January 4, 2010. It was a cold day in Atlanta, Georgia, and I had just finished grabbing a bite to eat for dinner and heading toward the Phillips Arena for the evening session of the Passion Conference. I was nineteen at the time, a college freshman who came into town for winter break and to travel along with my former youth group and some other college students to attend the conference.
Ever since I was six years old, I have been a self-prescribed “believer.” It was when I was this early age that I began to ask questions about faith to my parents and pastor. It was at this age when I walked the aisle, prayed the prayer, was baptized, and began to tell my friends the good news of the gospel. I was raised in church, stepping into worship bands and mission trips as I grew older. My nineteen-year-old self was coming into this conference with mostly excitement about the worship and hanging out with friends. I wasn’t expecting my world to be changed on January 4, 2010.
I had never heard John Piper speak before. I had heard his name before, but knew virtually nothing of him. I didn’t even know he wasn’t the guy who wrote 90 Minutes in Heaven for some time. The first time I saw what Piper looked like was when I was looking up the speaking lineup for Passion. It was odd to me, this older, less “marketable” guy hanging out with people like Francis Chan, Louie Giglio, Andy Stanley, and so forth. Why was this guy here? How does he fit the Passion mold? What could he possibly have to teach me?
As we took our seats after a worship service full of lights, sounds, and raised hands, Piper approached the pulpit. He then began to speak, and the projector screens flashed to his first slide, the title of the sermon: “Is Jesus an Egomaniac?” I was a bit perturbed by this question. Egomaniac? Aren’t those strong, maybe even offensive words? Nonetheless I pulled out my Bible and notepad, more out of impulse and guilt than a desire to learn.
As Piper began to speak, I was captivated. As he began to tell anecdotes in light of his sermon title, he said something significant.
I don’t think that what we are seeing here is a small, marginal, or tricky opposition to Christianity. I think what Erik Reece, C.S. Lewis, Michael Prowse, and Oprah Winfrey are seeing touches the very center of Christianity.
When he said, “the very center of Christianity,” I was caught, like a fish who bit hard on a hook hidden in the bait. Piper then began to share about dealing with this “crucial issue” in his own life, how he was confronted with this issue at 23 years old — just a few years older than me at the time. He talked about reading something by Jonathan Edwards, a name I had never heard before, and then Piper reflected on his reading:
What became clear to me, and remains clear to this day, is that many Christians think it is good for us to be God-centered, but don’t feel at all comfortable with God being God-centered. We should be Christ-exalting, but Christ shouldn’t be Christ-exalting.
Now I wasn’t merely engaged in his sermon. Now, I was struck. I was diagnostically evaluating my own life. I know I should be centered on God, but is God God-centered? I thought I was the center.
The gears were now spinning hotly in my head. Piper began to lay out the foundation for his argument — that God is God-centered, a.k.a. an “egomaniac” — with a slew of verses now read in new light for me. Isaiah 48:9–11, 2 Thessalonians 1:9–10, and then most noticeably Ephesians 1:4–6. These verses were now flying off the page, invading my understanding of the gospel with near-violent force. God is for God!
Piper then explained the cross of Christ as the center of God’s plan. I knew the cross was important before, even necessary, but to call it the center was new. Propitiation was a new word for me. As Piper wrapped up his message, I looked down at a full two pages of notes, a Bible filled with small quotes and phrasings, and an overwhelmed yet enlightened mind still spinning from the past forty-five minutes. People around me were responding in their own manners. Some verbally booed him off stage. Some sat in silence. Some threatened to leave because of the audacity of his message. Some seemed unaffected. But me personally, I was moved.
People ask you the moment you knew that you were saved. I professed faith when I was six. I was baptized when I was six. I sat under great preaching all my teenage years. I took the sacraments as a kid. But it was that January 4, 2010, in that stadium chair of Phillips Arena, under the compassionate and riveting preaching of John Piper, that my heart was warmed to the doctrines of grace, and I was awakened to the goodness of the glory of God in a way I had never been before. Was I converted that night? I don’t know. But I do know this — that night was life-changing. After the conference, I bought John Piper’s book, Desiring God, and the rest is history.
Today we celebrate John Piper’s 70th birthday, and we hope that God will grace him with dozens more. I owe this man of God my deepest gratitude, not simply for what he did on that evening in Atlanta, but for what he has done since. His compassionate zeal for preaching the Word faithfully has grown from something I respect into something I desire to adopt as I now pursue ministry. His unwavering yet warmhearted embrace of Biblical theology and doctrine is the way I want to study. His desire to reach the world with the gospel by giving away or preparing resources is unmatched. His hope to see others see and savor the glory of Christ has leaked into my mission statement for my ministry. His influence is unmissable; his life has not been wasted.
Every time I read Paul’s sweet words in Philippians 1:18–26, I think of John Piper, and I also think of the kind of minister I hope to be.
Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
Thank you, John, for your ministry. I and thousands of others like me would not find joy in the glory of God the way we do if it wasn’t for you. Happy birthday and God bless you.