I recently had the honor and privilege of asking Phil Johnson, a well-known and accomplished writer, blogger, editor and preacher, several questions about ministry, practical church issues, theological concerns etc. Phil was gracious enough to take the time to respond and interact fully with all my questions.
Below are just the first few of those questions. Read Part 2 here, and Part 3 here, where Phil talks about the Strange Fire conference, church discipline, degrees of separation, addressing doctrinal error, and more!
My questions are in bold, with Phil’s responses in regular text.
Phil Johnson is the Executive Director of Grace to You. He has been closely associated with John MacArthur since 1981, and edits most of pastor John’s books. But he may be best known for several popular websites he maintains, including The Spurgeon Archive, The Hall of Church History, and (formerly) the Pyromaniacs blog. Phil has a bachelor’s degree in theology from Moody Bible Institute (class of 1975) and was an editor at Moody Press before joining Grace Community Church. He is an elder at Grace Church and pastors the GraceLife fellowship group. Phil and his wife, Darlene, have three adult children and five grandchildren.
Let’s start at the beginning, when/how did you become a Christian?
April 15, 1971. I was 17 years old at the time, enthralled with politics, and disillusioned with the liberal religion I had been indoctrinated with all my life. I had grown weary of hearing Sunday-school teachers caution us not to take the stories in the Bible too seriously. It was hard as a 17-year-old to understand why anyone should go to church weekly to talk about the Bible if the Bible isn’t trustworthy. So as soon as I had freedom to choose for myself, I stopped going.
But after dropping out of church, I sensed a void in my soul. One night (a month before my high school graduation) I was feeling particularly depressed, or guilty, or unfulfilled, and I decided to read from the Bible. I opened my Bible at random, and it fell open to the first page of 1 Corinthians. I started reading, and the early chapters of that epistle demolished everything I ever thought about what it takes to please God: “It is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’” (1:19). “Your faith [should] not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (2:5). “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (3:18-19).
When I reached chapter 12, I was feeling very lost and hopeless. But my mind was arrested by verse 3: “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” I didn’t really understand the context or grasp the reason Paul wrote that, but I knew it meant that Jesus is Lord, and I needed to yield to Him and relinquish my pursuit of human wisdom, social status, political clout, academic prestige, or popular fame. I knew I was sinful and lost, and I begged God to save me.
Within a week, several significant things happened to help me understand the gospel. The very next day, someone handed me a tract outlining the key points of gospel truth. (As far as I can recall, I had never before been handed a religious tract.) Later that week, a friend invited me to a large citywide evangelistic event where the preacher explained the atonement from Isaiah 53. I emerged from that week with a fairly sound grasp on the gospel, and a repentant, believing heart.
What all do you do at Grace to You? And what are your other responsibilities at Grace Church?
I’m the executive director at Grace to You, the media arm of John MacArthur’s teaching ministry. I oversee the team of managers who actually do all the hands-on work of radio production, customer service, development, editorial work, etc. (We have a great staff of managers with a lot of longevity on the team. All six of the men who constitute the core of our management team have been here more than a decade, and collectively we have invested more than a hundred years in the ministry. All the others are much more skilled in their areas than I am. It’s my privilege to work with them.)
I do a lot of editing for printed materials—books, magazine articles, blogposts—anything written by John MacArthur and destined for publication. My largest, most time-consuming editorial duty is editing his major books. I work with sermon transcripts to produce book-length first drafts. John MacArthur then polishes the material before it goes to the publisher. The material is all drawn directly from his preaching, but he permits me a great deal of editorial discretion when it comes to the process of organizing and streamlining the material, eliminating redundancies and rabbit trails, and so on.
At the church I am a lay elder. I share teaching responsibilities with one other guy, Mike Riccardi, in GraceLife, which is essentially a large Sunday-School class for adults. There are some 400 people on our class roll, and we meet in the gymnasium at 8:30 every Sunday.
I know you are a busy man. How have you balanced work/ministry with family time? What advice would you give to pastors or others in full-time ministry as to how to dedicate enough time to the ministry, without neglecting one’s family?
My sons are all adults with their own families now, and all of them still live nearby, still are active members of Grace Church, and they all serve in various ministries in our church. It’s a great blessing to have faithful sons. God has been very gracious to our family.
I would have to admit that as a parent, I didn’t do everything the way I would if I had a do-over. But one thing I did do in order to avoid neglecting my family was spend as much time with them as possible, even while I was working on ministry-related tasks. With all the responsibilities I had, I knew early on that I needed to get all my work done without being an absentee father. So I learned to work at home, not shut off in a back room somewhere, but in the middle of our family’s living space, with kids playing around my feet while I worked. I tried never to scold them for interruptions. (And that’s not easy when you’re doing editorial work.) As a rule, they had first claim on my attention.
Life with a schedule like mine can be chaotic, and sometimes when deadlines were pressing, I had to miss their baseball games, or I couldn’t go with them on outings to the beach or the park. (This is one of the things I would try to change if I had a do-over. I wish I’d gone to their games even if it meant I missed a deadline.) But on the whole, I tried hard to make sure that they never needed to wonder where they really fit in the order of my priorities. I did everything I could to insure that they never saw my ministry as something that they had to compete with in order to get my attention.
BTW, the desk where I work at home is still in our living room. Darlene likes having it there. It’s not pretty, but it’s a symbol of the fact that my family members always have easy access to me—and that even when I’m working, I’m with them.
How did you first meet and become involved with John MacArthur? I know that’s a fascinating story.
He came to speak at Moody Bible Institute in 1977, when I was working as an editor at Moody Press. As an employee, I was free to attend student chapels during the week he was there, but I’d never heard of him and wasn’t particularly impressed with his resumè, so I wasn’t planning to go hear him. But I had recently begun dating a very lovely girl in the office (she is now my wife), and when she stopped by to ask if I was going to the student chapel service, I decided to drop what I was doing and go, just so that I could enjoy her company.
But I was immediately blown away with both the clarity and biblical content of John MacArthur’s preaching. My very first thought was, He should be writing books! A good editor could shape material like this into blockbusters.
Two years later, “Grace to You” premiered on the radio. By then, Darlene and I were married and living in Florida. (I spent three years there as an assistant pastor in a St. Petersburg church.) Tampa was one of only three cities that carried the original “Grace to You” broadcasts—and they started just a week or so after we moved to Florida. So I began listening daily from the very start, and for three years, every time I heard John MacArthur preach, I silently lamented the fact that his material wasn’t being published in book form. I would have given anything to work with his material, but now that I was out of publishing and engaged in full-time church ministry on the opposite side of the continent from John MacArthur, the likelihood of my even meeting him (much less working with him) seemed so remote that in my mind it was only an unrealistic wish. I never pursued the idea or volunteered for the task.
But in 1981, Moody Press invited me to sit in on a meeting with John MacArthur and a group of free-lance editors to discuss The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series. The timing was uncannily perfect; I was going to be in Chicago that week anyway, on other business. So of course I jumped at the opportunity to be part of that meeting.
That’s when I met John MacArthur personally for the first time. (Ironically, the MNTC is the one major publishing project of John’s that I have never been involved with.) In a private conversation after that meeting, I told John I thought he ought to write a book on the lordship controversy. He was surprised by the suggestion, because he said he wanted to do a book on that subject but hadn’t met anyone in the publishing industry who thought it would be a good idea.
That brief conversation started a relationship that has lasted 33 years. Over the next year and a half, I worked with John on a few of his early books. The Ultimate Priority was the first project we did together where I began with raw sermon transcripts and helped produce a book manuscript. Since then we have probably done fifty or so books in that fashion. My favorites are The Gospel According to Jesus, its sequel, The Gospel According to the Apostles, The Vanishing Conscience, Ashamed of the Gospel, and The Jesus You Can’t Ignore. A new book covering Jesus’ key parables just went to the publisher on July 1.
Who is one well-known pastor/author/leader who has shaped you as a Christian and teacher?
Warren Wiersbe. He was my pastor before I came to California, and he has been a good friend and mentor to me. Wiersbe’s and MacArthur’s styles of preaching are significantly different. My own style of sermon preparation is a hybrid, integrating things I learned from each of them.
Who is one lesser-known pastor/friend/mentor who has shaped you?
Steve Kreloff, pastor of Lakeside Community Chapel in Clearwater, FL. He has been my closest friend for 43 years and is probably the one person who has influenced me most of all. He used to give me cassette tapes of John MacArthur in the days before “Grace to You” was on the air.
How did you know you were called to ministry?
As a new believer, I really didn’t think about it consciously or analytically; I just couldn’t imagine doing anything but serving the Lord somehow. I knew I needed to learn the Bible, so I enrolled at Moody Bible Institute. I didn’t have a well-formed expectation of where that would ultimately lead. Having given up all my worldly ambitions, I suppose I had no option in mind but some kind of full-time service in Christian ministry. So I was training for ministry, but my mind was open as to what that might look like. I didn’t assume I would be a pastor, though that option was certainly open in my thinking. But I really didn’t try to look very far into the future. In college, especially, I was only concerned with passing the next exam.
For a few years after college, I assumed I would pursue a career in publishing rather than church-centered ministry. When I got married, I reevaluated that plan and decided to pursue pastoral ministry. That’s when I spent three years as an assistant pastor in Florida. My long-term plan then was to enroll in a seminary as soon as time and finances made it possible; I wanted to earn an M. Div. while continuing to get pastoral experience. That 1981 meeting with John MacArthur interrupted those plans with something far better.
I didn’t do any scheming or politicking to get where I am today. I just kept taking the next step that seemed reasonable, and the Lord led me here.
Looking back, I know the Lord has ordered my steps by His all-wise providence, and for the past 32 years I have felt very strongly that I’m doing the very thing that I was born to do. It still seems fresh and exciting. So I’ve never really had any occasion to be morbidly introspective about it or wonder if the Lord really called me to do what I’m doing.
I know the pursuit of God’s will is not necessarily that simple for most people, so I’m thankful for His grace to me.
I know you do a lot of writing, you encourage pastors to write, and you edit John MacArthur’s books. What advice would you give regarding the role of writing in the ministry of the pastor? How essential is it for a pastor to write, whether through books, blogs, journal articles, etc.?
Let me be clear: I don’t think it’s essential for every pastor to publish written material. Both writing and pastoral ministry are time-consuming, and most pastors frankly would be better off not to attempt to do both on a large scale.
However, good sermon preparation involves all the same disciplines as writing. Both activities require the essential skills of good communication: clarity, accuracy, freshness, the ability to engage and hold the readers’ (or audience’s) attention, and a knack for saying as much as possible as powerfully as possible in the fewest possible words.
In other words, honing your writing skills will improve your preaching. That’s why I encourage preachers to write, even if nothing they write ever gets published.
In the next two segments, I ask Phil about the Strange Fire conference, church discipline, degrees of separation, addressing doctrinal error, and more!