“To Live Upon God That is Invisible”, suffering and service of John Bunyan by John Piper


To Live Upon God That is Invisible 

Suffering and Service in the life of John Bunyan

by John Piper (1999)

“Bless You, Prison, for Having Been in My Life!”
In 1672, about 50 miles northwest of London in Bedford, John Bunyan was released from twelve years of imprisonment. He was 44 years old. Just before his release (it seems) he updated his spiritual autobiography called Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. He looked back over the hardships of the last 12 years and wrote about how he was enabled by God to survive and even flourish in the Bedford jail. One of his comments gives me the title for this message about Bunyan’s life.

He quotes 2 Corinthians 1:9 where Paul says, “We had this sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God that raiseth the dead.” Then he says,

By this scripture I was made to see that if ever I would suffer rightly, I must first pass a sentence of death upon everything that can be properly called a thing of this life, even to reckon myself, my wife, my children, my health, my enjoyment, and all, as dead to me, and myself as dead to them. The second was, to live upon God that is invisible, as Paul said in another place; the way not to faint, is to “look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

The phrase that I have fastened on for the title and focus of this study of Bunyan is the phrase, “to live upon God that is invisible.” He discovered that if we are to suffer rightly we must die not only to sin, but to the innocent and precious things of this world including family and freedom. We must “live upon God that is invisible.” Everything else in the world we must count as dead to us and we to it. That was Bunyan’s passion from the time of his conversion as a young married man to the day of his death when he was 60 years old.

Suffering: Normal and Essential
In all my reading of Bunyan, what has gripped me most is his suffering and how he responded to it. What it made of him. And what it might make of us. All of us come to our tasks with a history and many predispositions. I come to John Bunyan with a growing sense that suffering is a normal and useful and essential and God-ordained element in Christian life and ministry. Not only for the sake of weaning us off the world and teaching us to live on God, as 2 Corinthians 1:9 says, but also to make pastors more able to love the church (2 Tim. 2:10; Col. 1:24) and make missionaries more able to reach the nations (Matt. 10:16-28), so that so that they can learn to live on God and not the bread that perishes (John 6:27).

I am influenced in the way I read Bunyan by both what I see in the world today and what I see in the Bible. I see the persecution of the church in Indonesia with its church burnings; in Sudan with its systematic starvation and enslavement; in China with its repression of religious freedom and lengthy imprisonments; in India with its recent Hindu mob violence and murder two weeks ago of Graham Staines, a 30-year missionary veteran with his seven- and nine-year-old sons; and the estimate reported in this month’s International Bulletin of Missionary Research of 164,000 Christian martyrs in 1999.

I see 10,000 dead in Honduras and Nicaragua in the path of hurricane Mitch. I see 1,000 killed by an earthquake last week in Armenia, Colombia. I see hundreds slaughtered in Kosovo. I see 16,000 new people infected with the HIV virus every day, with 2.3 million people dying of AIDS in 1997, 460,000 of these under age 15, and 8.4 million children orphaned by AIDS. And, of course, I see the people suffering in my own church with tuberculosis and lupus and heart disease and blindness, not to mention the hundreds of emotional and relational pangs that people would trade any day for a good clean amputation.

And as I come to Bunyan’s life and suffering, I see in the Bible that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom” (Acts 14:22); and the promise of Jesus, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20); and the warning from Peter “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12); and the utter realism of Paul that we who “have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23); and the reminder that “our outer nature is wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16); and that the whole creation “was subjected to futility” (Rom. 8:20).

As I look around me in the world and in the Word, my own sense is that what we need from Bunyan right now is a glimpse into how he suffered and how he learned to “live on God that is invisible.” I want that for myself, and I want that for my people, and I want that for you pastors and for your people, because nothing glorifies God more than when we maintain our stability and even our joy having lost everything but God (Hab. 3:17-18). That day is coming for each of us, and we do well to get ready, and help our people get ready.

The Times of the Redwoods
John Bunyan was born in Elstow, about a mile south of Bedford, England November 30, 1628, the same year that William Laud became the bishop of London during the reign of king Charles I. That connection with Bishop Laud is important because you can’t understand the sufferings of Bunyan apart from the religious and political times he lived in.

In those days there were tremendous conflicts between Parliament and monarchy. Bishop Laud, together with Charles I opposed the reforms of the Church of England desired by the Puritans. Oliver Cromwell was elected to Parliament in 1640 and civil war broke out in 1642 between the forces loyal to the king and those loyal to Parliament. In 1645, the Parliament took control of the Monarchy. Bishop Laud was executed that year and the use of the Book of Common Prayer was overthrown. The Westminster Assembly completed the Westminster Confession for the dominant Presbyterian church in 1646, and the king was beheaded in 1649. Cromwell led the new Commonwealth until his death in 1658. His main concern was a stable government with freedom of religion for Puritans, like John Bunyan and others. “Jews, who had been excluded from England since 1290, were allowed to return in 1655.”

After Cromwell’s death his son Richard was unable to hold the government together. The longing for stability with a new king swelled. (How quickly the favor of man can turn!) The Parliament turned against the Nonconformists like John Bunyan and passed a series of acts that resulted in increasing restrictions on the Puritan preachers. Charles II was brought home in what is known as the Restoration of the Monarchy, and proclaimed king in 1660, the same year that Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching without state approval.

Two Thousand Pastors Ejected
In 1662, the Act of Uniformity was passed that required acceptance of the Prayer Book and Episcopal ordination That August, 2,000 Puritan pastors were forced out of their churches. Twelve years later there was a happy turn of affairs with the Declaration of Religious Indulgence that resulted in Bunyan’s freedom, his license to preach and his call as the official pastor of the non-conformist church in Bedford. But there was political instability until he died in 1688 at the age of 60. He was imprisoned one other time in the mid 1670’s when he probably wrote Pilgrim’s Progress.

These were the days of John Bunyan’s sufferings, and we must be careful not to overstate or understate the terror of the days. We would overstate it if we thought he was tortured in the Bedford jail. In fact, some jailers let him out to see his family or make brief trips. But we would understate it if we thought he was not in frequent danger of execution. For example, in the Bloody Assizes of 1685, 300 people were put to death in the western counties of England for doing no more than Bunyan did as a non-conformist pastor.

Young Heartache and Fear
Bunyan learned the trade of metalworking or “tinker” or “brasyer” from his father. He received the ordinary education of the poor to read and write, but nothing more. He had no formal higher education of any kind, which makes his writing and influence all the more astonishing. The more notable suffering of his life begins in his teens. In 1644, when he was 15, his mother and sister died within one month of each other. His sister was 13. To add to the heartache, his father remarried within a month. All this while not many miles away in that same month of loss the king attacked a church in Leighton and “began to cut and wound right and left.” And later that fall, when Bunyan had turned 16, he was drafted into the Parliamentary Army. For about two years was taken from his home for military service. There were harrowing moments he tells us, as once when a man took his place as a sentinel and was shot in the head with a musket ball and died.

Bunyan was not a believer during this time. He tells us, “I had few equals, especially considering my years, which were tender, for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God . . . Until I came to the state of marriage, I was the very ringleader of all the youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness.”

Precious Books Came with His Wife
He “came to the state of matrimony” when he was 20 or 21, but we never learn his first wife’s name. What we do learn is that she was poor, but had a godly father who had died and left her two books that she brought to the marriage, The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety. Bunyan said, “In these two books I would sometimes read with her, wherein I also found some things that were somewhat pleasing to me; but all this while I met with no conviction.” But the work of God’s drawing him had begun.

They had four children, Mary, Elizabeth, John and Thomas. Mary, the oldest, was born blind. This not only added to the tremendous burden of his heart in caring for Mary and the others, it would make his imprisonment when Mary was 10 years old an agonizing separation.

“Thy Righteousness Is in Heaven”
During the first five years of marriage, Bunyan was profoundly converted to Christ and to the baptistic, non-conformist church life in Bedford. He came under the influence of John Gifford the pastor in Bedford and moved from Elstow to Bedford with his family and joined the church there in 1653, though he was not as sure as they were that he was a Christian. It’s hard to put a date on his conversion because in retelling the process in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners he includes almost no dates or times. But it was a lengthy and agonizing process.

He was pouring over the Scriptures but finding no peace or assurance. There were seasons of great doubt about the Scriptures and about his own soul. “A whole flood of blasphemies, both against God, Christ, and the Scriptures were poured upon my spirit, to my great confusion an astonishment . . . . How can you tell but that the Turks had as good scriptures to prove their Mahomet the Savior as we have to prove our Jesus?” “My heart was at times exceeding hard. If I would have given a thousand pounds for a tear, I could not shed one.”

When he thought that he was established in the gospel there came a season of overwhelming darkness following a terrible temptation when he heard the words, “sell and part with this most blessed Christ . . . . Let him go if he will.” He tells us that “I felt my heart freely consent thereto. Oh, the diligence of Satan; Oh, the desperateness of man’s heart.” For two years, he tells us, he was in the doom of damnation. “I feared that this wicked sin of mine might be that sin unpardonable.” “Oh, no one knows the terrors of those days but myself.” “I found it a hard work now to pray to God because despair was swallowing me up.”

Then comes what seemed to be the decisive moment.

One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And methought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants [=lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “The same yesterday, today, and forever.” Heb. 13:8. Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God [about the unforgivable sin] left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.”

Under God, one key influence here, besides Pastor Gifford in Bedford, was Martin Luther. “The God in whose hands are all our days and ways, did cast into my hand one day a book of Martin Luther’s; it was his Comment on Galatians . . . . I found my condition in his experience so largely and profoundly handled, as if his book had been written out of my heart . . . . I do prefer this book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, before all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience.”

A Preacher Is Born
So in 1655, when the matter of his soul was settled, he was asked to exhort the church, and suddenly a great preacher was discovered. He would not be licensed as a pastor of the Bedford church until 17 years later. But his popularity as a powerful lay preacher exploded. The extent of his work grew. “When the country understood that . . . the tinker had turned preacher,” John Brown tells us, “they came to hear the word by hundreds, and that from all parts.” Charles Doe, a comb maker in London, said (later in Bunyan’s life), “Mr. Bunyan preached no New Testament-like he made me admire and weep for joy, and give him my affections.” In the days of toleration, a day’s notice would get a crowd of 1200 to hear him preach at 7:00 o’clock in the morning on a weekday. Once, in prison, a whole congregation of 60 people were arrested and brought in at night. A witness tells us, “I . . . heard Mr. Bunyan both preach and pray with that mighty spirit of Faith and Plerophory of Divine Assistance, that . . . made me stand and wonder.” The greatest Puritan theologian and contemporary of Bunyan, John Owen, when asked by King Charles why he, a great scholar, went to hear an uneducated tinker preach said, “I would willingly exchange my learning for the tinker’s power of touching men’s hearts.”

The Incredible Elizabeth Bunyan
Ten years after he was married, when Bunyan was 30, his wife died in 1658, leaving him with four children under ten, one of them blind. A year later, he married Elizabeth who was a remarkable woman. The year after their marriage, Bunyan was arrested and put in prison. She was pregnant with their firstborn and miscarried in the crisis. Then she cared for the children as step mother for 12 years alone, and bore Bunyan two more children, Sarah and Joseph.

She deserves at least one story here about her valor in the way she went to the authorities in August of 1661, a year after John’s imprisonment. She had already been to London with one petition. Now she met with one stiff question:

“Would he stop preaching? ”

“My lord, he dares not leave off preaching as long a he can speak.”

“What is the need of talking?”

“There is need for this, my lord, for I have four small children that cannot help themselves, of which one is blind, and we have nothing to live upon but the charity of good people.”

Matthew Hale with pity asks if she really has four children being so young.

“My lord, I am but mother-in-law to them, having not been married to him yet full two years. Indeed, I was with child when my husband was first apprehended; but being young and unaccustomed to such things, I being smayed at the news, fell into labor, and so continued for eight days, and then was delivered; but my child died.”

Hale was moved, but other judges were hardened and spoke against him. “He is a mere tinker!”

“Yes, and because he is a tinker and a poor man, therefore he is despised and cannot have justice.”

One Mr. Chester is enraged and says that Bunyan will preach and do as he wishes.

“He preacheth nothing but the word of God!” she says.

Mr. Twisden, in a rage: “He runneth up and down and doeth harm.”

“No, my lord, it is not so; God hath owned him and done much good by him.”

The angry man: “His doctrine is the doctrine of the devil.”

She: “My lord, when the righteous Judge shall appear, it will be known that his doctrine is not the doctrine of the devil!”

Bunyan’s biographer comments, “Elizabeth Bunyan was simply an English peasant woman: could she have spoken with more dignity had she been a crowned queen?”

Imprisoned from “My Poor Blind Child”
So for 12 years Bunyan chooses prison and a clear conscience over freedom and a conscience soiled by the agreement not to preach. He could have had his freedom when he wanted it. But he and Elzabeth were made of the same stuff. When asked to recant and not to preach he said, “If nothing will do unless I make of my conscience a continual butchery and slaughter-shop, unless, putting out my own eyes, I commit me to the blind to lead me, as I doubt not is desired by some, I have determined, the Almighty God being my help and shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss shall grow on mine eye-brows, rather than thus to violate my faith and principles.”

Nevertheless he was sometime tormented that he may not be making the right decision in regard to his family.

The parting with my Wife and poor children hath often been to me in this place as the pulling of the Flesh from my bones; and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great Mercies, but also because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor Family was like to meet with should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides; O the thoughts of the hardship I thought my Blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces.
Persevering in Bedford, Not London
Yet he stayed. In 1672 he was released because of the Declaration of Religious Indulgence. Immediately he was licensed as the pastor of the church in Bedford, which he had been serving all along, even from within prison by writings and periodic visits. A barn was purchased and renovated as their first building and this is where Bunyan ministered as pastor for the next 16 years until his death. He never was wooed away from this little parish by the larger opportunities in London. The estimate is that perhaps there were 120 non-conformists in Bedford in 1676 with others no doubt coming to hear him from around the surrounding villages.

There was one more imprisonment in the winter and spring of 1675-76. John Brown thinks that this was the time when The Pilgrim’s Progress was written. But even though Bunyan wasn’t in prison again during his ministry, the tension of the days was extraordinary. Ten years after his last imprisonment in, the mid-1680’s, persecution was heavy again. “Richard Baxter, though an old man now, was shut up in gaol, where he remained for two years more, and where he had innumerable companions in distress.”

Meetings were broken in upon, worshipers hurried to prison, “separatists changed the place of gathering from time to time, set their sentinels on the watch, left off singing hymns in their services, and for the sake of greater security worshipped again and again at the dead of night. Ministers were introduced to their pulpits through trap-doors in floor or ceiling, or through doorways extemporized in walls.” Bunyan expected to be taken away again and deeded over all his possessions to his wife Elizabeth so that she would not be ruined by his fines or imprisonment.

A Pilgrim Dies Away from Home
But God spared him. Until August, 1688. He traveled the 50 miles to London to preach and to help make peace between a man in his church and his alienated father. He was successful in both missions. But after a trip to an outlying district, he returned to London on horseback, through excessive rains. He fell sick of a violent fever, and on August 31, 1688, at age 60, followed his Pilgrim from the city of Destruction across the river to the New Jerusalem.

His last sermon had been on August 19 in London at Whitechapel on John 1:13. His last words from the pulpit were, “Live like the children of God, that you may look your Father in the face with comfort another day.” His wife and children were probably unaware of the crisis till after it was too late. So Bunyan probably died without the comfort of family – just as he had spent so much of his life without the comforts of home. “The inventory of Bunyan’s property after his death added up to a total of 42 pounds and 19 shillings. This is more than the average tinker would leave, but it suggests that most of the profits from The Pilgrim’s Progress had gone to printers of pirated editions.” He was born poor and never let himself become wealthy in this life. He is buried in London at Bunhill Fields.

So, in sum, we can include in Bunyan’s sufferings the early, almost simultaneous, death of his mother and sister; the immediate remarriage of his father; the military draft in the midst of his teenage grief; the discovery that his first child was blind; the spiritual depression and darkness for the early years of his marriage; the death of his first wife leaving him with four small children; a twelve year imprisonment cutting him off from his family and church; the constant stress and uncertainty of imminent persecution, including one more imprisonment; and the final sickness and death far from those he loved most. And this summary doesn’t include any of the normal pressures and pains of ministry and marriage and parenting and controversy and criticism and sickness along the way.

Writing for the Afflicted Church
The question, then, that I bring to Bunyan’s suffering is: What was its effect? How did he respond to it? What did it bring about? What difference did it make in his life? Knowing that I am leaving out many important things, I would answer that with five observations.

1. Bunyan’s Suffering Confirmed Him in His Calling as a Writer, Especially for the Afflicted Church

Probably the greatest distortion of Bunyan’s life in the portrait I have given you so far is that it passes over one of the major labors of his life, his writing. Books had awakened his own spiritual quest and guided him in it. Books would be his main legacy to the church and the world.

Of course, he is famous for The Pilgrim’s Progress – “next to the Bible, perhaps the world’s best-selling book . . . translated into over 200 languages.” It was immediately successful with three editions in the first year it was published in 1678. It was despised at first by the intellectual elite, but as Lord Macaulay points out, “The Pilgrim’s Progress is perhaps the only book about which, after the lapse of a hundred years, the educated minority has come over to the opinion of the common people.”

But most people don’t know that Bunyan was a prolific writer before and after The Pilgrim’s Progress. Christopher Hill’s index of “Bunyan’s Writings” lists 58 books. The variety in these books was remarkable: controversy (like the Quakers and justification and baptism), collections of poems, children’s literature, allegory (like The Holy War and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman). But the vast majority were practical doctrinal expositions of Scripture built from sermons for the sake of strengthening and warning and helping Christian pilgrims make their way successfully to heaven.

He was a writer from beginning to end. He had written four books before he went to prison at age 32 and the year he died five books were published in that one year of 1688. This is extraordinary for a man with no formal education. He knew neither Greek nor Hebrew and had no theological degrees. This was such and offense even in his own day that his pastor, John Burton, came to his defense, writing a foreword for his first book in 1656 (when he was 28): “This man is not chosen out of an earthly but out of the heavenly university, the Church of Christ . . . . He hath through grace taken these three heavenly degrees, to wit, union with Christ, the anointing of the Spirit, and experiences of the temptations of Satan, which do more fit a man for that mighty work of preaching the Gospel than all university learning and degrees that can be had.”

Bunyan’s suffering left its mark on all his written work. George Whitefield said of The Pilgrim’s Progress, “It smells of the prison. It was written when the author was confined in Bedford jail. And ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross: the Spirit of Christ and of Glory then rests upon them.”

The fragrance of affliction was on most of what he wrote. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons the Puritans are still being read today with so much profit is that their entire experience, unlike ours, was one of persecution and suffering. To our chipper age (at least in the prosperous West) this may seem somber at times, but the day you hear that you have cancer or that your child is blind or that a mob is coming, you turn away from the chipper books to the weighty ones that were written on the precipice of eternity where the fragrance of heaven and the stench of hell are both in the air.

Bunyan’s writings were an extension of his pastoral ministry mainly to his flock in Bedford who lived in constant danger of harassment and prison. His suffering fit him well for the task. Which leads to the second effect of Bunyan’s suffering I want to mention.

2. Bunyan’s Suffering Deepened His Love for His Flock and Gave His Pastoral Labor the Fragrance of Eternity

His writings were filled with love to his people. For example, three years into his imprisonment he wrote a book called Christian Behavior which he ended like this:

Thus have I, in a few words, written to you before I die, a word to provoke you to faith and holiness, because I desire that you may have the life that is laid up for all them that believe in the Lord Jesus, and love one another, when I am deceased. Though then I shall rest from my labors, and be in paradise, as through grace I comfortably believe, yet it is not there, but here, I must do you good. Wherefore, I not knowing the shortness of my life, nor the hindrance that hereafter I may have of serving my God and you, I have taken this opportunity to present these few lines unto you for your edification.

In his autobiography, written about half way through his imprisonment, he spoke of his church and the effect he hoped his possible martyrdom would have on them: “I did often say before the Lord, that if to be hanged up presently before their eyes would be means to awake in them and confirm them in the truth, I gladly should consent to it.” In fact, many of his flocked joined him in jail and he ministered to them there. He echoed the words of Paul when he described his longings for them: “In my preaching I have really been in pain, I have, as it were, travailed to bring forth Children to God.”

He gloried in the privilege of the gospel ministry. This too flowed from his suffering. If all is well and this world is all that matters, a pastor may become jealous of prosperous people who spend their time in leisure. But if suffering abounds, and if prosperity is a cloak for the true condition of frisky, fun-loving perishing Americans, then being a pastor may be the most important and glorious of all work. Bunyan thought it was: “My heart hath been so wrapped up in the glory of this excellent work, that I counted my self more blessed and honored of God by this, than if I had made me the emperor of the Christian world, or the lord of all the glory of the earth without it.”

He loved his people, he loved the work and he stayed with it and with them to the end of his life. He served them and he served the world from a village parish with perhaps 120 members.

3. Bunyan’s Suffering Opened His Understanding to the Truth That the Christian Life Is Hard and That Following Jesus Means Having the Wind in Your Face

In 1682, six years before his death, he wrote a book called The Greatness of the Soul based on Mark 8: 36-37, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” He says that his aim is to “awaken you, rouse you off of your beds of ease, security, and pleasure, and fetch you down upon your knees before him, to beg of him grace to be concerned about the salvation of your souls.” And he does not mean the point of conversion but the process of perseverance. “The one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Mark 13:13). He hears Jesus warning us that life with him is hard:

Following of me is not like following of some other masters. The wind sits always on my face and the foaming rage of the sea of this world, and the proud and lofty waves thereof do continually beat upon the sides of the bark or ship that myself, my cause, and my followers are in; he therefore that will not run hazards, and that is afraid to venture a drowning, let him not set foot into this vessel.

Two years later, commenting on John 15:2 (“Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes”), he says, “It is the will of God, that they that go to heaven should go thither hardly or with difficulty. The righteous shall scarcely be saved. That is, they shall, but yet with great difficulty, that it may be the sweeter.”

He had tasted this at the beginning of his Christian life and at every point along the way. In the beginning: “My soul was perplexed with unbelief, blasphemy, hardness of heart, questions about the being of God, Christ, the truth of The Word, and certainty of the world to come: I say, then I was greatly assaulted and tormented with atheism.” “Of all the temptations that ever I met with in my life, to question the being of God and the truth of his gospel is the worst, and the worst to be borne.”

In The Excellency of a Broken Heart (the last book he took to the publisher) he says, “Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think . . . . It is wounding work, of course, this breaking of the hearts, but without wounding there is no saving. . . . Where there is grafting there is a cutting, the scion must be let in with a wound; to stick it on to the outside or to tie it on with a string would be of no use. Heart must be set to heart and back to back, or there will be no sap from root to branch, and this I say, must be done by a wound.”

Bunyan’s suffering made him passionate about these things – and patient. You can hear his empathy with strugglers in these typically earthy words in a book from 1678 called Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ: “He that comes to Christ cannot, it is true, always get on as fast as he would. Poor coming soul, thou art like the man that would ride full gallop whose horse will hardly trot. Now the desire of his mind is not to be judged of by the slow pace of the dull jade he rides on, but by the hitching and kicking and spurring as he sits on his back. Thy flesh is like this dull jade, it will not gallop after Christ, it will be backward though thy soul and heaven lie at stake.”

It seems to me that Bunyan knew the balance of Philippians 2:12-13, “So then, my beloved . . . work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” First, he publishes a book called Saved By Grace based on Ephesians 2:5, “By grace you are saved.” And then in the same year he follows it with a book called, The Strait Gate, based on Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.”

Bunyan’s sufferings had taught him the words of Jesus first hand, “The way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14).

4. Bunyan’s Sufferings Strengthened His Assurance That God Is Sovereign over All the Afflictions of His People and Will Bring Them Safely Home

There have always been, as there are today, people who try to solve the problem of suffering by denying the sovereignty of God – that is the all-ruling providence of God over Satan and over nature and over human hearts and deeds. But it is remarkable how many of those who stand by the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over suffering have been those who suffered most and who found in the doctrine the most comfort and help.

Bunyan was among that number. In 1684 he wrote an exposition for his suffering people based on 1 Peter 4:19: “Let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.” The book was called Seasonable Counsels: Advice to Sufferers. He takes the phrase “according to the will of God,” and unfolds the sovereignty of God in it for the comfort of his people.

“It is not what enemies will, nor what they are resolved upon, but what God will, and what God appoints; that shall be done. . . . No enemy can bring suffering upon a man when the will of God is otherwise, so no man can save himself out of their hands when God will deliver him up for his glory. . . [just as Jesus showed Peter “by what death he would glorify God”]. We shall or shall not suffer, even as it pleaseth him.”

God Appoints Who Will Suffer
God has appointed who shall suffer [Rev. 6:11 – the full number of martyrs]. . . . God has appointed . . . when they shall suffer [Acts 18:9-10 Paul’s time of suffering was not yet come; so with Jesus in John 7:30]. . . . God has appointed where this, that or the other good man shall suffer [“it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem” Luke 13:33; 9:30f]. . . . God has appointed . . . what kind of sufferings this or that saint shall undergo [Acts 9:16 “how great things he must suffer;” John 21:19 “by what death he would glorify God”]. . . . Our sufferings, as to the nature of them, are all writ down in God’s book; and though the writing seem as unknown characters to us, yet God understands them very well [Mark 9:13; Acts 13:29]. . . . It is appointed who of them should die of hunger, who with the sword, who should go into captivity, and who should be eaten up of beasts. Jeremiah 15:2,3.
What is Bunyan’s aim in this exposition of the sovereignty of God in suffering? “I have, in a few words, handled this . . . to show you that our sufferings are ordered and disposed by him, that you might always, when you come into trouble for this name, not stagger nor be at loss, but be stayed, composed, and settled in your minds, and say, ‘The will of the Lord be done.’ Act 21:14.”

The Mercy That We Suffer Rather Than Torture
He warns against feelings of revenge. “Learn to pity and bewail the condition of the enemy . . . Never grudge them their present advantages. ‘Fret not thy self because of evil men. Neither be thou envious at the workers of iniquity.’ Prov. 24:19. Fret not, though they spoil thy resting place. It is God that hath bidden them do it, to try thy faith and patience thereby. Wish them no ill with what they get of thine; it is their wages for their work, and it will appear to them ere long that they have earned it dearly. . . . Bless God that thy lot did fall on the other side. . . . How kindly, therefore, doth God deal with us, when he chooses to afflict us but for a little, that with everlasting kindness he may have mercy upon us. Is.54:7-8.”

“No Fruit, Because There Is No Winter There”
The key to suffering rightly is to see in all things the hand of a merciful and good and sovereign God and “to live upon God that is invisible.” There is more of God to be had in times of suffering than any other time.

There is that of God to be seen in such a day as cannot be seen in another. His power in holding up some, his wrath in leaving of others; his making of shrubs to stand, and his suffering of cedars to fall; his infatuating of the counsels of men, and his making of the devil to outwit himself; his giving of his presence to his people, and his leaving of his foes in the dark; his discovering [disclosing] the uprightness of the hearts of his sanctified ones, and laying open the hypocrisy of others, is a working of spiritual wonders in the day of his wrath, and of the whirlwind and storm. . . . We are apt to overshoot, in the days that are calm, and to think ourselves far higher, and more strong than we find we be, when the trying day is upon us. . . . We could not live without such turnings of the hand of God upon us. We should be overgrown with flesh, if we had not our seasonable winters. It is said that in some countries trees will grow, but will bear no fruit, because there is no winter there.

So Bunyan begs his people to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God and trust that all will be for their good. “Let me beg of thee, that thou wilt not be offended either with God, or men, if the cross is laid heavy upon thee. Not with God, for he doth nothing without a cause, nor with men, for . . . they are the servants of God to thee for good. (Psalm 17:14 KJV; Jer. 24:5). Take therefore what comes to thee from God by them, thankfully.”

5. Bunyan’s Suffering Deepened in Him a Confidence in the Bible as the Word of God and a Passion for Biblical Exposition as the Key to Perseverance

If “living upon God that is invisible” is the key to suffering rightly, what is the key to living upon God? Bunyan’s answer is: to lay hold on Christ through the Word of God, the Bible. Prison proved for Bunyan to be a hallowed place of communion with God because his suffering unlocked the Word and the deepest fellowship with Christ he had ever known.

I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now [in prison]. Those scriptures that I saw nothing in before were made in this place and state to shine upon me. Jesus Christ also was never more real and apparent than now. Here I have seen him and felt him indeed. . . I have had sweet sights of the forgiveness of my sins in this place, and of my being with Jesus in another world. . . I have seen that here that I am persuaded I shall never, while in this world, be able to express.

“In My Chest Pocket I Have a Key”
He especially cherished the promises of God as the key for opening the door of heaven. “I tell thee, friend, there are some promises that the Lord hath helped me to lay hold of Jesus Christ through and by, that I would not have out of the Bible for as much gold and silver as can lie between York and London piled up to the stars.”

One of the greatest scenes in The Pilgrim’s Progress is when Christian recalls in the dungeon of Doubting-castle that he has a key to the door. Very significant is not only what the key is, but where it is:

What a fool I have been, to lie like this in a stinking dungeon, when I could have just as well walked free. In my chest pocket I have a key called Promise that will, I am thoroughly persuaded, open any lock in Doubting-Castle.” “Then,” said Hopeful, “that is good news. My good brother, do immediately take it out of your chest pocket and try it.” Then Christian took the key from his chest and began to try the lock of the dungeon door; and as he turned the key, the bolt unlocked and the door flew open with ease, so that Christian and hopeful immediately came out.

“Prick Him Anywhere . . . His Blood Is Bibline”
Three times Bunyan says that the key was in Christians “chest pocket” or simply his “chest.” I take this to mean that Christian had hidden it in his heart by memorization and that it was now accessible in prison for precisely this reason. This is how the promises sustained and strengthened Bunyan. He was filled with Scripture. Everything he wrote was saturated with Bible. He poured over his English Bible, which he had most of the time. This is why he can say of his writings, “I have not for these things fished in other men’s waters; my Bible and Concordance are my only library in my writings.” Charles Spurgeon put it like this: “He had studied our Authorized Version . . . till his whole being was saturated with Scripture; and though his writings . . . continually make us feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak with out quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.”

Bunyan reverenced the Word of God and trembled at the prospect of dishonoring it. “Let me die . . . with the Philistines (Judg. 16:30) rather than deal corruptly with the blessed word of God.” This, in the end, is why Bunyan is still with us today rather than disappearing into the mist of history. He is with us and ministering to us because he reverenced the Word of God and was so permeated by it that his blood is “Bibline” and that “the essence of the Bible flows from him.”

And this is what he has to show us. That “to live upon God who is invisible” is to live upon God in his Word. And to serve and suffer out of a life in God is to serve and suffer out of a life drenched with the Word of God. This is how we shall live, this is how we shall suffer and this is how we shall help our people get safely to the Celestial City. We will woo them with the Word. We will say to them with Bunyan to his people:

God hath strewed all the way from the gate of hell, where thou wast, to the gate of heaven, whither thou art going, with flowers out of his own garden. Behold how the promises, invitations, calls, and encouragements, like lilies, lie round about thee! Take heed that thou dost not tread them under thy foot.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.

Desiring God/ Messages/ John Piper: To Live Upon God That is Invisible

“What is Hope?” from John Piper; Hebrews 6:1-12


What is Hope? by John Piper

John Piper from the “Hope series on John Piper Messages. Desiring God
When I came to Bethlehem back in the middle of 1980, the signs were repainted to include the name of the new pastor. Rollin asked me what I would like to see painted on the back side of the north sign that faces the parking lot. I said I would like to see the words from Psalm 42:5 — Hope in God!

That’s the message I want all of us to have in mind every week as we leave Bethlehem and enter another week of work. The whole verse says,

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

A Sermon to Preach to Yourself: Hope in God!
Richard Sibbes, one of the great old Puritan preachers of Cambridge who died in 1635, wrote a whole book (175 pages) on Psalm 42:5. He was called “the sweet dropper” because of how much confidence and joy his sermons caused. He called his book The Soul’s Conflict with Itself, because in Psalm 42:5 that is exactly what you have, the soul arguing with itself, preaching to itself. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God!”

Hoping in God does not come naturally for sinners like us. We must preach it to ourselves, and preach diligently and forcefully, or we will give way to a downcast and disquieted spirit.

This is evidently not well known among all the saints — this preaching to yourself — because in Cameroon I recommended it to several as a way of fighting off discouragement, and it seemed quite a new thought to them. In fact three months after Noël and I returned I received a letter from one of the young women who struggled most it seemed. She said,

“Biblical hope not only desires something good for the future — it expects it to happen.” 
While I was on holiday at the end of May I had time to write myself four sermons on different topics, and it’s been quite helpful to refer back to them from time to time, though sometimes when I’m depressed reasoning doesn’t seem to get me very far and it’s easier just to try to hold on to certain verses or truths.

Indeed! The best sermon you preach yourself this week may be only three words long: Hope in God!

I love the way the psalmists wrestle and fight and struggle to maintain their hope in God. This is normal Christian experience while we are still just saved sinners. And we better own up to it, or else we may grow sluggish and negligent in our fight for hope. And that is very dangerous, as our text plainly teaches.

The Emotional Reservoir of Hope
A young woman from California asked me for an interview last week because she was doing a psychology project on “forgiveness,” and she needed to record some pastoral interviews. One of the questions she asked was something like this: “What are some of your feelings when you forgive someone?” One of my first thoughts was that I have to have the feeling of hope in order to forgive instead of retaliate. In my life — and I think it is the intended biblical pattern — hope is like a reservoir of emotional strength.

If I am put down, I look to the emotional reservoir of hope for the strength to return good for evil. Without hope I have no power to absorb the wrong and walk in love, and I sink into self-pity or self-justification.

If I experience a setback in my planning — I get sick, or things don’t go the way I’d hoped in the board meeting, for example — I look to the emotional reservoir of hope for the strength to keep going and not give up.

If I face a temptation to be dishonest, to steal, to lie, or to lust, I look to the emotional reservoir of hope for the strength to hold fast to the way of righteousness, and deny myself some brief, unsatisfying pleasure.

That is the way it works for me. That is the way I fight for holiness in the Christian life. And I believe this is the biblical way to make our calling and election sure.

My prayer is that as we focus our attention on our Christian hope over the next sixteen weeks, God will fill your reservoir to overflowing, and that deep down in the Hoover Dam of your soul the great hydro-electric generators of joy and love and boldness and endurance will churn with new power for the glory of God.

We begin today with the most basic question of all: What is hope? Specifically we want to know not just Webster’s definition, but the biblical definition. We have to know what we are talking about before we can get very far in our grasp of the great truths about biblical hope.

Three Ways We Use the Word “Hope”
We use the word hope in at least three different ways.

Hope is the desire for something good in the future. The children might say, “I hope daddy gets home early tonight so we can play kickball after supper before his meeting.” In other words they desire for him to get home early so that they can experience this good thing, namely, playing together after supper.

Hope is the good thing in the future that we are desiring. We say, “Our hope is that Jim will arrive safely.” In other words, Jim’s safe arrival is the object of our hope.

Hope is the reason why our hope might indeed come to pass. We say, “A good tailwind is our only hope of arriving on time.” In other words, the tailwind is the reason we may in fact achieve the future good that we desire. It’s our only hope.

So hope is used in three senses:

A desire for something good in the future,
the thing in the future that we desire, and
the basis or reason for thinking that our desire may indeed be fulfilled.
The Distinctive Biblical Meaning of Hope
All three of these uses are found in the Bible. But the most important feature of biblical hope is not present in any of these ordinary uses of the word hope. In fact the distinctive meaning of hope in Scripture is almost the opposite of our ordinary usage.

I don’t mean that in Scripture hope is a desire for something bad (instead of something good). And I don’t mean that in Scripture hope is rejection of good (instead of desire for it). It is not the opposite in those senses. It is the opposite in this sense: ordinarily when we use the word hope, we express uncertainty rather than certainty.

“I hope daddy gets home early,” means, “I don’t have any certainty that daddy will get home on time, I only desire that he does.”

“Our hope is that Jim will arrive safely,” means, “We don’t know if he will or not, but that is our desire.”

“A good tailwind is our only hope of arriving on time,” means, “A good tailwind would bring us to our desired goal, but we can’t be sure we will get one.”

Ordinarily, when we express hope, we are expressing uncertainty. But this is not the distinctive biblical meaning of hope. And the main thing I want to do this morning is show you from Scripture that biblical hope is not just a desire for something good in the future, but rather, biblical hope is a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future.

Biblical hope not only desires something good for the future — it expects it to happen. And it not only expects it to happen — it is confident that it will happen. There is a moral certainty that the good we expect and desire will be done.

Moral Certainty
Before we look at the Scripture, let me say what I mean by “moral certainty.”

Not Mathematical or Logical Certainty
It is different from, say mathematical or merely logical certainty. Mathematical or strictly logical certainty results from the necessity of non-moral laws. If we have two apples and add two more, we may be “mathematically” certain that we now have four apples. That is mathematical certainty. If all men are mortal and if Plato was a man, then we may be “logically” certain that Plato was mortal. That is logical certainty.

That kind of thinking is important. In fact, it is indispensable in biblical studies as well as all other areas of life. But most of our experience is not like that. There is a kind of legitimate certainty and confidence that does not come from mathematical calculations or merely logical laws. I call it “moral certainty.”

I call it moral because it is rooted in the commitment of the will of persons. And the will is the seat of morality. That is, we can only speak of moral right and wrong in relationship to acts of will. So whatever has to do with the will is an issue of morality. And moral certainty is a certainty that is based on acts of will.

Confident Expectation
Let me illustrate. I have a strong moral certainty that Noël and I are going to stay married to each other as long as we live. This is based not on mathematical laws or merely logical syllogisms. It is based on the character of our wills and the promises of God — which are just expressions of the character of his will. We have almost twenty years of evidence about the nature and commitments of our wills and the graciousness of God’s will.

“Perseverance in godliness is the proof of the genuineness of a person’s salvation.”
When we speak of our future, we do not speak in the ordinary terms of hope. We don’t say, for example, “We hope that we don’t get divorced.” We speak in terms of confidence and certainty, because the character of a God-centered will is like iron.

But of course we could be wrong, couldn’t we? Yes, and all the communists in the world may convert to Christianity this afternoon. And it may be that not a single deceptive word will creep into any advertisement for the next five years. And every pornographic publisher may go out of business by year’s end because men will gain mastery over their lustful desires.

All these things are mathematically and logically possible. There is no mathematical or logical certainty that they won’t happen. Why, then, do we have such strong confidence that they will not happen? Because we know something about the human will. There is a kind of certainty that comes from knowing the character of a man or of a group of men or a wife. It is not infallible, but it is secure and confident. It lets you sleep at night. It carries you over rough times. Eventually, it can see you right through the grave.

Biblical hope is not a mere desire for something good to happen. It is a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future. Biblical hope has moral certainty in it. When the word says, “Hope in God!” it does not mean, “Cross your fingers.” It means, to use the words of William Carey, “Expect great things from God.”

Where Scripture Teaches This About Hope
Now let us go to the Scripture to see where I get this understanding of biblical hope. We will begin at Hebrews 6:9–12.

Hebrews 6:9–12

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

After warning his readers that it is possible for people who have had remarkable religious experiences to commit apostasy and go beyond the point of no return, he says,

Though we speak thus, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things that belong to salvation. For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

The Writer’s Confidence in His Readers
The reason the writer is so sure that his readers will not be among the apostates is that they have not only been loving servants for God’s sake in the past but are still serving. You see that emphasis on perseverance, don’t you, at the end of verse 10? You showed love in serving the saints in the past, and you still do. Their religious experience was not a temporary decision at camp or at a Keith Green concert or Billy Graham crusade. It was continuing. Perseverance in godliness is the proof of the genuineness of a person’s salvation. That’s why the writer feels so sure of the people: they had served the saints, and they still do.

The Writer’s Admonition to His Readers
Now comes the admonition in verses 11 and 12 to press on and not become sluggish. But now the battle is described in terms of hope, not just in terms of love and service:

And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end.

In other words, with all the zeal of the past that enabled you to work and love in the name of Christ — with all that zeal, keep on pursuing the full assurance of hope to the end. There is no fight, no quest, no challenge, no war more urgent than this. Keep your hope hot!

“The Full Assurance of Hope”
Now what does “the full assurance of hope” mean in verse 11? It means hope which is fully assured. Hope which is confident. Hope that has moral certainty in it. It is not finger-crossing hope. It is not the lip-biting gaze as you watch the place kicker go for a field goal in the last ten seconds when you are down by two points.

In fact, verse 12 implies that hope and faith are almost synonymous. Notice the connection: verse 11 says, go hard after full assurance of hope; verse 12 says the result of that pursuit of hope is that you will be like those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. Pursue hope so that you can be like men of faith.

The Connection Between Faith and Hope
Let’s pursue this connection between hope and faith a little further. The term “full assurance” (used here in verse 11, plerophorian) is found one other place in Hebrews, namely, 10:22. However, there it is “full assurance of faith” instead of “full assurance of hope.” It says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” Then in the next verse it says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”

Notice, hope is something that should not waver, because it is rooted in the faithfulness of God. There should be moral certainty in it because the will and purpose of God are like iron, not chalk.

But what about the relationship between full assurance of faith and full assurance of hope? Is there a difference? I would suggest that faith is the larger idea and hope is a necessary part of biblical faith. Hope is that part of faith that focuses on the future. In biblical terms, when faith is directed to the future, you can call it hope. But faith can focus on the past and the present too, so faith is the larger term. You can see this in Hebrews 11:1. This is the closest thing we have to a definition of faith in all the New Testament, I think.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Here’s how I would paraphrase this verse. Wherever there is full assurance of hope, there is faith. Faith is the full assurance of hope. Biblical faith is a confident expectation and desire for good things in the future.

But faith is more than that. It is also the “conviction of things not seen,” and some of these are not future. For example, verse 3: “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God.” Faith can look back (to creation) as well as forward. So faith is the larger idea. It includes hope, but is more than hope. You might put it this way: faith is our confidence in the word of God, and whenever that word has reference to the future, you can call our confidence in it hope. Hope is faith in the future tense.

Why This Relationship Is Important
There are two reasons this is important to see.

One is that it helps us grasp the true nature of biblical hope. Most of us know that biblical faith is a strong confidence. Doubt is the enemy of biblical faith. But if hope is faith in the future tense, then we can see more clearly that hope, too, is a strong confidence and not just wishful thinking.

The other reason it is important to see this relationship between faith and hope is that it shows how indispensable hope is. We all know that we are saved by grace through faith. Faith is necessary for our salvation. But we don’t as often speak of hope in those terms. But we should. Hope is an essential part of faith. Take away hope and the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 is destroyed. We are not merely saved by grace through faith. We are saved by grace through hope.

Paul Shares This View of Hope
Now briefly let’s notice how Paul shares this same view of hope in Romans 4:18. He describes Abraham as the great example of faith, and in particular, of justification by faith. In Romans 4:22 he says, “This is why Abraham’s faith ‘reckoned to him as righteousness.’” And the faith Paul is speaking about is the faith that God would fulfill his promise by giving him a son, Isaac.

So the faith which justified Abraham was faith in the future work of God. Verse 21 makes this crystal clear: he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” In other words he had what Hebrews 6:11 called the “full assurance of hope.”

Verse 18 describes how faith and hope worked together: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations.”

“Wherever there is full assurance of hope, there is faith. Faith is the full assurance of hope.”

“Against hope” means that from the ordinary human standpoint there was no hope: Abraham was too old to have a child, and his wife was barren. But biblical hope is never based on what is possible with man. Biblical hope looks away from man to the promise of God. And when it does, it becomes the “full assurance of hope” — the expectation of great things from God.

It is not easy to describe exactly what Paul means in verse 18 when he says, “In hope Abraham believed . . . that he should become the father of many nations.” But from the whole context I think it is fair to say that Abraham’s faith was his strong confidence in the reliability of God’s word, and Abraham’s hope was his strong confidence in the fulfillment of God’s promise.

In other words, whenever faith in God looks to the future, it can be called hope. And whenever hope rests on the word of God, it can be called faith.

A Confident Expectation
Therefore I pray that the main point of the message is plain from Hebrews and from Romans, namely, that the biblical concept of hope, which we are going to be examining for the next 16 weeks, is not the ordinary concept we use in everyday speech. It does not imply uncertainty or lack of assurance. Instead biblical hope is a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future. There is moral certainty in it.

I count it a great privilege and delight to spend the next sixteen weeks with you unfolding what it means to say that our God is a “God of hope”; (Romans 15:13) and that the central exhortation of our church is very simply and very profoundly, Hope in God!

© John Piper 1986

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.

“He Trusted to Him Who Judges Justly” by John Piper

He Trusted to Him Who Judges Justly
Resource by John Piper

1 Peter 2:18–25
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing. For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it, you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.

If you are a Christian this morning, God has called you to endure unjust suffering without bitterness or revenge or the desire to hurt back. That’s what I want to talk about this morning—not returning evil for evil, but doing good to those who hurt you and let you down.

Two Reasons for This Message
There are at least two reasons I feel the need for this word today.

Justifying Anger by the Wrongs Done to Us

One is this: it seems to me a lot of people today, Christians included, justify their anger and their critical spirit by the wrongs that have been done to them. In other words, there are lots of people who, if you point out to them that they seem to be unduly angry or bitter or critical or slanderous of others, immediately tell you about how badly they have been treated or how they’ve been let down or how they’ve been hurt.

There appears to be an automatic and deeply rooted sense that if I’ve been mistreated or let down or hurt, then the other person deserves to be shown up and brought to justice, and paid back, and therefore I have the right to make sure that happens and I can use criticism or slander or put-downs or threats or grudges to make sure they get their comeuppance. And it seems to me that less and less do I hear people say, “Yes, I have been unjustly hurt, let down, mistreated; and yes, they deserve to be shown up and brought to justice and rebuked; but no, I will not be bitter, I will not retaliate, I will not criticize or slander; I will return good for evil and I will bless rather than curse.

I think we need to recover this deep biblical teaching that God has called Christians to endure unjust suffering without bitterness or revenge or the desire to hurt back. That’s the first reason I bring this message this morning.

I want to say from the outset that this is not merely a rule to be kept, but a miracle to be experienced, and grace to be received.

My Own Need to Grow in This Grace

The other reason I focus on this grace this morning is that I am desperately in need of growing in this grace—and I think I am pretty normal at this point. I use the word desperately without exaggeration. The desperation is there more or less depending on varying circumstances, but it is there more and more, it seems, as I get older. I do not think that I can survive and thrive as father, husband, pastor, or crusader for truth and righteousness, if I do not grow in this grace, and if the people around me don’t show me this grace.

It would be very hard for me to overstate how strongly I feel about this right now in my life and the life of our church and the life of the evangelical movement around the world. Marriages, parenting, friendships, employment stability, ministry in the church (of every kind!), perseverance in fighting for social righteousness—surviving and hanging in for the long haul of effectiveness depends more on this grace than most people realize. I know beyond the shadow of doubt that my family and my ministry at Bethlehem and my role in movements beyond this church radically hang on whether I and those near me experience the miracle in our lives of not returning hurt for hurt.

So I hope you join me in taking this very seriously as we look at God’s Word together. He is calling for nothing less than a death to what we are by nature and a new life radically different from the way we were born (cf. v. 24).

The Nature of Our Calling as Christians
Start with me at verse 19 to see the nature of our calling as Christians:

One is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain [the word implies mental anguish and grief, not physical] while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it, you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it [these two words are not in the text] you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called . . .

Please let this sink in! When you do RIGHT, you will suffer. When you do RIGHT, you will be criticized. When you do RIGHT, things won’t necessarily get better. When you do RIGHT, someone will say a hurtful thing. When you do RIGHT, people will not even notice and there will be no appreciation.

Yet there are so many of us who act as though such abuse of us when we have done right is absolutely intolerable. This is wrong. I’ve been violated. Any decent person wouldn’t respond to me that way. The least they could do is notice . . . And there arises this overwhelming emotional force inside of us that we have a right and a DUTY to set this thing straight, and make sure that the words come back on their own head, point out their flaws, and get vindicated. Because we’ve done RIGHT!

How many of us live in the liberating knowledge that it is our calling—our CALLING, our vocation!—to be misunderstood, criticized, ignored, and hurt for doing what is right, and not to return hurt for hurt?

The Calling of All Christians
Now, lest anyone think that this teaching here relates only to servants and masters, look with me at 1 Peter 3:8–9.

Finally, all of you [not just servants], have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called . . .

This calling belongs to every person in this room who trusts Jesus. Verse 21 (chapter 2) shows why: “For to this you have been called [you were called to be hurt for doing right and to bear it without bitterness or revenge], because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

Two Things Were Happening When Jesus Suffered
What this verse says is that two things—not just one thing, but two things—were happening when Jesus suffered. One is found in the words, “Christ suffered for you.” When Christ suffered—more than any of us have suffered—he was standing in your place. He was bearing your sins so that your condemnation became his and he took it away from you. So the sufferings of your life in Christ are NOT condemnation for sin, they are discipline for holiness (1 Peter 1:6–7; Hebrews 12:3–11). The sufferings of Christians are not divine condemnation. That is precisely what Christ bore “for us” (1 Peter 2:24; Galatians 3:13). And that’s why our sufferings come just as often from doing what’s right as from doing what’s wrong. It is not divine condemnation; it is divine CALLING!

Because the second thing that was happening when Christ suffered was that he gave us an example of how we were to live. He died for you in order that you might suffer like him. Then the example is spelled out in verses 22–23:

22) He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. [The point of that is to show us that he was doing what was RIGHT. He did not deserve to suffer. He deserved it less than anybody in the history of the world deserved it.] 23) When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten . . .

So this is our calling, Peter says. Not to hurt back. And not to plan to hurt back. And not to seethe with bitterness because you’re not allowed to hurt back. So you can see this is not a simple rule to keep. This is a miracle to be experienced. It’s a grace to be received. And it is the only way that many marriages can survive and flourish. Spouses can hurt each other worse than anybody else. And how many are consumed day and night with indignation and “justified” self-pity and numbing frustration that they are doing RIGHT and all they get is pain.

Where Does This Miracle Come From?
So where does this miracle come from? How does the grace get channeled to us? First, let me give the overarching answer of the text, and then see how it works out in experience.

“Mindful of God”

The overarching answer is found in verse 19: “One is approved if, mindful of God [or conscious of God], he endures pain while suffering unjustly.”

The miracle happens—the grace comes—when we are conscious of God. It comes by reckoning with God. Including God in the equation of your relationship. Thinking about God. Looking to God as a third party who is really present. Taking God as seriously as we take the offense against us. The source of this miracle is GOD!

But let’s be more specific. What are we to think when we think of God in such situations of unjust hurt? What are we to believe about God?

“He Trusted to Him Who Judges Justly”

The answer is given in verse 23: “When he [Jesus] was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly.” Let’s get the translation straight. The NIV and the NASB go beyond the text when they say “he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” The text does not have “himself.” The RSV is right to say that Jesus simply “trusted [or: handed over] to him who judges justly.”

That is, he handed over to God the whole situation including himself and those abusing him and the hurt done and all the factors that made it a horrendous outrage of injustice that the most innocent man who ever lived should suffer so much. He trusted it all into God’s hands as the one who would settle the matter justly someday. He said, “I will not carry the burden of revenge, I will not carry the burden of sorting out motives, I will not carry the burden of self-pity; I will not carry the burden of bitterness; I will hand all that over to God who will settle it all in a perfectly just way and I will pray, Father, forgive them they don’t know what they do (Luke 23:34).”

Your Calling Today

This is your calling this morning. It’s not merely a rule to be followed. It’s a miracle to be experienced. A grace to be received. It’s a promise to be believed. Do you believe, do you trust, that God sees every wrong done to you, that he knows every hurt, that he assesses motives and circumstances with perfect accuracy, that he is impeccably righteous and takes no bribes, and that he will settle all accounts with perfect justice? This is what it means to be “conscious of God” in the midst of unjust pain.

If you believe this—if God is this real to you—then you will hand it over to God, and though nobody in the world may understand where your peace and joy and freedom to love is coming from, you know. The answer is God. And sooner or later they will know.

Two Illustrations of How This Works
Let me close with two illustrations of how this works in two kinds of situations.

When the Good You Do Goes Unnoticed

The first is the hurt you experience when the good that you do is not noticed or not appreciated, especially by those who mean the most to you. Parents who never say (or never said), “Good job,” no matter how hard the kid tries. Children who never thank mom for hundreds of rides and meals and launderings. Or husbands and wives who long ago stopped looking each other in the eyes and saying: “I love you. Thanks for all you do.”

How do you survive and thrive when all your love disappears in a black hole of silence?

The answer is God. Jesus said (in Matthew 6:4, 6, 18), “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” So you go to your room and you say to your Father in heaven, “Father, of all the audiences in the universe that I might want to notice the efforts of my love, you are the most important. I believe you have seen all. You write it in a book. You will reward me far more than any human could. I thank you. I love you. I need you. Keep yourself more real to me than my closest friend. Give me the grace now to be done with self-pity and all anger and to go forward in love to everyone.” The answer is to be “conscious of God” (1 Peter 2:19).

When the Good You Do Is Rejected

The other illustration is the hurt you experience when the good you do is rejected, or twisted, or criticized, or persecuted. Someone lies about you and you lose your job with no justification at all. You confide in someone and bare your soul, and it comes back in your face as a criticism and rejection. Or like Karen Sorenson, you sit down for the first time prayerfully and non-violently in front of an abortion mill in Fargo and you get sent to do nine months in the Bismarck State Penitentiary for peacefully trying to save the lives of unborn children.

How do you survive and thrive and go on loving when your deep judicial sense cries out: NO! It isn’t right. This can’t be tolerated. It is not fair.

The answer again is God. Paul said in Romans 12:19–20, “Beloved do not avenge yourselves, but give place to wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink.'”

In other words, do what Jesus did. Hand it over to God. God sees it. And God judges justly. Nothing escapes his notice. Nothing falls from his memory. He will settle all accounts more fairly than we ever could. Lay it down. Let it go. This is your calling.

It all boils down to this. Remember God. Be conscious of God. Trust God. He will remember and reward you for every good forgotten by everyone else. He will avenge you for every injustice overlooked by men. So you are free. I send you out as free men and free women and free children. Leave behind in this room the yoke of self-pity and the yoke bitterness. God is there in every relationship. Remember him. Be conscious of him. Hand it over to him. Trust him.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.

© John Piper August 25, 1991