Archives For John Piper

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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coffee4thesoul.wordpress.com

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!

I went through what I consider to be a dramatic change in my spiritual life during my college years. There were a number of factors involved in this, including my stage of life, some great mentors, some new ministry opportunities, and a great group of friends. But I want to single out another component that helped to shape me spiritually during that time: I started to read books on theology and listen to sermons from big-name pastors. Three of these pastors/authors in particular had a big impact on me in different ways.

First there was John MacArthur. When I first heard John MacArthur preach (via Cassette tape), I was struck by his careful explanation of the Bible. There were no gimmicks, relatively few flourishes, and almost no extra-biblical illustrations. He just walked through each passage a phrase at a time and explained what it meant. And I loved it. I credit MacArthur with teaching me the value of the Scriptures and the endless supply of insight that can be drawn from each passage.

Then I came across John Piper. In addition to being forever changed by Desiring God, I got ahold of his sermon series on Hebrews. In addition to the careful explanation of the Bible that I learned to value through MacArthur, John Piper showed me the importance of following the argument a biblical author uses. Piper would trace the flow of thought in a given passage and in that way show how these seemingly unrelated verses fit together to form a more cohesive (and persuasive) whole. (For my fellow MacArthurites: I know that MacArthur also pays attention to the flow of argument in a passage, I’m merely saying that I noticed this important concept while listening to John Piper.) I can’t overestimate how important this lesson has been in my subsequent study of Scripture.

Francis Chan 2And then I found Francis Chan. Francis has always carefully explained Scripture and followed the logical flow in the passages he preaches. But something about the way he preaches struck a chord in me that I hadn’t experienced previously. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why Francis Chan is such a powerful communicator, but for me it comes down to this: he presents obvious, familiar truths in surprisingly fresh ways. He’s the master of the obvious. Francis will often preach on a passage that I’m sure I’ve understood and have been convinced that I’m applying to my life appropriately. But he’ll somehow get me to look at that passage in a new way, to see it with a fresh urgency, and to see that I haven’t truly let it sink into my heart and flow out into my life.

Now, there are many other preachers and authors that have had a huge impact on my life. But these three lessons strike me as extremely significant in my own personal development. And thinking about these lessons reminds me that while each of us is different, God uses us for different things. For example, I know MacArthur and Piper preach with passion, but God really used Francis Chan to show me the importance of passion in preaching. We’re all growing all the time, so it’s important to stop on occasion and take stock of where we’ve been and how God has brought us along the way.

Jonathan Edwards wearing a mini-scarf

Christians love their heroes. We always have. Whether it’s Moses, Paul, Athanasius, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, Francis Chan, or Preston Sprinkle (one of my personal favorites)—we love hearing about these heroes of the faith and being challenged by their zeal, knowledge, and unbreakable faith.

I’m not sure how big of a business Christian biography really is, but I’ve gone through a few biography stages in the last decade, and I know many others have as well. There is so much that is good and helpful about examining the lives of the godly men and women who have gone before us, but I don’t think I need to sell any of you on the validity of Christian biographies (If I’m way off on that, by the way, leave a comment and I’ll write a post to that effect). What I want to do here is offer a few cautions about reading biographies.

 

Don’t forget that even heroes are human. Some biographies are excellent at presenting heroes of the faith realistically. In other words, they present a hero’s weaknesses along with his strengths. This is incredibly healthy. Some biographies read more like hagiographies (writings about saints). They show all of the hero’s strengths and make him seem perfect. St. Francis of Assisi was worthy of imitation in many ways, but he wasn’t perfect. Neither is John Piper. So while we should look up to these great Christians, it is unhelpful and inaccurate to view them as superhuman. Nothing is gained by viewing a historical figure as better than he or she really was.

 

Don’t read biographies moralistically. There are moral lessons to be learned by reading Christian biographies, but we still shouldn’t approach biographies moralistically. I have often heard the sentiment (whether expressed explicitly or implicitly) that if we could only be as disciplined as Jonathan Edwards, if we could only be as bold as Martin Luther, if we could only be as prayerful as Hudson Taylor, then we would see revival.

Let’s imitate the discipline, boldness, and prayerfulness of such Christians, but we would be foolish to suppose that adopting a few character traits moralistically is going to change anything. True change comes through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. Don’t assume that you can discipline yourself into being the next Apostle Paul.

Hebrews 11 is commonly referred to as the “Hall of Faith.” Here the author of Hebrews holds up a number of faithful figures from the Old Testament for our consideration. But we must be careful to notice that it’s not the moral perfection of these men and women that is being praised as worthy of imitation—it’s their faith. Hebrews 11 is a call to faith, it isn’t a call to moral discipline.

 

Don’t forget that these heroes are dead. Okay, not all of the heroes I listed above are dead. But my point is that these men and women have all been used by God at unique times and in unique settings. You shouldn’t do exactly what St. Francis of Assisi did, because God called him to a specific type of ministry in the midst of a specific historical context. The same is true for all of the others, from Jonathan Edwards to Francis Chan. The value of Christian biography is lost if we merely imitate what our heroes did. Our task is to pursue the same God that our heroes pursued with the same passion and faith with which our heroes pursued him, and then to let the Spirit direct us and empower us for exactly what He wants to do in and through us in our unique historical and cultural setting.

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the seriesWhat is the New Perspective?

We wrapped up the previous post with a question: “What role do works play in our future justification?” We’ll get to that question below, but first, let’s throw on the table the whole Piper/Wright debate that’s been going for a few years. The gist of it is that Piper thinks Wright has seriously revamped the gospel, and Wright thinks that Piper is reading too much systematic theology back into the text. I’ve been a little discouraged by the whole exchange, since both Piper and Wright have hugely impacted my life as a preacher, teacher, scholar, and Christian. I value them both for somewhat different reasons, and I’m a bit saddened to see two gems miss each other like two ships passing in the night.

But lets back things up a bit. How does N.T. Wright fit into the New Perspective? In a nutshell, Wright’s views about Paul’s view of the law and first-century Judaism were already crystallized right around the time that E.P. Sanders published his tome in 1977, and a few years before Dunn christened “the New Perspective” with his essay in 1983. However, Wright has just as many disagreements with Dunn and Sanders as he does agreements, which means he can hardly be the poster child for the New Perspective. So you can love N.T. Wright, and not be New Perspective, which is pretty much where I fit in. There’s tons of things I love about Wright’s view of the New Testament. But I’m not “New Perspective” (whatever that means, anyway).

So what is it that’s roped Wright into the whole NPP movement? Here’s the gist:

First, Wright agrees with Dunn about the meaning of “works of the law” (e.g. Rom 3:20, 28); namely, that they refer to Jewish boundary markers (circumcision, food laws, etc.). Second, Wright believes that first-century Judaism was not legalistic (though many old perspective proponents, including myself, would agree with that). Third, Wright tends to see Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians along the lines of Jew/Gentile relations, and not strictly how a sinner finds forgiveness before a holy God. The two streams of thought, of course, are not at odds; it’s usually a matter of emphasis.

Beyond that, there’s not a lot in common between Dunn or Sanders and Wright. The first two, in fact, are quite Arminian, while Wright is much more Calvinistic—despite what you may hear from his critics.

Now that we’ve got a running start, what is it about Wright that’s ruffled Piper’s feathers? There are actually 8 different issues, but for the sake of space and your precious time, let’s deal with the 2 big ones.

First, Piper believes that Wright’s understanding of final justification is a serious aberration from the gospel. Again, Wright thinks that our final justification will be on the basis of the total life lived by the power of the Spirit, and Piper thinks this is tantamount to justification by works. But remember, Wright never says that our initial justification (the thing that happened at conversion) was on the basis of any ounce of good behavior. We were “ungodly” when we were justified in the past—Wright agrees with this, and so does Paul (Rom 4:4-5). But Wright says that God will judge all people according to works in the future (Paul agrees with this as well; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10-12), and this means that Spirit-generated works are the basis of our future (not past) justification. But Piper is not at all comfortable with works playing such an important role in our future salvation. Piper, however, does “believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved” (Future of Justification, 110).

Did you get that? Piper says that works are the evidence of genuine faith and will be necessary for our future salvation; Wright says that Spirit-generated works are the basis of our future justification.

Basis vs. evidence; salvation vs. justification. That’s the gist of one of the most blistering points of contention between Piper and Wright. And interestingly, at a conference a year a go, I heard Wright say that he was unaware that he’s been using the phrase “basis” and explained that he in no way was saying that Spirit generated works replace the work of Christ as the foundation for our past, present, or future salvation. What he meant and what his critics thought he meant were two different things.

Personally, if they got together at a pub and worked this out in the context of brotherly Christian dialogue, I wonder if they’d really be that far apart. I mean, all Wright is pushing for is what John MacArthur trumpeted back in the 80’s with his whole Lordship salvation gig (that obedience matters for the final day), and no Evangelical would accuse him of denying the gospel.

Oh, wait a minute. They did. Um…this is awkward. Ok, let’s move on.

Second, Piper goes after Wright for denying the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. In sum, Piper believes that Christ’s perfect obedience to the law was credited or “imputed” to our account, so that when God looks at us he sees the perfect, sinless, obedient life of Christ in us. Wright thinks this is fine theologically, but doesn’t see it clearly taught in Scripture. For Wright, “the accomplishment of Jesus Christ is reckoned to all those who are ‘in him,’ but the righteousness of Christ is not the sinless obedience of Jesus that he merited before God on earth, but “that which results from God’s vindication of him as Messiah in the resurrection.” And what is true of Christ is true of us by virtue of our union with him; as such, we received the righteousness of Christ (see Piper, The Future, 121-23).

Let this be clear, then. Wright believes that we have an “alien” righteousness; that our righteous status before God is not our own; that it has been given to us by God through Christ by virtue of his resurrection. I emphasize this because I’ve heard people accuse Wright of saying that our works constitute our righteousness and this is what vindicates us before God. But man, that’s a pretty butchered view of what Wright is saying, and if he did say that, I’ll tie the noose. But he hasn’t. In his own words, God’s justification is his “judicial sentence on sin, in the faithful death of the Messiah, so that those who belong to the Messiah, though in themselves ‘ungodly’ and without virtue or merit, now find themselves hearing the law-court verdict, ‘in the right’” (Wright, Justification, 206).

Okay, I have yet to stick my neck out on where I stand on these issues, so I’ll close with a response to these two issues. First, future justification on the basis of works. This is a huge issue and to understand it fully we’d need to comb through some pretty tough passages. But in short, I think that Paul does believe that there will be a future justification and it will be “according to works” (Gal 5:4-6; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10-12). The phrase “according to” is desperately vague, however. Will works be the “evidence” of genuine faith (Piper) or the “basis” of the verdict (Wright)? I’m going to mildly side with Piper on this one, though as we’ve seen, I don’t think Piper and Wright are actually saying different things. The unilateral work of Christ, whose death and resurrection was a free gift toward the ungodly (Rom 4:4-5; 5:8-11) must form the foundation for our past, present, and future verdict—hence the word “basis” (see too Rom 8:31-34 in the context of future justification). Everything we do flows from that unconditional gift. So I’m totally fine with the word “evidence;” I’m even okay with the word “condition” to speak of the role of works on judgment day, since according to Paul our works are created and sustained by the dynamic work of Christ and the Spirit. So when we receive a positive verdict on judgment day—when we will be justified—it will be God pronouncing “well done good and faithful Spirit, who took a pile of dung and squeezed a beautiful gem out of it.” This ain’t works-righteousness, friends. It’s God being well-pleased with his own work in our lives.

Second, imputed righteousness. I’m going to side with Wright on this one. As much as Piper’s view makes some theological sense, I just don’t see it in the text. Piper sees it everywhere—in Romans 3:21-26, 4:1-8, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:6-9. But it just isn’t there. Paul never explicitly says that Jesus perfectly obeyed the Mosaic law and credited this obedience to our account. And plus, this seems to assume a covenant of works (you theologians know what I’m talking about) that I don’t see in Scripture either. In any case, what matters most for me is that our righteousness that vindicates us before God is not our own. It comes from Christ, who is inherently righteous (he didn’t need to earn it through obedience the law), and is given to us freely by virtue of his death and resurrection—this seems to be exactly what Paul says in Romans 4:25 and 5:18-19.

There’s much more I can say, but let me just remind us that the whole debate about the imputed righteousness of Christ is not a New Perspective thing. Neither Sanders nor Dunn made it a big deal, and Wright never made it a big deal—he sort of mentioned his view in passing in 1997, which whet the swords of his critics.

Ya’ll sick of this New Perspective series yet? Hang in there, we’ve got one more post, where I’ll lay out my main contention with the New Perspective on Paul.

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the seriesWhat is the New Perspective?

For a while now, I’ve wanted to blog about the New Perspective, but have been reluctant, since I’m not sure that our readers are all that interested in it. But just this week, I’ve had quite a few people ask me about it—real people, not seminary students or scholarly geeks—so perhaps a number of you out there are asking this question: What is the New Perspective on Paul?

Or, if you haven’t asked that question, perhaps you’ve wondered what John Piper has been all fired out about in a couple of his recent books: Counted Righteous in Christ and The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. The last one, of course, is a direct response to a well known, though in some circles still unknown, British theologian. So what’s all the hubbub?

Well, it all began back in 1977, when a biblical scholar named Ed Sanders published a book titled Paul and Palestinitian Judaism. In it, Sanders studied a bunch of different Jewish documents, written around the time of Jesus, to see if they promoted a legalistic theology. For most of church history, it’s been assumed that Judaism was a religion of works, where Jews stock piled good deeds, hoping that one day the good would outweigh the bad. This has been taken for granted among virtually every Christian for hundreds of years, so Sanders went to the proverbial horse’s mouth to ask whether or not the Jews themselves promoted this sort of legalistic religion. The answer he came up with in so many words was “no, they did not.” Judaism very much believed in the grace of God for salvation; obedience was simply a response to grace, not a means of earning God’s grace—the same as Christianity.

The question that follows, then, is what was Paul arguing against when he preached justification by faith, if it wasn’t Jewish legalism? Sanders didn’t do a great job of answering this question, but other scholars stepped in and teased out an answer. The one who picked up the mantle with the most zeal was a British scholar named James Dunn. Dunn gave a lecture in 1982 titled “The New Perspective on Paul.” This lecture, published a year later, gave traction to Sanders’s study and, probably unexpected at the time, gave a name to this new way of understanding Paul and Judaism. Dunn agreed with Sanders that Judaism was not legalistic, but took things a step further by using this new view of Judaism to better understand Paul. So, for instance, Dunn argued that Paul’s phrase “works of the law” (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10) does not refer to legalism, or works-righteousness, but ethnic exclusivity. In other words—and this is really the heart of the debate—when Paul says that we are “justified by faith” and not “by works of the law” (Gal 2:16), he wasn’t arguing against works-righteousness but against a Jewish disdain toward Gentiles. These “works of the law,” says Dunn, refer to those laws that traditionally distinguished Jews from Gentiles—circumcising your sons, not eating pork, observing the Sabbath. So when Paul says that we are not justified by “works of the law,” he’s basically saying that we are not justified based on our ethnic heritage—which is what John the Baptist and Jesus said in so many words.

So how do Dunn and others argue this from Scripture? The clearest inroad to their argument comes in Romans 3:28. Here, Paul gives one of his clearest statements about justification by faith.

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28).

Now, ask yourself, is Paul arguing against works-righteousness, or against excluding Gentiles from the covenant? If works-righteousness, then Paul will probably follow this statement up with something about trying to work your way to heaven. But if excluding Gentiles, then he’ll probably follow it up with something about Jew/Gentile relations. So which is it? Well, here’s what Paul says:

“Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Rom 3:29-30).

If you’re following my point, then you’re catching the gist of the New Perspective. If you’re not seeing the difference, then it may be good to read Romans 3:28-30 again. In any case, it seems that Dunn has a point. Paul clearly follows up his statement about justification by faith with a rhetorical question about God being both for Jews and Gentiles and this is the beauty of justification—it is by faith and not by one’s Jewish identity, or “works of the law.”

All of this may be old news to some of you; for others, it’s the first time encountering this discussion. So let me bring this discussion to a close and let you digest it a bit. I’ll pick it up again tomorrow with more thoughts, but let me end by giving a few pastoral challenges.

First, just because something is called “the New…” doesn’t mean it’s bad. So don’t make the mistakes of already thinking the New Perspective is evil and heretical if you haven’t taken the time to understand it. Quite a few pastors got their underwear in a bunch when Martin Luther spouted off his “New” doctrine a few centuries ago, but we’re all grateful he did. “New” isn’t bad; unbiblical is bad, so you need to sort out whether the New Perspective is biblical or not. I’ve already given you one biblical point in favor of it—Romans 3:28-30.

Second, there is no such thing as the New Perspective. (I’ve been using this phrase throughout simply because it’s well-known.) I cannot emphasize this enough. Like the term Baptist, or Presbyterian, there is no such thing as a monolithic movement called “The New Perspective.” There’s no denomination, no membership fee, no badges, uniform, or annual conference to attend. There are so many perspectives within the broad umbrella of “the New Perspective” that it’s utterly unhelpful to even use the phrase the New Perspective unless you realize that there is much diversity within this school of thought. So asking the question: “Are you New Perspective” is unhelpful, imprecise, and reveals a good deal of ignorance in the one asking the question. It’s like asking someone if they’re Baptist. What does this mean? For some, being Baptist means you’re Arminian, or against women in ministry, or believe in congregational rule, or that you are theologically conservative, or that you don’t dunk babies, or that you’re theologically liberal, or pro elder-rule, or for women in ministry, or that you’re Calvinistic. (The chiasm was intentional, by the way; I was feeling creative.) Many within the broad umbrella of “THE” Baptist denomination disagree vehemently on a wide range of issues, and the same is true of the so-called New Perspective. And, if I can be so frank, most people who try to categorize other people using that phrase are on a witch hunt and want a black and white “yes” or “no.” So be careful! The villagers are agitated, the pitch-forks are sharpened, and they be comin’ home baggin’ them a witch, so you’d better answer right! But seriously, the very demand for a “yes, I am New Perspective” or “no, I am not” reveals a thick level of ignorance, and, in many cases, arrogance. No one who understands the issue would ask that question.

Third, the whole New Perspective thing has got way out of hand. I did my entire Ph.D. on the issue and I would easily say that 90% of the critiques are fueled by fear, anger, and lack of knowledge—none of which made the list of Christian virtues. Rarely is the Bible even opened when a witch is put on the stand. (It’s ironic and sad that charges of being “unbiblical” are made with a closed Bible.) I’ve seen relationships destroyed, ministers fired (or hired), churches split, and unchristian dialogue flood the Internet based on this issue—and it’s rarely governed by the text. Perhaps this whole issue hits home a bit because my name has been tossed around here and there as being a big New Perspective proponent. And I am totally ok with this except for one major problem: in everything that I’ve published on the subject, I’ve argued against the New Perspective. How does that happen? Fear, anger, lack of knowledge. So any time my name may be lumped into the whole discussion, just know that this is clear evidence that much gossip and ignorance has shaped a critique that’s been made under the banner of being biblical.

In the following posts, I’ll discuss other features of the New Perspective, how N.T. Wright fits into the whole thing, and why I disagree with it. So stay tuned!

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