Commend the One You Cherish: Learning Evangelism from John Piper
If only I’d kept count over the years.
Personally, I’ve heard dozens, if not hundreds, of men and women profess to have come to saving faith under the preaching of John Piper. I can imagine the thousands who might give similar testimony, but I’ve not had the privilege of hearing from them face to face. Before God, I have peace that keeping a precise count is hardly the uppermost concern. Probably better not to produce a particular number.
However, evangelist would not be one of the first ways you’d describe John Piper. More often, the words used include pastor, preacher, theologian, author, or professor. Of course, for some, evangelist may bring to mind the revivalist crusades of yesteryear and the heyday of Billy Graham. John’s own father, Bill Piper, was a traveling evangelist in that tradition. And it sounds like Bill made peace with his only son not being an evangelist like him. He affirmed John’s different inclinations and abilities by reminding him, “We named you John, not Peter.” True to his name, John was far more contemplative and not a natural public speaker.
John Piper did not become a “traveling evangelist” like his father. Yet, in God’s remarkable providence, the evangelist’s son has quietly, inconspicuously, almost counterintuitively been a surprisingly fruitful winner of souls.
Having worked alongside John now for more than twenty years, I could produce many lessons from him related to evangelism than I have space for here. There would be some “hows” among those lessons, but the most valuable ones, the ones worth fronting, are “whats.” Given that John is now in his eighth decade, this focus—on the content of the gospel, rather than practical tips for how to share your faith—might be most fitting in light of Hebrews 13:7:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
The author of Hebrews has older leaders in mind, leaders who were a generation ahead of his readers. They saw “the outcome” of these leaders’ lives. I assume that means some or all of them had already finished their earthly course. Hebrews says to consider “their way of life” and then to “imitate their faith.” So, remember their ways, consider their ways, learn from their ways—and imitate, not their ways, but their faith. What, then, might we imitate of John’s faith, and the content of his teaching in particular, related to our gospel and sharing Jesus with others?
You Can’t Commend What You Don’t Cherish
First, you can’t commend what you don’t cherish—at least not well. The opportunity to share Jesus with others follows the experience of first knowing and enjoying him ourselves. Compelling evangelism grows out of cherishing Jesus. “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8).
In a society fixated on what philosophers call “the immanent frame” of the here and now, cherishing Jesus ourselves helps us communicate with authenticity. It also fuels us to endure the risks and awkward moments of speaking about eternal realities.
Recast the Gospel Story with Joy
Second, recast the whole story with joy. The reason we can cherish Jesus is that God made our souls for this, because God himself is a cherisher. As God, he rightly cherishes himself. To be God is to be happy. From all eternity, God has known and enjoyed himself supremely because he is of supreme worth. He is infinitely happy in himself. And in this one God, three divine persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, share in the eternal bliss of the Godhead. In the words of 1 Timothy 6:15, this God “is the blessed and only Sovereign.” By saying he’s “blessed,” Paul means that God is happy and infinitely so. And in his own divine blessedness, full to overflowing, he created the world and redeems sinners.
So our gospel—the message we share about the blessedness we ourselves have found in Jesus—is “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11). Our message is not only one of joy; it is the message of joy. And when people hear of our joy in something, they often lean in and want to know more.
In Jesus, the all-satisfying joy of God himself is offered to us, rebels though we are, in his own beloved Son, who died to pay for our sins and rose again to be known and enjoyed. In this way, the gospel starts and ends with God, in whose “presence there is fullness of joy [and] pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).
Sin Is Preferring Other Things to God
Third, sin is preferring other things to God. And the horror and tragedy of sin becomes starker against the backdrop of God’s infinite joy and his reason for creation. Does our evangelism help people to recognize this?
God did not make the world out of a sense of need, but to share his own happiness. Yet, in our sin, we have turned away from his bounty of joy and tried to carve out our own little, competing, pathetic joys. The prophet Jeremiah lamented the tragedy of God’s first-covenant people acting out the very essence of sin at work in us all: forsaking the fountain of living waters to hew out our own supply stores of water (Jer. 2:13). Sin, then, is rejecting the joy we were made for and seeking to make ourselves happy apart from God.
Jesus Is God and Came to Bring Us to God
Fourth, Jesus is God and came to bring us to God. Not only did God’s infinite happiness in himself move him to make the world, but the great and final good that God secures in saving us is nothing less than our having God himself. In other words, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, God offers us the supreme joy, the highest possible good, the universe’s most satisfying reward: God himself. Jesus’s offer to sinners will not leave us short of eternal joy. Jesus brings us all the way to the only one who will prove eternally satisfying. “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Which means he brings us not only to his Father, but also to himself: “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself . . . making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19–20).
To relate this point to evangelism, John, when sharing the gospel, will speak of our “supreme treasure.” In doing so, he makes clear why Jesus is such a treasure. Which leads to a final lesson for evangelism.
Saving Faith Cherishes Christ Himself as Lord and Treasure
Finally, saving faith cherishes Christ himself as Lord and Treasure. With Psalm 70:4, we love God’s salvation because we love him, and say, “he is great.” Our praise, and the heart it expresses, does not terminate on our rescue and eternal material rewards but on the Rescuer himself. Through his work of saving us he shows us he is all-satisfying. And so, in our evangelism, we aim not at mere assent to the message but the “warm embrace” (in the words of John Calvin) of our Messiah.
This last lesson gives us a glimpse into the evangelistic heart that has driven John for decades, and made his preaching and writing subtly and powerfully evangelistic. As he wrote in the “Conversion” chapter of his 1986 book Desiring God,
We are surrounded by unconverted people who think they do believe in Jesus. Drunks on the street say they believe. Unmarried couples sleeping together say they believe. Elderly people who haven’t sought worship or fellowship for forty years say they believe. All kinds of lukewarm, world-loving church attenders say they believe. The world abounds with millions of unconverted people who say they believe in Jesus.
It does no good to tell these people to believe in the Lord Jesus. The phrase is empty. My responsibility as a preacher of the gospel and a teacher in the church [and evangelist!] is not to preserve and repeat cherished biblical sentences, but to pierce the heart with biblical truth. . . . So I use different words to unpack what believe means. In recent years I have asked, “Do you receive Jesus as your Treasure?” Not just Savior (everybody wants out of hell, but not to be with Jesus). Not just Lord (they might submit begrudgingly). The key is: Do you treasure Him more than everything?
From one generation to the next, the message of Jesus is enduringly “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11). It has served John Piper well, and thousands of us also. It recasts the whole story in the key of God’s own joy, exposes sin for what it is, helps us to marvel at the great goal and end of our rescue, and leads people to cherish Christ himself as their supreme Treasure. So cherishing him, we commend him to any who will listen.