When John Piper preached at the Together for the Gospel conference last week in Louisville, Ky., he reflected on some of the most difficult times in his life and ministry and said, "I'm amazed that I'm a Christian today."
The 66-year-old pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota explained that he has been a Christian for 60 years, a pastor at Bethlehem for 32 years, married to his wife for nearly 44 years and a father for nearly 40 years. Recently, he has been experiencing "momentous days" in his life, he said, because his church is currently working toward putting a successor in his place.
But when considering where he is and how far he has come in his life as a Christian, a pastor, a husband and a father, Piper attributes his success to the grace of God alone.
"If any of that were decisively dependent on me, I would have ceased to be a Christian long ago ... I have no doubt about that at all," he said, noting that he has experienced days when his marriage was under attack and when his soul was under attack.
He used the book of Jude as the main text for his sermon, and said the doxology at the end of the book reveals that Jude was also amazed at what it takes for a Christian to stay a Christian.
Verse 24 of the book of Jude says that God "is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy." Therefore, Christians cannot maintain their faith through their own effort, Piper suggested, but rather it is maintained through God's glory, majesty, power and authority to fulfill His promise that He will keep His people forever.
"Having the Spirit, and having Christ, and being in the Vine are all [the same] thing, and my life is in Him. He is my life. If He's not there, I have no life. There is no autonomous life in me," said Piper.
In the same way that the universe did not create or sustain itself, he added, so Christians are not made, and their faith is not maintained, apart from God's active blessing on their lives.
"Think about the fact that creating and sustaining spiritual life is something we cannot do, but God alone does," he said as he addressed thousands of ministers at the conference.
But how does God do that? How does He keep Christians in the faith and prevent them from ruining the work He began in them? The theologian said He does it by stirring up their hearts so that they will do some "self-keeping work."
It is a "paradox of the Christian life," he noted, to believe Jude's words when he writes, "keep yourselves in the love of God," but to also believe that God will maintain the faith of those who are truly called by Him to become Christ's followers. The two concepts work in conjunction, he explained, and Christians should: trust God's commitment to keeping them as His own, pray to see the daily application of that promise realized and wait patiently on God, even in hard times, as He works in their lives.
"If you're crying out, 'Abba, help!' the Holy Spirit is witnessing with your spirit. You're the child of God, and you're being kept," he said.
Without God's help, he stressed, a person wouldn't even make the effort to plead with God.
In his closing prayer, Piper expressed that he couldn't remember another conference like Together for the Gospel, which was "graced with such relentless, powerful, beautiful Bible application."
The conference was first held in 2006 after a group of four pastors – Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, Albert Mohler and C.J. Mahaney – realized that, despite some theological differences, they were all committed to the teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The conference will be held again in April of 2014.