John Hendryx Interviews John Samson, Pastor of Faith Community Church
Occasionally ReformationTheology.com would like to do interviews of those in the community who will be contributing to the content of the site or others in Christ with whom we have doctrinal solidarity. Below I interview John Samson, soon to be a regular contributor to the blog.
John Samson is the pastor of Faith Community Church an Arminian turned Reformed community of believers in Phoenix, Arizona. John is both big-hearted and brilliant, a first class teacher and writer. We met over the Internet quite some time ago and have developed a warm friendship in Christ. John's presentation of the historic faith, and his application of it in contemporary evangelicalism, is characterized by tender pastoral care and a firm commitment to the truth; qualities, unfortunately, often out of balance in many contemporary pastors. But John is not your usual Calvinist, being involved in a growing movement that many of us are completely unaware of. That is, while fully embracing the TULIP, the Five Solas and divine monergism in regeneration, he also continues to maintain charismatic distinctives, something I will let him explain in the interview below. John is the host and Bible teacher on a 30 minute daily radio broadcast, "the Spirit of Faith," covering central Arizona on KPXQ 1360AM. He also teaches in Churches, Conferences and Bible College settings on a variety of subjects. Originally from England, John was led by the Lord to move from England to start Faith Community Church in Phoenix, Arizona in March 1993. (Update, since this interview, John has taken up the senior pastor role in a brand new church called King's Church in Phoenix)
I asked John for a biographical introduction, and then I asked questions about his ministry, his take on Reformed Theology, the radical changes that took place in his own church, and the state of evangelicalism today.
I was born and raised in Chester in England. My father was a Baptist Evangelist and yet I never really grew up in Church. My Dad used to travel extensively to preach, and that meant that my mother and I seldom went with Dad to Church. That was until my Dad became the pastor of a local Church.
I remember being extremely bored with Church as a child and was far more interested in soccer (called football over in England). I wanted to be a pro-soccer player. My favorite part of the Church service was the benediction â€“ I was so glad when it all was over!
I remember seeing my Dad reading and studying his Bible (I was probably around age 9 at the time) and thought to myself â€œthat looks so boring to me â€“ spending hours with a book thatâ€™s hard to read, in language I cannot understand â€“ youâ€™ll never catch me doing that.â€
One Sunday night, when I was 14, my father did ask me to go with him to hear an Evangelist preach. His sermon was on the second coming of Christ. I remember him looking at the crowd, but yet it seemed that his gaze was focused on me, as he said â€œfor all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.â€ My first thought was â€œhow does the preacher know of my sin? How does he know I am a sinner?â€ Like a bolt from the blue I realized my lost condition and that I would be embarrassed with shame if I had to stand before God in that condition.An appeal was made for salvation and I responded by raising my hand, walking the aisle, signing the card providedâ€¦ but more than anything I just knew of my need for Christ to be my Savior to hide me from the fierce judgment of God. When I later returned to my seat (after around 15 minutes in a counseling area) my father still had tears streaming down his face. I think it was the first and only time I saw my father cry. Some time later he told me that my parents had been praying earnestly for my salvation for many years.
I then started attending the church on a regular basis, but as I look back, one of the biggest changes in my life was evident in my love for Bible study. I would spend all my allowance money on Bible teaching tapesâ€¦ I just couldnâ€™t get enough. I would spend 3 â€“ 4 hours every night learning the Scriptures and hearing Bible teaching. That same passionate desire for the Word of God is still present in my life today.
1. How did you begin down the road toward Reformation Theology?
I have to say, coming to travel down this road has been an unexpected journey for me.
I have been in full time ministry since leaving Bible College in June of 1987, and was fairly confident that my knowledge of the Word was sound.
Then one day I received a flyer in the mail from Ligonier Ministries informing me that Dr. R. C. Sproul was coming to do a Friday night and Saturday morning teaching in Scottsdale, Arizona. This was in November in the year 2,000. That was only a short distance for me, living in Phoenix. I had never heard Dr. Sproul in person, but had been greatly impacted by seeing his teaching videos on the Holiness of God some years before.
As I looked further at the flyer my heart sank when I saw the subject he was going to be focusing on â€“ â€œChosen by God â€“ the biblical doctrines of election and predestination.â€
Honestly, I thought, â€œhow silly that a man of that caliber would spend his energies articulating an idea so way past its sell by date.â€ I was in two minds as to whether to go or not. I wanted to hear Dr. Sproul, but not on that subject. Any other subject would have been better as far as I was concerned.
Well, I finally decided to go, but sat on the back row so I could leave quickly without interrupting folk around me. I stayed for the first session and thought â€“ yes, he has a point â€“ I canâ€™t fault what he is saying, but I have many scriptures that would refute his conclusions. However, I was intrigued that there was nothing in what I heard that would be easily dismissed.
Then the conference included a question and answer session on the subject. This proved to be invaluable for me, because many of the questions I had were raised, and, I had to admit, were answered from Scripture, in their proper Biblical context.
I was immediately alarmed by this, as I came to understand that this whole issue required a lot more research than I had previously thought. I left the conference unconvinced, but bothered enormously that I had heard no scripture taken out of context. Being absolutely honest with myself, I had to admit that it was my assumptions about certain texts that were guilty of that exact charge.
Knowing that I needed to believe what Scripture taught on the subject, I ordered much material, and began my research. It is never pleasant to examine firmly held traditions, and I felt that this was especially so in my position, when I had taught other things at various times in my ministry. No one wants to admit the possibility that they may in fact have been wrong.
I have to say that it took more than a year of researching the issue in depth, before I realized that there was a consistent and clear Biblical doctrine of election and predestination. I also came to see that in order for me to believe what the Bible taught in this area, I had to dispense with my traditional understanding.
I was as surprised as anyone to emerge from this self imposed theological study cocoon as a five point Calvinist. Yet that is what happened. And I look back and see the whole thing â€“ the desire to study this and examine firmly held beliefs (I have found many do not wish to do this), and the ability to see the truth - as a work of Godâ€™s grace in my life. How gracious it is that God opened up my eyes to see these things.
2. Tell us a little about the history of this change especially with regards to how has it affected the people in your church?
I didnâ€™t pick the best time to make this kind of change. We had recently moved into a new building with a high monthly expense. We needed folk to be added to the church rather than subtracted. Yet sink or swim I took the plunge, and began to open up the scriptures on the subject in my preaching, when they appeared in the text.
If I see something in a text, I feel duty bound to preach and teach it. To give you a mental picture â€“ as a preacher, I have always felt that I am a waiter serving the Lordâ€™s food in a restaurant rather than the cook who can discard some of the fat from the meat. I have no right to pick and choose what to serve to the people. I am under obligation to preach the whole counsel of God.
Thatâ€™s all well and good, but using further imagery, I would describe the church in terms of a plane flight. In the year 2000, we were a plane headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma; now we are headed for Geneva, Switzerland. Thatâ€™s quite a radical mid course correction for any pilot, and for all on the plane, I am sure you would agree.
Not everyone embraced this change. But then again, I wasnâ€™t expecting everyone to do so. I knew the change was hard for me. How could I imagine it would be easy for anyone else? What did surprise me though was the very strong reaction to the new teaching or emphasis I was bringing from some quarters.
One Sunday morning I was preaching on Ephesians 2:1-5. I thought I was being exegetically sound and precise, simply bringing out what was in the text. Half way through the sermon though, our Church secretary, the head sound man, and a gifted member of the music team all stormed out of the meeting (they were all from the same family) never to return. They wouldnâ€™t even meet with me. They were not interested in talking further. They just said â€œJohn 3:16 negates everything you are saying,â€ and that was that!
Others were less volatile â€“ but were nonetheless perturbed â€“ and left the church because of the reformed teaching I was bringing. It certainly was stormy waters for a while.
Perhaps 20% - 30% of the church left over a two year period. Even in recent days, we've seen a number leave. It has been important to remind myself often that the changes made were not borne out of mere preference but out of conviction. Yet it needs to be said that on the positive side, many others have been added who have no issue whatsoever with the new direction, and things seem to be much calmer in the church now. We're beginning to see good, healthy growth once again. Many of those who have stayed have been greatly impacted by the grace of God. A good number have come to me with a deep sense of gratitude. They have related how the teaching has brought them so much closer to the Lord and that Godâ€™s grace is very much amazing to them now. Seeing the positive changes both in myself and the people, I would not want to go back for one moment. I love the new Faith Community Church. I sense that the Lord is pleased too, which is of course, the main thing in all of this.
3. What advice would you give other church leaders who are going through the same changes?
I would advise a pastor making this kind of transition to refrain from preaching the theology of the reformation straight away. It is not wise to simply walk to the pulpit one Sunday and say â€œToday weâ€™re embarking on a 72 week series on The Westminster Confession of Faith,â€ or â€œthe 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.â€ That is the quick way to split a church in two.
Remember that the people may not share your newly formed passion for Martin Luther, John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards. My advice would be to let your people hear the doctrines through the lips of those they feel they know and love; from Peter and from Paul, and especially from Jesus. Your people may not be open to hearing Jonathan Edwardâ€™s view of free will immediately, but let them hear Jesus saying it.
All Christians love Jesus! Remember that! People will find the doctrines more palatable when they see Jesus saying these things in their own Bibles.
I firmly believe that expository preaching is so helpful in this regard. If you are going through the Gospel of John or the book of Acts, or 1 Corinthians, and you happen to come across a verse which thoroughly articulates the Reformed doctrines of grace, just deal with it in the text, and move on to the next verse. People will not then feel you are on a hobby horse, beating your newly reformed drum â€“ they will not feel you are trying to get at them â€“ you are simply dealing with the text of scripture in a consecutive manner. Let the transition be as seamless as possible.
I say all of this in hindsight, and hindsight is always 20/20. I made some big mistakes! I was guilty of being far too topical in my preaching on election and predestination. People definitely had the impression that I wanted all to turn on a dime, so to speak, and certainly it would have been hard for a staunch Arminian to stick around the church. I did not make it comfortable for them.
One sermon on Ephesians 2:1, especially comes to mind. Its title â€œWhat is it about dead do you not understand?â€ That was not at all wise â€“ even if what I was saying was true, which I believe it was.
I would advise a pastor to remember that you probably didnâ€™t change your position after hearing one sermon on these things, or reading one article. Give your people time to digest what the Bible is teaching; by all means answer any questions that may arise, but donâ€™t push your people into a corner. Not if you want to take the church with you on the journey, that is.
Thereâ€™s no doubt God has been especially gracious to me. Here I am pastoring the same Church after making this radical change. Many who have tried to do this have had to move on from their church. I marvel at the mercy of God in all this. But I would say this - if I had it all to do again, thereâ€™s no doubt that I would preach far more expository sermons than I did.
4. What is your vision for your church?
The vision can be summed up in four words â€“ â€œReaching, Teaching, Training and Sendingâ€. We desire to make, mature and mobilize disciples of Christ. This includes sending people back into their homes to be better husbands and wives, better children, better single people, and better business people, now they are disciples of Christ; but it also means sending folk out to both the local culture and around the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thereâ€™s a big world out there that desperately needs the Gospel. Our aim is to do our part in fulfilling the great commission â€“ locally focused and globally minded.
5. How would you describe yourself theologically and denominationally?
I heard a phrase which came out of Sovereign Grace Ministries some time back when they called themselves â€œessentially reformed with a significant charismatic dimension.â€ I thought, â€œhey, thatâ€™s me too!â€ I am thoroughly reformed in my soteriology, but like many reformed folk, would not, for example, embrace Calvinâ€™s teaching on infant baptism. I would describe myself therefore as a Reformed Baptist with charismatic convictions/tendencies.
Denominationally â€“ our Church is part of a network or family of churches called Faith Community Churches International, with hundreds of churches scattered throughout the world.
6. What does it mean to be Charismatic and Reformed?
Like the word â€œCalvinist,â€ both of the words used in your question can mean a number of different things to people. Some would describe a charismatic in terms of the outrageous things weâ€™ve all witnessed taking place on Christian television in America. Thatâ€™s the only reference point some people have. Thatâ€™s very sad because these extremes are as repulsive to me as they are to others.
Lets face it, eisegesis happens! It happens in all kinds of settings. Imagine for a moment a Christian television station that simply broadcasted the extremes within each denomination 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With me so far?
Then let us ask ourselves how we would view the people in these denominations?
I think weâ€™d all be suspicious that anyone could emerge from these sectors of the church who truly wanted to deal with the text of Scripture in a meaningful way. Weâ€™d be biased against that idea because of our experience watching the extremes on television. Donâ€™t you think so?
More than anything John, I want to be biblical in my thinking and in my preaching. The Scripture is God breathed. It is His inspired Word. It is a sacred trust we have been given as preachers. We have no right to alter the Word in any way at all in our preaching. As Spurgeon said so well, â€œChristâ€™s sheep will never be offended by Christâ€™s voice!â€ Letâ€™s just preach the Word in good times and bad; when folk like it, and when they donâ€™t. Letâ€™s be faithful to the Master no matter what the response is.
I am reformed not because I think Luther or Calvin was infallible. I donâ€™t believe they were. But I am reformed because I believe the Bible teaches the doctrines of grace clearly. I would say too that I am charismatic because I believe the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament are available to us today. I am passionate both about sound doctrine and the pursuit of the presence of God. I donâ€™t believe we have to disregard one in order to embrace the other.
7. John what are your theological distinctives? You mentioned that you were a credo-baptist, a five point Calvinist etc...but what about other things?
After much unbiased observation and reflection, I firmly believe that Liverpool is the greatest soccer team in the world!
Hermeneutics: Covenantal or Dispensational (or other)?
I was raised as a dispensationalist, but would describe myself as covenantal now.
Apologetics, Presuppositional, Classical, Evidential? or a blend of them? If so which is more prominent?
Presuppositional, but I certainly use classical and evidential arguments.
Eschatology: Dispensational Premillennialism, historic premillennialism, amillennial, postmillenial?
I heard someone answer a similar question to this by saying "that's a pre-post-erous question, and I am not going to answer you." That's very funny, but I do think the question still needs to be answered. So much of the Bible is prophetic in nature (both in fulfilled and as yet, unfulfilled prophecy). If we as Bible teachers are to teach the contents of the Bible, we will need to teach on these prophetic passages. We can't just say to God, "I don't teach on prophecy - sorry!" Yet when we do teach it, we must do so within some theological framework. As I have related, I had some thoroughly ingrained traditions in my soteriology that blinded me to the clear teaching of Scripture. As Dr. James White says so well, "those most blinded by their traditions are those who don't think they have any." Going through the process of seriously evaluating my soteriological traditions and holding them up to the light of Scripture, I have seen the need to self consciously review all my traditions in a number of different areas. That's especially true in regard to church government issues and eschatology. However, though I am definitely not a dispensational premillennialist (even though this teaching was what I was first exposed to as a Christian), I think I would describe myself as still in the "theological study cocoon" on this one. When I emerge, I will definitely let you know what my conclusions are, John. In saying this, I realize that this is just not good enough. The people I serve at Faith Community need to understand biblical prophecy. God has inspired His Word in this area for their edification, and I am required to preach and teach His truth. God is not confused one bit about Bible prophecy even if I am! So I am praying that it won't be long until I can serve the precious people at the Church here in this regard (because right now, I am not teaching on this subject until I am sure of the biblical position). In the meantime, my prayer is that God will open up my eyes. And John, I am sure you can point me towards some good articles.
8. Which people have been most influential in your growth in understanding?
Certainly regarding the Doctrines of Grace, I would say: Dr. R. C. Sproul, Dr. James Montgomery Boice, Dr. James White, who became a friend of mine through this process, Dr. John Piper, and Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones. John, your site at www.monergism.com helped me enormously too. It was so valuable to read some of the greats in Christian history on these issues.
9. Who do you feel is writing significant and important books today?
John Piper; Mark Dever; James White; Ligon Duncan; Wayne Grudem; D. A. Carson; R. C. Sproul; though I am sure many others could and should be mentioned.
10. What are your top five?
Thatâ€™s difficult â€“ it would be far easier to list five books on each significant subjectâ€¦But here are five off the top of my head from over the last decade or so:
Desiring God (John Piper)
The Pleasures of God (John Piper)
Saved from What? (Dr. R. C. Sproul)
The Potterâ€™s Freedom (Dr. James White)
9 Marks of a Healthy Church (Mark Dever)
11. What books by contemporary writers are you now reading?
12. Which classic Writers have been influential?
Jonathan Edwards â€“ Heâ€™s a titan, but I have to admit to finding him hard to read. I thank God for John Piper who has put many of Edwardâ€™s thoughts and insights into our modern day vernacular.
C. H. Spurgeon â€“ his sermons have been especially helpful.
Calvinâ€™s Institutes (of course) â€“ not many books written today will be read 400 years from now, but I read John Calvin today and still marvel at his exegesis of Scripture.
13. What do you think of the Church Growth movement?
Many of the writers of Church Growth books have a genuine desire to bless the Church. I think we would be silly if we thought we could learn absolutely nothing from these folk. Some of our churches are not sensitive to anyone â€“ either God or people! It doesnâ€™t hurt to provide signage and adequate parking. It doesnâ€™t hurt to improve the building. Weâ€™re not being more faithful to God by sticking with a drab looking sanctuary. God is not going to say, â€œWell done thou good and boring servant! Youâ€™ve been boring with a few people, Iâ€™ll make you boring over many!â€ Some of the things said by the Church Growth movement need to be heard by everyone.
However, I feel they start off in the wrong place when they start with the felt needs of man. This results in the dumbing down of the Gospel, and the glory of God being marginalized.
Our biggest need is God. He is always relevant.
We donâ€™t need to make the Bible relevant. It already is. But we do have to show its relevance to people.
The Gospel is not about us feeling good about ourselves, getting acquainted with our inner child or finding purpose to life. We do find purpose to life through the Gospel â€“ and that is to live for the glory of God. But the Gospel itself is about being put right with a God who has every right to throw us into hell for the cosmic treason we have committed.
I preached in one Church in England just recently and asked â€œhow many of you have ever heard a sermon on the love of God?â€ All raised their hands.
Then I asked, â€œhow many of you have ever heard a sermon on the wrath of God?â€ No one raised a hand. Not a soul. Of course, I remedied that over the next 40 minutes or so!
I say this because we canâ€™t understand the biblical Gospel without reference to the wrath of God. In the Gospel, God sent His Son to save us from His own wrath (Romans 5:6-10). We are saved by God from God, for God. I wrote an article on this exact subject (thatâ€™s available on our church web site). But the reaction that I find from people today (in the Church) when I preach such things is â€œPastor, weâ€™ve never heard anything like this before.â€ Of course, they mean those words to be uplifting to me. They want me to know that what I am bringing is â€œnewâ€ and out of the ordinary. But inwardly John, I weep when I think how far the church has moved away from the biblical Gospel.
The Reformation Solas need to be thundered from our pulpits once again - We are saved by Godâ€™s grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, based on the Scriptures alone, all to the glory of God alone.
I believe our task today is to re-evangelize the Church. How can someone be said to believe the Gospel if in fact they have never heard it John? I donâ€™t know.
I heard this illustration just recently - Itâ€™s September 10th, 2001, one day before the Towers fall. You have been given the opportunity to preach the Gospel to all on the 10th floor of one of the Towers, knowing that within 24 hours, all the people you preach to will be dead. Question â€“ knowing this is the situation, will you change or alter your Gospel message in any way?
If you would have to adjust your messageâ€¦ if you have to change it in some way from â€œGod loves you just the way you are and has a wonderful plan for your lifeâ€ then your original message is not the biblical Gospel. Thatâ€™s quite a thought isnâ€™t it?
The Gospel never needs to change - all our man made gospels need to conform to the biblical one to be pleasing to God. If anyone preach any other Gospelâ€¦.. you fill in the blank! (Gal. 1:6-10)
14. What do you think Spurgeon, Edwards or other Puritans would have to say about it?
In reading their writings, I would have to say that they would view the Church Growth movement as sub-Christian or even anti-Christian.
15. Who do you wish evangelicals would stop reading or listening to?
Three immediately come to mind - Dave Hunt, Robert Schuller, and Greg Boyd.
16. What do you think is the most neglected truth/doctrine/practice of the Christian faith today?
With regard to doctrine in the church today, I would say the truth about the character of God. Preachers have emphasized the love of God, and rightly so. Yet other Divine attributes have been sorely neglected.
When we are choosing food at a buffet, we take the food we want to eat and we leave the rest to one side. Sadly, many have this buffet style mindset when it comes to the attributes of God. Itâ€™s very much as if we're saying, "I'll take the love, but I'll just walk on by the holiness and sovereignty, thank you."
Of course, we have no right whatsoever to do this. In fact, this is rank idolatry. It results in us making a god in our own image - a god who doesn't actually exist. The God of Scripture is the only God who really is, and He is holy, sovereign, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, eternal, infinite, just, and righteous (and many other things too); as well as a God of love and mercy.
Most unbelievers out there have no fear of God at all. We used to speak of people being "God fearing," even if they were not born again. We hardly use that phrase at all in our day. The concept of a God who is to be feared, has, by and large, been lost in society.
I lay the blame for this at the door of the church. Unbelievers are not lying awake at night with fear of being exposed to the judgment of God. Why? All they've heard from the church is "God loves you just the way you are." But the Bible says that the wrath of God is on all those who do not believe (John 3:36), and that comes from the same chapter which gives us "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16) Both the love of God and the wrath of God are very biblical concepts.
You asked also about practice. Many things could be mentioned, I am sure, but I think the most neglected practice in the church today is praying for the sick with expectancy. That answer might surprise you. However, I believe it is a great tool of outreach to pray for the sick. People may not know of their spiritual depravity, but they are acutely aware of their physical maladies. The prayer of a righteous man still avails much (James 5:16).
We have seen a great number of healings take place as we have prayed for people, including a lady (named Mary Bandin) who had suffered with a deaf ear since her older sister poked a knitting needle in her ear whilst they were playing together as children! As she drove away from the Church service, now healed by the Lord, more than 30 years later, she had to make a big adjustment to the new sounds she was hearing in her ear. Not everyone we have prayed for has been healed, but we've seen a great many people receive from the Lord, as I say.
In recent ministry in Mongolia, I had the privilege of seeing a lady aged 72, (the mother of the pastor of the church I was ministering in) healed of a lame leg, which was the result of a horse riding accident at age 12. This lady being healed after 60 years is a visible and on-going testimony to all in the town of the power of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Gospel. We regularly schedule Divine healing services at our church where we invite the community to come for specific prayer for healing. I also enjoy being invited to local churches to teach Divine healing seminars, especially with regard to equipping the people to pray for others, both inside and outside the walls of the church. We've seen many people impacted in this way.
When I look at the book of Acts, all the healings recorded took place outside of the church meetings. The healing ministry of the church went out to the people in the streets, and brought great opportunities for the Gospel. So John, I am convinced that we as the church, need to up our level of expectancy when it comes to praying for the sick, and I have a strong desire to further this ministry in local churches both at home and abroad.
17. Can you give us your Church web site address?
Yes, www.fccphx.org (update - now www.kingschurchaz.com )
18. Can you leave us with a current favorite quote of yours?
Yes, and thank you for this opportunity to answer these questions. Hopefully some of the answers will be of help to people making similar course corrections in their own lives or ministries.
From Dr. John Piper â€“ The Supremacy of God in Preaching:
â€œPeople are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow. Preaching that does not have the aroma of God's greatness may entertain for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul: "Show me Your glory!"
The greatness and the glory of God are relevant. It does not matter if surveys turn up a list of perceived needs that does not include the supreme greatness of the sovereign God of grace. That is the deepest need. People are starving for God. People need to hear God-entranced preaching. They need someone, at least once a week, to lift up his voice and magnify the supremacy of God. They need to behold the whole panorama of His excelencies! It is not the job of the Christian preacher to give people moral or psychological pep talks about how to get along in the world; someone else can do that. What people need is for someone to tell them, week in and week out, about the supreme beauty and majesty of God.â€
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