The God-Centerdness of God

Preston Sprinkle —  January 2, 2014

No, this isn’t a guest post by John Piper. But I will admit that I’ve been hugely influenced by Piper over the years. When I first became a Christian, I starting piperreading and listening to everything that Piper put out, and I was quickly convinced of his God-centered vision of—well—everything.

But a few years after I got saved, I decided to set aside all the theological hobby horses I was indoctrinated in, and riding, in order to comb through the text to see if these things are so. In many ways, I’m still combing. Thumbing through passages, reconsidering cherished doctrines, and making sure that what I believe has firm roots in the Bible. It’s a never ending journey and I’ve found that seeking to be biblical is incredibly hard work.

This led me to scrutinized Piper’s claim that God ultimately does all things to glorify himself. I have to admit, it does sound a little selfish of God—a God who gave everything to those who deserved nothing. A God who is near to the broken hearted and walked with Adam in the garden. Does this God really do all things to bring himself glory?

It wasn’t until I started working through the Old Testament years later that I became more and more convinced that he does.

For instance, Israel’s exodus from Egypt is a fundamental event in the Old Testament story. In many ways, it’s the “cross and resurrection” of Israel’s history, the grand act of salvation whereby God redeems his people for himself. Now, throughout the so-called plague narrative (Exod 5-14), Moses salts the narrative with a bunch of purposes clauses—statements that tell us why God is rescuing Israel from Egypt. Over and over, God says that he is turning water to blood, blackening the bright sky, and parting the Red Sea in two “in order that they may know that I am Yahweh” (Exod 6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:22; 10:2; 14:4, 18). Sometimes the “they” (the Egyptians) is changed to a “you” (the Israelites). Either way, God desires to make himself known to the world—in judgment and in salvation.

Even that hard-hearted pharaoh is swept up into God’s plan. Why did God harden pharaoh’s heart? Some people say He didn’t. Others say God did it so that pharaoh would repent. But God gives us his own “so that” right there in the text:

For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Exod 9:16)

Why did God raise up pharaoh and harden his heart? “So that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” And Paul agrees:

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Rom 9:17-18)

God is ultimately for God. And he intervenes to judge and to save “so that you may know that he is Yahweh”—the one and only God of all creation. Such is the theological engine that drives the central act of salvation in the Old Testament. But there’s more.

Towards the end of the Old Testament, there’s another grand act of deliverance envisioned by the prophets and fulfilled in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 9:31). It’s often referred to as the “second exodus,” because the prophets clothe their prophecies about this event in language drawn from the first exodus. And again, this second exodus highlights the God-centerdness of God.

In fact, the same purpose clause that saturates the first exodus (“so that you/they may know that I am the LORD”) occurs more than 70 times in the book of Ezekiel alone. In almost every instance, it’s attached to some statement  about God’s judgment or his future salvation. Why will God redeem his people? To make his name known:

It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. (Ezek 36:22-23)

I’ll never forget sitting in my dorm room in college reading Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad and seeing him quote this passage from Ezekiel. As much as I wanted to buy into what he was saying—it probably had more to

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do with the way he says it—I remained a bit skeptical. Is Piper not just cherry picking a verse from some random Old Testament book to support his point? Anyone can do this to back up virtually any theological claim.

But half way through my PhD, I spent a few months studying the book of Ezekiel. I read it cover to cover many times. I read books, articles, and commentaries that deal with the original Hebrew. I worked through Ezekiel’s argument with a fine-toothed comb. What did I find out?

Piper is absolutely correct.

The God-centeredness of God is not just evident in a few verses here and there. It’s integral to the entire message of Ezekiel. The God of the prophets desires to disclose his name and character before all nations. That’s why he saves. That’s why he judges. The twin events that envelope Israel’s story—the first and second exodus—display this fundamental theme. God desires to showcase his name throughout the world.

And that’s why he brought you into a covenant relationship with himself. To make his name known among the nations.

Do it!

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Andrew R

    I’m struggling with how to articulate this…and I’m not sure if this is consistent with or contra Piper (probably the latter)…but perhaps rather than seeing God’s actions towards humans (salvation and judgement) as accidental to God’s glory (i.e. His glory could be achieved by other means; however, it just so happens to be by this [i.e. salvation] or that [i.e.judgment]), I am persuaded to see God’s glory as eternally bound up with the glorification of humans and all creation. That is, God is ultimately glorified when the humans made in and according to His glorious image (Gen 1; Ps 8) and who fell short of full union with that glory (Rom 3) are redeemed and conformed and transformed into His glorious image (Rom 8; 2 Cor 3-4; 2 Pet 1) and when the creation subject to decay is liberated and glorified as well (Rom 8; Col 1). Therefore, the God-centerdness of God is not inversely related to the human-centerdness or creation-centerdness of God (as one increases the other decreases as if they are mutually exclusive in a zero-sum game) nor is it even *accidentally* directly related (i.e. opposite of inverse relationship–as one increase so does the other); rather the God-centerdness of God is inseparably and *purposefully* bound up with (i.e. directly related to) the glorification of humanity and all creation when the whole earth is filled with His glory as the waters cover the sea. I think this is what Irenaeus and Maximus the Confessor articulate in their meditations on the incarnation.

    In other words, if the telos of the God-centerdness of God’s glory is the glorification not only of humanity but all creation, then I think it is improper to use speech that can imagine God as for “Himself” as if that is exclusive so that any action towards another (such as humans) is purely accidental (i.e. nonessential). The God I find in Scripture is essentially (i.e. this is constitutive of His very nature) hospitable and embracing (Phil 2). When this God is for “Himself” it necessarily means that He is for everything He made (i.e. everything “other”). I haven’t read much Piper, but my hunch is that this is absent from his thought.

    (No doubt how to reconcile God’s glory defined as the glorification of all creation with God’s wrath is an issue for what I’m saying…perhaps, keeping with Ezekiel, a point of reflection would be that what is judged by God [i.e. Israel, Sodom, Judah] is restored through judgment…but that makes many uncomfortable…”So you’re saying that God is going to….” Hold you horses people…I’m just trying to think out loud.)

    • Preston

      Hey bro,

      I appreciate you thinking out loud, especially in a public forum. I do it all the time–it’s called blogging :)

      Anyway, I think I’m in agreement with your thoughts and I’m not sure they actually contradict what I said. I certainly didn’t articulated the comprehensive, or creational, component of God’s glory, but a quick reading of the Psalms will give you that.

      My only pushback (in a thinking out loud sort of way) has to do with: 1) the direct contrast between God and humans/Israel in Ezek 36 (“it is NOT for your sake…oh Israel”) and 2) how judgment would fit into your scheme.

      If the redemption of all creation (including creatures) is the end goal, then will all be saved? Yes, this is the logic of Bell and others. If not, if there’s still a place for judgment and if even judgment brings God glory, then it (judgment) probably doesn’t sweep up human flourishing into the process.

      In short, how do you fit judgment into your scheme? You might need to bust out your trashed copy of Mirslov Volf…I truly am sorry about that :)

      (Again, I love your thoughts here bro.)

      • Andrew R

        Thanks! Ya I anticipated pushback #2 and I’m still not sure how judgment fits into what I said although I don’t think such a failure on my part means that the cosmic nature of God’s glory is to be abandoned (as you agree). RE Ezek 36 (pushback #1): 36:22 and 36:32 say “not for your sake” but 36:9 says “see now I am for you; I will turn to you.” So somehow it is not for their sake but for *His Name*, but God is still for them precisely because He has bound up His Name to them! Also, I can’t help but notice that the remedy for profaning His Name is the sanctifying of *Israel*. Again, the God-centerdness of God is still *for* others (Israel). In other words, the only way to God’s Name to be seen as Holy is in the holiness of His community. So while God may not be doing this for their sake He is doing it for His Name and His Name is bound up with the destiny of Israel. Perhaps this means that “for their sake” would be a blessing upon Israel that wouldn’t be seen as coming from YHWH or maybe as a blessing that is based on Israel’s covenant faithfulness…In any case, blessing “for their sake” is rejected in favor of a blessing for YHWH’s Name sake, but it still establishes the inseparable link between the Name of YHWH and the glory of the “other.”

      • Andrew R

        Thanks! Ya I anticipated pushback #2 and I’m still not sure how judgment fits into what I said although I don’t think such a failure on my part means that the cosmic nature of God’s glory is to be abandoned (as you agree). RE Ezek 36 (pushback #1): 36:22 and 36:32 say “not for your sake” but 36:9 says “see now I am *for* you; I will turn to you.” So somehow it is not for their sake and for *His Name*, but God is still for them precisely because He has bound up His Name to them! Also, I can’t help but notice that the remedy for profaning His Name is the sanctifying of *Israel*. God is not for Himself in isolation from the salvation of those embraced by His covenant (maybe this is how judgment and salvation fit into what I’m saying–i.e. glorification of those embraced by His covenant). So again we have the God-centerdness of God as still bound up with the glorification of others (Israel). The only way for God’s Name to be seen as Holy is in the holiness of His community. So while God may not be doing this for their sake and He is doing it for His Name, His Name is bound up with their destiny. So whatever it would mean for God to be blessing Israel “for their sake,” this is rejected in favor of a blessing for YHWH’s Name sake; however, this chapter still demonstrates the inseparable link between the Name of YHWH and the glory of the “other.”

    • Eric Walter

      I hope my post can contribute by way of adding biblical metaphors to this discussion. I echo Andrew’s perspective, wherein the glory of God and the glory of man (His image bearer) are tied together. There are many verses which seem to echo this idea, including most of the Book of Hebrews. As to the seemingly contradictory passage in Ezekiel- the prophets, historically speaking, are addressing a nation which has been deceived into believing (as other nations do) in their own inherent glory. God’s message here is primarily to combat the idolatry of autonomy.

  • Eric Walter

    Preston,

    Thanks for the post! I hope it encourages deep thoughts and fruitful dialogue. I myself was raised among Christians who agreed with Piper’s claim of God’s God-centeredness. Initially this terminology seemed appropriate to me and verses like those in Ezekiel 36 appeared to agree with its sentiment. However, as I moved toward my wedding day this past year I began to reconsider these ideas completely.

    As you have alluded, many people sense that a theology of “God-centeredness” smells of “self-centeredness”- of this I would agree. C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity” points out that, “selfishness has never been admired” by anyone in any culture. The reason that selfishness fails to appeal to people is because of it’s divisive nature. Selfishness, at its core, seeks the desires and purposes of oneself at the expensive of others. Selfishness pulls apart that which we feel is suppose to be together, namely, each other. Now many pastors and theologians have rebutted this accusation of God’s self-centeredness by arguing, “He’s God, He can do what he pleases” (often quoting Romans 9 or something like that). However, the layman, if he’s honest, will never be satisfied with an Almighty God who’s moral character is actually no more mature than their 4-year-old child. For the ancients, virtue made one’s world larger, not smaller. An infinite God consumed only with Himself is, in reality, still a small God. Another way of saying this is a God consumed only with Himself is a God unfit for marriage.

    Now before you right me off as holding a “man centered theology” let me explain. Our understanding of God’s character must be built from Genesis forward, not the prophets outward. G.K. Beale, in his work “The Temple and the Church’s Mission” has noted that the language of Genesis 1 alludes to the conception of a worldwide temple, wherein God might dwell with his created image (mankind). However, God’s temple is not just a throne, it’s a house. In essence, in the beginning God created a home, a marriage, a family. This type is echoed throughout the Bible (the tabernacle in Exodus, the promises of Isaiah, the ecclesiology of Paul in Ephesians, the ecclesiology of Peter in his letters). However, no example is more obvious than that of John in Revelation.

    “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,[b] and God himself will be with them as their God.[c]” (Jn 21:1-3)

    The temple, or throne of God, here is displayed as a “bride adorned for her husband”. At the center of our understanding of God’s character is the husband, a family man, a lover. God’s greatest desire, the culmination of all of history is not singleness, but marriage. God, in His heart of hearts is not concerned only with Himself, but Himself as apart of His Family (wife and children). Our understanding of God’s character should stem from that of Jesus who is our embodied example. He loved His Wife, the Church, so much that He died to redeem her from the slavery of sin into a family of life.

    Instead of simply calling God great, let’s quantify this praise among the nations!

    God is a great husband! God is a great father!

    For God, His glory is incomplete without union with man. This appears to be the story of the Bible. For true life always creates new life- just like a marriage; or as Athanasius said, “The glory of God is a man fully alive.”

    • Eric Walter

      Correction: “The glory of God is man fully alive” is attributed to Ireneaus (not Athanasius). My apologizes.

  • http://understandingwhatwecelebrate.blogspot.com/ Jared

    I think this doctrine about God is hard to comprehend because the only context I have to understand it is when I do something for myself and what that entails. If Jared wants his name to be know, it works out solely for the purpose of Jared’s popularity or honor. But, to Andrew’s point, when God wants His name to be known, it seems to necessarily also be for the benefit of them it is made known to (as well as Himself of course). Perhaps (although I did not read Piper’s book) this is why the title is Let the Nations be Glad. So I ultimately agree with Ezekiel, the OT, and yourself, but I think it is hard to lay this view out from one angle (I guess that is all you can really do in a blog post though!).