PHIL: Another Q&A. John, it is an honor actually for all of us to come together and celebrate your fiftieth anniversary in the ministry. And I know that public adulation makes you uncomfortable, and Scripture does honor men of faith and faithfulness, so we have to do this. It’s a privilege to do this. And I hope you’ll just let me ask you questions about your ministry and your life.
JOHN: Well, we’ll see.
PHIL: Yeah. No, I want to ask you questions about 50 years of ministry and your underlying ministry philosophy and things that you like and don’t like about ministry. And so, let’s just start at the beginning. Tell us first about your heritage. One of the first things I ever heard about you was that you were in a long line of pastors. I think the first thing I read said you were fifth generation pastor. I know your father and your grandfather were pastors, and you had pastors on both sides. Tell us about that.
JOHN: Yes. My father and my grandfather. My grandmother’s father, and then went back one generation, Scotland, probably pick up the story in PEI. My grandmother’s father was Thomas Fullerton. He was pastor of St. James Kirk, the main church in Charlottetown PEI.
PHIL: He pastored for Anne of Green Gables.
JOHN: Yes, he was the pastor of the lady who wrote Anne of Green Gables, they were close friends. Together they wrote whatever the provincial song is for the Province of Prince Edward Island. So my grandmother’s father was also in the Canadian Army and he was a chaplain in the Boer War. So it goes back to, you know, fighting down in Africa.
My grandfather’s father drove the first locomotive on PEI. So he was a railroad man and then a pastor. Their kids got together, and my grandfather came to Calgary to be the chief telegrapher for the Canadian Pacific Railway, followed in his father’s footsteps. And that’s where my dad was born. And my grandfather was genuinely converted, came to Los Angeles to the old Bible Institute of Los Angeles to train, became a pastor and raised my dad here; he became a pastor, and I followed.
PHIL: You mentioned the other day that you remembered that your grandfather preached actually in writing the sermon at his own funeral.
JOHN: Yeah. I have pretty vivid memories of my grandfather. I think I was nine or ten when he went to be with the Lord, and he died of cancer; a lot younger than I am. But he had – I have sermon notes of his up in my study. He was a faithful preacher of the Word of God and of the gospel. He loved the church. The story that I often tell about him is that when he was on his deathbed and I was with my dad – and we saw him a lot because we lived in the same neighborhood. He was pastor of one church, my dad was the pastor of another one. My dad was a pastor in Hollywood and my grandfather in Eagle Rock, which isn’t far from here. And at one point they switched churches.
JOHN: They were both in the American Baptist Convention in those days, which my father eventually left as it liberalized. But my grandfather was on his deathbed, and my dad asked him if he had anything that he wanted, and he said, “I want to preach one more sermon.” And he had prepared a sermon on heaven called “Heavenly Records,” and he wanted to preach it. It was like fire in his bones. So he wanted to unload what was in his heart about heaven, and he was so near.
He never was able to do that because he went to be with the Lord. So my dad took his sermon notes and printed them up into a booklet, and everyone at his funeral got his sermon notes. So I always say he preached on heaven from heaven.
JOHN: So he was faithful to the very dying end to preach, and his regret when he left was that he couldn’t preach one more time.
PHIL: Your own dad inherited that as well. I met him and he was a delight, I loved him. But as I recall, he was teaching Sunday School at least, so giving his last sermon just a month before he died.
JOHN: He was still teaching the Bible into his ninety-first year. I remember he said to me – he was a pretty insatiable reader, and he was terrified to step into a pulpit without being fully prepared.
PHIL: I can get that.
JOHN: Yeah. So he had a manuscript. And I know you follow that.
PHIL: Absolutely. I’d be lost without my manuscript.
JOHN: Yeah, because at heart you’re a writer. But my dad had a manuscript because he took it so seriously. He used to say to me all the time, “Don’t you, Johnny, don’t you ever go into a pulpit unless you are fully prepared.”
PHIL: That’s advice you’ve followed I know.
JOHN: Yeah. Well, and you know, he’d always call it that. And somebody referred to that – I think it was Mike today – he called it the sacred desk.
JOHN: And when he stood behind it, he wanted to make sure he had done everything to prepare. So I remember he was a few years from going to heaven, and he said to me one day, he said, “I’m still reading, but I don’t know why.” You know, that was a real turning point, because he couldn’t shut off the desire to take it in even though he knew there wasn’t going to be the opportunity to preach it.
And then the second thing that I remember was he’s teaching a Sunday School class in his ninetieth year, and the people started coming to him and telling him he was repeating himself. So he said to me, “I think it’s time to stop because I can’t remember if I said something last week or two minutes ago.”
PHIL: I’m there already. Should I stop?
JOHN: Yeah. Well, if you do three services you can’t remember when you said it.
PHIL: I know.
JOHN: But, yeah, that was kind of was a sad moment when all of a sudden after preaching since he was about 20 years old; and he’s 90, and letting go and feeling like people are complaining because he’s repeating himself. Soon after that he went to be with the Lord.
PHIL: He had such an active mind.
JOHN: Yeah, he did.
PHIL: He loved to read and refute things that were wrong.
JOHN: Yeah, he loved apologetics, he always wanted to defend the faith. The greatest legacy my father gave me was his consistent life. He was everything at home that he was in the pulpit, everything, I never saw any difference. But beyond that legacy of that life what he gave me was just this absolutely complete confidence in the authority and inspiration and inerrancy of the Word of God. And he was not only a preacher of that, but a defender of it. He loved to defend the Word of God, and he was an apologist in his preaching as much as he was a teacher.
PHIL: He had a television and radio ministry.
JOHN: Right. My grandfather started a radio ministry called Voice of Calvary many years ago; and my dad, when the radio program came on the air – it was a weekend program locally – when it came on my dad played the theme song on the marimba. My dad was a musician, played a little trombone, piano; and he’d play the marimba as the theme song, and his dad would come on and preach.
PHIL: Did he play it live every week?
PHIL: That’s not an easy thing to do.
JOHN: No, you can’t carry around a marimba.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s right.
JOHN: But, yeah. And my grandfather started the Voice of Calvary, and eventually my dad just took that over, and it was on for many, many, many years Saturday and Sunday, kind of a weekend. And then he decided to do television when he was pastoring in Burbank and he got a television slot. They didn’t do a lot of recording in those days, it was pretty much live television. So some of the older people remember live television. So we would leave church on Sunday night, make a beeline down to KCOP Channel 13 here in LA and do live preaching on TV, a little bit of singing; and then he would just stand behind a thing and the cameras were rolling. I mean, it was what it was. There was no editing, you know, you had to make sure you got it right.
He decided to let me try doing that. That was when I was very young and I was –
PHIL: How old?
JOHN: Twenty, maybe twenty-two, twenty-three.
PHIL: So you’d had some college at least.
JOHN: Well, yeah, I was a graduate from college. I went to seminary when I was twenty-one, so I had a little bit of seminary under my belt. I mean, I think I at least proved that I could do a 15-minute or 20-minute talk.
PHIL: I wish there were recordings of that.
JOHN: Yeah. I’m not going to tell you where they are.
PHIL: You mean they exist? Because I’ve got some – your father, of course, was ministering mostly before cassette tapes. I’ve got some of his sermons on little records like platters that you play on a record player.
JOHN: Yeah. They used to have things called kinescopes.
PHIL: That was for video.
JOHN: I mean, this is ridiculous for me to talk about that it just ages me. But, yeah. So I did some preaching with my dad on television.
PHIL: If anybody can find those and put them on YouTube, I’ll pay.
JOHN: Yeah. And he had the heart of an evangelist. He was an evangelist with William Culbertson when Culbertson was President of the Moody Bible Institute. So we lived in Chicago, and he would go out in citywide evangelistic campaigns all over the place. He was an evangelist in the early days of Charles Fuller here in Southern California and he was traveling around. He did evangelism with the Billy Graham team while Billy Graham was holding the Great London Crusade in the fifties. My dad went to Northern Ireland. Billy had a team of evangelists and my dad’s responsibility was to preach every day for a month on the docks in Belfast to the stevedores and the ship builders. When I go to Ireland even now I meet people who have hymnbooks from those days back in the 1950s when they had those crusades, and I meet older people who came to Christ during those days when he was preaching there.
PHIL: Yeah. You know, your dad, in a lot of ways he prefigured a lot of the things that you’ve done. He actually wrote some commentaries, which somebody sent me recently copies of your dad’s commentaries. They’re not as elaborate or thorough as yours. But he was doing that as well.
JOHN: He started out an evangelist, and then he kind of became an apologist. Then he was influenced that he needed to teach the Bible, and so he looked around for resources. And, you know, in those days there weren’t a lot of things. I mean, we were just sort of vanilla Baptists, not a lot of theological clarity in many ways, but faithful to the gospel. So he read books by G. Campbell Morgan that was more a devotional kind of exposition, and he loved that. So he went through Acts, and he went through John, and he went through Matthew. He would say that that was the richest part of his ministry.
PHIL: Right. Well, you inherited all of his books, and there was no place to put them, so they came to your office in Grace to You, which is right next to mine. And I used to go in and just scour his library, and I feel like I know his mind because I saw what he read; and you’re right, a lot of devotional material.
JOHN: A lot of devotional things. There were lots and lots of Keswick kind of books, you know, “Quiet Talks on This,” by Gordon, and Andrew Murray. I think my dad was trying to find himself – find his way into exposition. But he never got much past the more devotional kind, although it was always accurate, it was always faithful this.
PHIL: For someone with such a keen interest in apologetics too, he really had a tender heart, didn’t he.
JOHN: He did. He had a very tender heart. He was very loving to all of us as kids; very loving to me, probably to a fault, although he didn’t spare the rod.
PHIL: I would ask you about that because I’m curious to hear it. But you probably don’t want me to ask that question.
JOHN: No. I mean, I was disciplined with something very long and very hard frequently, frequently. I just called it curiosity, he called it disobedience.
PHIL: Well, you still have that –
JOHN: And you know, he disciplined me more for attitude than something I did.
PHIL: So you showed a little attitude, he would bring the rod out.
JOHN: He felt that he had to control the attitude if he was going to control the action.
PHIL: Interesting. Well, it worked. I mean, you don’t show a lot of attitude. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you – I’m serious. I don’t think I have in 40 years that I’ve known you, I have never seen you angry, never. And I asked Patricia about it once, and she said she tried to make you angry and couldn’t do it.
JOHN: Well… First of all, anger does no good for anybody.
JOHN: And, secondly, I don’t want to get caught up in myself so much that somebody could actually make me angry. Well, the only reason people would get angry was because they’re offended. So why would I be angry; only because I took offense?
PHIL: Right. I’m just saying it’s amazing. If you can be with me for 35 years and never lose your temper, that’s really quite remarkable. Even my wife will tell you that.
JOHN: No, I’ve never seen you angry in my presence.
PHIL: You know, you have a blessedly short memory for things like that as well. Honestly, when people ask me about your characteristics and all that I often say one of the most – there’s several remarkable things about you. One being that you’re disciplined. I always you are the most disciplined person I’ve ever met. So it surprised me the other day when you said you don’t think about discipline, you just are in these habits. That was kind of a remarkable thing.
But the other thing I always tell people is that when it comes to offenses, people who have – you know, in some cases even people who’ve stabbed you in the back, you have a really short memory for offenses like that. You’re one of the most forgiving people I know, which has been really good for me.
JOHN: Well, that’s what Scripture says, “Forgive seventy times seven,” you know.
JOHN: What is the point of not forgiving? You put your own forgiveness in jeopardy, according to the words of our Lord, and you develop a root of bitterness you can’t survive. Part of being in the same place for 50 years is being able to forgive readily and immediately, and to fully embrace and love the people, even the people who have done – tried to do harm to you. There’s no way to survive in a pastoral ministry with the same congregation for half a century if you can’t forgive.
JOHN: And if they can’t forgive. And they can forgive if you can forgive.
PHIL: Right. Let me ask you about your ministry experience before you came to Grace Community Church. This was the first church you ever pastored. Prior to that, give me a rundown on your ministry experience. I’m sure you did things even before your dad had you on television. In fact, I heard – tell me if this is correct – the first sermon you ever preached, was that the one in the bus station in Raleigh, North Carolina?
JOHN: Yeah. I don’t know if it was the first one, but it was early, yeah.
PHIL: Tell us about that.
JOHN: I just – I was told to go to the bus station and stand up and preach to all the people milling around at the bus station.
PHIL: This was an assignment in Bible College?
JOHN: And I left that college, by the way. But I did that once and I thought, “This is ridiculous, because it’s not getting me anywhere.” People think something’s wrong with you, you know. And so, when they would take me back to do that again, I would not preach, I would just go find somebody, sit down and give them the gospel. And I found that I thoroughly enjoyed it; people responded different. But that made much more sense than shouting to people who were milling around going somewhere.
You know, they were trying to take a picture from the New Testament that the Lord preached in the open air; but there were not huge busses belching smoke going back and forth in front of them. “What are you doing?”
PHIL: So what would you count as your very first sermon?
JOHN: The first sermon I remember was when – I gave some little talks in high school. But the first official sermon I preached I just remember that I preached “And the Angel Rolled the Stone Away.” Now don’t hold your breath. And I preached on rolling away stones in your life. Now that is bad preaching.
PHIL: So your first sermon –
JOHN: Look, I am still in remediation from that event.
PHIL: That’s really remarkable. John MacArthur’s first sermon was a bad sermon.
JOHN: Oh, it was horrible.
JOHN: But I’m being honest. Nobody would know it if I didn’t bring it up because nobody recorded it. Yeah, how could ignore the resurrection and talk about rolling away stones in your life?
PHIL: You know, preachers do it all the time.
JOHN: But you know the bad part of that? People were saying, “Deep, deep.”
PHIL: Well, and I’ve also heard you tell the story of when you were in seminary, and Dr. – who was it? – Dr. Feinberg said that you missed the whole point of the passage.
JOHN: Yeah, he did. He was the head of Talbot Seminary, the Dean, Jewish guy. His wife came out of the Fiddler on the Roof community in Europe. They had a lot of really profoundly deep Jewish roots in Europe. And he studied 14 years to be a rabbi. Most brilliant man I had ever met;, and he was converted to Christ. And his life was amazingly transformed. He then went to Dallas Seminary and got a Th.D.; and Chafer, the President of the seminary, said about him that he knew more when he came than he did when he graduated.
PHIL: Did they make him take Hebrew again?
JOHN: No, he was fluent. At the end of his life he was fluent in at least thirty languages. He could read in at least thirty languages. He could teach himself a language in a couple of months because he had such alacrity with that. But he read through the Bible four times a year. When we’d ask him questions in class he could go to a passage in Kings and translate it from Hebrew in his own mind and then give us the translation. He was a formidable mind.
He then went to John Hopkins, studied under William Foxwell Albright who was the leading archeologist in America at the time, and so he got a Ph.D. and a Th.D. And his wife graduated from UCLA later in life. His daughter was valedictorian at UCLA. His son Paul Feinberg – some of you guys will remember Paul Feinberg and his writings. And John Feinberg, who’s still around, does some heavy writing; that was a lot of gray matter in that family.
JOHN: But I was very close to all of them and loved them. So I wanted to honor Dr. Feinberg by whatever he – I took every class, I did my best in every class with him. And we had to preach, every semester we had to preach; and he would assign a text and we had to preach to the whole student body. And I worked really hard on 2 Samuel 7 where David wants to build a house for the Lord, and God sends the prophet Nathan to tell him he can’t do it, and then gives him the covenant, you know, the Davidic covenant. And I preached another rolling away stones in your life message in Feinberg’s mind, I guess. I worked really hard on it for hours and hours to please him with it.
And I got up, and there was a fairly good response from the students. And the faculty would sit behind us when we were preaching, and they had these long eight-and-a-half by fourteen sheets that while we were preaching they were checking off boxes. Every element of the sermon their heads would go down on something they’d like or didn’t like. And then they would hand you these sheets as you walked out. So I didn’t care what anybody said except Feinberg; and he had folded his up, which was not a good sign, and he didn’t check off anything. I opened it up and it said, “You missed the whole point of the passage.”
PHIL: That had to be devastating.
JOHN: So I went to his office, and he was really disgusted with me. So I said, “I’m so sorry. Could you like tell me what the point of the passage is?”
PHIL: Did he say, “You mean you still don’t know?”
JOHN: Yeah. He was so upset at me.
PHIL: Do you remember what the passage was?
JOHN: Second Samuel 7. Yes, I remember; I will never forget it. So anyway, he then ramped up his grip on me because I think he believed that the Lord had called me to preach, and he wanted, in whatever time he had, to get a grip on me and get me going in the right direction.
So when I came to the end of seminary, he called me in his office and he says, “I am concerned that you will continue to work hard enough to get the meaning of the passage, so I have a gift for you.” He gave me this huge box, and in it was his set of Keil and Delitzsch that he had for like thirty years, and marked up with all his own markings and stuff. He said, “Now you have no excuse.” I still have that treasure.
PHIL: That’s great.
JOHN: And one of the wonderful moments of my life was he went to heaven. He got some kind of dementia toward the end of his life and kind of didn’t remember things. But when he died, the family asked me to come and speak at his service. I was so thankful for that, because he must have felt that along the way somehow I’d learned how to get the point out of the passage. So that was really an honor for me. If you find an old Scofield Bible you’ll see his name: Charles L. Feinberg.
PHIL: So with all these influences on you – your grandfather, your father, Dr. Feinberg, you went to seminary and all that – from which of these have you benefitted the most? What would you say is the most formative influence on you, other than the apostle Paul?
JOHN: Yeah, I was going to say. You know, it’s just a blending of all those things. Obviously your parents have this dominating affect on how you will face life and how you view Christianity and all. But all of those pieces came together. My dad: huge, huge influence on me because of his integrity and his love of the church and his pastoral ministry for so many years. Feinberg for his exacting precision and high demands.
There was one other guy in my life who gave me a lesson that has really shaped my preaching, and that was a guy named Ralph Keiper. Ralph Keiper was Donald Grey Barnhouse’s personal secretary. And Barnhouse was in Philadelphia in the heydays of his ministry, and he was doing Eternity magazine. Some of you guys may remember Eternity magazine years ago. And Barnhouse was formidable as an expositor of Scripture, and a theologian, and he was a ranging kind of guy. He could do the book of Romans and say everything in the Bible in the exposition of Romans. So he was really, really thorough.
So Ralph Keiper was his personal secretary, and also a very good Bible teacher. He only had ten percent vision in one eye, so it was kind of an interesting little guy; couldn’t see very much. But he came out here to speak when I was in seminary, and they asked me to drive him around; and we became friends. He came two or three times, and he always wanted me to drive him around. And he used to encourage me that if I wanted to effectively explain the Bible I had to use the Bible to explain the Bible, that the best explanation of the Bible is in the Bible. Because of analogia Scriptura, the Scripture’s analogous to itself, single author.
And he put in my hands Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. Treasury of Scripture Knowledge was a tool that I’d never even heard of or ever seen. In the early years of my ministry, probably the most helpful tool I had. And that’s why if you follow the way I preach or even the way we preach, or you heard Mike preach today, you explain the Bible with the Bible. You find the truth in a given passage, and then you broaden it, you lift it higher, you go deeper by bringing other Scriptures around it. The Bible is its own best interpreter.
So that was a huge, huge help to me. And he challenged me with my Greek New Testament since I was bent on the New Testament. With my Bible and Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, I could preach the rest of my life. So that was a huge point. That shaped my preaching more than anything else. I don’t remember anything in homiletics class in seminary at all being helpful.
PHIL: Yeah. You gave me that same advice, and I’ve always used it, The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, basically a collection of cross-references. So you go to any text.
JOHN: Well, cross-references not to the same word, but to the same idea.
PHIL: Right, yeah. So you look at any text in Scripture and there’ll be these references to other Bible passages that either say something similar or can illustrate it or whatever. It’s an amazing tool. I agree with you, it’s probably the single tool I use most, other than Scripture itself, yeah. Yeah, thanks for that advice.
You know, if somebody asks me my most formidable influence, it’d have to be you. When I preach I like feel you standing over my shoulder and –
JOHN: Is that good?
PHIL: It’s had good effect. It’s a little nerve-wracking; but, yeah, it’s had good effect. The first time I preached you weren’t here obviously, or you would have been preaching; but preached from the pulpit here. And you listened to the recording later, which I had hoped you wouldn’t, and you said, “I listened to your sermon.” And you said, “You know what you did really well?” I said, “What?” You said, “When you read the Scriptures,” which is much, much kinder than saying, “You missed the whole point of the passage.” I’ve always remembered that, and I appreciate the encouragement.
JOHN: You’re way beyond that, Phil.
PHIL: So bring us from Talbot to Grace Church. How did you get connected with this church? You were in Southern California all that time, right?
JOHN: When I was in seminary I was – well, I started when I was in college. I was an athlete, I was playing football and all that kind of thing. But I was also teaching a college Sunday School class in my dad’s church. So that’s where I met Patricia; she was one of the college students in the Bible class that I was teaching on Sunday morning. So it was very natural when I graduated from college and I knew the Lord had called me to go to seminary to just kind of hang in there with my dad. And I served alongside of him, continuing to work with youth and do a lot of other things while I went through seminary.
After I graduated from seminary my dad wanted me to come back and serve alongside of him; that was his dream that we would share that ministry together. But it was obvious after, you know, a relatively brief time that we were both doing the same thing. You don’t need two preachers in one church that size. So it was a kind of a sad thing for him because he had kind of put his hopes in the fact that we’d be together. There was no animosity; I mean, he knew the hand of the Lord was on it.
So I left being alongside of him and I went back to the seminary, because Dr. Feinberg called me back and asked if I would become the seminary representative in this sense that I would kind of be the model of somebody who graduated from that seminary preaching. And they would send me around to preach, and that would kind of demonstrate what the seminary did. So I did that for, I don’t know, two-and-a-half or so years, and I preached about 35 times a month, and I did that month after month, after month, after month, and I crammed ten years of preaching experience into a very brief time in all kinds of settings, churches – everything from junior high to older people to a lot of college campuses. A lot of high school Bible club – that was a big thing back then – a lot of youth ministry things.
PHIL: Did you have a collection of standard sermons or were you making new sermons all the time?
JOHN: Yeah. No, no. When you’re doing that, that’s the revolving door of itinerant preaching, and it was very – I mean, it was okay, that’s what the Lord wanted me to do. And I learned how to communicate I think there, because I liked to speak to junior high kids, because they’re not interested they have the courtesy to talk. So it just made sense for me to figure out how to get their attention.
But I was very frustrated at the end of that two-and-a-half years, I just couldn’t hear myself say the same thing one more time. It doesn’t lend itself to the disciplined study that I wanted so desperately. So I told them I just need to go pastor a church, that’s what I want to do.
Two churches talked to me a little bit and said I was too young, didn’t have enough experience – I was still in my twenties. But this church, I spoke to – this church had a high school camp, and I went to that high school camp and I spoke, and we had a great time. And so, the kids came back and their pastor had died, second one in a row. Two pastors in a row here had died, they had two widows to support; and the only qualification for the next guy was youth. So I met the qualification.
PHIL: You were 29 years old.
JOHN: Yeah. The kids came back from camp and said, “Can we get that guy that spoke to us at camp?” And so I came, and it’s kind of an interesting story, it’s not an unfamiliar one. But I had been up at Hume Lake Conference all summer and I had been studying Romans 6, 7 and 8 to try to understand them with no necessarily – no view to preach them, but to come to grips with the whole issue of spiritual identity and the flesh and the Spirit and the war, and all that’s Romans 6, 7 and 8; and I just spent weeks and weeks on that.
So they asked me to come here and speak on an evening, and I had that so much in my mind that I said, “Well, okay, I’ll do that,” and I just stood up and just kind of unloaded that, and went for an hour and twenty minutes. That’s kind of legendary for those early people. An hour and twenty minutes and you’re a guest speaker is just really ridiculous. But I was just trying to explain to them everything I’d come to understand about those passages and I was oblivious.
So afterwards, they said to me, “Would you teach us like that every week if you were here?” And I said, “I would. I would.” And so they invited me back the next week, but the next week they had a huge clock on the back wall, it was so big you couldn’t miss it. So they liked that kind of teaching, they just didn’t need that much of it at once.
PHIL: Joel Beeke knows this. But at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London where Spurgeon used to be there are actually two clocks in the pulpit. One of them gives you the time, the other one counts down. And when it gets in the red zone, if you don’t stop you’re in trouble. I was there once when Joel Beeke went about ten minutes overtime. It was good.
JOHN: Yeah. No, we have a clock in our pulpit, too. But you know what; if I had a clock or didn’t have a clock, I would go exactly or essentially within probably 60 seconds.
PHIL: Do you know what the vote was when they said, “Let’s vote on whether to call this man or not?” Was it unanimous?
JOHN: No. No. I don’t know what it was, it was enough.
PHIL: We recently played –
JOHN: You take what you can get, right?
PHIL: That’s right.
JOHN: And if they all voted for you before you came they wouldn’t need you.
PHIL: I have to say this. We recently played your first sermon at Grace Church; it was taped that very first Sunday. We played it on Grace to You a week or two ago in connection with the anniversary of your first sermon, and we got quite a lot of feedback. We play it occasionally and we always get good feedback. But the most common comment is for somebody who’s 29 and never been a pastor before, that is an amazing first sermon, it really is. It’s called “How to Play Church.”
JOHN: Yeah. I mean, why would a guy do that the first Sunday he’s here?
PHIL: It was great.
JOHN: It was Matthew 7: “Many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and then I will say, ‘Depart from Me, I never knew you.’” I mean, I was blasting that out the first Sunday here.
PHIL: You know what; it did set the tone for your teaching.
JOHN: It did. But you know, there was a reason behind that.
JOHN: I had become very aware that churches were filled with unconverted people by traveling around all over the place. And I mean, you know, judgment begins at the house of God, and the judgment begins when you bring the Word of God to bear; and, yeah. But I think back, I could have come in a little more like a lamb and less like a lion.
PHIL: I wouldn’t change a thing of it. It’s full of exuberance and passion and kindness.
JOHN: You know, I actually had a guy come to me after the first three or four weeks, he was a church, and he said, “I’ve been coming three or four weeks.” I said, “Are you a Christian?” and he said, “No, I’m in sales, and you pump me up.”
PHIL: So here’s something I’ve always wondered and I’ll ask you. What else do you remember about that very first Sunday? What stands out in your mind about that –
JOHN: It was raining.
PHIL: It rained.
JOHN: It rained really hard, and we were in the chapel. It was raining, and I was full of passion and zeal. This was what I had longed for and desired. And I knew I was embarking upon the desire of my heart, which was to week in and week out sequentially go through the Word of God. That’s what I’d always wanted to do; and it wasn’t because I wanted to preach it, it was because I wanted to study it so that I would understand it. It was hard for me to just read the Bible and then close it and not know what I read. I was frustrated. People would say, “Spend 15 minutes a day reading the Bible.” I was very frustrated by that if I didn’t know what it meant. Well, you know that about me; I have to know what this means.
PHIL: That’s the curiosity your dad used to punish you for.
JOHN: Yeah, it is. Yeah, he didn’t punish me for that kind of curiosity, he just –
PHIL: No, I know.
JOHN: But he was routing me in the right direction.
PHIL: Because in the early days –
JOHN: But, yeah. So I really – I just loved the fact that I told the board the first time we met. They said, “We know you’re going to preach on Sunday, but what are you going to do all week?” and I said, “I think I need about 25 or 30 hours to prepare to preach,” because Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and then whatever else; and I was starting with nothing. They couldn’t believe that. They thought, “Why does it take that long?”
PHIL: Yeah, you said that the other day in the Q&A. You brought up the fact that one of the first things you said was you needed 30 hours a week to study. And I thought back to that; you were the first pastor I ever knew who spent that much time in this study. Every church I was in you figured the pastor would study maybe 10 hours a week, and that was a lot. So when you said that to them, did they gasp?
JOHN: Yeah, they did, because they couldn’t understand it. And I had in some sense to validate it by showing up on Sunday with something that appeared as if had had some effort.
PHIL: Of course. Well, we have all those tapes, and I would say you succeeded.
JOHN: Well… It was for me the incredible opportunity to just spend the time. I was trying to understand the Scripture, trying to understand accurate theology. I was being kind of reshaped in my theological thinking in those early years, and I knew everything was at stake.
PHIL: Were you consciously trying to build an understanding of doctrine or were you more just concerned with this week’s text?
JOHN: Well, no, because as an expositor you’re never just concerned with this week’s text; everything is a flow. And I read probably always, always 15-20 commentaries, because I didn’t want to miss any illumination from the past that would open up some truth in the text. But also I was learning theologies. If you’re reading a sacramental kind of commentary series, you’re going to see how a sacramentalist deals with it. If you’re reading Reformed commentaries like William Hendriksen you understand how Reformed theology connects to the text. If you’re reading a devotional commentary you see that. So I was getting a larger education. I never studied to make a sermon.
When you find systematic commentators, you’re inevitably going to find their theology. If they’re honestly dealing with the text, then that helped train my theology, taught me what to expect and what not.
PHIL: Right. In fact, my impression is is as I listen to your tapes over the years, that you gradually grew away from the sort of devotional books and devotional commentaries that your father would have used, and more and more into –
JOHN: I never really used those. Seminary basically cured me, directed me another way. But there were some crisis moments when I had to jettison some things I had been taught. One of those monumental moments was preaching through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and realizing that everything I’d been told in seminary about the Sermon on the Mount was not true.
PHIL: Right, because in seminary they were telling you the Sermon on the Mount applies to a different dispensation.
JOHN: Yeah, it’s kingdom living in the future millennium. I couldn’t understand that to start with, it didn’t make any sense to me. But by the time I got through Matthew 5 to 7 with Reformed commentators and particularly with David Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ commentary on that, all of that stuff had disappeared.
PHIL: Yeah, you described it as kingdom living in the millennium, and it’s interesting because your first book on that passage is titled –
JOHN: Was called Kingdom Living Here and Now. So that was the declaration that I had abandoned kingdom living then and there for kingdom living here and now. And then I was sort of trapped. I was like the guy in the Civil War with gray pants and a blue coat, I was getting shot by both sides. I wasn’t reformed enough for the Reformed, and I wasn’t dispensational enough for the dispensationalists.
PHIL: But you’re still in that kind of position a little bit.
JOHN: Well, no, because I think – hey, you want to know the truth? Joel Beeke wants to have a Puritan Conference at Grace Church. That says something.
PHIL: It does.
JOHN: You know, presuppositional systems I abandoned. My hermeneutics yielded to me what I think is a true understanding of the text. Presuppositional systems imposed on the text is what disappeared for me.
PHIL: Yeah, you can see that in your preaching, too, as you go through that you are –
JOHN: Well look, if you’re going to do the whole New Testament, every doctrine that you affirm has to stand the test of every text.
JOHN: But I was eventually let in to the Holy of Holies, the evangelical Holy of Holies when R. C. Sproul started inviting me to Ligonier conferences. I thought, “How does this happen?” I said even at his – well, yeah. And then he assigned me – the first thing he assigned me to preach on, “The Doctrine of Election.” He was just impish enough to throw me to the Reformed wolves on that subject the first time. He sat in the front row with – like he sat like this, with a Diet Coke in his hand, and no Bible anywhere in sight, and he’s just checking me out as I’m standing before 4,000 people trying to explain the doctrine of election to the guy that invented it.
PHIL: Did you study more than 30 hours for that one?
JOHN: Yes, I did. Yeah.
PHIL: He later said that was a great message, one of the best messages he’d ever heard on this subject.
JOHN: Yeah, but he also said he got tired of trying to tell me what I actually believed. No. Yeah, I think that that occasion created a bond with us that just grew from there into a friendship.
PHIL: That was an amazing friendship really.
JOHN: It was tremendously enriching to me, and I always felt like an outsider. I should say in the early times I felt like an outsider. But I was so honored to be in the same environment with him and people like Sinclair and other guys. At first I felt like I was kind of not in my place. But to be embraced by those guy whom I’ve grown to love so much was a great honor to me. You know, I wasn’t raised in that, but it stood the test of every text I ever studied.
PHIL: Right. Right. Well I mean, you’re the one who persuaded me that way. It was your series on Ephesians 2 that got me over the hump with the doctrines of grace, because I’d come out of a Methodist background, had all this Arminian indoctrination in my head. When I first became a Christian I dragged a lot of that along with me, and for years the Lord just sort of chipped away at it. Theology classes and all that helped bring me along. But it wasn’t until I heard your sermons on Ephesians 2 that I really understood what total depravity means, that we’re dead in trespasses and sins. If that had been the starting point, it all would have made more sense. The funny thing is, of all the doctrines of grace –
JOHN: Well, Calvinism only makes sense when you get the depravity doctrine right.
PHIL: That’s right. And it’s really the easiest of the doctrines of grace to understand from Scripture and see.
JOHN: And it necessitates all the rest.
JOHN: But on another note, when I came the first time to your house to meet you…
JOHN: You sent me over to some Ramada Inn with orange carpet to stay there. And they had no heat, and it was in the dead of winter in Chicago, and I had to take the carpet off the floor and put it on top of the bed not to freeze.
PHIL: You should have called me, I would have warmed up my car and let you sleep in there.
JOHN: Aw, thanks.
JOHN: Great way to start a friendship, Phil.
PHIL: That’s how I knew it would last. If you still liked me after that, then it was going to be okay.
JOHN: That’s not an issue, I love you.
PHIL: You too. So back to the beginning at Grace Church. Describe some of the changes that you realized immediately were going to have to be made. This was a church that had come from a pastor who’d come out of Methodism and Arminianism. And I think the second pastor was a Baptist, right? So it had shifted a little bit theologically, but really wasn’t anchored in any identifiable doctrinal stance. So doctrinally and even ecclesiologically some significant changes needed to be made. I want you to talk about that, and then I have a specific question about it.
JOHN: Well, they didn’t even have a doctrinal statement.
PHIL: None at all?
JOHN: Well, no, no. It was like…
PHIL: Oh, it was that three-fold statement, “In essentials, unity. In nonessentials…”
PHIL: No. I forget what it is.
JOHN: I don’t know. It doesn’t matter because it’s not a doctrinal statement.
JOHN: But, yeah, that was it. And there were some people here though who had relocated from Church of the Open Door in LA where J. Vernon McGee – everybody knows J. Vernon McGee, “He being dead, yet speaks.”
JOHN: Yeah. So there were people here who had Bible background, Bible background, and they were really warm and receptive to me. But they had no sense of biblical ecclesiology. They had all kinds of crazy structures and organizations, and a lot of unconverted people on boards and in their choir, and it was a mess, which is why I preach on Matthew 7 right out of the gate. In my mind I had, “I may never preach again; I’ve got to do this this time,” that’s why it was the first one.
But there was a ton of work to do. So I knew I needed to preach, but I also knew that if I tried to preach through texts of Scripture to build a systematic theology would take forever, and it would take too long. So what I did was I started – first of all, I wanted to start basically in the gospel of John, because nobody can argue with Christ; and He’s such a compelling person. So the first two years was just the gospel of John.
But every Saturday for seven or eight years I had all the men of the church together and I took them through systematic theology. I started with prolegomena, theology proper, and everything, Revelations –
PHIL: This is just your own notes, or did you use a text?
JOHN: Yeah, a combination of my seminary notes and my notes, and I made some – there were some little books that were kind of simple, like William Evans and Emory Bancroft, little theology books; and there were the abstract by Berkoff. And so, I would encourage them along that line. But they really weren’t ready for that book kind of thing, I had to kind of walk them through that. And that’s how we developed the leadership at the church.
So the leadership was being sort of taught theology behind the scenes; and that went on for many, many years, while we were expositing the Scripture together. I have to exercise – like Paul says, “Preach the Word but do it with patience.” So you have to be very patient for all these changes to take place.
PHIL: That’s what I wanted to ask you, too. I’ve heard you say, and I think it’s a profound observation, that the number one mistake a lot of young pastors make when they go into a church is they’re impatient in making the changes that need to be made.
JOHN: People are where they are because somebody they trusted brought them there. Might have been their parents, might have been their grandparents, might have been a pastor that led them to the Lord, friend that led them to the Lord; they’ve sat in the Sunday School class, the Sunday school teacher. You can’t walk in and just by the sheer force of your own personality or authority make them throw away all those influences. It is a long process of loving them, being patient with them, instructing them carefully in the Word of God, and not only telling them what it means, but showing them why it has to mean that. Really good Bible exposition does not tell the people what this text means, it shows them what it must mean; and the best way to show them what it must mean is to use other Scriptures that elucidate on that.
You couldn’t argue – for example, listening to Mike this morning, he could not argue any of his doctrinal points, because he bolstered all of them by going all over the place to other Scriptures. And that’s how you preach expositionally, with the process exposed. And over time, over time they begin to let go of things that – and I think happily so as the light begins to dawn.
There’s nothing more offensive to Arminians than the sovereignty of God in everything, they hate that. But once they see it, they see it everywhere, because it is everywhere. Then they can’t avoid it, it’s on every page of the Bible. And then they’re different people. Worship is dramatically changed when people understand the doctrines of grace. Worship is revolutionized, because now you have to try to contain them, not whip them up. You’ve got to whip up Arminians; you just have to kind of hold on to Calvinists.
PHIL: Well, in fact, the way you do your logic has always stood out to me, because in the early days when I first started listening to you, some things that you taught were unfamiliar to me and I wasn’t sure of it when I first hear you say something and I’d think, “I’m not sure that’s quite right.” But then you would begin to make the argument why this text must mean that, and you would pile argument upon argument, upon argument. But what I noticed also was that you started with the weakest argument and nailed it down with the best argument at the end, so that by the time you were done I couldn’t decide –
JOHN: Well, that’s the only way to do it. If I give you my best shot first and you don’t buy it, I might as well stop.
PHIL: Well, it was brilliant. So just listening to you teach like that, the polemical aspect of your sermons has shaped my own theological conviction more than anything else.
JOHN: I don’t know what I do; I don’t know why I do it. People say, “Do you rehearse your sermon in front of a mirror?” Are you kidding? I don’t even understand that. I’m not even self-conscious, I don’t even know what I’m doing. The only thing that’s going on is this thing in my mind to give these people this truth. I’m oblivious, I can’t be self-conscious. If I’m an actor, if I’m an actor and I memorize lines, then I can think about acting. But if I’m a preacher and I’m just fighting to make this truth clear and pour out my heart, I’m utterly unconscious of myself.
So I don’t know what I’m doing except that this is a battle to communicate these things that are critically important at that time to me. But I don’t know why, I don’t really know what I’m doing. I don’t study what –
PHIL: Yeah, I realized that about you in the late 1980s after The Gospel According to Jesus came out and there was some controversy about it. And ETS decided to devote a major couple of sessions to the subject. They asked you to deliver a paper on James chapter 2, “Faith Without Works is Dead.” And I think it was – oh, what’s his name from – somebody. Somebody gave a paper on the other side.
AUDIENCE: Earl Radmacher.
JOHN: Earl Radmacher, yeah.
PHIL: Earl Radmacher, that’s right. And so, I went to that meeting, and I knew what you were going to say, I’d read your paper ahead of time. But I looked over and there was Zane Hodges in the front row; and I couldn’t get that out of my head the whole time you were talking. But you delivered it so powerfully and it was so persuasive and all, and I asked you afterwards –
JOHN: Except it didn’t persuade him.
PHIL: Of course it didn’t.
PHIL: But you know… Anyway –
JOHN: He was down the road, yeah.
PHIL: But I asked you afterwards, “Does it trouble you when you know the person who’s most hostile to your view is sitting right there in the front row?” and you said, “I didn’t even think about that.” It didn’t even cross your mind.
PHIL: It was an amazing thing.
JOHN: People ask me that, “Do I worry about how guests in the church are going to respond to something I say, like against Catholicism or Mormonism?” That thought never enters my mind. I’m not aware of what I am supposed to do not to offend somebody. I’m not trying to offend anybody, I don’t want to, and I think we have to speak the truth in love; and tone goes a long way, and demeanor goes a long way to demonstrate a kind of affection and a kind of compassion for people. But I’m never – you know, in fact, recently I did that Ben Shapiro program. I don’t know if any of you ever saw that. But the closer I get to somebody, the closer I get to somebody eyeball to eyeball that needs the Lord, the more likely I am to drive at what I think is the best way to get to their heart about the gospel.
So I thought that was really interesting that he asked me the question, “What’s the difference between a Jew and a Christian?” I mean, this is the ultimate setup. And I said, “The difference is Jesus Christ.” And what was so interesting was in a later podcast that was given to me, somebody asked him, “Were you offended as a Jew when John MacArthur was giving you the gospel message about Jesus?” he said, “No. But two reasons I wasn’t offended: one, I knew he believed it with all his heart; and two, I knew he cared about me and he felt I needed to know that.”
He’s a fine guy in many, many ways. But I think we have to – well, we have to preach the gospel whatever the response might be. But you might be surprised that being direct communicates compassion and care and love, and that your own conviction is really your conviction.
PHIL: Yeah. You excel at that, John. You were on a string of Larry King Live programs there for several years, and they were all great. I asked you once, “Were you nervous going on there?” and you said no, you knew what you were going to say no matter what he asked. You were going to say what you had planned.
JOHN: The questions were irrelevant.
PHIL: Right. My response was I was nervous for you. I was always nervous for you.
JOHN: You know what Larry King said to me one day? Somebody asked me down there in the studio when we were between things, and they said to me, “Does this make you nervous?” some other person on the panel. And Larry interrupted and said, “He’s not nervous. I know nervous; he’s not nervous.”
And you know, we talked about that off – and I said, “The reason I’m not nervous is I know what I’m going to say.” I said, “I know the two things I want to say: ‘The Bible is the only divine authority, and Jesus is the only Savior.’ I don’t care what the question is.”
PHIL: Well, it’s still very remarkable, because even if I knew what I was going to say, if you set Deepak Chopra next to me and I knew he was hostile, it would rattle me.
JOHN: Well, no. Deepak, no. You know, Deepak has a problem, because Deepak is very small, and he thinks he’s God. He’s a pantheist and he thinks he’s God.
PHIL: Literally think’s he’s God?
JOHN: But pantheism may be limited to everyone but me, because he does not like me. But the interesting thing about him is he always wanted his chair cranked up so he got to my level, because it’s hard to be God and be shorter than people who… You get the dilemma, right?
PHIL: All right, let me get back to the question I asked earlier about changes that needed to be made. What were some of those changes?
JOHN: We needed to put spiritual leadership in the hands of the right godly men; that was the number one issue, and that’s why I started that class; and we needed to take spiritual authority away from the wrong people. There were, I don’t know, five, six, seven boards around here that were making all kinds of judgments made up of all kinds of people of who knows where. So there were people who needed to stop having official responsibility and people who needed to be given spiritual responsibility.
PHIL: It’s really hard for someone with your depth of conviction to be patient when changes like that need to be made. So what did you do?
JOHN: You’re never going to get them anywhere if you don’t love them in the process.
JOHN: I remember there was this big guy named Frank, and one of the early times he introduced me and he said, “This young guy thinks he’s going to come and be a leader around here; we’ll see.” That was the introduction to a large group. He was really snide and cocky. So next time I saw him I put my arm partway around him and just told him I was going to be praying for him and I loved him, and if there’s anything I could ever do for him I wanted him to let me know. You just don’t gain anything if you just start having grudges about people.
I had patio protests out here, a whole Sunday School class sitting in the patio with their backs to the Worship Center.
PHIL: But this is a group of people in the church?
PHIL: We get protests now every now and then, but it’s –
JOHN: Oh, yeah, I know. But this is a Sunday School class of adults because we took away their teacher because he was teaching bad stuff.
PHIL: That’s a story I hadn’t heard.
JOHN: “That’s our teacher”; you know how a guy’s been teaching a class for a long time. There was a silent patio protest. So I just had a meeting with them and I said – I just started the meeting by saying, “I read 1 Corinthians 3. Are you not carnal? What are you doing?” But in the process you confront them with truth, but you have to love people in the process.
The potential to make enemies over a half a century in the same church is massive, it is massive. I mean, “Who doesn’t offend with his tongue is a perfect man.” That’s not me. And how many other offenses have I laid down in half a century? How do you overcome that? I’m more concerned about me than I am about somebody else’s issues with me.
PHIL: Wow, that’s pretty good.
JOHN: Take heed to yourself and your doctrine, and you exhibit patience; and in the process you’ve got to reprove, rebuke. Probably the biggest, most dramatic change that we made in the church was to introduce church discipline.
PHIL: How far into your ministry?
JOHN: Oh, just a few months.
JOHN: Yeah. And I didn’t know any church anywhere anytime that I’d ever heard of that did church discipline. And I asked a few pastors and they said, “You’ll empty the place, you cannot do that. You mean you’re going to stand up in a church service and give somebody’s name and tell their sin and put them out?” I said, “Well that’s what it says; it’s not difficult.” But we have to do it. We have to do this, this is what Scripture says. And it was months, it was a few months.
There was a guy in the church who was an elder, a piano player and teacher of a Sunday School class. So he came to me, he and his wife, and said, “We have a daughter who’s going to get married and she’s going to marry this divorced guy from Las Vegas. And he’s not a Christian, but we’re praying for him. But she’s going to marry this guy and we want to have the wedding at the church, and we’d like you to do it.” Okay, that’s not going to happen.
So I went to the elders and I told them what the story was, and they said, “Well, we’ve got to do it; he’s involved in the church.” I said, “We will violate the clear instruction of Scripture if we marry a believer and an unbeliever. What concord has Christ with belial,” and went through all that.
I can’t do that. I cannot do that. I cannot flagrantly disobey such a clear command. They said, “Okay, we’ll have it in the church and somebody else will do it.” This was a moment. This is a moment in history in which this church turned. I said, “Who’s church is this? Is this your church, is this my church, or is this the church of the Lord Jesus Christ?” And one guy said, “We can’t do it. We can’t do it.”
That whole family left this church. The price was high, but the moment transformed this church.
JOHN: And I’m thankful for that, because that was so clear cut. It wasn’t like Solomon cutting the baby in half.
PHIL: Caused any angst at the time?
JOHN: No. No. No, right never causes me angst.
PHIL: Not even when you were younger?
JOHN: You mean like I worried about what would happen?
PHIL: No, just – I mean, that’s a difficult situation to go through, right?
JOHN: Well, I felt bad for the people, and I tried to be kind to them and just let them know that I can’t do this; this is not going to honor the Lord.
PHIL: You would have been probably the youngest of the elders at that time, right?
PHIL: Was there anyone else? I mean, you mentioned the guy that said you’re younger.
JOHN: Well, there was one other story you need to know. I came in 1968, on December 21, 1968. Three astronauts, Apollo 8, went around the moon and came back. This is massive. I mean, this is the moment, right, of all moments in American exploration history. We’re in a race with the Russians, so this is ’68 in December, 21. Four weeks before that there was a guest preacher here – I won’t give his name – who preached a sermon on “Why God Will Never Allow Man to Reach the Moon.” So it was silly.
PHIL: He had biblical reasons for that?
JOHN: Yeah, he tried. I wasn’t here then, so I don’t know. But it’s kind of an interesting tale. Six months later or so, I think it was July 21st of 1969, they’re walking on the moon, and so everybody kind of associated my coming here with all that moon stuff, because I came in the middle between the two moon deals. But just to show you, they actually had a preacher who said something the Lord wouldn’t do and it happened immediately. They saw the foolishness of that, and I think they wanted some more seriousness. I think they were ready for the teaching of the Word of God.
PHIL: Right, right. So the more you’re teaching them, the more –
JOHN: Yeah, and they never resisted it, that there were questions always. But they never resisted the teaching, particularly I think because I was teaching John in the morning, Sunday morning; and you can’t improve on the person of Christ. So compelling, so magnificent, so glorious in the gospel of John. I just wanted them to – the ones that weren’t converted – to come to Christ, and I wanted the rest to love Him more. And I think going two years through the gospel of John focused this, the whole church on the Lord Himself. And then we did a lot of teaching about spiritual gifts, because I believe that the body of Christ – first book I wrote, The Church: The Body of Christ. That was early in the ministry here – I don’t remember the year it was.
Then that guy came to write an article about the church. And we had 900 people then, and he had titled the article – Lowell Sanders from Moody, and he wrote – the article title was “Church With 900 Ministers.” And that was his observation, that people were busy ministering. And those were the two early – focusing on Christ and seeing the church as the body of Christ where everyone is gifted and every serves. Those were transformative years for our church.
PHIL: Right. I was talking earlier with Sinclair Ferguson. He said that – I think he said it was a pastor who mentored him who celebrated 50 years in the same ministry, and he was asking him about – this was years ago – asking him about –
JOHN: Was that Willie Still? Yeah.
PHIL: And he said, “How did you do it? What was the secret to the longevity of your ministry and all?” and that pastor told him it was more like multiple ministries, seasons of ministry, that things pass and you realize – and I know you’ve had this experience. You realize you’re actually ministering to a group of people who weren’t there at the beginning. You almost have to go back and redo some of them.
JOHN: You can go a lot of places and minister to different churches, or you can stay in the same place and minister to different churches.
PHIL: Right. How many seasons of ministry like that would you clock?
JOHN: You have not only an ebb and flow of people seasons, but churches have seasons. There’s winters and there’s summer and there’s spring. Churches go through seasons of trial and seasons of joy and seasons of challenge and seasons of flourishing. But there’s an ebb and flow. If you go back to the beginning there’s still charter members here. And I’m also ministering to the fourth generation, to the great-grandchildren of the people who were here at the beginning.
But in the process, this church has absorbed the city of Los Angeles, and it looks like LA, as it should, because this is the Lord’s church in Los Angeles. So it’s changed as the city has changed. This was originally a Jewish community, totally Jewish community all around this thing; that’s why the synagogue is down the block. It has morphed, and we think there’s about 11 languages within a 5-mile radius here. And there’s a Buddhist temple on the other end.
PHIL: So it’s a Thai community now.
JOHN: Yeah. And then there’s a lot of Arabic people. I’ve said this through the years: if you tried to follow the church growth experts and find some target culture, we wouldn’t know which one to pick. In fact, when Fuller Seminary started doing church growth stuff under Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner – was kind of a goofy guy for sure. But they were doing these church growth things at Fuller with McGavran and World Mission and all that. Peter Wagner said, “We want to bring people to Grace because we’re the fastest-growing church.” And they were all into ’01, ’02, ’03, and all that analysis of you pick a culture, you pick a target culture, and you do everything that suits that culture, and you drive your church in that cultural direction.
And so, Peter Wagner, these modular classes, he’d bring these guys over, and I’d sit down and spend a couple hours talking with them. And they’d bring him to a church service. After doing that for, I don’t know, maybe a year or several different classes, he called me and said, “I’m not doing it anymore,” he said, “because it confuses our students, because you don’t fit the model.” So I said, “Peter, that’s pretty selective research. Maybe the model needs to be adjusted. But we were always diverse, and continue to be diverse, which is absolutely wonderful.
PHIL: There are lots of ways that you don’t fit the narrative, and I get the feeling you like that.
JOHN: No, it’s not a matter of like it. I just want to be biblical. I don’t worry.
PHIL: Well, here you are five miles north, maybe nine miles north of Hollywood, the entertainment capital of the world really; and yet of all of the pastors I know in large churches and influential ministries, you are the least interested in trying to connect with the culture or whatever. It’s like to you as a –
JOHN: We have a culture, it’s called the kingdom of God.
PHIL: Right. Talk about that, because in a way, it is the secret I think to the future longevity of your ministry and the far-reaching aspect of it, that because you’re not into cultural issues, but you’re teaching Scripture and explaining Scripture with Scripture, and illustrating Scripture with biblical anecdotes, it translates into any culture and any time.
JOHN: Yeah. I don’t really care what the culture’s doing. I mean, it ebbs and flows and shifts and changes. What does it have to do with the kingdom of God? It has nothing to do with the kingdom of God. My kingdom is not of this world; they don’t offer me anything. I don’t need to understand anything about them other than what the Bible tells me about them. I’m not looking for cultural cues.
Now I will say, “Tonight I’ll talk a little bit about 1 Corinthians 9, becoming all things to all men,” I understand that. But that’s been prostituted to make it mean something it doesn’t mean at all. I don’t want to be insensitive. But I have just watched the nations of the world come to Grace Church, and culture is part of their heritage, but doesn’t intrude into the kingdom of God in any sense. So I’m not looking for anything for the world to give me, any clues or any cues or any supposed access to hearts.
The Word of God is alive and powerful, it’s sharper than any weapon. The Spirit saves through the Word. By the Word of Truth you’re begotten again. So I’ve never thought about culture. In fact, I think when you do that you inevitably get too close to it; and then it’s hard to draw the line for your people.
PHIL: Right. One last question. You’re not only pastor of Grace Community Church, but you head a number of very large and complex organizations. How do you do that and manage your time? What’s the secret to that? And in the midst of all that, how much sleep do you get every night on average?
JOHN: It depends on how much my wife wants to talk to me. And I love talking to her. But, no. Well, you know the answer to that, Phil, because you are one of those people that make it possible for me to stand here and preach, because I don’t have to manage Grace to You – which I’m not wired to do that anyway. It’s just –
PHIL: You still lead us, you know.
JOHN: How do I do that?
PHIL: Just by example and precept and –
JOHN: But I don’t tell you what to do.
PHIL: Not unless we do something wrong, and then…
JOHN: There is some truth in that.
PHIL: Yeah. There’s a lot of truth in that.
JOHN: Yeah. I just think the Lord surrounds you with people. I mean, you could ask the same thing about anybody in a corporate situation; there’s a certain leadership that you provide. And I provide that not so much in a personal way – although for some people that’s true. But primarily in articulating with clarity the message and the mission from the pulpit and whatever other books or whatever. But it’s just the Lord has just collected people around us.
It’s just that it’s amazing how many incredibly gifted people the Lord has brought to Grace Church through the years, and then gone through here and gone out. We have about 100 missionaries now out in TMAI training thousands of pastors and church leaders around the world. And we just added about three new schools – one in Lebanon, and one in Brazil, and one in Japan – and ready to add another one in French Canada Quebec; and this is just guys training the next generation of pastors and leaders. Yeah, it’s just amazing; and I’m a spectator.
I need to say this. This is not my vision, I never had a vision. The only vision I ever had I married. Nobody knows the future. No one knows the future. All I can do is teach the Word of God, live a faithful life, disciple the people that God gives me; and only He knows the future.
And I think you have to be very careful. The most popular con in the evangelical world is for some guy to say, “The Lord gave me the vision of this, we need to plant ten churches here and five over here, and build this, and do that, and do that.” When you start hearing that, it’s a good time to go out the back door, because somebody’s about to steal your wallet. And what’s going to drive that is personal ambition, not any word from heaven, because God’s not giving that kind of revelation.
PHIL: Right. Well, John, I want to say this, and I know I speak for multitudes: thank you for your faithfulness, because there is no more profound influence in my life, no better example I’ve ever seen in the flesh; and just grateful for your faithfulness over all these years. And I know I speak for all of us just to say thank you for what you teach us.
JOHN: Thank you, Phil.
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