30 Years Ago Today: How God Called John Piper to Become a Pastor
In May of 1979 John Piper had completed his sixth year of teaching biblical studies at Bethel College (Saint Paul, MN) and was due for a sabbatical in the fall. In every class Piper had encountered students who sought to discount his Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9. So he had one aim for his eight-month leave: “to study Romans 9 and write a book on it that would settle, in my own mind, the meaning of these verses.” Or put differently, “to analyze God’s words so closely and construe them so carefully that I could write a book that would be compelling and stand the test of time.”
The book–which Richard Muller would call “the most compelling and forceful exposition of Romans 9:1-23 I have ever seen”–was published four years later by Baker as The Justification of God.
But God had more designs for this sabbatical than the production of a book. He would use this time to call Piper away from being a professor to become a pastor.
Piper enjoyed college teaching in many ways. In addition to teaching through a number of New Testament books using an exegetical methodology called arcing, Piper was seeing the lives of some of his students transformed. He even saw some students converted in his NT History classes. And he was also involved at his local church, teaching a rapidly growing young-adults class at Olivet Baptist Church in Crystal, MN. Students unable to take his classes at Bethel (due to enrollment caps) were coming to hear him teach Sunday School.
But during his sabbatical a new desire was emerging: “to see the word of God applied across a broader range of problems in people’s lives and a broader range of ages.” In other words, he increasing longed “to address a flock week after week and try to draw them in . . . to an experience of God that gives them more joy in him than they have in anything else and thus magnifies Christ.” And he found that in studying the majestic, free, and sovereign God of Romans 9 day after day his “analysis merged into worship.”
The decisive night of wrestling was on Monday, October 14, 1979—30 years ago today. His wife and two young sons were asleep. But Piper was up past midnight, writing in his journal, recording the direction God was irresistibly drawing him to.
The journal entry for that evening begins in this way:
I am closer tonight to actually deciding to resign at Bethel and take a pastorate than I have ever been. . . .
The urge is almost overwhelming. It takes this form: I am enthralled by the reality of God and the power of his Word to create authentic people.
In effect the Lord was saying to him:
I will not simply be analyzed; I will be adored.
I will not simply be pondered; I will be proclaimed.
My sovereignty is not simply to be scrutinized; it is to be heralded.
It is not grist for the mill of controversy; it is gospel for sinners who know that their only hope is the sovereign triumph of God’s grace over their rebellious will.
The calling to preach and pastor had become irresistible.
Bethel was operated by the Baptist General Conference, which had its roots in Swedish Pietism. Piper sought the counsel of Dick Turnwall, Executive Minister of the Minnesota Baptist Conference, and they met together in Turnwall’s office just a mile or so down the road from Bethel. Piper had a number of counts against him as a pastoral candidate: he was young, had no pastoral experience, had intentionally skipped all of the practical courses in seminary–and had no Swedish heritage. But Turnwall encouraged him to fill out a ministerial form, and Piper sent it to Warren Magnuson, General Secretary of the denomination. And then he waited.
Bethlehem Baptist Church, located in downtown Minneapolis, had been searching for a pastor since the retirement of Bruce Fleming. It was originally known as the First Swedish Baptist Church of Minneapolis in 1871, but had moved to English services by 1930.
By 1980 it was an aging congregation: of the 750 members, 279 were over the age of 65, and 108 of those were over the age of 80.
Turnwall put in a call to Marvin Anderson, chairman of the church and a history professor at Bethel Seminary, to inform him of Piper’s availability as a candidate for pastor.
Two members of the search committee were sent to observe Piper’s Sunday School class. They reported back to the rest of the committee that Bethlehem may have just found their new pastor.
Anderson called Piper, and on Friday, December 7, John and Noël met with the search committee at the Andersons’ home in Shoreview, MN, along with other members of the search committee and their spouses: Char Ransom, Marlene Johnson, Olive Nelson, Ozzie (Floyd) Nelson, Jim Backlin, Rollin Erickson, and Clarence Ohman (chairman of the deacon board). The following Wednesday Noël would give birth to their third son.
After meeting with Piper two or three times a week for a month, he became Bethlehem’s candidate.
At some point in the process John had told his father, Bill Piper, about his sense of God’s calling. A 55-year-old itinerant evangelist, Dr. Piper had been preaching the gospel for 40 years and had been in countless churches throughout the United States. He knew both the promise and the perils that would await a pastor. So he wrote his son a two-page letter in response, seeking to make sure the call was genuine and that his son was realistic, not idealistic, in his expectations. Here is an excerpt:
Now I want you to remember a few things about the pastorate. Being a pastor today involves more than merely teaching and preaching. You’ll be the comforter of the fatherless and the widow. You’ll counsel constantly with those whose homes and hearts are broken. You’ll have to handle divorce problems and a thousand marital situations. You’ll have to exhort and advise young people involved in sordid and illicit sex, with drugs and violence. You’ll have to visit the hospitals, the shut-ins, the elderly. A mountain of problems will be laid on your shoulders and at your doorstep.
And then there’s the heartache of ministering to a weak and carnal and worldly, apathetic group of professing Christians, very few of whom will be found trustworthy and dependable.
Then there a hundred administrative responsibilities as pastor. You’re the generator and sometimes the janitor. The church will look to you for guidance in building programs, church growth, youth activities, outreach, extra services, etc. You’ll be called upon to arbitrate all kinds of problems. At times you will feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. Many pastors have broken under the strain.
If the Lord has called you, these things will not deter nor dismay you. But I wanted you to know the whole picture. As in all of our Lord’s work there will be a thousand compensations. You’ll see that people trust Christ as Savior and Lord. You’ll see these grow in the knowledge of Christ and his Word. You’ll witness saints enabled by your preaching to face all manner of tests. You’ll see God at work in human lives, and there is no joy comparable to this. Just ask yourself, son, if you are prepared not only to preach and teach, but also to weep over men’s souls, to care for the sick and dying, and to bear the burdens carried today by the saints of God.
No matter what, I’ll back you all the way with my encouragement and prayers.
On January 27, 1980, John Piper was presented to the congregation as a candidate to become their pastor. You can listen online to his 32-minute sermon from that morning, which he preached on Philippians 1:12-14, 19-26. He closed the sermon with application to his own calling:
Right now in my own life, I stand on the brink of a professional change. I really love my job at Bethel College. It is very rewarding. When I see students out there who are in my 1 Corinthians class, it makes me very glad.
One of the ways God has said to me “Move Piper,” is this: when I read Philippians 1:19-26, there is in me a tremendous longing. Last October it became an irresistible longing to be an instrument in God’s hands to fulfill these goals in a local church.
At this point in my life I say, and I believe God is saying to me, “The potential, Piper, for magnifying me is greater now in the pastorate than in the professorship.” That’s why the move. When I become a pastor, I am going to have one all-encompassing goal, a very simple goal, that in nothing I might be ashamed but that in everything I might magnify Christ whether by life or by death. To that end, I aim at three things.
- I will aim to love Christ with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my strength. Because when I die in the midst of my ministry and say farewell to a beloved flock and a cherished family, I want to be able to believe that it is gain. And in my dying I want to be able to bear witness to a church that Christ is great indeed and worthy of all our trust.
- While I live and minister, my goal is going to be to make the people glad in God. Woe to the pastor who uses his position to hammer year after year in chiseling out a hard sour people! He has forgotten his calling. “I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your advancement and your joy of faith.”
- Since joy comes from faith, and faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of God, it will have to be my main goal–my tremendously fulfilling and joyful goal–to feed that flock the Word of God every week, week in and week out. I will pray that Jesus’ words will become fulfilled in my words. The banner of every sermon I preach will be this: “My words I have spoken to you in order that my joy might be in you and that your joy might be full” (John 15:11).
That evening Piper delivered a 20-minute testimony of sorts, designed to introduce himself to the people by explaining the major influencers in his life–mainly his father and mother, but also formative teachers like Clyde Kilby and Daniel Fuller.
The people of Bethlehem voted soon after, and elected John Piper to be their thirteenth pastor. In June the Pipers and their three boys moved to Minneapolis, buying a house within a half mile of the church. And on July 13 he preached his installation sermon, The Wisdom of Men and the Power of God, from 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Among the words that this young shepherd delivered to his aging flock were these:
I come to you as your pastor today with weaknesses (which you will learn soon enough) and in much fear and trembling. Not that I distrust the power and promise of God but that I distrust myself. Not so much that I will fail—as the world counts failure—but that I might succeed in my own strength and wisdom and so fail as God counts failure.
Years later Piper recounted a moment from his early days at Bethlehem:
. . . I stood in front of the glassed-in case of “pastors’ pictures” in the second-floor hallway of the “B” building. I was a brand new pastor. I looked at the two longest pastorates in Bethlehem’s 109-year history and thought, “Maybe God would keep me faithful long enough to be here that long.”
God, in his sovereign kindness, has answered that prayer.
I thank God that he has kept John Piper faithful, and I pray that he would continue to do so until Christ returns or Christ calls him home.
Thank you, Lord, for the decisive calling you did in his heart, 30 years ago this evening.