Many 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.