Book Review: God is the Gospel, by John Piper

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The following is the first paragraph of Piper's new book, God is the Gospel:

From the first sin in the Garden of Eden to the final judgment of the great white throne, human beings will continue to embrace the love of God as the gift of everything but himself. Indeed there are ten thousand gifts that flow from the love of God. The gospel of Christ proclaims the news that he has purchased by his death ten thousand blessings for his bride. But none of these gifts will lead to final joy if they have not first led to God. And not one gospel blessing will be enjoyed by anyone for whom the gospel's greatest gift was not the Lord himself.

Piper continues by pointing out that we too often see the good news of the gospel as eternal life or heaven or the avoidance of hell and wrath. But all of these are worthless unless we see God himself as the greatest gift of the gospel.

Piper makes his point, as always, in a very readable manner, avoiding dense academic theological jargon in favor of his trademark clear and brisk style. But make no mistake, Piper has chosen his words carefully and every sentence is loaded with theological freight even though he writes with great accessibility.

God is the greatest gift that he can offer us. This is an uncontroversial thesis, yet it is one that the church desperately needs to hear. Piper's analysis of humanity, and of the church in particular, is accurate--we most often seek God for what he gives us, not for who he is in himself. Most of the time, we love the gifts instead of the giver. When Piper stays on this theme, as he largely does for the first three chapters, my heart is moved to worship.

However, no sooner does Piper make the point that the gospel's greatest gift is God himself then he shifts to a much more controversial thesis. Three sentences into the second paragraph, Piper proclaims that "[T]he Bible teaches that the best and final gift of God's love is the enjoyment of God's beauty" (emphasis mine). Again, a page later: "If the enjoyment of God himself is not the final and best gift of love, then God is not the greatest treasure..." (emphasis mine). This is no mistake--one more page later Piper clarifies: "When I say that God is the Gospel I mean that 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." And on the fourth page: "The gift is Christ himself as the glorious image of God--seen and savored with everlasting joy."

Now what to make of these differing statements of what is the greatest gift of the gospel? First the gift is God himself, then it is the enjoyment of God, then it is the glory of God. Which is it? For Piper, they are all one and the same. In Piper's Christian Hedonism framework, receiving a gift and enjoying or being satisfied by a gift are the same thing. Similarly, he equates Christ with the glory of God, so the gift of his glory is the same as giving us God himself. Thus, throughout the rest of the book Piper refers to the greatest gift as "the enjoyment of God himself", "the enjoyment of the glory of God in Christ", "God himself seen and savored in all his glory", "the glory of God in the face of Christ revealed for our everlasting enjoyment", and "God himself as your highest joy" all interchangeably.

This is troubling to me precisely because I do not see these as interchangeable. Christ is not reducible to God's glory. And the enjoyment of the gift is not the same is the gift itself. Indeed, I see the glory of God as another gift of the gospel, and the enjoyment of the gifts are yet another. But both of these gifts are subordinate to the gift of God himself. So while I heartily applaud the thesis that God is the greatest gift of the gospel, I see Piper undermining this thesis, indeed contradicting his thesis, by stating that God's greatest gift is the glory of God and the enjoyment of God.

Piper's interchangeable theses don't dominate the first three chapters; though that he sees Christ as identical with the glory of God is evident, his point that we seek God's lesser gifts without seeking his greatest gift still dominates. However, starting with chapter four, Piper dwells on the glory of God as the greatest gift. At this point, if you don't agree with Piper that Christ and the glory of God are interchangeable, then there is little to move your heart until the final chapter which is a very good collection of hymns focusing on the God himself as the greatest gift.

Overall, God is the Gospel fits very well into Piper's overall theological framework. He makes some profound and important points that the church would be ill-advised to ignore, and he does so in a well written and accessible style that most theological writes should aspire to. For those who agree with Piper's theological framework, this is an important extension of it. But for those who disagree with his framework, God is the Gospel will exacerbate those points of disagreement even while making important and uncontroversial points.

Update: This review was done in conjunction with the Diet of Bookworms site. For other reviews of this book see the DoBW page for this book. Apparently there's no way for me to get the editor of the site to list reviews at my site by the name of the person who wrote them rather than under my name, so the site falsely claims the review is by me. Rest assured that it is indeed by Wink. -- Jeremy

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Perhaps it is the hidden charismatic flavour, but Piper's newest book God is the Gospel is causing some controversy online- Eternal Perspectives dislikes the book almost as much as I loved it. Righteous sinner loves the first chapter, and Coffee... Read More

There is some controversy over Piper’s new book, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself . Of course it wouldn’t be a Piper book if it didn’t give people pause. He speaks provocatively to arrest our... Read More

15 Comments

"good news of the gospel as eternal life or heaven"

I'm afraid God is not the biblical Gospel. Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. That is the Gospel. That Gospel contains nothing about his death. That was later added to the Gospel in Acts appropriately(Acts 8:12). Christendom would do well to embrace the Gospel Jesus preached. I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

"Moreover, I pointed out to you that some who are called Christians, but are godless , impious heretics, teach doctrines that are every way blasphemous, athiestical, and foolish. But that you may know that I do not say this before you alone, I shall draw up a statement, so far as I can, of all the arguments which have passed between us; in which I shall record myself as admitting the very same things which I admit to you. For I choose to follow not men or men's doctrines, but God and the doctrines [delivered] by Him. For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but do not admit this [truth] and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians" - Justin Martyr, A Dialouge with Trypho a Jew

Jesus did preach his death. It's all through the gospels. He even states quite emphatically that no one can enter the kingdom of God apart from his death, and he baffled his disciples by telling them that the kingdom of God was arriving as he was telling them that he was about to die. You have to pick and choose from the gospels as you want them to be if you want to remove the cross from the gospel Jesus preached.

I'm afraid God is not the biblical Gospel. Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. That is the Gospel.

Jesus certainly did preach that the Kingdom is coming and is now here. Similarly, he preached about heaven and eternal life. And indeed all of these are good news. But the question is, why are these things good news? Why is the Kingdom somthing we want? The Kingdom is about the Presence of the King--that's what makes it good.

Think about all of the I AM statements in John. Above all else, Jesus's gospel is about who He is and about the Father who sent Him. That is not to deny that Jesus presents the Kingdom as good news, but that is not the most important message of His preaching.

The Kingdom is not here. Acts 1, Jesus blatently tells the disciples the Kingdom is not coming now (he just spent 40 days teaching them what the Kingdom was all about out of the prophets, all they needed to know was when). Jesus didn't preach his death until the 16th chapter of Matthew (IIRC). He had already sent the disciples out to preach by that point! What did they preach! The Kingdom is Coming! Eternal life is in the age to come.

Jesus most definitely came to glorify his father in heaven:

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. -John 17:3

He came to prove he was the Jewish Messiah, and that YHWH was the only true God! Amen.

The kingdom of God is the rule of God. That's been demonstrated by scholars in the last few decades. There's one sense in which it's always been present, and during the time of Israel it was represented by a physical nation. There's another sense in which it's newly arrived with Christ and continued in the church's representation of God to the world. There's a third sense in which it is yet to come when God rules absolutely with no rival. The existence of that third sense does not undermine Jesus' clear statement that the kingdom of God was among those who were listening to his teaching. It does not undermine his statements that the kingdom of God would begin with the small movement that followed him and expand to the whole world as it has done. It does not undermine his statements that life in the kingdom of God among his followers on earth before the final consummation has certain ethical requirements of pursuing perfection as God is perfect. Saying that there is no sense in which the kingdom is here is tantamount to saying that Christ is not king in any sense.

When Jesus sent his disciples to preach, there's nothing about eternal life. All he sends them to preach is repentance and that the kingdom was about to appear.

I should certainly think the Kingdom of God has *something* to do with eternal life. The Kingdom is the age to come. That is when resurrection occurs. If you look at the rich man in Matthew 19, you'll see that entering the Kingdom of heaven, entering the Kingdom of God, and being saved, are all the *same thing*. If being saved, means inclusion into the Kingdom of God, which has *no* end, I should certainly think it has something to do with everlasting life.

You should check out the greek of "everlasting life". Literally it is 'aionios zoe', 'ages life'. Many scholars understand this to be life in the age to come. Not that the life is eternal, but that the age to come is eternal.

"And the enjoyment of the gift is not the same is the gift itself. Indeed, I see the glory of God as another gift of the gospel, and the enjoyment of the gifts are yet another. But both of these gifts are subordinate to the gift of God himself. So while I heartily applaud the thesis that God is the greatest gift of the gospel, I see Piper undermining this thesis, indeed contradicting his thesis, by stating that God's greatest gift is the glory of God and the enjoyment of God."

Piper is not necessarily as wrong as you think. What is the gift of God himself? It is knowing Him; it is abiding in His love. But in the very act of knowing Him and abiding in Him we enjoy Him and receive glory from His recognition of us when he says to us "My good and faithful servant". The gifts can't be separated from the giver.

Knowing God does not primarily result from an intellectual act. It results primarily from a focus of the will. In the Fall we looked away from God and saw ourselves, and the human race has been more or less naval-gazing ever since. The problem Piper has in focusing on enjoying God, is that this does not help us look away from ourselves. It is only as we die to ourselves, forget ourselves, that we can see God and thus enjoy him. At that point we no longer have the problem of enjoying the enjoyment.

I would suggest that it is better to focus on knowing God because this is what takes us outside of ourselves. Only as we focus on looking for Him, trying to recognize Him for who He is do we forget ourselves.

A side issue but, C Grace makes some interesting points.

But I think the call of the gospel is a little different (clarified well by Paul in Galatians). The solution to our naval-gazing sin problem is to trust God. To constantly believe. To be believing in this message that God has already in Jesus crucified our flesh over 2,000 years ago and live in the truth of that statement. Not to attempt to make the statement true for ourselves. It is true. Do we believe it?

It isn't to attempt to force ourselves to focus on Him and know Him - these are essential but are the outworkings of belief. We are called to repent and believe - that is the correction Paul makes to the foolish Galatians who have fallen back to six steps of holiness or 12 steps to righteous living. He tells them to go back to believing the message that they heard.

Kristan,

You seem to be interpreting knowing God or focusing on God to be equivalent to some set of rules for holy living. However, if we are focused on trying to make ourselves righteous - we are focused on ourselves, which is exactly what I said we should avoid in the post above.


I think we are basically saying the same thing when you say believe and I say know. If I say that I believe something, basically I am saying I know it is true. To me though know is a more substantial word. I believe that Kristan exists but I don't know Kristan. You could tell me about yourself but I still wouldn't really know you until I had a chance to interact with you in person and to learn about your character through experience.

I personally don't think we can make ourselves believe anything. As we trust God and obey Him our experience of seeing His faithfulness in our lives leads us to belief, to knowing His word about Himself is true. When I say that I want to know God that is what I mean - I want to know by experience that HE IS who he says HE IS.

C Grace,

I think I misread a statement of yours actually. I saw:

"It results primarily from a focus of the will."

But my brain saw it as "from an act of the will"

And then I set off. Sorry about that. I've been stumbling into all kinds of things this week (end of school term at the school I work for and things are pretty crazy) - maybe I should have just taken a week to think before posting.

I totally agree re the knowing by experience who God says He is.

C Grace - But in the very act of knowing Him and abiding in Him we enjoy Him and receive glory from His recognition of us when he says to us "My good and faithful servant". The gifts can't be separated from the giver.

"The gifts can't be separated from the giver." I've had this critique thrown at me on a number of occasions. (Similarly so with "the Word cannot be separated from the Speaker of the Word.") Suffice it to say that I don't really agree. This is just one of my basic presuppositions uncovered here--I don't know how to argue for my stance (or against it for that matter). It just seems obvious to me, yet I am aware that the opposite stance is equally obvious to those who hold it.

Since I hold that view, I see things like enjoyment and glory as by-products or side effects of gifts in general. They aren't the gifts themsleves, and they certainly aren't the gift of Christ Himself. Now when Christ is given to us as a gift, enjoyment and glory inevitably follow, but that is not to say that they are Christ.

Your point about needing to look outside of ourselves is well taken though.

I would have thought that it was nothing short of extremely easy to separate the gift and the giver, at least in ordinary contexts. The giver is the one who separates the gift and the giver. The giver can't give the gift to someone else without separating from it.

Theoretically speaking, the giver is the one who gives the gift. When God gives something, God is the subject. The gift is the direct object. They're grammatically separable. They're conceptually separable. They're physically separable. In what sense are they not separable? Quite literally speaking, you can separate the two, and it makes no sense to think of them as absolutely the same thing. It literally sounds like nonsense to me. It's like saying the cause is always the effect, the means are the ends, or the knower is the knowledge.

I would say all the same things about the speaker and the speech.

Yeah, that's what I think too. Yet there is a lot of "can't separate gift from giver" talk out there anyway. They only seem to say this when God is the giver or speaker, so maybe it is some sort of special case, but it still doesn't make any sense to me. Yet the people who believe it hold it as a basic axiom of some sort since there is no way to reason your way to this conclusion.

I'm late with this comment, I didn't think to check back here. In temporal terms, any gift we recieve from God is separate from the giver, but to me it seems that it will be different when we are in eternity. I think God is a special case because God is giving himself. I see the other things, not as separate gifts but as the wrapping and the bow. By-products might be a good word. You say though that things like enjoyment and glory are by-products of gifts in general. To me it seems there are no other gifts besides Himself. Everything else is a by-product of this gift including glory and enjoyment.

How you parse the grammar of this, or view it probably depends on whether a person is more intuitive/wholistic in their thinking or more discursive/linear. (I tend to be very wholistic.)

One thing that separates the gift and giver is time. That doesn't mean there isn't more. In particular, there's still the cause-effect relation. In this case, that cause-effect relation involves an essentially atemporal God and an essentially temporal gift.

I'm guessing that you think we will be atemporal the way God is. That very idea is complete nonsense, philosophically speaking. If we are in time, how do we leave it? At what time do we leave it? Are we outside time after we are in time? That whole notion involves temporal language. Something atemporal has to be atemporal its whole existene, and something temporal has to be temporal all its existence. Nothing can be one and then the other, because then it would just be temporal period.

Wink is very holistic and intuitive, and I'm very linear and detail-oriented, yet we both think the idea that the giver is the gift makes no sense. So that psychologial explanation doesn't explain this divide.

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