The Challenge of Relativism – Pastor John Piper

From the Ligonier Conference (2007). Uploaded by

The quote Pastor John Piper uses in the latter part of the sermon-

During the past hundred years, the question for those who loved liberty was whether, relying on the virtues of our peoples, we could survive powerful assaults from without (as, in the Battle of Britain, this city nobly did). During the next hundred years, the question for those who love liberty is whether we can survive the most insidious and duplicitous attacks from within, from those who undermine the virtues of our people, doing in advance the work of the Father of Lies. „There is no such thing as truth,” they teach even the little ones. „Truth is bondage. Believe what seems right to you. There are as many truths as there are individuals. Follow your feelings. Do as you please. Get in touch with yourself. Do what feels comfortable.” Those who speak in this way prepare the jails of the twenty-first century. They do the work of tyrants.

is from Michael Novak’s Templeton Prize Address „Awakening from Nihilism” delivered at Westminster Abbey in on May 5,1994 and an adapted excerpt can be read  here on the First Things website.

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The Challenge of Relativism Pastor John Piper, posted with vodpod

You can read the sermon notes here at

Our theme is relativism. Let’s begin by working on a definition. Since almost all of us here take that word relativism to refer to something bad, a helpful way to clarify what we mean by it is to ask how it is different from good ways of thinking relatively. Here are a couple of examples of how good and indispensable thinking relatively is.

Thinking Relatively

If I say John MacArthur is tall that statement may be true or false in relation to, that is, “relative” to, standards of measurement. “John MacArthur is tall” would be true in relation to me, and men in general. But the statement “John MacArthur is tall” would be false in relation to the Sears Tower or adult giraffes in general. So we say that the statement “John MacArthur is tall” is true or false “relative” to the standard of measurement.

This is a good and indispensable way of thinking and speaking. If you are unable to speak of truth claims being relative in this sense, you may accuse people of error who have in fact spoken truth because you have not clarified the context or the standard they are using for measuring the truth of the statement.

Many examples from our daily speech could be given. My father was old when he passed away. True, relative to men. False, relative to civilizations or Redwood trees. That car was speeding. True, relative to the thirty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit. False, relative to a NASCAR race. That baby’s cry is loud. True, relative to ordinary human conversation. False, relative to a thunderclap. And so on.

The reason we do not call this way of thinking relativism is because we are assuming that the one who says John MacArthur is tall and the one who says he is short both believe there is an objective, external standard for validating the statement as true. For one, the standard is human beings, and for the other, it is giraffes. So as soon as the two people know what standard the other is using, they can agree with each other, or they can argue on the basis of the same standard. This is not relativism.


Relativism would hold sway if a person said one of these four things: 1) There is no objective, external standard for measuring the truth or falsehood of the statement “John MacArthur is tall.” Or 2) there may be an external standard, but we can’t know if there is. Or 3) there may be one, but no one can figure out what it means, so it can’t function as a standard. Or 4) there may be an external, objective standard, but I don’t care what it is; I’m not going to base my convictions on it.

This starts to sound silly as long as we are talking about John MacArthur’s height. So let’s shift over to something explosive and immediately relevant. Consider the statement: “Sexual relations between two males is wrong.” Two people may disagree on this and not be relativists. They may both say: There is an objective, external standard for assessing this statement, namely, God’s will revealed in the inspired Christian Bible. One may say the Bible teaches that this is wrong, and the other may say, No, it doesn’t. This would not be relativism.

Relativism comes into play when someone says, “There is no objective, external standard for right and wrong that is valid for everyone. And so your statement that sexual relations between two males is wrong is relative to your standard of measurement, but you can’t claim that others should submit to that standard of assessment.” This is the essence of relativism: No one standard of true and false, right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful and ugly, can preempt any other standard. No standard is valid for everyone.

What does this imply about truth? Relativists may infer from this that there is no such thing as truth. It is simply an unhelpful and confusing category since there are no external, objective standards that are valid for everyone. Or they may continue to use the word truth but simply mean by it what conforms to your own subjective preferences. You may prefer the Bible or the Koran or the Book of Mormon or Mao’s little Red Book or the sayings of Confucius or the philosophy of Ayn Rand or your own immediate desires or any of a hundred other standards. In that case, you will hear the language of “true for you, but not true for me.” In either case, we are dealing with relativism.

In sum, then the essence of relativism is the conviction that statements—like “sexual relations between two males is wrong”—are not based on standards of assessment that are valid for everyone. There are no such standards. Concepts like true and false, right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, are useful for expressing personal preferences or agreed-upon community values, but they have no claim to be based on a universally valid standard.

Assessing Relativism

What shall we make of this? Why have I assumed this is a bad way to see the world? Let’s begin our assessment of relativism with an interaction that Jesus had with some classic practical relativists—not self-conscious, full-blown relativists, just de facto relativists, which are the most common kind, and they are prevalent in every age, not just this one.

Consider Matthew 21:23-27.

And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Look carefully at how the chief priests and elders deal with truth. Jesus asks them to take a stand on a simple truth claim: Either John’s baptism is from heaven or from man. Declare what you believe to be the truth. They ponder: If we say that John’s baptism is from heaven, then we will be shamed because Jesus will show that we are hypocrites. We say we think his baptism is from heaven, but we don’t live like it. We will be shamed before the crowds.

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