Why John Piper’s “Shells” Illustration Transformed a Generation

If you were one of the 40,000 students at the Passion One Day conference in Memphis, Tennessee back in May 2000, just one little word may well have changed your life. You know the word, don’t you? Shells. Yes, shells. Seashells. It was the most memorable illustration and the most powerful sermon from one of the most influential Christian leaders of our time. And it is the subject of this second entry in the Great Sermons Series. (Click here for the first entry in the series.)

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This video is brought to you in part by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can download a free book from Southern, and learn more about training for preachers at sbts.edu/challies.

(Written by Tim Challies & Joey Schwartz; produced by Thaddeus Maharaj.)

Transcript

Tim: If you were one of the 40,000 students at the Passion One Day conference in Memphis, Tennessee back in May 2000, just one little word may well have changed your life. You know the word, don’t you? Shells. Yes, shells. Seashells. It was the most memorable illustration and the most powerful sermon from one of the most influential Christian leaders of our time. John Piper’s sermon, Boasting Only in the Cross of Christ, sent waves through a rising generation of Christians. And we still feel its impact around the globe today. The sermon turned money makers into missionaries, American dreamers into cross bearers and lovers of the world into lovers of Jesus.

John: I’m old enough to be the father of almost everybody on the grass, and I speak to you as the father, perhaps, that you never had. And I speak to you, perhaps, as the father that you did have who never had a vision for you. Or maybe the father that you had who has a vision for you, and it’s all about money and it’s all about status.

Tim: Out of all the messages delivered at Passion conferences over its 20-year run, and out of the hundreds of sermons Piper has preached over his nearly 40-year ministry, this sermon stands out above them all. So what made Piper’s classic shells message so powerful? Let’s give it a closer look.

This video is brought to you in part by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can download a free book from Southern and learn more about training for preachers at sbts.edu/challies.

It’s easy to see from the video of this sermon that John Piper doesn’t exactly look like your average college conference speaker. Against the backdrop of a sea of designer jeans and loose tee shirts and snapback hats, a 54-year-old man with curly grey hair, glasses and a tucked in button up stands at the podium. But make no mistake, he’s at home among this Passion crowd and for thousands of those students, he is the one they’ve come to hear. This event marks the fourth time Piper has spoken at a Passion conference. In his first appearance in 1997, he preached a two-part sermon titled Passion for the Supremacy of God. And there he outlined his key theological belief, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. The next year he preached a sermon titled Did Christ Die for Us or for God? These were a long, long way from the fluffy motivational speeches that so often pass for sermons in that day. But the students loved it. Many of them had been ordering his cassette tapes. Many of them had been devouring the expository exaltation of the glory of God that has so long marked his preaching. The stage is now set for what comes next.

So why and how has Piper caught the attention of this generation? I think we can sum it up in one word: authenticity. The college students attending those early Passion conferences, they’re a mix. They’re the last of Gen-X and the very first of the Millenials. A generation that, above all, values authenticity. This rising generation wants genuine, authentic faith and they’ve grown weary of preachers who water down their messages in a desperate attempt to be relevant. In Piper, that rising generation has found their authentic preacher. They’ve found someone who really, really believes what he’s saying and who is not going to pander to them in any way at all. And they honor that. They can’t listen to Piper and be unaffected by his passion. From his unglamorous clothes to his sweeping hand gestures to his dramatic facial expressions, to his booming voice. Students know that Piper truly sees the glory of God and just can’t help but declare it. Even if they don’t know what they believe, they sure know what he believes. And it is contagious. His authenticity is the bridge to his theology. Students are first drawn by his authentic passion, then they’re captivated by his view of God. So when Piper takes the stage toward the end of that rainy day at the conference, hundreds of young people have made sure to shuffle back from the porta potties to their seats. They’re now leaning forward expectantly. They’re ready to hear his passion again. But even they could not have expected what happened next.

John: You don’t have to know a lot of things in order to make a huge difference for the Lord in the world. But you do need to know a few things that are great and be willing to live for them and die for them. People that make a difference in the world are not people who have mastered a lot of things, they are people who have been mastered by a very few things that are very, very great.

Tim: If anything competes with authenticity for the top spot in the hearts of these early Millenials, it’s purpose. They want to make a difference. They want to change the world. They want to do great things for Christ. But at the same time, they find it difficult to even know where to begin. They’ve been raised on teaching that’s long on excitement, but so short on content. They’ve been entertained, but never really challenged. They’ve come to doubt their ability to make any real impact for Jesus. And even if they want to, they don’t even know where to start. Here Piper makes purpose accessible for the students. To make a difference in the world for Jesus they don’t need to get a masters in theology, they don’t need to be experts, they don’t need to have it all figured out. All they need is to be gripped by Jesus. But as soon as Piper peaks their interest in the sermon by talking about purpose, he masterfully turns it back on them.

John: But one of the really sad things about this moment right now is that there are hundreds of you in this crowd who do not want your life to make a difference. All you want is to be liked. Maybe finish school, get a good job, find a husband or a wife, a nice house, a nice car, long weekends, good vacations, grow old healthy, have a fun retirement, die easy, no hell. And that’s all you want. And you don’t give a rip whether your life counts on this earth for eternity. And that’s a tragedy in the making.

Tim: Here’s Piper’s point: many of the students may say they want to make a difference for Christ, but in truth, they’ve got a greater desire. Even more than purpose, they want prosperity, they want the American dream. They’re torn between these two worlds. Their parents and pastors and youth leaders, they’ve never shown the incongruity of these things. Many of them think they can make a difference for Jesus and work toward a long and leisurely retirement, but Piper desperately wants to show them these two dreams are opposed to each other. Those who are pursuing the American dream are showing that deep down they’d rather have a comfortable life than make a difference for Jesus. Piper is holding up two desires within the student’s hearts. One, to make a difference for Jesus, and the other, to have a happy, successful, comfortable life. And he’s then pitting these desires against one another. He wants to show it’s glorious when we spend our lives for Jesus sake, it’s tragic when we buy the American dream. And he needs a strong illustration to drive this point home and that’s where we come to those famous shells.

First, he sets up a contrast. He tells about two members of his church who had been killed in a car accident while serving overseas as missionaries. He asks the question, is this a tragedy? Now the obvious answer resounding from the crowd is, no. That’s when he shows them what a true tragedy looks like. He pulls out an article from Readers Digest and he begins to read.

John: The title of the article, Start Now, Retire Early. February 1998. Bob and Penny took early retirement from their jobs in the northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball and collect shells. That’s a tragedy. That’s a tragedy. And there are people in this country that are spending billions of dollars to get you to buy it. And I get 40 minutes to plead with you, don’t buy it. With all my heart I plead with you, don’t buy that dream. The American dream. A nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account with what you did. Here it is, Lord, my shell collection. Look, Lord, my shell collection. And I’ve got a good swing. And look at my boat.

Tim: Piper holds up the American dream, and he tests it against the light of eternity and the judgment of Christ. And it fails miserably. He takes a respectable part of the American dream, a long leisurely retirement, and he shows it to be nothing short of foolishness. He shows that it’s evidence of a dream that is far, far too small. In this way, he brings a whole generation to a fork in the road. They want both the American dream and authentic faith, but now he forces them to choose. They can choose comfort and success and prosperity and waste their lives, or they can choose Christ and experience the glory of making their life count for Jesus. But either way, they have to make a choice. They can’t do nothing. It’s impossible to objectively measure the influence of Piper’s sermon, but many have argued, it may be one of the most important sermons in our generation. Personally, I don’t think there’s any doubt. Countless Christian leaders point to Piper’s sermon at Passion One Day 2000 as the turning point in their lives. Some were there that day, some watched the video later. Some encountered the message in Don’t Waste Your Life, the book that was based on the sermon. But one way or another, they saw the fork in the road that piper presented. Standing there, they looked down one road, and saw the folly of the American dream, they looked down the other road, and they saw the beauty of Jesus. They chose in that moment to make their lives count. The message of the shells lives on. Shortly after the shells illustration, Piper condensed his main point to a short rhyme that was first written by C.T.Stud.

John: “Only one life, twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” 48 years, I’ve seen that almost every day of my life. And I am here to plead with you to make your life count for the cross.

Tim: “Only one life, twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” It’s an apt summary, and it’s a great motto. There’s little doubt that the impact that this short little sermon which was done for Christ and through Christ and to the glory of Christ has lasted and will continue to last for many years and for many decades to come.

If you’re passionate about preaching like I am, I want to tell you about a seminary I’ve grown to trust and appreciate because I know they care deeply about preaching the Word of God. I’d encourage you to visit Southern Seminary, which has been under the leadership of Al Mohler for decades now. Southern is absolutely committed to training pastors to know and defend and exposit the precious Word of God. If you visit their site, they’ll give you a free book that can serve as a resource to help you with the kind of bold preaching that we’ve been talking about here today. Simply visit sbts.edu/challies.

More in The Great Sermons Series:

  1. What Made Paul Washer’s “Shocking Message” So Very Shocking?
  2. Matt Chandler’s Radical Reminder that “God Is For God”
  3. How R.C. Sproul Blessed the Church by Preaching the Curse
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