theological reflection, and a greater understanding of the gospel and conversion than the Four Spiritual Laws (what Cru is often known for).

Second, I was asked to write a series of Bible studies on 1 and 2 Samuel. Crusade (now called Cru) was making a theological shift at the time to be more Christ-centered in their discipleship material. Keith Johnson, director of theological education and development for Cru, Tim Henderson, Cru director at Penn State, and Bill Kollar, were so gracious to disciple me to see Christ and his gospel as the solution to every Scripture passage. Keith had me read a few chapters in Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preachinga book that changed my whole approach to preaching a teaching. In the end, writing those studies proved to be one of the richest theological and practical exercises I have ever done.

By the time I went to South Africa with Cru in 2009, I was at home with Reformed theology, and the gospel-centeredness was beginning to settle. This gospel element, thankfully, taught me to not be a Reformed jerk (I am not immune, but I am growing!). It was either immediately before or after that trip (I can’t remember), that I read Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God and Counterfeit GodsBoth books were helpful for diagnosing the heart-source of my jerkiness and gave me biblical, gospel-centered ways of dealing with it.

There’s so much more, but I am sure 900 words is enough for you. God has been so gracious to lead me theologically (and practically!) and the journey is not done–which is the most exciting part of all!

What about you? How has God shaped you theologically, and what did he use to get you to that point?

What About Those Who Have Never Heard?

Christians have asked this question centuries. Even in today’s globalized, social-media-driven world, Christians are still asking it. In question 60 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, the question is posed: “Can they who have never heard the gospel, and so know not Jesus Christ, nor believe in him, be saved by their living according to the light of nature?” Here is its answer:

They who, having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, or the laws of that religion which they profess; neither is there salvation in any other, but in Christ alone, who is the Savior only of his body the church.

It is true that there is salvation in no other name than Jesus (Acts 4:12). To be saved means to confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe that he is risen from the dead (Rom. 10:9). God is sovereign and he saves those whom he wills (see Rom. 9:19-24; John 6:44; 10:25-28; Eph. 2:8-9). The unsaved are non-elect, and therefore, those who have not heard are not elect. Furthermore, people are condemned because they are guilty sinners (6:23). We must remember that there are no innocent people in the world (Rom. 2:12-16; 3:10-23).

How could this be, you ask, when a person in the jungles of Africa does not even know God exists? John Calvin helps us understand: “Since, then, there never has been, from the very first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, this amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of deity is inscribed on every heart. No, even idolatry is ample evidence of this fact.” (Institutes 1.3.1).

God promises there will be a multitude from every tribe, language, people, and nation who were ransomed by the blood of the Lamb and who will reign with him forever (Rev. 5:9-10). So rather than raising a finger at God for what is clearly taught in Scripture, we must resolve to spread the gospel across this earth, making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). That might mean leaving all you have to be a frontier missionary. It might mean giving more (yes, more) money to missions. It will definitely mean praying often for unreached peoples. In all you do, remember to rest in the truth that God will bring all his sheep into one fold under the care and provision of their one, good Shepherd, Jesus Christ (John 10:16). cit confession, that a sense of deity is inscribed on every heart. No, even idolatry is ample evidence to this fact” (Institutes 1.3.1). There is a sense in every person that God exists. and the very fact that we worship something proves it.

To hear a little more on this, listen to a two minute audio clip to from John Piper.