An Interview with Phil Johnson, Part 1

On a sunny Southern California Wednesday afternoon, I had the privilege of spending the noon hour in conversation with Phil Johnson.

Johnson is the Executive Director of Grace to You, former blogger at Pyromaniacs and keeper of the online treasure trove known as The Spurgeon Archive. He also is an elder at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and pastors the GraceLife fellowship group there.

When I informed Phil that I would be visiting Southern California, he graciously agreed to an interview. What follows is a transcription of our conversation. We spoke for quite awhile and covered several topics, so this interview will be presented in two parts. Today we will gain some insight into Phil’s life since he retired from the Internet and hear some of his thoughts on the role of discernment ministries. Tomorrow’s post will discuss the growing problem of women in leadership in the church.

Recently, you made the decision to retire from the Internet. The feedback from your decision seemed to be favorable.

You mean people are glad I left?

(Laughing) No, of course not! I do think people understand and respect your decision for doing so, though. How has it been for you since leaving?

It has cleared a lot of stress and busyness. It helps me to be focused. The older I get, the harder it is to really concentrate on one issue. And the Internet wrecks that for everybody. Google has destroyed our brains because we don’t have to remember anything anymore, we can just look it up in a moment.

I still read a few blogs and I have an RSS feed that I keep up with, and in trying to breeze through it quickly, you end up following these rabbit trails. Suddenly I find myself spending 30 seconds here and 30 seconds there, and in the middle of it just this morning I was thinking, “You know, I’m probably wasting time, because even though it’s interesting and some of it is edifying, I’m not spending enough time with any of these subjects to really absorb anything.” But that’s what the Internet has done to our brains.

My background of course is book editing and so I have a lifetime invested in editing and writing. Whereas I edit books and I love to do that, that’s a big and high stress activity. It is much easier to write blog posts and it’s even easier than that to write tweets on Twitter. Of course, those things entertain people, but as an investment of my time, it’s probably not the best.

The books I edit for John MacArthur, however, most of those I think, people will still be reading in 100 years. Anything I put on Twitter is gone in 48 hours and nobody remembers it. I could literally recycle my Twitter feed from 3 years ago and just retweet everything and I don’t think anyone would remember because we don’t remember things that long.

Turning 59, I realized that I’m in my 60th year and it caused me to think about that. I realized I only have maybe 15 years of truly productive work left, and how do I want to invest that? I just need to get back to what I’m really good at, which is editing books, and not do as many trivial things.

So you don’t foresee a return to the Internet anytime soon?

It doesn’t even tempt me. I enjoy being free of the stress: not having to worry about how somebody’s going to react to what I posted this morning, or going back to look to see if somebody’s putting nonsense comments on my blog. It saves me a tremendous amount of time. I’ve actually been able to catch up on some things this summer that I’ve let slide for years.

As you mentioned, you edit books for John MacArthur. Do you ever think about writing your own book?

Maybe. People ask me that a lot, but I don’t have any burning issues about which I’m dying to publish a book.

I wouldn’t mind writing a book but I don’t need more deadlines. Like I said, anything I do editing John MacArthur’s material is going to have a lasting durability beyond something that I would write. I’d write a book and it would be out of print in two years and nobody will remember it in ten!

I suspect some people might disagree with that last statement!

(Laughing) I don’t have that much that’s really profound to say. For me, I think my sense of duty is not to get what I have to say in print but to help John MacArthur write as much as he can.

One of the first books I ever edited for him was The Gospel According to Jesus. That’s one of those books that surely still will be being read 100 years from now. Then he did a follow-up entitled The Gospel According to the Apostles. He still has one more to write, The Gospel According to Paul. Paul is John MacArthur’s favorite biblical figure and I think that this book has the potential to be his magnum opus. So I’m kind of eager to see that one in print.

Has it been started yet?

I’ve started collecting material for it, yes.

I know that a lot of people also are looking forward to his forthcoming book about the Holy Spirit.

Yes, that and they also are doing a major revision on The Glory of Heaven. For that book, I will probably add as much new material as is already there. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the last couple of years, well, last year in particular, the bestselling Christian book was that ridiculous book that Thomas Nelson did by that little kid who claims he went to Heaven.

Oh, yes, ‘Heaven is for Real’.

There’s that, there’s other similar books like 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. I have a stack of books like that on my desk from people who claim that they have died and gone to Heaven. What’s interesting is that they all imagine it differently, and all of their stories are different from Scripture. I’m hoping to deal with some of those in this book and just compare Scripture to what these people are saying.

It’s interesting, we know Paul saw heaven and he said it’s not lawful to describe the things he saw there. So here we have these massive books describing visions that are much more trivial than anything Paul saw. Ezekiel saw his vision of heaven and it’s difficult to picture it from his words because it’s not like anything earthly. But when these guys today come back from Heaven, it’s all earthly. It’s just, it’s ridiculous.

So those are the two things I’m working on this summer, the book about the Holy Spirit and the revision of The Glory of Heaven.

We’ll be looking forward to both of those! Switching gears a bit, if you could preach from any passage of Scripture, what passage would you choose and why?

Probably 2 Cor. 5:21 on the doctrine of justification. That’s the heart of the Gospel. Actually, I’ve done a series of messages on key biblical texts that summarize the Gospel in one or two verses. Of all of those texts, that one that is my favorite, because I think that it’s the richest and goes to the heart of the atonement more than anything else. So if you unleash me and say I can preach on anything I want, that’s usually the first one, that’s the first verse my mind goes to.

Excellent, we’ll be sure to point our readers to the audio of you preaching on this passage.

Part of the reason so many people miss you on the Internet is the amount of absurdity online. Did you happen to see the latest rant by Ed Young, Jr.?

I did see it. He is such a goofball, I can’t believe anybody takes him seriously. Really, he’s worried about Calvinism, the guy who puts a bed on the roof and preaches about sex whenever he gets a chance? I think people who follow him deserve that. There are people who just stubbornly want to keep for themselves teachers because their ears itch and that’s their judgment.

I agree, those people are getting what they asked for. So do we just ignore something as ridiculous as that, or do you think it’s worth speaking out against something so foolish?

Oh, definitely [we should speak out against it]. I just ask what would the apostles do; what did the apostles do? They spoke out against it. It can be frustrating when it seems like people respond in a hostile fashion, “How dare you criticize my ear tickler!” But, that is exactly what Paul told Timothy it was going to be like. People will not tolerate sound doctrine and we live in that era. So it doesn’t surprise me and it doesn’t discourage me. I think we still have a duty to teach the truth and point out the error.

John MacArthur recently made the statement that the greatest problem in the church is a lack of discernment. Would you agree?

I’d say that’s certainly one of the biggest problems. I think there may be a bigger problem at the root, and I think John MacArthur would agree with this, and that is that the church is filled with unconverted people and that’s why there’s such a lack of discernment.

In light of this, do you see a place for discernment ministries?

I do, but it makes me nervous when any ministry devotes itself to critiques. Walter Martin was pretty good at trying to maintain the balance and there are a few others like that. I was just listening to a sermon by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and he was speaking about how dangerous it is to concentrate on the errors and the Gospel twisters and become imbalanced in the sense that we spend more time critiquing the error than we do proclaiming the truth.

It’s something I’ve struggled with. I started the blog at the peak of the popularity of the Emergent Church movement and I really wanted to deal with those postmodern tendencies that were infiltrating not just the emergent wing of the church, but the evangelical side as well. If that were my only ministry, though, I’d probably be really warped! If you listen to my sermons, you’re going to find that I don’t spend much time on that type of teaching. I open the Scriptures and do biblical exposition. I think you have to have that balance.

I think there’s a place for websites that list and critique those gross errors, but it is a dangerous thing. You can see the danger in the direction that some of those discernment-oriented websites move. They get nasty or angry or bitter in various ways. The longer they go, they move further from a Christ-like attitude and become bitter and contemptuous.

I think that’s a danger anyway with people who notice what’s wrong with the church. I think of the life of Arthur Pink. He didn’t spend his time with discernment or critiques, he taught the Scriptures, but he became so sour in his own mind about where the church was at because he could see the decline. He became bitter and reclusive and ended up dying alone, not part of any flock or congregation. It’s a really sad story, just to read his biography and yet, I confess that someone of my temperament, I understand that. It would be really easy to immerse yourself in bitterness and frustration thinking, “This is so clear to me, why can’t the rest of the church see it? Why don’t they heed the warnings and why do they marginalize people like Pink or Lloyd-Jones and then laud people like Steven Furtick and Mark Driscoll?” But it’s always been that way, Scripture acknowledges that it’s always been that way and there’s no point in being bitter about it. Part of being faithful is keeping a Christ-like, positive attitude even in the midst of all that.

I think God does call people and gifts people with a certain kind of discernment. Certain people, very few people it seems, are gifted with discernment to see problems or false teachings earlier than others. You just compare Peter with Paul. Peter didn’t seem to grasp like Paul did the danger of the Judaizers. Paul had a certain gift of discernment, I think, that came through in what he wrote and how he ministered. But if God has gifted you with that then you have to bend over backwards to also cultivate joy and gladness and make sure your teaching is balanced so that’s it’s not only the things you’re critiquing that consume your energies, but the things that edify.

In tomorrow’s post, Phil will address the issue of women in leadership in the church, as well as share his thoughts on the state of both the visible and invisible church today.