Title: A Godward Heart
Author: John Piper
Publisher: Multnomah Books
Additional Resources: Desiring God
[Disclaimer: I was provided with a preview copy of this book in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I am not required to give a positive review, but an honest one. I promise nothing but honesty in all of my reviews.]
I have read John Piper books in the past. Once I even used a video series he produced and hosted called Don't Waste Your Life. I have listened to sermons and followed his public pastoral career insofar as he is an outspoken proponent of the modern resurgence of Reformed Theology. So with some interest I have followed his debates with NT Wright concerning justification and the apostle Paul. I even follow him on Twitter.
Every time I venture into some of Piper's work, I go in with a positive attitude hoping against hope that he will write or speak with uncharacteristic simplicity. Yet every time I am finished with his work I remain or have grown increasingly frustrated. This book left me with no different feeling. I think if you are a proponent of Reformed Theology, a staunch Calvinist, or a member of Piper's church you will love this book because it falls in line with everything one would expect from Piper: consistent Calvinism, consistent putting down of those who are not Calvinists as a lesser brand (if at all) of Christian, and a strange view of God's sovereignty that makes God the responsible agent for every scourge and plague that has ever haunted humans on this planet. Despite their protestations to the contrary, Calvinists cannot escape the fact that at the end of every page they do in fact put responsibility for everything directly into the lap of God and in so doing they mitigate human responsibility. They will tell us differently, but any thinking person can see through these two incompatible ideas. This is not mere paradox in the Biblical sense. It is simply nonsense. Either I am the problem with the world and therefore responsible entirely or God is. It cannot be both.
There are two problems with this book. The first is, in my view, a profound misunderstanding of what it means for God to be sovereign. I'm not so certain we can make a case from Scripture that God is the ultimate responsible agent for all the calamity in the world and all the personal suffering we as human endure. The idea that because God knew something would happen he must therefore have ordained it (and yet somehow metaphysically remains excluded from responsibility for it) is preposterous and certainly not the sort of deity any of us can worship let alone respect. We are not puppets, there are no strings, and God's sovereignty is not in any way diminished because I am a free agent who makes choices for which I am responsible. This philosophical (not biblical) idea pervades every single page of this book and, in my opinion, renders it impotent. If I'm a person without Jesus and I read a book that says Jesus is somehow responsible for my suffering, I will not in any way be inclined towards Jesus.
Piper writes, "I'm not saying that foreknowledge is the same as preplanning" (23, e-book). But that is exactly what he's saying. He constantly uses the word 'ordained'. There is a difference between these two. The only problem is that Piper himself blurs the line or simply ignores it. I wish I had found more encouragement and hope in this book, but as someone who cannot subscribe to Piper's view of sovereignty, I was left feeling frustrated and angry. I disagree that sin and wrath were planned in order to bring about the cross; I think the cross was necessary because we brought about sin of our own free choice (23, e-book; I think a fine example of this is found in chapter 13, "Does God Lie?" where Piper contends that God 'ordains that lying happens' . I am simply at a loss as to how a Holy God can ordain sin at any level whatsoever. If God is so sovereign, why didn't he 'ordain' a world where there is no suffering? I fail to see how he would receive less glory in doing so.)
The second major problem is the manner in which Piper 'uses' Scripture in the book which, again, contributes to a profound misunderstanding of God's sovereignty (and much else besides). The problem is that he rarely analyzes or comments upon large swaths of Scripture within the larger framework or context of a book. Now, it's true that Piper quotes a lot of Scripture in the book. But it's also true that there are a lot of ellipses, a lot of one-offs, and a lot quotes that merely serve his Calvinist agenda. I understand full well that the nature of this book is to provide meditations on various things, of which Scripture is, at times, the thing being meditated upon. I do not think, however, that gives us license to ignore context. Truth be told, we can make Scripture say just about anything we want when we are meditating on a single verse at a time. I have never been a fan of proof texting and yet that seems to be key to the substance of this book.
There are times when I was shaken awake by Piper's observations–on the few occasions when he did happen to focus on a larger portion of Scripture. Take for example his thoughts on the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20: "I suspect that the reason the Ten Commandments began with the commandment 'You shall have no other gods before me'…and ends with the commandment 'You shall not covet' is that they are essentially the same commandment, one focusing on what we should desire (God) and one focusing on what we shouldn't (anything else more than God)" (166). I think there are times in the book when the reader really will be astounded and drawn into a deeper understanding of what God has done in Jesus.
I also found his thoughts on 'The Rebellion of Nudity and the Meaning of Clothing'. I think it would have been nice if he had drawn a little from 1 Corinthians 15 and tied in his thoughts on Genesis with Paul's thoughts on Resurrection, but the chapter is still outstanding even without the tie-in.
So what shall I say about this book? Is there anything necessarily un-biblical about it? Is there anything in it that is going to bring dishonor to the God Piper is seeking to bring honor to? Well, it's a struggle for me personally because I in no way, shape, form or other buy his view of God's sovereignty. I think if a Christian who adheres to a Calvinist theological perspective reads this book they will be happy that John Piper found 12 different ways that enjoying life is actually sinful and can lead to idolatry. I think if someone who buys into a Reformed theological perspective reads this, they will be happy with all his talk about God's sovereignty and the theological hoops one has to jump through to arrive at his views. I think if you are an ultra conservative traditionalist you will be happy with Piper's ideas about marriage, submission, watching television, voting, and raising children.
I think if you are not a Calvinist or Reformed or Traditionalist Christian you will be extremely frustrated with chapters like "If God Wills Disease, Why Should we Try to Eradicate It?" (40) and chapters 1-8 (among others.)
For a non-Reformed, non-Calvinist, non-traditionalist like myself–one who puts his faith in Jesus and has put all of his hope eggs in the grace basket, who recognizes God is somehow Sovereign, and is a sinner who daily repents–this was a terribly frustrating book. It left me at times terribly hopeless and angry that someone who is obviously well educated can say the things about God that he says and maintain a straight face. There is undoubtedly someone for whom Piper's words will resonate deeply, and for that I praise God. There are others, I'm afraid, who will be utterly disgusted by this book and will find it very difficult to honor the very God Piper is hoping will be honored.
It's too bad that, in my opinion, Calvinism is the lens through which Piper has chosen to view God, the Scripture, and humanity. And I disagree that deep inside Piper is the happy, jolly Calvinist he claims to be (see chapter 20). I don't know how anyone could be.