November 24, 2014

Book Review: God is the Gospel by John Piper

[The entire text of God Is The Gospel is online at Crossway.]

godgospel.jpgMany of my readers will be aware that I recently removed the essay “The Piper Project” from this web site. I am an unabashed fan of John Piper; a listener to his preaching, a student and reader of his work and a teacher of his theology to others. I’ve travelled to hear him, and he is near the top of my list of people who have deeply influenced my life.

Still, in “The Piper Project” I ventured two paragraphs of criticism amidst 15 paragraphs of praise, and the mail just never stopped. Finally, it became clear to me that my essay would be used by critics of Piper in a way that I never intended, and that was never my goal. So, I let it go.

And now, here I am again, wanting to praise John Piper for what is, perhaps, one of the most significant evangelical books of the year and, certainly, one of the finest works to come from his pen. Yet, there are some critical issues as well. Can we hear both? We shall see.

God is the Gospel is an unabashed, God-centered, God-saturated corrective to the overall direction of pragmatic, Purpose-Driven evangelicalism. Without mentioning a single name or book, Piper fires a broadside at every evangelical writer, ministry and church that focuses on the benefits of being a Christian, the principle-centered program for having a Christian ___________ (anything), and the practical benefits of the Christian life more than on God himself. By a relentless focus on God himself as the primary and ultimate good in the Gospel, Piper questions everything–and I do mean everything–else that is ever presented as a “good” benefit of believing the Gospel.

This includes taking a searching inventory of all Biblical benefits of the Gospel, and recalibrating each one in relationship to God as the ultimate end and benefit of the Gospel itself. Forgiveness is wonderful, but it is wonderful because it removes a barrier between ourselves and God, not simply because it relieves guilt or makes us happy. Justification is the heart of the Gospel, but only because it is God declaring that we are now in a position to see and enjoy him forever.

These distinctions will seem petty to some, but they are not. They are important, because all of scripture is a revelation of the glory of God revealed in Christ for God’s sake. All our Gospel benefits are really ways to one benefit: to eternally know and derive infinite joy from God himself.

Piper makes a tremendous clarification of how a true view of the glory of God is the root of sanctification. It is in coming to see Jesus as a treasure, and in coming to have a sense of spiritual beauty and worth, that sin loses its grip on us. This is vitally important in a day when so much of the promise of cleansing and liberation from sin and addiction is marketed pragmatically and in a version of human happiness that makes God a means, and not the ultimate and final end. Piper hints that all of our dealings with persons struggling with sin–such as pornography–must be, finally, Gospel efforts to bring the beauty of the glory of God in Christ into their consciousness, not to just make them more accountable. Otherwise, whatever “breaking” or “remaking” takes place is spiritually insignificant, because God is not glorified in Christ.

Piper’s use of the Bible is the best I’ve ever seen in any of his books. At times, Piper’s use of scripture to maintain Christian Hedonism seemed strained, but with a focus on the glory of God as revealed in Christ, Piper makes a convincing use of scripture that focuses on the glory of God himself as the great benefit of God for his people.

In a previous book, God’s Passion For His Glory, Piper had introduced the idea that modern Christianity was moving toward a heresy of valuing God to the extent that he values us, and that this was extending even to the modern evangelical view of the sufferings of Christ himself. Piper uses the language of Jonathan Edwards–Edwards is a constant voice in this book–to say that we are tending to “make much” of God only as he “makes much” of us. Anyone who has listened to contemporary evangelical preaching or worship music knows exactly what Piper is talking about. The idea that the cross is a measurement of how valuable and special we are is now full inculcated into popular evangelicalism.

In previous work, I have criticized Piper for not dealing adequately with the doctrine of creation and the idea of “the ordinary” Christian experience, but in this work, Piper does clearly talk about the reflected value that comes to us in our creation and that can be found in the Christian doing all things to the glory of God–not just missionary church-planting in closed countries. Piper is helpful in showing that all things can be enjoyed and valued as a refection of God’s glory, and says that a parent can fully love a child as a way of seeing God as the ultimate focus of our love. This was an important corrective, because I feel Christian hedonism can legitimately be critiqued for making it appear that only a direct, mental focus on God has value in any human activity. Piper is careful to avoid this, and to show that the light of the glory of God reflects from all things and in all things.

There is, however, a controversy lurking in this book.

We are making it plain that there is no salvation through the Gospel where the best and highest and final good in the gospel is not seen and savored. That good is the glory, the worth, the beauty, the treasure of Christ himself who is true God and true man. (168)

In other words, there are a lot of people who are not saved, but who are involved in some level of Christianity for its benefits.

Piper does not believe there is salvation in an engagement with Christianity for any benefit that eclipses God himself. Using his own vocabulary, he would say that if we are not treasuring and savoring Christ above all things, there is no salvation present. Believing for the benefits–including heaven, eternal life and avoiding hell–is not saving faith. Saving faith, according to Piper, is a valuing of Jesus above all things as God’s glory and our greatest good. That is what must be apprehended, and he makes it clear that it is this sovereign awakening of the soul to the glory of God in Christ that marks true conversion.

This is a devastating blow at the concept of “seeking” and even to the idea of conversion by way of gradual growth in faith if that faith does not start with a true treasuring of God in Christ. Piper believes that the seed of all true faith is an immediate and supernatural valuing of Christ. Should our “faith” be a valuing of Christ for the sake of anything else above God, or a valuing of Christ as a way of “making much” of ourselves, or a valuing of Christ as less significant than the benefits of salvation now, then we cannot say salvation is present.

This is a return to the kind of Calvinisitic evangelism that presents Christ and nothing else to the sinner; that prays for heart conversion to Christ; that preaches Christ as God’s glory and not as the solutions to “felt needs.” Piper’s contention that coming to Christ to avoid hell is not saving faith will surely be controversial, since a vast amount of evangelical and fundamentalist evangelism is centered on Christ as the one who rescues you from the wrath to come and gives you eternal life. Piper, agrees, of course with that much of the message, but would say that if it is not clear that heaven is focused entirely on Christ, and not on golf or a family reunion, then the message is not the Gospel.

Piper bluntly asks if we would want heaven if Christ were not present as the all-in-everything in heaven? If not, then we have not believed the Gospel.

God is the Gospel. God is the ultimate good in the Good News. God must be the ultimate good in all the “goods” we proclaim, teach or practice. Piper is convinced that this is the message of scripture and that it is an increasing minority report in evangelicalism.

Is he correct? That’s another post :-) Piper is a controversialist and he knows it. He purposely provokes response with his vocabulary and his way of reasoning. He stands far back from engaging other Christians and speaks what he believes scripture is saying. In this case, however, the ghost of Edwards is everywhere, and there is a legitimate question as to whether Edwards’ understanding of grace in the Gospel truly presents how God deals with sinners. Edwards’ views of Christian experience are controversial, in my opinion, and are not to be accepted uncritically or to become the grid for reading scripture.

Anyone reading George Marsden’s biography of Edwards would wonder to what extent Edwards is a reliable guide to the issue of the assurance of salvation. To be honest, Edwards often appears to be nearly obsessive, and sometimes dangerously introspective, on these issues. There is good evidence in Marsden’s book that Edwards may have not been a good pastor to those with sensitive consciences. The results may have been disastrous. Piper’s reliance on Edwards often seems uncritical, and this is troubling.

While Piper doesn’t say “seekers are lost,” he does say that the person who comes to Christ wanting deliverance from divorce more than he wants Christ has not believed the Gospel. In our human frailty, even with regeneration, do we ever value Christ as he ought to be valued? Do we ever treasure him in a way that we can truly say he is the only and ultimate good in all things? Does God not save those who come to him with some other benefit, besides God himself, at the forefront of their desires…even if they trust all they know of Christ? Do the Gospels, in their focus on healing and exorcism miracles particularly, underline Piper and Edwards, or do they suggest that God receives sinners graciously even if they are still on the way to treasuring Christ above all?

If you want an overview of much of this material, Piper preached on some of the texts and themes at Bethlehem earlier this year. See “What Makes The Good News Good?” at Piper’s preaching archive. Another summary is currently available at the Desiring God News page, but that will disappear soon.

Comments

  1. I think the reason that there seems to be such an uproar over all this is the fact that the church in America has become so polluted with the “earthly merits” of salvation that when a book is written that knifes through the midsection of it pain is felt in nearly everyone.

    I attended Bethlehem for five years and all I did was grow in my assurance. If you are bothered by the concept of salvation’s focus being on delighting in God and twisting the argument into the impossibility of attaining it perfectly, you need to understand that Piper only creates a firestorm because the fuel of postmodern Christianity is so liberally spread in the evangelical community.

  2. Ron….Would you believe that all the mail I’ve ever received from people saying I or someone else doesn’t get what Piper is saying comes- 100%- from members of BBC?

    So you may be correct. I’ve been reading and listening to Piper for parts of 2 decades, and I’ve “seen” this problem since the first edition of DG. Piper has heard it enough to write a whole book on what to do when we don’t desire God. He’s been critiqued by people with real scholarly credentials for issues related to assurance.

    So it may be that if we are in the room with Piper, everything falls into place. When I’ve heard him in person, I’ve been nothing but helped either. But in EVERY Q&A I’ve ever heard him do (3x) this issue of assurance and despair has been raised. So I’m prepared to say it is a concern that legitimately arises from Piper’s adherence to the experience of Edwards, and that is present in the true understanding of what he’s saying.

  3. Eric,

    Thanks for that explanation of Hebrews 12. You probably set right something in my mind that has been wrong and dangerous for me. I’ll have to think about it some more, though.

    Out of curiosity, when you read that Piper describes the ‘final’ good of the gospel as being the glory of God, what do you take that to mean? I think the difference in our reactions to this book might be based on the answer to this question.

    Thank you. (I mean it)

    Ron, could you explain what you mean? How does Piper’s work combine with postmodernism to produce a lack of assurance?

    Grace to you,
    Drew

  4. Eric Phillips says:

    Ron,

    I’m sure lots of people _do_ grow in assurance as they lean to love God as the source and end of all goods. But other people just wonder why they can’t feel the same way about God that John seems to. Different psychologies will respond differently.

    And that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that Piper’s telling people who _do_ believe the Gospel, but _don’t_ have as mature and mystical an appreciation of God’s centrality as he does, that they _aren’t saved_. Of course that doesn’t threaten _your_ assurance right now, because you’ve learned to think like John Piper; of _course_ you want God as the main thing! But it could be the devil’s own voice to millions of poor schmucks for whom Christ died who just want their sins forgiven.

    Oh, and it’s contrary to Scripture.

  5. Eric Phillips says:

    Drew,

    You’re welcome. Thanks for asking, and being interested in the answer. It’s a topic of crucial importance.

    You ask, “when you read that Piper describes the ‘final’ good of the gospel as being the glory of God, what do you take that to mean?” I would guess it means that in the final consideration, the most important thing about my salvation isn’t that I get to live forever, but that God is glorified in the fact that I get to live forever. Mind you, I don’t base that answer on an extensive reading of Piper, but on some articles by him that I’ve read, and on my knowledge of his credos about God’s chief end being His Own glory, and His glory being maximized in us when we maximally enjoy Him.

    How does that compare to your understanding of it, and what connection do you see between that statement and our discussion in this thread?

  6. I agree that people can get stressed by the perception that he is calling for the impossible – no wait, that’s Boyd’s territory. Anyway, if you read him in total you know that he is only calling for the church to get away from making its primary business that of Dr. Phil.

    Yes, I believe he does walk the tightrope, but I’ll take that over the blather in most evangelical circles these days. If someone is stressed over the call to consider what their focus on salvation is, I’d say take that up in prayer and God will honor that. Our trusting and cherishing Jesus will never be perfect in this life, but it can be much more than many tend to believe. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is the most valuable possession of all and we should think and act on that as Christians. And the merit of Christ will be sufficient even in our imperfect faith. I think Piper would agree with that.

    Blessings to you monk.

  7. Drew, I think that the postmodern church is saturated with intent to fix people or give them purpose. It’s man-centered in so many ways that we can’t see the forest through the trees. Scripture is not confusing about our purpose. When Piper writes on the issue of God’s glory and His jealousy for Himself, it flies in the face of much of todays teaching in the church. People get angry or depressed because they believe he is promoting the impossible instead of grace, and casting doubt on many people who consider themselves Christians but may not have been confronted with the essence of God’s glory. Does that help? Thanks for asking.

    Eric, the Bible is abound with warnings for those who think they are saved, but are not. There are many hard and fearful sayings, none more than Jesus telling those who professed his name and performed miracles that he never knew them. Do you ever ponder that? I have assurance, and yet I have fear. Some people look at me strange when I say that, and it makes me wonder at how poor a message is sent these days.

  8. Ron,
    Thanks for that. I bet you’re right — if I’m any indication, at least. I mean, I go to a church with great teaching and I have little understanding of the relationship between law and gospel.

    Eric,
    I brought up the issue of final good because I don’t think Piper would only see us appreciating the glory of God in His transcendence. He would say that we should also appreciate the glory of God as reflected in Christ Jesus and God’s promises to us. Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ and Future Grace are places where it would seem to me he’s written on these things.

    Perhaps Piper would put an expansive interpretation on his words here, and say that those who desire salvation, no matter how little they understand it, have that desire because they perceive the glory of God, even in they can’t put words to that desire: “Forgiveness is precious for one final reason: it enables you to enjoy fellowship with God. If you donÂ’t want forgiveness for that reason, you wonÂ’t have it at all.”

    Then again, maybe not.

    I think I’m out of this conversation for a while — need some time to think.

    Grace to all of you,
    Drew

  9. Eric Phillips says:

    Ron,

    You say, “if you read him in total you know that he is only calling for the church to get away from making its primary business that of Dr. Phil.” I don’t doubt that. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of instances in Church History where some teacher was so keen to confront one heresy that he blundered headlong into another one, just as bad, on the opposite side of the issue.

    As for the biblical warning you mentioned, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven,” it doesn’t have anything to do with “desiring God more than His gifts,” does it? It’s about faith without works being dead. If Piper said, “There are people out there who claim to follow Christ, but in their actual lives don’t evince the slightest interest in him. Many of them are fooling themselves,” that would be one thing. But what he’s saying here is, “There are people out there who follow Christ, but do it for _forgiveness_, or for _eternal life_ instead of for _God Himself_. They aren’t really Christians at all.”

    The former statement is biblically supportable. The latter statement is unbiblical philosophical elitism.

  10. Eric, the full passage is: 21″Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!

    Verse 22 changes the whole meaning.

    If a person professed Christ as their savior because they wanted their sins forgiven and peace with God, Piper would not have issue with that. If their life continued to be one of focusing on forgiveness of sin, eternal life, etc., without a growth and understanding why that sin needs forgiveness, or that eternal life is more than our self focused pleasure, santification is nothing more than self improvement and a focus on ourselves. God is holy and worthy. Not you or me. He is to be the source and focus of our pleasure as we mature and are sanctified. If He is not, then we are most likely still lost. At least we should consider that possibility instead of crying foul and improper judging.

    That is not philosphical elitism. It’s biblical.

  11. Michael,

    I find your review and these comments helpful. I have attended BBC for 8 years and know and love JP well, and I for one am not offended and hopefully will not get defensive about negative criticisms of him. In fact its funny you mention the article you wrote on Piper which you have now removed; That was my first exposure to you and I had bookmarked it as a link to your site. Of course when I tried to find you a few weeks later, the link was dead. Put it back up you wuss (jn).

    I get a copy of the GITG book on Sunday (they are giving them out at church) and hope to read it and respond shortly afterwards… I know I could read it online, but the pink hi-liter messes up my laptop screen). In the meantime I’d like to hear what Justin Taylor has to say about this; I’ll give him a heads up about this and other reviews with similar criticisms on Diet of Bookworms etc.)

    Anyway, keep up the provacative writing. Its also good to see you interacting )dare I say dialouging) with PJ here and at Pyromaniac.

    Blessings,
    Marc

  12. Evan Donovan says:

    I’ve only heard Piper preach once (at the PCA General Assembly this year) and he was incredible – inspiring, thought-provoking, etc. And the issue didn’t come up. I think the problem, like you were suggesting, Michael, comes in when people read his books and get confused by overstated language. I’m sure it’s true that psychology plays into it too.

    And Eric, I think you have to deal more with the passage from Matthew than you have. It does seem to be saying something more than faith without works is dead. It’s also about a distinction between kinds of faith, I think. Bonhoeffer, in the Cost of Discipleship, had a good section on it, I believe. (Although that book has some problematic points as well – which just shows that everything, except Scripture, that we read needs to be taken with a grain of salt.)

  13. Eric Phillips says:

    Ron,

    How does verse 22 “change the whole meaning”? Because the people in question seem to have been very active in Jesus’ name? So? The fact remains from verse 21 that they did not “do the will of my which is Father in heaven.” They used the name of Jesus for flashy, self-aggrandizing purposes, but they didn’t obey.

    You claim, “If a person professed Christ as their savior because they wanted their sins forgiven and peace with God, Piper would not have issue with that.”

    He wouldn’t? Well tell that to him. _He_ is the one who just published a book that makes the following claim: “Propitiation, redemption, forgiveness, imputation, sanctification, liberation, healing, heaven—-none of these is good news except for one reason: they bring us to God for our everlasting enjoyment of him. If we believe all these things have happened to us, but do not embrace them for the sake of getting to God, they have not happened to us” (p. 47).

    It is quite true to say that all the above benefits are but results or expressions of union with God in Christ. It is a lie to say that people who don’t have the perspicacity to see this clearly haven’t been redeemed at all. A damned lie, and most definitely a bad case of philosophical elitism.

  14. Eric Phillips says:

    Evan,

    I’m not upset that Piper’s language is “overstated.” I’m upset that it’s wrong. Heretical, even.

    When somebody writes, “Until the gospel events of Good Friday and Easter and the gospel promises of justification and eternal life lead you to behold and embrace God himself as your highest joy, you have not embraced the gospel of God” (p. 38), he is making a claim. Is the claim true or false?

  15. Eric, that quote from pg. 47 to me is directed at someone just like me. As a person who has probably studied and learned about those doctrines of the faith more than the average person (which is not much sad to say), I was oftentimes more absorbed and impressed by the doctrines themselves than God. The doctrines were my affection.

    The question comes in that if I persisted in my life to make those doctrines (which I love) the highmark of my identity I am nothing more than scholared. To be called a man who loves and believes those doctrines is a good thing, but if that’s all it is, then it is nothing. I understand that completely. It is not offensive to me, nor is it a lie to state that my salvation would be in question if I did not see that.

    Just as we should not be only on a diet of milk after we have begun our Christian walk, we should not be so brave as to thinking our faith is strong by immersing our trust in doctrines (as important as they are). We must love God and set our hearts and desires on him. We must obey Him because we love and desire Him more than anything.

    In a nutshell, I see two sides to this. Those people and churches engrossed in knowing but not loving, and those who think they love and desire God (and may do many acts of love towards others) but do not because their love of God is secondary.

    Is that a tightrope? You bet. I also think it’s terribly important for the well-being of the church to face these challenges. And that is what I see Piper trying to do.

  16. Eric Phillips says:

    Ron,

    I’m right with you when it comes to realizing the dangers of theology-as-intellectual-fascination, and the fact that it can actually become detached from real Christianity. However, if you think Piper’s just saying, “Hey, be careful about this danger,” then you’re not actually reading the quotations I posted. What they both say is, “You can be sorry for your sins, you can believe that God became man and died a painful death in order to save you, and you can put your trust in that sacrifice; but unless your MAIN motivation in all this is ‘to behold and embrace God himself as your highest joy,’ you are not one of Christ’s at all. You are still in your sins.”

    I’m sorry, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything as diabolically bad as that from any respected contemporary evangelical thinker before.

  17. We have this…”That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says,’Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.'” (Romans 10:9-11)

    And what Jesus said…”This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”(John 6:29)

    Believing Him is what God asks of us. That is when we receive salvation…when we believe. That’s why we’re called “believers” and not “enjoyers.”

    Neither Jesus nor the apostles put a “burden of proof” on believers, that they should look inward to question their salvation. Paul did tell the Corinthian church to “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves…” but the context is Paul addressing the obstinence and impenitence of this church body, whether or not they would accept the word of the apostles. And this was exactly a matter of believing…would the Corinthians believe that Christ was speaking through Paul, an apostle of the church, or would they persist in their arrogance and refuse to do what was right?

    The overall witness of New Testament Scripture does not reflect that a requirement for our salvation is a conscious, emotional delighting in God above all else,(although we are definitely exhorted to rejoice and take joy in Him) but rather, that we believe Him, and believe in Him (with all that that implies according to the teaching of Jesus and His apostles.)

    1 Cor. 3:15- “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.”

    That man’s lack (of devotion?) caused him to suffer loss, but not of his salvation.

    So it seems to me so far that Piper is trying to spur us on to a more robust faith, but going about it in the wrong way.

  18. When I see these debates I go back to the writings of Francis Schaeffer in his book True Spirituality. I think Schaeffer makes it simple. “Our true guilt,…can be removed only upon the basis of the finished work of Christ plus nothing on our part,(p.3).” “When we thus come, believing God, the Bible says we are declared justified by God…” “It is believing the specific promises of God…raising the empty hands of faith…(p.4).” When I become so introspective (as suggested by Piper, et.al) I find I no longer apply grace to myself; I begin to doubt and guilt takes over. I then find myself in a world of condemnation that Christ has set me free from. I can only say that I believe, lean, trust the promises of God. I do not know why the Christian world has forgotten the works and ministry of Francis Schaeffer, here was a reformed teacher that taught grace upon grace to so many people asking questions in the 20th century, and he never let his reformed doctrine become the focal point of his ministry.

  19. Eric,

    Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (ESV)

    Doesn’t that verse teach that seeking God as one’s reward is an essential part of true, saving faith?

  20. Eric Phillips says:

    Bart,

    No, it doesn’t. It says we need to believe that He is, and that he rewards those who seek Him. Anyone who understands, “God (i.e. He exists) will save me from the death and hell I deserve (i.e. He will reward me) for the sake of His Son who died and rose for me,” easily fits the criteria mentioned by that verse.

    Now, it says that believing this will enable one to “draw near to God,” and that _certainly_ involves growing in love, understanding, and desire for Him, but it very clearly does _not_ say what Piper is saying, i.e. that we have to focus our thoughts and desires upon God Himself, as distinguished from His gifts, in order to be saved. Getting to “draw near” and love God IS the reward God gives to those who seek Him in Christ–not a requirement you have to meet in order to receive that reward, or to have confidence that it is yours.

    Piper’s got things horribly backwards here.

  21. Mike Keller says:

    The criticisms leveled against John Piper echo the criticisms leveled against Richard Baxter, John Wesley, Johnathan Edwards, George Whitfield, D.L. Moody, etc. These guys were also accused of “perfectionism”. I wonder who God will own on judgement day, their critics or them?

    God seems to have overlooked their theological imperfections and I’m confident he will do the same for John Piper.

    Cry out for grace to desire God more.

    mkeller4christ@yahoo.com

  22. If God focuses so much on the “benefits” he gives to us as his covenant people (see Gen. 12, Is. 53), why should we fast from thinking about them? To say God is the Gospel, when the Gospel includes benefits, ie, salvation, forgiveness, etc., then we neuter His Gospel if we do not meditate on what He has decreed. Preach the Gospel, not some new gospel, which despises the fullness thereof–Psa 103:2: Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.