Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Book Review: God Is the Gospel, by John Piper

God Is the Gospel: meditations on God's love as the gift of himself,
by John Piper. Crossway Books: 2005; 190pp.

John Piper's writing has had a great and uplifting impact on my Christian life. His book Future Grace was used by God to lift me out of a deep pattern of depression. I've also benefited from Desiring God, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, and others of his writings.

This book is subtitled "Meditations on God's Love as the Gift of Himself." Its contents are pretty well summed-up between the title and the subtitle.

The Good. One of the first factors to strike me about this book was the saying, "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness."

There is definitely a crucial role for writing books and essays leveling Biblical criticisms against bad teaching and bad trends. Certainly the examples of the apostles and prophets bears this out fully. Part of a shepherd's job is to warn against wolves, and steer the sheep in the opposite direction. So I fully endorse truthful, humbly-bold Biblical assessments of destructive and dangerous trends, naming names and citing sources.

But Piper here has, I think, taken the other option. He shows us that it can be a very good option, too. He rarely if ever quotes a false or defective teacher, yet it is plain that at least part of what he is doing is meant to counter the me-centered, sinner-sensitive, faddish, man-exalting ministries of -- well, Piper didn't want to name anyone, so I won't either. Names aren't the point here, anyway.

What Piper does instead is to light one big, blazing candle: the fact that the whole point of the Gospel, in its entirety as well as in its several parts, is to bring us to God. The Gospel tells how Christ came to redeem a people for His Father, to accomplish forgiveness, redemption, regeneration, propitiation, adoption, justification -- so that we can stand before God forgiven, freed, and clothed with His own righteousness. The first citation is of 1 Peter 3:18, "Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God." That sounds his theme excellently.

And so again and again, Piper shows us Biblically that the point of the Gospel is not that we be forgiven, redeemed, justified, sanctified -- in isolation. It is that those realities be made ours by Christ so that we can have a relationship with God, in which He is our life, our light, our glory, our fascination, our God.

Here are some notable passages from the book:

My burden in this book is to make as clear as I can that preachers can preach on these great aspects of the gospel and yet never take people to the goal of the gospel. Preachers can say dozens of true and wonderful things about the gospel and not lead people to where the gospel is leading (p. 41)

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 (p. 47)

...people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It's a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don't want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel (p. 47)

Conversion is the spiritual discovery that being loved by God is not the divine endorsement of our passion for self-exaltation (p. 151)
There are a lot of other things I really like about this book as well, of varying import.

Piper (or someone) has repented of the "sin" marring his other books, of indulging in endnotes. There simply is no excuse, anymore, for endnotes. Ever. If it doesn't need to be said, don't say it. If it must be said, put it right there, on the page, for the reader to see. If the reader doesn't want to see it, he doesn't have to. If he does want to read it, he shouldn't have to keep two bookmarks, and keep turning back and forth. I do hope Piper and his publishers stick to this newfound virtue.

Also, Piper or someone has repented of the sin of changing God's name in Bible quotations. If a writer regularly changed passages that called Jesus "Jesus" into "Lord" or "Christ," it would be bothersome. No less so in OT quotations. It's bad enough that English translations perpetuate the unbelieving Jewish superstition of hiding "Yahweh" behind "LORD." Worse, in his earlier books, Piper (or his publisher) would work a second change, converting "LORD" to "Lord," so that the reader had NO way of knowing that the original text referenced Yahweh instead of 'adonay ("Lord"). He could not trust Piper's quotation, and that is bad. Glad to see it changed in this book.

Also, every other paragraph doesn't mention "Christian hedonism" anymore. I'm glad if the excellent Dr. Piper has gotten that out of his system. I doubt he's dropped the phrase, which is (in my humble opinion) a bad label for a good idea; but he may have outgrown the need to machine-gun it into our vocabulary. And that's a good thing.

The Bad. "This was especially relevant to my wife and I"(p. 133) Ouch! That's what editors get paid to catch. Someone did not earn his pay.

The, Well, Could-Be-Better. Suppose Dr. Piper were to drop by my home and take me aside. Suppose he were to begin, "Daniel, my brother, you are other than me." I'd be too shocked to correct his grammar, of course, and would nod for him to continue. Suppose he said, "I feel stagnant as a writer. I feel I'm repeating myself, rutted, not stretching and growing. What should I do? Do you have any suggestions?" I'd say sure, I have some suggestions... if you really, really want to hear them. If he said he did, I'd say something like this:

"I think you may be right. You are repeating yourself, and I think you could benefit by rising to a challenge. So, for the next book you write, make four resolutions, brother, and stick to them.

"First, do not reprint or retread any of your other books. Just say 'no' to self-reference. Dude, in this book you re-tread previous writings at least six times! I counted! 'The next three pages are taken from my book, _____.' 'The next two paragraphs are from my book, _____.' Goodness, you even pre-tread a book that isn't published yet, on page 162! On top of that, you refer readers to your other books at least eleven times. Your index shows references to 'Piper, John' on seventeen pages.

"John, buddy, brother -- if you haven't anything new to say, just don't. Write fresh material. Append an annotated bibliography of your other books, if you have to get that out of your system. Goodness, F. F. Bruce wrote about fifty-eight thousand books and articles, but I don't remember his writings being pockmarked with constant allusions to them. My memory may be faulty, or it may have been British modesty on the late Dr. Bruce's part, but it was a good practice.

"Second, try writing a whole book without using any form of the word 'savor' even once. I know you love that word. Heavens above, we all know you love that word. But overuse has made it lose its impact in your writings. Use your thesaurus, and find another five or six words or phrases to use, instead -- and use them. Your readers are losing the savor for 'savor.'

"Third, unless you want to title your book 'What Jonathan Edwards Said About ______,' don't quote Edwards anymore. We all know you love him. If we didn't know it before, this book would surely convince us. Your index shows thirty-one pages referring to him, and I think even that is short.

"So it's okay, you've made your point, you really, really love Jonathan Edwards. You're on record. Now say what you have to say. Don't be like the scribes and elders, telling us 'Rabbi X said....'

"And just between you and me, you're actually a better writer than the admirable but bloodless Edwards, anyway. So speak in your own voice.

"Fourth, I'll pass along to you the one idea of abiding value that I got out of my Pastoral Ministry class at Talbot. Picture a reader out there, outlandishly dressed, weird-looking, someone who captures your attention. He's a foreigner. He may even be an alien from another planet. He only has your next book to read. What's more, he only knows three words in English, and he keeps saying them over and over as he reads your book.

"They are, 'Tell me how!'

"See, brother, you've been a pastor a long time. Surely you've ministered, in person, to actual flesh-and-blood individuals whose lives have been changed by being gripped by the truths you preach. Surely you have some illustrations that will put shoe-leather on those truths, and tell us how they walk and talk. The Bible certainly does that, both laying things down prescriptively, and fleshing them out descriptively, in story after story.

"If you're reluctant about telling other people's stories, remember that the Bible isn't. Do what James Herriott (-- not even the author's real name!) did in his All Creatures Great and Small books. He told dozens of other people's stories, but he fiddled with the names and places so that no one would be embarrassed. Do that.

"By the way, that's one of George Lucas' shortcomings as a filmmaker. Mark Steyn pithily observed that Lucas has to have his characters say things like, 'I love you," because he's incapable of showing us. Don't just tell us we need to do those things -- show us.

"Now, of course, in that last point, I'm assuming that it is the case. You seem like a people-person, as a pastor must be. I'm assuming that you aren't like my impression of another very well-known pastor-writer, who (I've been given to understand) 'has people to deal with people.' In my opinion, his speaking and writing really show that fact, and they're the worse for it. I almost totally agree with him doctrinally, but I have to preface everything he says with 'Theoretically....'

"You don't want to be like that. A good shepherd knows his sheep. He doesn't just know people who know his sheep. He lives with them, he feeds them, he leads them, he protects them, and if need be he lays down his life for them.

"If your success has gotten you into that position of isolation, I'd recommend that you change your schedule. Switch roles with some lesser being for a few years. Deal with people, and see more how the truths you write about are lived out.

'Then tell us about it, in your next book, even if we have to wait five years for it."
In sum, I do recommend this book. It's God-honoring, Christ-exalting, and Biblically-based. Having said that, I do hope Pastor Piper perhaps slows his production, and puts a bit more into his future works. The church will be the better for it.

NOTE: I received this book as a gift from the publisher through Mind & Media. This is the first time I've done a review for that site.

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