Editors’ note: John Piper—founder and teacher of desiringGod.org, chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, and TGC Council member—on how we process the moral failures of our historical heroes (such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther King Jr., and Martin Luther) even as we continue to learn from them.
I'll say, before I even mention the specifics, how difficult I find this question. And I’ll maybe mention a couple of reasons. But here’s what we have in mind, Martin Luther and his virulent anti-Semitism. John Wesley was not your most attentive husband—neither was [George] Whitefield. Whitefield and Edwards both owned slaves. Edwards, one or two all of his life, probably. Martin Luther King Jr.—unfaithful to his wife repeatedly in his sexual misconduct. And, of course, the list could go on and on.
One of the reasons this is so difficult for me is because—if I just take that group right there—the sins are so different from person to person. The times and the morés and the expectations in which they lived were so different. The levels of consciousness about whether they were sinning—some believing they weren’t, some believing they were—are different in each of those cases. The level of conflict in their own soul that we can’t even see, but sometimes gets expressed. And the level of contrition that emerges, maybe, at the end of their life. I’m thinking of Luther, in particular, on that one.
In other words, all of those factors might be relevant for whether you're going to put somebody's sin in the category of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, where Paul says, “Those who do such things will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” So you can say a Martin Luther or a Whitefield or an Edwards or a Martin Luther King was not saved. They’re unregenerate. That’s a really big call, and very difficult to make from the distance of hundreds of years or decades.
So here’s where I wind up. My approach to life would go something like this. Be a part of a local church. And if you know someone in your church, in your sphere of influence, who’s walking in unrepentant racism or anti-Semitism or sexual immorality, then you go to that person, you exhort them, and you ask them to repent. And then you follow the steps of Matthew 18, and if necessary, you lead them into church discipline, and if necessary, they get ex-communicated from the church. That’s the way we deal with real-life sinning in our lives.
Now, what about those who are dead, who’ve written books that we have found helpful? And I think a few things would guide us here. We need to acknowledge and be ready to admit the worst. It’s possible that a person was unregenerate that we have admired. And I think we should hope for the best, and we should be slow to pass final judgment on a Luther or an Edwards or a King.
Instead, I think we should be consciously aware of their sins and call them out. Call them out. Name them; don’t white-wash it. Say the sin. And we should take that sin and watch out for its effects in their books. And that’s really important. In other words, if we say, “Here is a man who is a racist,” what could have possibly, in his theology or in his sermons, been affected by that, so we don’t get contaminated by that? So I think, if we’re willing to follow that, then the place to end up is be thankful that we can judge their writings’ usefulness by Scripture and not by their life.
If you read a sermon—and say you don't even know who wrote it—and the sermon ministers deeply to you. And then you find out that the person had serious sin in his life, does that nullify the spiritual effect of the truth? And the answer is it shouldn’t if there’s real biblical warrant for that truth.
And maybe the last thing to say in this inadequate answer is the Bible itself encourages us that God uses flawed people, even to write Scripture. I was just blown away recently by re-thinking the life of Moses. The last thing we encounter with Moses is God sternly saying, “You did not believe me at the waters. You struck the rock, you disobeyed me. You didn’t believe me. You will not enter into the promised land.” So here’s a man who’s writing the first five books of the Bible, forbidden from going into the promised land because his disobedience was so serious, God wouldn’t even let him set foot in the promised land.
And then you got Peter who, over there in Galatians 2, is deserting Gentile fellowship, totally out of sync with his own doctrine of justification by faith. And Paul has to get on his case to set him right again. And I love the book of 1 Peter. I love it. It’s true.
So I think we should probably be slow to judge and yet never white-wash the sins of any pastor or any writer. Call them out on it. Be alert to how those sins might have influenced their writings, and then profit from the writings to the degree that they are in sync with Scripture.