Like the eagerly-awaited, long-delayed visit of Apollos to Corinth that Paul speaks of in the final chapter of 1 Corinthians, the news of John Piper’s visit to Sydney in August of this year brought with it a variety of temptations for local Christians.1
For some of us, the temptation was to an idolatrous rapture at the promised advent of a famous preacher whom we had previously encountered only via printed page and mp3. For others, perhaps, the temptation may have been to a nervous defensiveness at the prospect of losing influence and market share to an attractive overseas import, or to a trite dismissal of the easily-identified and easily-caricatured figurehead of an alien ‘new Calvinist’ tribe.
Of course, Sydney is not Corinth, and John Piper is neither Paul nor Apollos. But if (as he tells us in 1 Cor 4:6) Paul’s intention in what he says about himself and Apollos is to teach us a wider, transferable lesson about how human leaders and teachers are to be viewed within God’s church, then the analogy is worth pondering. In the conversation we have in the wake of Piper’s visit we would do well to be guided by how Paul instructs the Corinthians to think and speak about Apollos and himself.
Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 3-4 are clear and forceful: “let no one boast in men” (3:21); and “do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness” (4:5). We are not the judges in a talent show, scoring the contestants on their performances; nor are we the fans, choosing a favourite teacher to call our own. When we make assessments—and make them we must—the rule is a simple one: “not to go beyond what is written” (4:6).
Supporting and explaining all of these warnings against uncritical adulation, competitive comparison, and superficial judgement is the soaring reminder of the grace and sovereignty of God that concludes chapter 3: “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s”.
The right way to speak and think in the wake of a visit like John Piper’s is with a discerning gratitude that looks within his ministry for those things which we are to receive as gracious reminders and encouragements and corrections from God, and with a humble self-examination that is open to the ways in which God might use a visitor from another city to expose the blind spots of our own.
The gospel according to Piper
What, then, are the gifts that God has for us in the ministry of this visitor? It is not a difficult exercise to list off a string of topics on which the sermons and books of John Piper contain strong and distinctive assertions that demand careful thought and serious self-examination: mission, marriage, singleness, money, a ‘wartime lifestyle’, emotions, suffering, hell, the sovereignty of God, abortion, race and ethnicity… The list could be multiplied several times over and still be far from complete.
But if Christian ministers are, first and foremost, to be viewed as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1), and if the ‘mysteries’ Paul is referring to in that verse are best understood, in line with the context, as the multiple dimensions and implications of the single “mystery of God” (2:1) that is the gospel,2 then the most important gifts that a visitor like John Piper can give us are the ways in which he helps us to understand and respond to that gospel.
If we are to start from that centre, then there are, I think, two crucial ways in which the preaching and writing of John Piper helps us in understanding, believing and obeying the gospel.
A God-centred gospel
First, and most importantly, Piper’s writings and sermons remind us of the God-centredness of the gospel. We need not—indeed we must not—make a choice between being ‘God-centred’ and being ‘gospel-centred’, because the biblical gospel is a God-centred gospel.
Read against the background of Isaiah 40-55, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is ‘the gospel’ because it is the message that says, “Behold your God!” (Isa 40:9) and “Your God reigns” (Isa 52:7).3 The light that the gospel shines into the darkness of the world and the darkness of our hearts—“the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4)—is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). The Jesus whom the gospel proclaims as Saviour and Lord is the Jesus who came preaching the kingdom of God, the Jesus who came to do not his own will but the will of the one who sent him. And the storyline of which the gospel is the climax and centre—the only storyline in which a gospel that proclaims Jesus as both ‘Son of God’ and ‘Lord of all’ makes sense—is the one that begins with the God who created the heavens and the earth and is heading toward the day when “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).
Piper sums it up well:
The Christian Gospel is not merely that Jesus died and rose again; and not merely that these events appease God’s wrath, forgive sin and justify sinners; and not merely that this redemption gets us out of hell and into heaven; but that they bring us to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ as our supreme, all-satisfying treasure.4
This understanding of the gospel has obvious implications for the content of preaching. Again, Piper’s summary is apt:
God himself is the necessary subject matter of our preaching, in his majesty and truth and holiness and righteousness and wisdom and faithfulness and sovereignty and grace. And by that I don’t mean that we shouldn’t preach about nitty-gritty practical things like parenthood and divorce and AIDS and gluttony and television and sex. What I mean is that every one of these things should be swept right up into the holy presence of God and laid bare to the roots of its Godwardness or godlessness.5
But—as Piper’s final sentence already hints—the implications of a God-centred preaching paradigm have as much to do with purpose as with content. If the gospel at the heart of the Scriptures is a gospel that makes known the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, then faithful exposition of Scripture is not merely didactic but doxological; it is not merely ‘Bible teaching’ per se, but Bible teaching for the sake of the knowledge and worship of God. It is Bible teaching as a call to worship and an act of worship.
This is not something that I would ever have quarrelled with in theory, but it is not something that I have consistently demonstrated in practice in my own preaching. When I read the list of ten prescriptions for the manner and demeanour of God-centred preaching that Piper draws from the example of Jonathan Edwards (‘Stir up holy affections’; ‘Enlighten the mind’, ‘Saturate with Scripture’, ‘Employ analogies and images’, ‘Use threat and warning’, ‘Plead for a response’, ‘Probe the workings of the heart’, ‘Yield to the Holy Spirit in prayer’, ‘Be broken and tender-hearted’, ‘Be intense’), and when I hear them demonstrated over and over again in Piper’s own preaching, I am forcibly struck by how tepid, dispassionate, and chatty my own preaching can be.
Of course there are ways in which our chatty and dispassionate interactions can function to build up our brothers and sisters and help God’s church to glorify him. And of course there is room for differences of rhetorical style from one century to another, and from one continent to another; twenty-first century Sydney preachers should not be slavish mimics of Jonathan Edwards or John Piper. But Piper makes a strong case, I think, for the view that there is still an irreducible, theologically-grounded residue of exultation, urgency and blood-earnestness (“fear and much trembling”, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 2:3)6 that ought to be evident in the preaching manner of anyone who claims to speak for God, in the presence of God, making God known.
Preaching needs to be God-centred not only because the news the gospel announces is God-centred news, about the way in which the righteousness of God has been manifested in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also because the response the gospel calls for is a God-centred response. It is turning to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess 1:9).7
There is a powerful, illuminating simplicity in the banner-headline of ‘other-person-centredness’ that Broughton Knox taught a generation of Sydney evangelicals to hang over the Christian life, as a summary of the love that we learn from the Trinity and are summoned to in the gospel. But as a one-line summary of the shape of the Christian life, it needs to be located within a larger, more explicitly God-centred vision. The Bible teaches us to view the whole of life, including the way we love our neighbours, as being about glorifying God and enjoying him (cf. 1 Cor 10:31-33; Rom 15:1-13)—or rather, perhaps, as Piper argues we should put it, ‘glorifying God by enjoying him’.8 Piper’s sermons and books—going right back to Love Your Enemies and Desiring God—paint a compelling picture of how the whole of life appears when it is viewed in that light.
A regenerating gospel
A second way in which I think John Piper can help us in our grasp of the gospel and its implications is in the force with which he reminds us that the gospel is not only a word through which God announces to us the promise that we are to believe for our justification, but also a word through which God works by his Spirit for our regeneration.
One of the stranger assertions in NT Wright’s recent book on justification, written in response to Piper’s critique of his own account of the doctrine,9 is his claim that the great flaw in Piper’s view of salvation is that “there is something missing—or rather someone missing… the Holy Spirit’.10
It is certainly true that Piper is capable of vigorous polemic in defence of the assertion that our justification as believers is grounded in the imputed righteousness of Christ and not in the good works that we do as the fruit of the regenerating work of the Spirit.11 And it is true that this doctrine serves a crucial function in Piper’s theology, allowing him to give full weight to the biblical theme of final judgement according to works without implying a doctrine of final justification grounded in the merit of those works.12
But, as anyone who has given even a cursory reading to Piper’s other books and sermons would be aware, his writing and preaching is saturated with the theme of the indispensable regenerating work of the Spirit, through the gospel, awakening and sustaining new life.13
One area in which I have found Piper’s emphasis on the regenerating work that God accomplishes through the gospel particularly illuminating and challenging is in the question of the emotional and affective dimensions of the Christian life. Piper’s preaching and writing display a wise and deeply compassionate understanding of the complicated mixture of emotions that the Bible in its sober realism teaches me to expect that I will experience as a frail and sinful person in a stale and weary world. And yet, at the same time, his books and sermons continually summon me to expect the renewing, empowering work of God’s Spirit in my inner being, through his word, in answer to my prayers.
The two expectations are not unrelated, of course. It is because God knows my vulnerability to a kind of chronic, low-level middle-aged grumpiness that he commands me (over and over again!) in his word to “rejoice in the Lord” (e.g. Ps 97:12; Phil 4:4). And it is because God knows how easily I settle back into a complacent, self-satisfied smugness that he commands me to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Piper’s books and sermons are a powerful reminder that we should expect neither too much of the flesh nor too little of the Spirit, in giving those things (including both joy and tears) that God commands.
For all the emphasis on delight and joy in Piper’s version of ‘Christian hedonism’, there is no attempt to hide the cost and suffering and sacrifice that are part of what it means to live in union with Christ this side of the general resurrection. In fact, it is precisely his emphasis on the regenerating work of God’s Spirit, through the gospel, that emboldens him to keep calling his readers and hearers to risk and sacrifice and suffering in the cause of Christ:
It is truer in suffering than anywhere else that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. My prayer, therefore, is that the Holy Spirit would pour out on His people around the world a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. And I pray that he would make it plain that the pursuit of joy in God, whatever the pain, is a powerful testimony to God’s supreme and all-satisfying worth. And so may it come to pass as we ‘fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions’ that all the peoples of the world will see the love of Christ and magnify his grace in the gladness of faith.14
A few grains of salt
If our appreciation for Piper’s ministry is to be a discerning appreciation that remembers “not to go beyond what is written”, we should not assume that the great strengths and blessings that we find in Piper’s ministry relieve us of the responsibility to make critical assessments and to depart at times from his emphases and conclusions. Even in relation to the two grand, gospel-oriented themes I have focused on in this article, there may still be a few grains of salt that we should sprinkle over the meal before we savour and swallow.
In the first place—starting at the centre of the centre of the circle—I suspect that some of the language that Piper uses to describe the ‘God-centredness’ of God himself could contribute to the way in which God’s commitment to his own glory is sometimes caricatured as a kind of monistic narcissism. In the opening chapter of The Pleasures of God, for example, a rich and deeply insightful account of the pleasure that God the Father has in the Son tips over in the final pages into a Jonathan-Edwards-inspired description of God the Father “[rejoicing] in his own perfections as he sees them reflected in the face of his Son”.15 The biblical image of the Son as the radiance of the Father’s glory, shining outward in revelation, has been turned back on itself as an image of the Son as a mirror in whom the Father contemplates his own reflection. Whilst the metaphor may help us to understand some aspects of the Father’s eternal relationship with the Son, it runs the risk of swallowing up the distinction between the three persons of the Trinity into an analogy of a single, self-conscious subject. The legacy of Broughton Knox’s emphatically social trinitarianism is, I think, a vital prism through which the ‘God-centredness’ of Piper’s paradigm needs to be refracted.16
Side by side with Broughton Knox’s systematic theology, another theological influence that can help readers to make a discerning use of the writings and sermons of John Piper is the biblical theology of Donald Robinson and Graeme Goldsworthy. It would be a shame if a generation of preachers thought that embracing the ‘God-centred’ paradigm we find taught and exemplified in Piper’s ministry required us to leave behind the ‘gospel-centred’ or ‘Christ-centred’ paradigm that has been our native language until now, or that taking doctrine seriously meant skipping the steps of contextual exegesis and biblical theology.
Whilst the ultimate speaker and the ultimate subject of all Scripture is God—the one from whom and through whom and to whom are all things—the form in which God has chosen to act in the world and address us in Scripture demands that we keep labouring to place each passage of Scripture in its literary and historical context and to orient it within the larger biblical-theological narrative. And despite the warning shots that Piper occasionally fires across the bows of over-confident scholarly reconstructions of historical background and reductionist redemptive-historical paradigms,17 it must be said that Piper’s own theological vision is informed as much by the biblical theology of Daniel Fuller as it is by the philosophical and systematic theology of Jonathan Edwards.18
At a number of points, particularly in Piper’s early works, readers like me will probably find themselves wishing for a more explicitly biblical-theological approach. The chapter on ‘Worship: The Feast of Christian Hedonism’ in Desiring God, for example, proceeds on the basis of a tacit assumption that the ‘worship’ in view is (mainly) the prayers and praises of the Sunday gathering, even though the chapter begins with a scene from John 4 that suggests a revolutionary change in the shape of worship from the old covenant to the new. But even on this score, it could hardly be said that Piper’s high view of ‘gathered worship’ leads to a diminished sense of the significance of the whole of life as a theatre for God’s glory. And the extra chapter on worship added into the second and third editions of Let the Nations Be Glad makes it clear that Piper’s own thinking in more recent years has convinced him of the need to take more deliberate and explicit account of the New Testament’s “stunning indifference to worship as an outward form”, the near-silence of the New Testament epistles regarding “what we call worship services”, and the fact that “when the gatherings are in view, the apostles do not speak of them explicitly as worship”.19
Theology of the Spirit and Christian experience
Finally, with regard to the regenerating and renewing work of God’s Spirit, there remain a number of aspects of Piper’s theology that I am not yet entirely convinced by. I am not yet persuaded, for example, that he succeeds in making his case for a distinction between baptism in the Spirit (by Christ) and baptism into Christ (by the Spirit).20 And what I can remember of my own sceptical puzzlement at reports of the ‘signs and wonders’ movement of the 1980s differs strikingly from the ‘heart-wrenching uncertainty’ with which Piper, back in 1990, agonized out loud about whether that movement might be a sign that “this too might be a unique moment in history” and that “in this moment it may well be God’s purpose to pour out his Spirit in unprecedented revival—revival of love to Christ and zeal for worship and compassion for lost people and a missionary thrust with signs and wonders”.21
Twenty-one years on, it doesn’t seem that this turned out to be the case, and it is easy with the benefit of hindsight for those of us who were more sceptical to congratulate ourselves for having worked it out sooner. But there is still something to be learnt even here, I think, from Piper’s aching awareness of the immensity of the task of evangelizing the nations that still lies before us, and his desperate desire for the outpouring of God’s Spirit to revive and empower the church—not in a barking-like-a-dog, rolling-on-the-floor-laughing kind of way, but in a tears-in-the-eyes, boasting-in-nothing-but-the-cross, daring-to-preach-the-word-in-spite-of-severe-suffering kind of way.
It is good that Piper calls us to hunger for more and more of the Spirit’s renewing work in our hearts, and that he directs us to Christ as the one in whose name the Spirit is poured out, and to the Scriptures as the kindling the Spirit uses to set our hearts on fire with love for God. Here, as elsewhere, there is much that we have to learn from him.
Giving thanks for God’s good gifts
There is no place in God’s church for boasting in human leaders and teachers. But there is always room for giving thanks, and for honouring God by taking to heart and acting upon those things in a preacher’s ministry that have been given to us as good gifts from above. There is much, I think, in John Piper’s ministry that we ought to receive as a gift of God’s grace. I pray that the legacy of his visit will be a lasting one, and will redound in glory and praise to God.
- The ‘Sydney’ I have in mind in this article is the particular slice of Sydney Christianity that has been shaped over the years by the robust protestantism of TC Hammond and Broughton Knox, the biblical theology of Donald Robinson and Graeme Goldsworthy, and the expository preaching of John Stott. ↩
- The evidence of the early manuscripts is divided between those that read “the mystery (mystērion) of God” and those that read “the testimony (marturion) of God” in 1 Cor 2:1. Because a number of important manuscripts including the earliest surviving version of 1 Corinthians (P46) read mystērion, because of Paul’s fondness for mystērion as a word for the gospel, and because of the way he further develops the ‘mystery’ concept in 2:6-16, I think it is most likely that ‘mystery’ rather than ‘testimony’ was the word Paul used. Whether or not that was the case, the larger shape of Paul’s argument in chapters 1-3 still requires that we interpret the “mysteries” of 4:1 in the light of the “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (2:7) that is made known in the gospel. ↩
- See especially Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, Paternoster, Carlisle, 1998, pp. 45-77. ↩
- John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s love as the Gift of Himself, Crossway, Wheaton, 2005, p. 167. ↩
- John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2004, p. 15. ↩
- Cf. Timothy B Savage, Power through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corinthians, CUP, New York, 1996, pp. 72-73 for the argument (based in part on the use of ‘fear and trembling’ language in the LXX and elsewhere in the NT) that Paul’s accent here is on the fear of God, which banishes pretentiousness and conceit in preaching (cf. 2 Cor 4:2, 5:11). ↩
- John Piper, Desiring God, Multnomah, Colorado Springs, 2011, pp. 53-76; Let the Nations Be Glad!, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2003, pp. 17-43. ↩
- Piper, Desiring God, p. 18. ↩
- John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright, Crossway, Wheaton, 2007. ↩
- NT Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, SPCK, London, 2009, p. viii. ↩
- E.g. in Piper, The Future of Justification, pp. 73-80 and John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness?, Crossway, Wheaton, 2002. In my opinion (for what it’s worth!), Piper’s arguments do not quite add up to a proof that the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers is directly and explicitly taught in Scripture, but I do think that the evidence and arguments he marshalls are enough to support the claim that it is an important doctrinal construction that can be supported by legitimate inferences drawn from Scripture. See especially DA Carson, ‘The Vindication of Imputation: On Fields of Discourse and Semantic Discourse’ in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, eds. Mark Husbands and Daniel J Treier, IVP, Downers Grove, 2004, pp. 46-78. ↩
- See especially John Piper, Finally Alive, Crossway, Wheaton, 2009; Piper, Desiring God, pp. 53-76; John Piper, Future Grace, Multnomah, Sisters, 1995, pp. 143-168. ↩
- See especially, Finally Alive. ↩
- Piper, Desiring God, p. 288. ↩
- John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God, Multnomah, Sisters, 2000, p. 42. ↩
- E.g. David Broughton Knox, D Broughton Knox Selected Works Volume 1: The Doctrine of God, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2000, p. 154: “The subject matter of theology is not God, but God in his relationship, for the essence of God is in eternal relationship.” ↩
- Most notably (and notoriously!) in Piper, The Future of Justification, pp. 33-38. On this matter, I think there is wisdom in Don Carson’s words of friendly disagreement with Piper in this brief conversation at the Gospel Coalition website. ↩
- See especially Daniel P Fuller, The Unity of the Bible: Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1992, and Piper’s acknowledgement of his indebtedness to Fuller in Piper, Desiring God, p. 14. ↩
- Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad!, pp. 215-230; citations from pp. 215-216. ↩
- E.g. http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/you-will-be-baptized-with-the-holy-spirit. Note also the nuanced arguments in http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/this-is-he-who-baptizes-with-the-holy-spirit, making it clear that (at least in this later sermon, preached in 2008) Piper is not arguing for a second-blessing understanding of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but for one that interprets the concept as “a broad, overarching one that includes the whole great saving, sanctifying, and empowering work of the Spirit in this age”. ↩
- http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/are-signs-and-wonders-for-today. My own scepticism back in the 1980s (and today) was not directed at the claim that God heals and works miracles, but at some of the particular stories of miracles and healings that were being reported, and some aspects of the ‘power evangelism’ framework in which they were being interpreted. ↩