(Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 190pp.
John Piper’s most recent book was provoked by the realization of how quickly and pervasively this current generation has abandoned God as the “all-satisfying gift of God’s love” (11). Piper is disturbed, and rightly so, that so few Christians proclaim God himself as the greatest gift of the gospel.
If you were to poll professing Christians today and ask them, “What is the greatest gift of the gospel?” you would likely hear answers such as: “forgiveness of sin,” “adoption,” “justification,” “the joy of heaven,” or any one of a number of wonderful blessings that come to us as a result of the work of Christ on the cross. Piper in no way belittles such blessings. They are glorious indeed. But their glory and greatness and blessedness are primarily in the degree to which they bring us to God. They are blessings only insofar as they make it possible for us to behold the beauty and splendor of God as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.
Another way of putting the thesis of this book is found in the Introduction. “The acid test of biblical God-centeredness – and faithfulness to the gospel – is this: Do you feel more loved because God makes much of you, or because, at the cost of his Son, he enables you to enjoy making much of him forever? Does your happiness hang on seeing the cross of Christ as a witness to your worth, or as a way to enjoy God’s worth forever?” (12).
This question falls uneasily on the ears of many (most?) contemporary Christians, for they “can scarcely imagine an alternative understanding of feeling loved other than feeling made much of” (12). We are willing to be God-centered, notes Piper, “as long as God is man-centered. We are willing to boast in the cross as long as the cross is a witness to our worth” (12-13).
With this understanding of what it means to be loved, Piper states his thesis in unmistakable terms:
“When I say that God is the Gospel I mean that the highest, best, final, decisive good of the gospel, without which no other gifts would be good, is the glory of God in the face of Christ revealed for our everlasting enjoyment. The saving love of God is God’s commitment to do everything necessary to enthrall us with what is most deeply and durably satisfying, namely himself” (13).
Or again, “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?” (15).
I don’t intend to re-write the book in this review, so let me simply summarize each chapter. Piper begins in Chapters One and Two with a survey of what the Bible means by the word “gospel”. His concern, however, is not merely with the definition of the word “gospel” but rather, “What is the ultimate good of the gospel that makes all the aspects of good news good?” (23). His answer, again, is that the “good” of the gospel “is God himself seen and savored in all his glory” (37).
In Chapter Three he unpacks the meaning of the great truth of justification by faith alone, but not as an end in itself. The reason justification is good news (as well as redemption, propitiation, forgiveness, etc.) is because it deals with the problem of sin that keeps us from God.
Chapters Four and Five are a concentrated exposition of Piper’s favorite text (or so it would seem, from the frequency with which he either preaches or writes about it in recent years): 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 (esp. vv. 4-6). Here we are supplied with the answer to our question, What is the greatest good of the gospel? It is, quite simply, “the gift of seeing and savoring the glory of God in Christ forever” (87). In Chapter Six Piper expands on this theme and applies it evangelism, missions, and the progressive experience of sanctification. On the latter point, one of his most important observations is how the Spirit actually “sanctifies” the human soul and empowers it to resist the overtures of sin and temptation. He writes: “The work of the Holy Spirit in changing us is not to work directly on our bad habits but to make us admire Jesus Christ so much that sinful habits feel foreign and distasteful” (91-92).
This is profoundly important, if for no other reason than it provides a biblical alternative to the countless strategies for confronting sin that we comes across in books and pulpits and counseling sessions in today’s church. Typically the approach taken by well-meaning pastors and counselors is to engage in what Dallas Willard calls “sin management.” In some way we formulate a new tactic to resist temptation or appeal to the horrid consequences that will befall him/her who yields. We map out a five-step formula for saying No to sin or manipulate our circumstances or develop a system for distracting us should temptation come our way.
Piper’s point is that the Spirit empowers you to say No to sin by enthralling your heart with the beauty of Jesus. Temptation loses its power when the mind of the believer is consumed with a rival pleasure, a superior pleasure, a more satisfying pleasure: seeing and savoring the beauty of Christ.
In Chapter Seven Piper engages in a brief but pointed exposition of 1 Timothy 1:11 and demonstrates why it is essential to the gospel that God be glad. Indeed, the good news that Paul preaches is the “gospel of the glory of the blessed [i.e., happy or glad] God.” Chapter Eight is especially enlightening, for here Piper explains how repentance functions in our enjoyment of the glory of the gospel of the happy God. Many argue that sorrow for sin and heartfelt repentance are evoked by a declaration of the law of God, awakening the soul to the depth of its rebellion and unbelief. Piper counters with the suggestion that “to bring people to the sorrow of repentance and contrition, you must bring them first to see the glory of God as their treasure and their delight” (107). In other words, “the sorrow of true contrition is sorrow for not having God as our all-satisfying treasure. But to be sorrowful over not savoring God, we must see God as our treasure, our sweetness. To grieve over not delighting in God, he must have become a delight to us” (107-08).
This will surely have a profound impact on how we present the gospel to unbelievers. If the Spirit is to awaken souls to contrition for sin and bring them to true repentance he must first display for them the beauty of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. “One must taste the happiness of seeing and savoring God in the gospel before one can be truly sorrowful for not having more of that happiness. . . . The sweetness of seeing God in the gospel is a prerequisite for godly sorrow for so long scorning that sweetness” (109).
In Chapters Nine and Ten, Piper applies himself to answering the question: “How do all the gifts that flow to us from the gospel relate to God as the ultimate and all-important gift of the gospel?” (117). In other words, he wants to honor the gifts God gives without turning them into idols that replace God in our hearts. How do we walk the fine line “between belittling the gifts of God and making the gifts of God into god. It’s the line between God-cherishing gratitude and gift-cherishing idolatry” (117). The point Piper makes in answering this question is that “all the gifts of God are given for the sake of revealing more of God’s glory, so that the proper use of them is to rest our affections not on them but through them on God alone” (117).
For example, he explains how gifts such as predestination, the incarnation of Christ, reconciliation, redemption in Christ’s blood, even the consummation of our salvation at the second coming of Christ “are all good to the degree that they make possible the one great good – namely, knowing and enjoying God himself” (130).
There is in Chapter Ten an especially helpful discussion of the nature of true gratitude. Building on the insights of Jonathan Edwards (which he does throughout the book, as we have come to expect!), he reminds us that “gratitude that is pleasing to God is not first a delight in the benefits God gives (though that will be part of it). True gratitude must be rooted in something else that comes first – namely, a delight in the beauty and excellency of God’s character. If this is not the foundation of our gratitude, then it is not above what the ‘natural man,’ apart from the Spirit and the new nature in Christ, experiences” (136).
Piper then applies this principle to the cross by asking whether gratitude for Christ’s redemptive work can ever be idolatrous. The answer is yes, if we view the cross (as many Christians do) primarily as a demonstration of our worth or value. But this, he contends (in Chapter Eleven), fails to grasp that wherein true love primarily is found. “The saving love of God,” he argues, “is his doing whatever must be done, at great cost to himself, and for the least deserving, so that he might enthrall them [not with their own beauty and worth but] with what will make them supremely happy forever, namely, himself” (147).
Piper does not deny that there is a sense in which God makes much of his people (he explains how in Chapter Eleven). But he insists, rightly so in my opinion, that “most people know that the greatest experiences of joy in this life – the ones that come closest to being pictures of perfect joy in heaven – are not experiences of self-affirmation, but of self-forgetfulness in the presence of something majestic” (151).
Let me make a few observations in closing. First, some have faulted Piper in this book (and others) for being repetitive. They point to the frequent use by him of substantive sections from earlier books he has written. Technically they are correct, but so what? If it serves his point to cite earlier explanations of a truth then by all means do so. Second, these same folk are growing weary of his incessant appeal to Jonathan Edwards. Needless to say, you won’t hear that as a criticism coming from me! I suspect that many who raise this point have themselves read little of Edwards. Certainly this reflects my own bias, but once you’ve immersed yourself in his explorations on these matters you find most others to be shallow and superficial by comparison.
Those who have read extensively in Piper are aware of his tendency to repeat, in other words and alternative expressions and imagery, his primary point. Some may not appreciate this habit, but I find it extremely helpful. A turn of phrase here, a slight nuance there, all serve to unpack a complex truth that by virtue of its eternal importance bears repeating.
Finally, my recommendation is that this book would make an excellent gift to your pastor. Why? Because so many have fallen prey to an unconscious idolatry in which God’s gifts in the gospel have supplanted God himself. When was the last time you heard a sermon, much less a series, that concentrated on God himself, his attributes and affections and splendor and ways and will?
Also, I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, that too much is said these days of passion for God and too little of God himself and why he is worthy of being passionately pursued. How many more sermons must we endure that expound on the nature of commitment but say nothing of him to whom our hearts are committed? Must we hear more of the importance and “psychological mechanics” of zeal and devotion and so little of the One for whom we are to be zealous and to whom we are to be devoted?
This is the great virtue of Piper’s book, that he calls us to ponder God, not the act of pondering. But this will only happen in pulpits across our land when pastors and people alike recognize that it is God himself, and not his gifts, who makes the good news so gloriously good.