How did you first become a Christian?
I had actually gone to a church-related college, but I went on a football scholarship, not because of any interest in the church. And at the end my first week, which had been spent in freshman orientation, my roommate and I decided to head out to town to hit some of the bars across the border. We come to the parking lot and I realized that I was out of cigarettes. So I went back in the dorm and went to the cigarette machine. I can still remember it was 25 cents for a pack of Luckys. And I got my Luckys and turned around and saw the captain of the football team sitting at a table. And he spoke to me and to my roommate and invited us to come over and chat. And we did. And this was the first person I ever met in my life that talked about Christ as a reality.
I’d never heard anything like it. And I was just absorbed, sat there for two or three hours, and he was talking. He didn’t give a traditional evangelism talk to me, he just kept talking to me about the-the wisdom of the word of God. And he quoted Ecclesiastes 11:3: “Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there will it lie.” I just feel certain I’m the only person in church history that was converted by that verse. God just took that verse and struck my soul with it. I saw myself as a log that was rotting in the woods. And I was going nowhere.
When I left that guy’s table I went up to my room. And into my room by myself, in the dark, and got on my knees and cried out to God to forgive me.
What was it that made you head down this highfalutin, rigorous academic preparation for your life?
To tell the truth, I hated school from first grade all the way through high school. The last thing I wanted to do was even go to college. But because it was a church-related college I had to take a course in the introduction to the Old Testament, first semester, and second semester an introduction to the New Testament. I’ll tell you, I just absolutely devoured the scripture. I just read it all day. At the end of the first semester I had an A in gym because I was on an athletic scholarship, an A in Bible, and all the rest Ds.
At the beginning of my sophomore year I had almost like a second conversion. And it was a strange thing. I had a required course in introduction to philosophy. The first assignment was on David Hume. I just thought this was so much nonsense, and I was so bored. I sat in the back of the class and I had Billy Graham sermons stuffed in behind my notebook. And while the professor was droning on about this stuff, I was getting edified by the Reverend Billy Graham sermons.
And then this one day he started to lecture on Augustine’s view of creation. And he got my attention. And I sat there, and I had an experience that was almost as powerful as my conversion where all of a sudden my understanding of the nature of God just had exploded. I went downstairs and changed my major to philosophy just so that I could learn a more in-depth understanding of God.
After I graduated from college then I went to seminary for three years, and then I went and did doctoral studies at the University of Amsterdam.
What was it that made you decide that you were called specifically to try to fill this gap, as you say, “between Sunday school and seminary” for everyday Christians?
Well, actually, when I went to graduate school my life’s ambition was to teach at seminary. And that came to pass when I was still in my 20s. I got an appointment at a seminary, and it was fun, but I was also involved in the local church. The pastor of the church asked me to teach an adult course on the person and work of Christ to the laypeople. I had doctors and lawyers and housewives and farmers and all kinds of adults in that class. And what I discovered was they were more interested in these things than my seminary students.
When our seminary left town, I had an opportunity to go with the seminary or I had an opportunity to teach laymen in a large church situation. And I took that route. And I always wanted to keep my hand in the academic world, but I always felt like if we were ever going to make a difference, we had to get to the people.
Tell me about the inspiration behind Five Things Every Christian Needs to Grow. You’ve written 50 books, some of them very scholarly, And now we get to this little volume that really is back to the basics.
We have a lady that works at Ligonier Ministries, who is our chief financial officer. And really she’s a genius. I’ve never seen anybody so bright in her field. Yet she has a simple faith. And she said to me at a meeting a couple of years ago, “I like to hear you teach, but your books are too heavy for me. Can’t you write something for people that are just starting their Christian walk?”
I thought about the basic means of grace that God gives us, the ways in which he has provided for his people to grow from infancy, spiritual infancy, in the maturity and in the conformity to Jesus. And so I tried to make a very basic, practical, tool. Not just a teaching tool, but one for training.
You’ve recently started to learn the violin?
One of my dreams for heaven was to learn how to play the violin. And we started this church a few years ago. And we have a string quartet, and they’re so beautiful. I listen to violin music all the time. And I said, why wait? Why not get started now?
My teacher is this world-class performer from Russia. And she trained with some of the best teachers in Russia, so she tries to impose the same rigid Russian strictness on me that she went through. And so when I’m doing it wrong she smacks my hand and says, nyet, nyet, nyet. I’m learning more Russian than I am violin from this woman, but I am having an absolute ball. And when I have the opportunity, I’ll practice three hours a day. I just love it. It is so hard. And I screech so much. But it is so beautiful and worth it when you do get it right, you know?
It is a discipline, and we are called to be disciples. Millions of people start on piano lessons. They play one note with one finger and then they go to two fingers, and then two hands. There are different plateaus. And at each plateau another percentage of people get off the boat and give it up.
With people who start out in learning the Bible, it’s the same thing. I’ll frequently ask people if they have read the whole Bible cover to cover? Not just new Christians—we’re talking about people who have been Christians 20/30 years. And a very small minority say that they’ve read the whole Bible.
Almost everyone has read Genesis because it is narrative. People start off with good intentions to read the Bible through, but when they get into the technical dimensions of the Levitical purification codes and that sort of thing, it’s so foreign to the world they’re living that they’re confused, they get lost, they lose their interest, then they give up.
So what’s your advice to them?
What I do is I give them an outline in this book on how to get the skeletal overview of the Bible. You read Genesis and Exodus and then you skip over to Joshua. Stay with the history. And read Judges. It’s like a novel. Then 1 Samuel. I get them to get an historical overview of the whole of the Old Testament. And I’ll have them read one major prophet, one minor prophet, a few psalms, a few proverbs, just to get a taste of it. Because if they get that overview, that overall structure and then they can go back and fill in the gaps.
[In violin,] if you’re not trained yourself, you have to get under the discipline of somebody else. I have to see this teacher every week and put up with her smacking my hand and saying, nyet, nyet, nyet, because if I didn’t I’d never get anywhere. For people who start out in learning the Bible, it’s the same thing. If you have trouble being disciplined, get in a Bible study group.