Two Johns are among the most well-recognized and respected voices of the Reformed stream of Christianity in America today: Dr. John Piper and Dr. John Macarthur. The two respect each other, and have occasionally partnered together in various ministries (in particular, Piper’s invitations to Macarthur to speak at Desiring God events). Both are gifted expositors; both are passionate about God’s word; both are dedicated to the good of the church.
In my listening to both of them, one distinct difference comes up—one that is probably as much personality as anything, and which I am not going to make too much of, other than as a starting point for the rest of this post. John Piper is a good deal kinder to those who disagree with him. Macarthur and Piper are both firebrands; that is a significant part of what I like about them. But Piper draws his circle in the sand a good deal more generously than Macarthur does.
He has encouraged the “Young, Restless and Reformed” crowd not to make the mistake of separating too quickly or easily from other believers with whom they (we) have disagreements. Macarthur, by contrast, is quite happy to pronounce that others are in serious, dangerous error over what I believe are secondary (if nonetheless important) issues: the exact timing and means of creation and a Calvinist soteriology being the two strongest examples I can think of. As I said, a great deal of this is probably personality, and I do not mean this as criticism of Macarthur, whose ministry I respect.
Even so, I appreciate Piper’s even-handed and courteous treatment of those he disagrees with—his strong but generous treatment of N. T. Wright in their ongoing discussion of justification being a prime example.
As I was thinking this through earlier, I realized that it goes to the heart of an issue I have mentally chewed on a great deal recently: the question of where we ought to condemn and where we ought to disagree. For example, I would argue that Open Theism fits in the first category, along with modalism, works salvation, and other major heresies. So do cultish views like those espoused by Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. These views fundamentally and irreconcilably distort the nature of God, our relationship to him and the gospel itself.
By contrast, I think the Calvinism-Arminian discussion fits squarely in the second category. While I disagree with the Arminian view, that makes little difference fellowship: my Arminian brothers stand well within the circle of orthodoxy. I might say the same on a number of other issues, including baptism, eschatology, and church government. In each case, I have strong, carefully thought through views—but I recognize that in those cases, they are not grounds for sundering Christian fellowship. However important these issues are, and they are very important, they are not irreconcilable differences on the gospel and the person of God. That, I think, is the difference.
(Whether they are grounds for splitting churches in another, although closely related, topic. I will be taking it up at Pillar on the Rock sometime in the next few months, so keep an eye out.)
A few months ago, I led our small group in a discussion of Titus. One of the themes of Titus is contending for sound doctrine. The elders Titus appointed were to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). Titus himself was to “rebuke [insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers] sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (1:13). Paul reminded him, “Declare these things [the gospel], exhort and rebuke with all authority” (2:15) and later reiterated this point, writing, “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things [the gospel], so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (3:8). Immediately following, though, he continues:
But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
The gospel summaries Paul offers stand as the foundation of the rest of the letter—and in stark opposition to the divisiveness Paul opposes. He allowed no room in the church for bickering and squabbling over secondary issues. People who stirred up division should not be tolerated. There is a hill to die on, in Paul’s mind—but it was not the hot-button issues of the day (genealogies may sound boring, but to a 1st-century Jew, they were as significant as many of our theological controversies today). He defines “these things” rather simply:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
This is the hill I will die on. On every other point, I will be as peaceable as I can, doing everything possible to preserve the bond of peace between me and my brothers and sisters in Christ. Though I will argue strenuously for my views, I will not ultimately break fellowship over them. But on the gospel itself, and on the nature of God himself, I will not budge.
Here is where I have learned from Dr. Piper: he is deeply, passionately committed to getting Jesus Christ and his gospel right. As passionate as he is about believer’s baptism, church membership, and a host of other issues, he is first and foremost committed to the gospel—and when he rebukes another view (or even more rarely, publically rebukes another leader), he does so graciously and kindly, doing his best to preserve peace. Would we were all so committed to making Christ known by loving unity even in the midst of disagreement.
Our differences will not go away, and we should not attempt to trivialize them; yet neither should we allow them to divide us and so obscure the unity that Christ bought us with his blood.