Adrian Interviews Justin Taylor

Adrian Interviews Justin Taylor January 17, 2006

In January 2008, the following post was identified as the 19th all-time most popular post with readers of this blog. The 20th most-read post was “Twelve Literary Features of the Bible.”

Few editors are as well known as Justin Taylor. He has expertise in editing others’ writings, highlighting interesting posts, and creating his own work. He is now an integral part of the Crossway Books team. He is also someone I am pleased to be able to call a friend.


It is a real pleasure to be able to welcome to the blog, Justin Taylor, who is known to some as John Piper’s right hand man. First off, Justin, perhaps you can tell us all a little bit about yourself and how you came to be working with John Piper.

Adrian, it’s a pleasure to chat with you. Before I answer, let me first express my gratitude for your work in the blogosphere in producing thoughtful edifying material, as well as your work in encouraging and connecting with other bloggers.

Justin Taylor, Copyright 2007 Tony S. ReinkeAbout myself? At the risk of boring your readers, I was raised in a Christian family. I first prayed the sinner’s prayer at age 4. Then I prayed it again at ages 5, 6, 7, 8, etc. I consider my decisive conversion to be after my freshman year in high school, when I truly understood the nature of Christ’s finished work on my behalf.

When I went off to college four years later, I took a humanities course with a professor who would later become my advisor. I was captivated and frustrated with the first lecture—which was a passionate plea for the idea that a belief in moral absolutes was the source of great evil in the world!

I soon became a Study of Religion major, and almost lost my faith in the process. I had never really encountered intellectual arguments against Christianity, and they were now flying at me fast and furious. After one particularly vigorous discussion, based on the implications of Gordon Kaufman’s Theology for a Nuclear Age, I remember being pretty shaken. I had no interest in believing a Christianity that wasn’t true. Walking back from class, I sat down and leaned against a large tree, staring at the stars and expressing my doubts and confusion to God. God was very kind and merciful to me, and in that moment granted me a sense of peace and assurance. From that point on, I continued with my questions, but I knew that only a fool could deny his Creator.

Thus began an interest for me in apologetics and theology. During the summer break following my freshman year, my friend Matt Perman (now the Internet and radio director at Desiring God) was writing me long letters seeking to persuade me that Calvinism was biblical. In the mail he sent me a tape by John Piper on definite atonement. I was intrigued by the message because Piper was clear, winsome, and intellectually challenging. (My general view of pastors at that time was one of well-meaning anti-intellectuals.) I began listening to more and more Piper tapes.

Our public University of Northern Iowa had about 13,0000 students. By my junior year, 1,000 students a week were attending a weekly Christian meeting. And the interesting thing is that John Piper, along with corollaries like Calvinism and Christian hedonism, became one of the main topics of conversation among the Christian student body.

I made a couple of trips to Bethlehem Baptist Church (just a few hours drive away) to hear Piper preach. One Sunday I was there with my brother. I said to him at one point, “I’d love to just come here for a year or two and hear him preach—even if I had to clean toilets as an excuse to hear the sermons!” I inquired as to whether Bethlehem did apprenticeships, and it turned out that The Bethlehem Institute, a two-year, seminary-level apprenticeship program, was being planned at that time.

When I graduated from UNI in 1998, I applied for TBI. I was the first applicant. Not knowing if any more would apply, I was accepted! So I did an apprenticeship from 1998-2000. And one of my jobs during that time was as a janitor at Bethlehem—cleaning toilets! (I’ll let the debate rage in the comments section as to whether my previous utterance in this regard was prophetic!)

In 2000, I was planning to go to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville to complete my MDiv. Piper’s editor was asked to take over a church, and thus the job opened up. Desiring God prevailed upon me to stay for just one year. At the end of one year, we had a moving van lined up to take us to Southern. But DG prevailed again, and I’ve been at DG ever since. In mid-January, however, we’ll be moving to Wheaton, Illinois, where I will take a job at Crossway Books as the Managing Editor for the forthcoming ESV Study Bible.

You may have seen some discussion about discipleship on my blog following a post by Tim Challies about being jealous of Josh Harris. That inspired my interview with Josh Harris, which focused on his relationship with C. J. Mahaney. I guess it was also part of my motivation behind asking you today. Do you get the impression that your relationship with John is similar to the relationship Josh has with C. J.?

I’m not sure there are very many people in the world who have a relationship like C. J. and Josh have! One of the differences is that C. J. was specifically grooming and mentoring Josh to step into C. J.’s pastoral role, whereas I was first a student of John’s, and then his employee. So our relationship of necessity has looked quite a bit different. John has been a wonderful mentor, friend, and counselor to me. No one has taught me more about the centrality of God in Christ and his supremacy over all things for his glory and the good of his people.

The question most people ask me about John is whether or not he’s the real deal. I can say with absolute confidence that he is. What you see is what you get. He lives modestly (he doesn’t personally receive a single penny from his book royalties), he is teachable, he is humble, and he goes hard after God. It has been such a privilege and joy to study under him and to work for him these past seven years.

How important is such a relationship to someone’s development as a Christian leader, or for that matter as a Christian full-stop.

It’s crucial, I think, to have someone like this in your life. One of the simple, yet remarkable, benefits is to see a real person who truly and faithfully loves God whom you can imitate. We read about great heroes of the faith in books, but sometimes that can feel distant, and we never know for sure if the biographer is downplaying the warts or exaggerating the virtues. To interact on a regular basis with an older, sanctif
ied sinner saved by grace who can be imitated is a great privilege indeed.

I would add two caveats to this:

  1. Don’t think that you have to find C. J. Mahaney or John Piper in order to have an effective mentor. There is only one C. J. in the world and there is only one John. Don’t bypass the mentoring opportunity in your midst just because you are waiting for the perfect relationship to materialize somehow.
  2. Be careful not to see mentorship as only something that you receive. One of the goals of being mentored should be for the mentoree to become a mentor. The Navigators, who take discipleship very seriously, love to quote 2 Timothy 2:2: “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” I sometimes see guys who are a bit more concerned with being mentored than with modeling maturity and godliness to younger men. I would encourage everyone—male or female, young or old—to be on the lookout for people to serve, and to develop the spiritual maturity such that others will want to learn from and to imitate you.

My response to Tim’s post was to put the responsibility on the seeker to do whatever it takes to find such a relationship, if that is what they really want. I suggested that changing churches might even be necessary in some cases. Do you agree that it is so important that at times radical action is necessary?

Radical action is indeed needed at times. But I tend to think that believers should be generally hesitant to leave a church where they have covenanted to worship and serve. I do think that those who desire to be mentored need to be proactive. But there are some personality types that are overly ambitious who could create problems by seeking this too aggressively. I’d counsel someone in this position to be bold before God in prayer on this, and humble and meek before others in seeking such relationships.

Moving onto a different subject, what makes you get up in the morning?

Either our 2-year-old daughter, our 7-month old son, or the alarm clock! On a more serious note—I know that despite my weaknesses and the slowness of my sanctification, God has called me to fulfill a role in his kingdom. I’m thankful that he has looked upon one as undeserving as me and given me work to do, whether that be as a husband, as a father, as a member of my church, as an editor, as a friend, or as a blogger. Those joyful responsibilities, along with God’s ever-fresh mercies, get me up in the morning.

Many people today are somewhat despondent about the Church. Are you one of those people? What do you feel the future holds for the Church?

It’s hard to be despondent about the future of the Church when you know that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Certainly there is great reason to be concerned. The Osteenification and Oprahization of evangelicalism—where the emphasis in on the therapeutic and on surface feelings and the trivial—is deeply troubling to me. Some, however, see evangelicalism as a monolithic mass sliding downward. I tend to have a different view. I think that the bad is getting worse and the good is getting better. On the one hand there are throngs of people that are attracted to anything new, but nothing weighty. On the other hand we see a growth in reformed theology and ministries dedicated to strengthening the Church. For example, all of the following ministries are led by pastors dedicated to reformational theology and committed to the local church:

Just as the mainstream media can become addicted to highlighting only what’s wrong with the world, so those of us in the blogosphere can sometimes get too caught up with all that’s wrong with the Church. Criticism and correction has its place—I engage in it myself—but we also need to do a better job of pointing people to the edifying evidences of grace in the Church today. I get tired of people saying that they love Jesus, but they don’t like his bride.

Looking at the Church in the 21st century, what do you feel are the biggest challenges it faces? What are the biggest dangers for us?

The biggest challenge for the Church in the 21st century is the same challenge of the first century, and all centuries in-between. I believe it’s the issue of belief versus unbelief. Will we lose sight of the grace and beauty of God’s grandeur and glory in the face of Jesus Christ? Will we trust God’s precious promises? Will we bow to the authority of King Jesus, and obey his Word? Will we base the imperatives of our ethics upon the indicatives of the gospel? The temptations for unbelief take different forms throughout the ages, but they are essentially manifestations of the question Satan asked in the Garden, “Did God really say . . .?”

How important do you feel the charismatic issue is? I was beginning to feel that it was a dead issue that no one cared about any more. What I now realize is that we have become so separated that no one even seems to know what people on the other side of this particular fence even think any more. Do you think that the controversy will ever go away? Can we ever actually understand each other?

It’s been hard for me to get too worked up about it, and frankly I don’t follow the discussion in the blogosphere all that much. I think the entire controversy would go away and we would all get along if only everyone would read and heed Vern Poythress article! Obviously I believe there are real differences, but I do wish more folks would follow Poythress’ lead in examining and rejoicing in the common ground that both sides share.

Thanks for that link by the way, I do agree that Vern’s article should be read by everyone involved in this particular discussion. I do think it’s possible that charismatics and non-charismatics can have some degree of rapprochement. I’m not quite so sure about the emergents, however. What do you think about the emergent church?

Ah, there’s so much to say! Just a few thoughts for you:

  1. I think we should distinguish between “Emergent” and “emerging.” All that is Emergent (U.S. organization) is emerging (loosely connected, international, ecclesiastical movement). But not all that is emerging is Emergent. For example, there are those like Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle who would be described as emerging or missional, but who have distanced themselves from Emergent as an organization.
  2. I believe, with Mortimer Adler [see How to Read a Book] that one is not entitled to critique until he has demonstrated understanding. I think we should first try hard to restate the Emergent arguments and self-identification in such a way that they would say, “Yes, you’ve got it.” I don’t see that reciprocated very often. Which of the major Emergent proponents could one point to and say, “Ah, that person knows and is restating the best of evangelicalism in such a way that I agree.”

    As a couple of examples—has anyone ever seen an Emergent proponent describe Calvinism or complementarianism in such a way that Calvinists and complementarians would be happy with it? (Obviously I haven’t read all the literature or blogs out there, but I haven’t come across any examples thus far.) I also hasten to add that some evangelicals need to do a better job of understanding before critiquing (as the former invariably affects the latter).

  3. I wonder if Emergent folks have made “conversation” and “tone” into a virtual idol. It almost seems to be treated as an end in itself. If you were to do a poll among Emergent folks (leaders, bloggers, commenters, etc.) and ask them what they dislike so intensely about Don Carson’s Becoming Conversant with Emergent, at the top of the list would be the fact that he didn’t talk to them first. Now I think conversing is wise and can help, but I don’t think it’s a necessary or sufficient condition for understanding someone’s thought, especially if they’ve put it in print.

    I find that many of the critiques and reviews of Emergent stuff are dismissed because it is supposed they are written in such a way that is “not helpful” or “won’t win an audience” or a hearing. I think that all Christians should have high standards with regard to accuracy and civility, speaking the truth in love.

    But it is possible to elevate tone and manner in such a way that any critique or concern must be couched in such nuance and qualification that it loses all of its prophetic edge. Compare how Paul wrote to the Galatians and the Philippians. To the churches at Galatia he was justifiably angry and condemnatory due to the introduction of a false gospel. But we don’t find that same attitude when he writes to the Philippians. There are people there who are preaching in order that Paul would be persecuted. (More gospel preaching meant more persecution.) But Paul rejoices! What’s the difference? In the one situation the tone and attitude is ungodly, and yet Paul is overjoyed because the truth is nonetheless being proclaimed. In the other situation the motives may have been sincere, but the content of the no-gospel led Paul to speak in the harshest of terms. I think this example should be instructive for us not to put tone out of its biblical perspective.

  4. I’m always suspicious of movements where there are continual complaints that critics misunderstand or just don’t get it. Now it’s always going to be the case that some critics won’t get it right or will miss some nuance. But if you make that response too often, it’s probably the case that the proponents either have a lack of clarity or are hypersensitive. In this case, I think both explanations are at play.
  5. I do think there is some value in the questions that Emergent is raising (although I’m much less impressed with the answers they have given). Carson has pointed out that in someone like Tim Keller, you have all the positives of Emergent, but none of the troubling negatives. I think that Keller’s writings are very provocative and gospel-centered. (The link will take you to a list of his online articles.)

You have become quite well-known in the Christian blogopshere. What is your view of the God bloggers scene? How do you see it progressing?

I’m not sure I have much insight on the God blog scene. I’m delighted that there are an increasing number of Christian bloggers, and for the most part, I think that much of the interaction is thoughtful and fruitful. Honestly, I don’t read that many Christian blogs (maybe four or five), so others would have more insight than me. One thing I’d like to see more of is some sustained engagement with unbelievers on current cultural issues. That was one of the motivations behind the Ethics Symposium that Joe Carter and I pulled together.

Evangelicals often want to be part of the discussion and to have a seat at the table. But if we wait around to be invited, it’ll never happen. I’ve been trying to co-sponsor something similar with another ministry partner. I’d like to see more things like that. In each issue, Modern Reformation used to interview a non-Christian or someone outside of their tradition. I think that can be fruitful, engaging with those outside our camp, as well as modeling how to do so. There is a danger that we can become “of the world,” but there’s also a danger that we remain “outside” the world.

Do you believe that blogging can have spiritually good effects in a blogger’s life? Might it even have positive effects for the Church as a whole?

Like almost everything, it has the potential for both good and bad. One of the most important benefits, I think, is that it requires thinking, reading, and writing. Most of our thinking is hazy and muddled until we attempt to express ourselves in writing. Good reading and good writing are important disciplines for Christians to cultivate, and blogging can help if done correctly. Another positive effect of blogging is a form of accountability for one’s thoughts and expressions. Bloggers have audiences, and careless words become part of the “permanent record” as it were. The same is true in a spiritual sense for everyone. But I think that the blogging enterprise helps to reinforce that, which is a good thing.

On the other side, the blogosphere can also become addictive, with people reading and writing and commenting on blogs obsessively. There is something amiss, I would suggest, when the majority of your communication throughout the day is electronic, and you don’t have very much face-to-face fellowship and interaction. There are also temptations to gossip and to respond with rudeness.

Bob Kauflin and Mark Roberts (at the World Mag sub-blog, Theologica) have done some helpful posts on how Christians should blog.

We have seen some quite well-known Christians start blogs recently. Do you think that is a trend that will continue?

I hope so. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has certainly led the way. Not only is he one of the most respected and influential evangelicals today, but he has also become a prolific blogger. I’m also happy to be a part of the Reformation 21 Blog, where Ligon Duncan, Philip Ryken, Rick Phillips, and Carl Trueman (who rarely posts under that name!) all contribute. And I’d love to see the Together for the Gospel guys get together to start a blog. Well-known New Testament scholars like Ben Witherington and Scot McKnight have started blogs and gained quite a following. Both are to the left of me theologically and politically, but they almost always have something interesting to say.

What are your own plans for the future, Justin? Do you see your blog becoming an ever more important part of your ministry? Can you tell us anything about any new books you are working on?

We are in the process of a move to Wheaton, Illinois for my new job. The past seven years in Minneapolis at Desiring God and Bethlehem have been a wonderful season for us. But we’re also excited about this new chapter of our lives. After years of uncertainty of what I would like to do when I grew up, I now feel fairly confident that I would like to stay in the publishing industry long-term.

I’m not really sure what the future plans for my blog will be. (Perhaps someday I’ll get around to moving to a different location than I enjoy blogging, and I enjoy the interaction that goes on because of it. But it’s not my primary calling, and I have to be careful that I don’t let the tail wag the dog.

As for new books—I’m currently under contract with Crossway to edit a new edition of John Owen’s three main writings on sin: Mortification of Sin, Temptation of Sin, and Indwelling Sin. Kelly Kapic of Covenant College, who will be publishing an academic book on Owen’s Communion with God, will be my co-editor. We will be providing introductions, adding headings, footnotes, a glossary, etc.

I’ll also be editing Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, the follow-up book to Desiring God’s conference in 2005, with speakers like John Piper, Joni Eareckson Tada, Mark Talbot, David Powlison, Carl Ellis, and Steve Saint.

Thanks very much for joining us here on the blog. That’s all we have time for, I am afraid!

Photo of Justin Taylor courtesy of Tony S. Reinke, The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. Used by permission.

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