What Sermons Changed John Piper’s and H. B. Charles’s Lives?

What Sermons Changed John Piper’s and H. B. Charles’s Lives?

A conversation with H. B. Charles and John Piper


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

John Piper: The first one that came to my mind was Jonathan Edwards’s “A Divine and Spiritual Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul.”

It’s an exposition of Matthew 16:17, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven,” but really, the reason that it made the impact it did is because it’s more of an exposition of 2 Corinthians 4:6, “the God of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.” So, it confirmed, in my early days, this emerging conviction about the sovereignty of God in salvation by making so clear that what really happens in conversion is that a blind person is given divine and supernatural light. I mean, that’s how we got saved. Once our hearts were finding nothing beautiful in Jesus, nothing attractive in Jesus, and then, one day, He’s everything to us. How does that happen?

And Edwards, in a magnificent way, in that sermon, unfolds not only verse four, which is the blindness, but then the solution in verse six where it says, “the God who said let light shine out of darkness has shone into our heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” and if you stop and think about it, what is that? The eyes of your hearts being enlightened to see new light, spiritual light, and it’s a magnificent, beautiful miracle that we need to explain to our people, if we’re pastors, and that we need to have tasted. So, that was just a magnificent experience to encounter such a beautiful description of what happened to me when I couldn’t even remember it. He taught me, the Bible taught me through Edwards how I got saved and that text was the key one, even to this day. It’s probably more seminal in the way that I think about my theology and how I believe the Bible is true and what I believe about conversion and how I preach than any other text.

But that’s probably enough. I’ve got another sermon but we’ll see. I want to hear what H.B. says.

H.B. Charles: Yeah. I think in my own life and walk with the Lord, God regularly over the years meets me through texts, through people He brings into my life, through books, but also through sermons. So, like Dr. Piper said, it’s hard to narrow, but hearing the question, what came to my mind among several marking points for me was the week I turned 18 years old, I am a young, a very, very young pastor as a teenager, and I have a guest in town. And he tells me as we’re riding to his hotel, that E.K. Bailey is in town and he asked could we go hear him the next day in the middle of the day. And I didn’t know who E.K. Bailey was, a pastor from Dallas, Texas.

And we went and that sermon marked me in two ways. First of all, it was in Joshua. It was  the aftermath of the defeat at Ai. The message was called “reclaiming lost ground.” And just as a young man, a young minister, a new pastor, just the warning of sin, the importance of obedience, and the picture of grace that he preached there, God just used to impact me.

Secondly, it was the first time I had heard in my cultural setting and upbringing expositional preaching. I had been reading books on expositional preaching but I had not seen it done in the setting that I grew up in. And it was the first…I didn’t even know what to call it. He just…what I remember thinking about that was that he explained the text, as novel as that, he was just explaining the text.

And I walked out of the room and I said to the people with me, “I don’t know what that was. But whatever that was, I want to commit the rest of my life to it.” And so, the message itself got used as a young minister to challenge me to live obediently, and at the same time, God used that to seal the deal that expositional preaching was the right way to handle God’s word. And that sermon still affects me in both ways to this day.

John Piper: You know while you were talking, I thought of a totally different sermon than what I had in mind because of your age when you said, 18 did you say?

Charles: Yes, sir.

Piper: So, I’m 20 years old in Wheaton College. I’ve got mononucleosis in the hospital, three weeks, on my way to being a doctor, a medical doctor, and I had to drop organic chemistry because I’m in the hospital for three weeks. The radio beside me ] is giving the sermons from Harold John Ockenga, 200 yards away in the chapel, Edman Chapel, and I’m sitting there listening having that experience. I’m watching him handle the word, I mean, I’m hearing it on the radio, hearing him handle the word and everything in me said, “I want to do that. I don’t know if I can preach. I don’t know if I can teach. I just want to know the word and handle the word like that.”

And my whole life turned around. I thank God for mononucleosis and three weeks in the hospital and having to drop organic chemistry and having Harold John Ockenga. And I don’t remember the text. I don’t remember anything except I would love to handle the word like that. So, preaching begets preachers. It does.

Sermons shape us. Sometimes they shape us because the preaching is excellent. Sometimes they shape us because the timing is right, and the preacher says exactly what we need to hear. And sometimes they shape us in spite of the preacher, because “the Word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9). If God’s Word is a sharp sword (Heb. 4:12), it can cut even when wielded by a novice.

Both H. B. Charles and John Piper are skilled and experienced preachers, but they trust in the sharpness of God’s Word rather than their own swordsmanship. That fact comes through in their discussions of the sermons that shaped their lives.

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