(Edited Transcript of Podcast)
Providence Starts Here
John Piper drops a 752 page book titled Providence. 752 pages! This must be an author who trusts that God himself will bring readers to read this book. Readers who can commit the time to see and savor the providence of God. Are you that reader? Listen to today’s review!
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Every month I review a book from Faithlife’s Free Book of the Month. And while waiting for the free book for the month of May, I review a book of my choice. And my choice for today is Providence by John Piper.
Piper and I Go Way Back
Who doesn’t know John Piper? For one thing young Christians or perhaps Christians who swim in different waters from mine. For a start, I can tell you that Pastor John Piper is a respected preacher and teacher. And that is an understatement. Instead of reading his resume, let me share with you what Pastor John Piper means to me. In doing so, I declare any biases I may have in reviewing this book. And at the same time, you will know Piper and myself a bit better.
One of my greatest joys or crowning achievement in life, was completing Piper’s sermon series on Romans. That’s 225 sermons, preached chapter by chapter, verse by verse, over many years. After that I started and completed his sermon series on Hebrews, which was only 52 sermons long.
Since then, I have not followed or watched or listened to his teaching on a regular basis. A lot of his work comes to me as articles or YouTube videos that were recommended by the people around me.
I have never read the book that made him famous, which became the name of his ministry: Desiring God. I never read it because from his sermons, he had already fleshed out this Christian Hedonism that he became famous for. God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in him.
I admit my theology has been influenced by Piper’s teaching. So can I be unbiased in reviewing this great man’s work? This is an important question to me because I want to be impartial on the books I review.
So I asked myself this question, what is the worst thing I can say about Providence by John Piper? And here it goes: This book is a mishmash bundle of previous books with clever marketing that was published in order for 75 year old John Piper to cash in on his influence before he retires.
If true, could I say that? Because that was quite nasty. I think I can, but in a more tender and less offensive way. But to say that would be a lie. I am pleased to say that this book is worth all the praises it has received and more praises to come. Also, Piper can’t cash in on this book because this book is available for free in desiringgod.org. Let me repeat: This book is available for free in www.desiringgod.org. Also Piper can’t cash in when people are not paying money for it.
Four Invitations To Read
Knowing that it is free, would you read it? Well, it depends on what it’s about, right? It’s 30 years of John Piper’s ministry put together in one book, but it’s not using materials scavenged from other works. It’s a new work built from the ground up on the theme of providence or purposeful sovereignty. Providence in reference to God means, and I quote, “the act of purpose, fully providing for or sustaining and governing the world.”
In the introduction, Piper extends four invitations to the reader. Now hear this and decide whether you want to accept his invitation.
First, he invites you into a biblical world of counterintuitive wonders. Okay, he brings you into the Bible. He says, I will argue that these wonders are not illogical or contradictory, but they are different from our usual ways of seeing the world—so different that our first reaction is often to say, “That can’t be.” But the “can’t” is in our minds, not in reality.
Second, he invites you to penetrate through words into reality. He writes, “The issue is this: Is the reality that I see in the Bible, and call providence, really there?” Later he continues: “The all-important truth is whether there is a reality in the Bible that corresponds to my description of the goal, nature, and extent of God’s purposeful sovereignty.”
He wants you to see that the words he is a putting forth describes reality, describes what is happening in the world.
Third, he invites you into a, I quote, “God-entranced world. Jesus said to look at the birds because God feeds them (Matt. 6:26) and to consider the lilies because God clothes them (Matt. 6:28–30). Jesus’s aim was not aesthetic. His aim was to free his people from anxiety.”
And if you read Providence, you can be free from anxiety.
Fourth, and finally, he invites you to know, I quote, “maybe as you never have known, the God whose involvement in his children’s lives and in the world is so pervasive, so all-embracing, and so powerful that nothing can befall them but what he designs for their glorification in him and his glorification in them (2 Thess. 1:12).”
Ultimate Goal of Providence
If you accept his invitation, the rest of the book is divided into three parts plus a conclusion.
Part 1 defines providence and answers the question: “When God glorifies himself is that arrogance?” and the answer is no. Part 2 is titled “The Ultimate Goal of Providence”. This is divided into three sections, beginning with Creation, actually before creation, and continuing with Israel from Abraham to Exile. And lastly, the last section, the third section is the New Covenant. What is this ultimate goal? Piper writes in the third section, “What we have seen in all the stages of providence—before creation, through the works of creation, and in the election of Israel, the exodus, the conquest of the promised land, the period of the judges, the monarchy, and the exile and its reversal—is that the ultimate purpose of God’s providence is that God be known and enjoyed and praised for who he really is: “You shall know that I am the Lord.”
That is the ultimate goal of providence. And he describes it in different ways throughout the whole three sections.
Is God in Control Over Everything?
Those three sections help us to understand Part 3. Part 3 is titled, “The Nature and Extent of Providence”. This has nine sections which encompasses 30 chapters. Did I mention that this is a 750 page book? Nearly 500 pages is in Part 3. In these chapters, God’s providence is over or God is in control over nature, satan and demons, kings and nations, life and death, Sin, conversion and Christian living.
The last chapter is the conclusion where he summarizes Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. And he ends the book with 10 effects of seeing and savoring this providence. The 10 effects end this book nicely. I feel like a kid at the toy shop where the generous owner gives me this and gives me that and this and that. The 10 effects is fills my hands and I leave the shop with my hands full of praise to God. That is a wonderful way to end this book.
Stopping the Mouth of the Reader
Now you understand the whole structure, but how does it actually read? It is like reading the last chapters of Job but instead of God appearing, Paul appears. Let me try to explain. Do you know the story of Job? Job experiences suffering, his friends come to comfort him. They talk a lot and finally God answers in thunder. He stops everyone’s mouths. Job literally says in Job 40:4, “I lay my hand on my mouth” and so the key here I want to give you is that people could not say anything anymore because their mouth was stopped by what God has revealed.
And so in Providence by Piper it’s kind of like this: Mankind experiences suffering and Christians and non-Christians talk a lot and in Job God thunders, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” So God is arguing from nature. But instead in Providence we have Paul arguing from Scripture, but the result is the same. God is God, who are you to speak and we get our mouths are stopped.
So that’s what I hope you understand. It feels like the last chapter of Job, but instead of God appearing, Paul appears and everyone’s mouth is stopped. Everyone is just fully convinced of Providence as stated clearly in the Bible.
Now, I’m not saying Piper is Paul or Providence is the Book of Job, I’m just trying to convey to you the sense as I read it, this book is thunders with biblical convictions.
Too Many Bible Verses
Let’s look into the writing. Modern writing tends to go very heavy on anecdotes and how-tos. There’s nothing wrong with anecdotes. Jesus told many short stories or parables. There are some personal stories in this book, but it’s not really a memoir. It’s not meant to be full of John Piper’s life and ministry.
Many books also have the writer explain applications: 5 ways to do this, 10 ways to do that, 3 ways to do this. When I read Providence, in every chapter, you are really only asked to do one thing: to be satisfied in God. That’s the feeling I get. So there is not much of 5 ways to do this and that except perhaps the 10 effects of seeing and savoring. Even then, those are really the effects rather than what we should do.
Now, there is one thing that this book is very heavy with and that is Bible verses there are too many, at least, that’s what I thought when I first Piper promote his book. There are 3000 Bible verses in 700 odd pages. I once heard a sermon by a first timer preaching for a special occasion. So the person never preached before and someone must have told the person that you can’t go wrong with Bible verses because that’s basically what I got. I got a lot of Bible verses that day, I couldn’t see how they were linked, some were taken out of context and I don’t remember the main message. I only remember that there were too many Bible verses. I was worried that I would get the same feeling reading 3000 verses in 700 pages.
But thankfully, no, if Bible verses are spices and herbs, John Piper has skilfully served a dish with 3000 spices and herbs on a perfect plate. Or if Bible verses were gems or jewels, Piper is showing the reader diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and he puts them all in a very nice crown, a beautiful crown for the king of kings. The Bible verses are treated very respectfully by John Piper and he presents them to the reader and invites us to taste, to admire God’s revealed word.
Piper Unleashes His Inner Puritan
Some have told me before that Piper is hard to read. Yes and no. He is a gifted communicator. His preaching and writing are very successful global ministries. He has made complicated theology easy to understand for many people.
But at the same time I think he secretly wished that he was born 300 years ago during the time of the Puritans: Owen, Sibbes or Edwards. And just to support what I just said, the Puritans have long book titles. I give you an example from John Owen: The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalance of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers together with The Ways of its Working and Means of Prevention, Opened, Evinced, and Applied with a Resolution of Various Cases of Conscience Pertaining to It.
Don’t worry if you don’t understand what I just read because I’m not too sure I understand it either. But it is a very, very long title. Then you wonder what am I talking about? Because John Piper’s Providence. The title is one word. So why do I say that John Piper wants to be a Puritan? Because he must have restrained himself. By the time he reached the 700th page he just unleashed his inner Puritan. In the conclusion chapter, the 10 effects. All the subheadings are long. Long as in it stretches across my 24 inch monitor. Let me read to you the longest. It’s the 9th effect. Remember this is supposed to be a subheading. It’s supposed to be a title. He writes:
Seeing and savoring this providence shows us that evangelism and missions are absolutely essential for people to be converted to christ, because God makes them the means of his work in creating saving faith.
Now, that’s a long title and your english teacher will tell you to shorten it. But Piper is Piper. I want to explain that because we were talking about whether his writing is difficult to read. In a way. He writes many chunks of thought in one sentence. You have many chunks, many words coming in, but each of those words have meaning. He’s careful in putting those words together. He’s a poet as well. This is the way Piper thinks. Piper has shared in a sermon that when he realized that the Bible can be read as a reasoned argument rather than bumper sticker quotes, a light bulb went on.
Reading Sin from the Middle
So if you want to know how to read John Piper, you have to understand that there is a chain of thought and this comes across in his writings. And if what I’m saying is true, which I think it is, you have to follow him from the start and it’s no good if you read from the middle, which is why I don’t suggest you take Piper’s advice on one way of reading this book. Piper says that this book can be read as a reference and he has written it in a way to help people read it from the middle.
Let me read to you from one of the most controversial sections in this book. It has eight chapters and it is on God’s Providence over Sin. Does God author Sin because that’s a common accusation against Calvinism or Reformed Theology. So reading from the opening lines of this section. Let me read what Piper says:
In the preceding chapters of this book, we have seen so many instances of God’s governing the details of nature’s events, Satan’s action, the deeds of kings, the movements of nations, and the moments of life and death that we are led naturally to think of God’s providence as all-encompassing, all-pervasive. In other words, after seeing the extent and nature of God’s providence portrayed in chapters 16–25, our expectation is that there is no sphere of life — no matter how ordinary or seemingly insignificant — where providence is suspended or limited in its ultimate and decisive dominion.
I hope you managed to catch it. He is saying that this section on Sin, the earlier chapters has prepared you to accept that there is no sphere of life, no matter how ordinary or insignificant, where providence is suspended or limited. So you have to read the earlier chapters. If you just jump in the middle over here, you are not convinced because you have not read the earlier ones. So that’s why I say you need to follow his chain of thought and that goes from the beginning and this means that if you skip, you will miss out. And, yes, that means you should read this 750 page cover to cover and after you have gone through it one round, then you can jump to any chapter as a refresher.
Slay The Real Calvinist Dragon, Not The Cartoon One
Let me ask who should read this. Most of the people who read a book like this are people who are not intimidated by thick books and probably agree with Piper because it’s kind of hard to read a book on something you disagree with. What more when it’s two or three times longer than your usual fare at least that’s my own experience.
But I think if you disagree with Piper, you should read this book. If you have any, you know, problems with Reformed Thought or with Calvinism then if you want to escape the cardboard Calvinist or the cartoon Calvinist, you should read this book. We all have experienced the Calvinist, who is a terror to his non-Calvinist friends. Maybe he ends up not having any friends left. You see, the Reformed Thought is so neat and structured that sometimes, sometimes, people fall in love with the Reformed System rather than the Bible and they end up arguing from systems when they really should be arguing from the Bible and sometimes they end up just arguing and arguing.
So from your life experience, you may get this impression that Calvinists are always angry people, always arguing people and thus it is good for you to read Providence just so that you know what Calvinists like John Piper actually believe and teach. If you want to slay the dragon that is Calvinism you need to know the real dragon, not the wooden stage prop. You need to go beyond the arguments that you may have heard and you may have heard caricatured. The arguments are so reduced and simplified that they don’t really express the system. So go ahead and surprise your Calvinist’s friends by reading John Piper’s Providence.
My second point to those who might be be willing to be persuaded to read this is that Piper deals with opposing thoughts with some tenderness. Obviously he’s a man of convictions but he doesn’t demean, instead he pleads for us to look at the problems from a biblical perspective. Like I said, the most controversial section is the one on God’s Providence over Sin. In that section, there is a chapter title, “Things We Know and Things We Don’t Need To Know”. In that chapter he deals with the Libertarian Free Will argument and after describing some possible explanation, he writes:
Which of these possible explanations is, in fact, true is not decided by assuming the texts can mean only that man’s will is decisive in the moment of conversion. To assume one explanation or the other from the texts alone would be reading into the text the assumptions we already have, not reading out of them what is really there.
Now, this is a controversial topic and maybe there’s a bit more background that you dear Listener is not familiar with but let me just carry on and I’ll explain what the point I’m trying to get. Piper continues:
It is a mistake to assume that ultimate human self-determination is a feature of biblical thinking. Ultimate self-determination, as a trait of man’s will, might be taught in Scripture, or it might not be. That needs to be decided from the teaching of Scripture, not from philosophical assumptions we bring to the text. This book is about what the Bible teaches. In the present chapter (as well as chapters 28–33), we ask, What does it teach about God’s providence over the sinful human will? I am arguing that it teaches that God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness and holiness and justice, knows how to govern the good and evil choices of all humans without himself sinning and without turning human preferences and choices into morally irrelevant, robot-like actions.
Let me just pause here for a moment. The last part, did you hear that? So he’s making this statement which is the one of the main contentions in this God’s sovereignty and human responsibility debate. He’s asking us to not argue based on philosophy or what we think should or should not be. But what does the Bible say? And I think everybody should be able or Christians should be able to agree with what he says here. So he is inviting us to consider his arguments from Scripture. So even if you disagree with him, it’s good for you to know what what he thinks of how the Bible presents that God can govern the good and evil choices of all humans without God being a sinner and without turning humans into robots. So let me continue. Okay, just a bit more. Piper writes:
Therefore, in what follows, we should make every effort not to assume that ultimate, divine control over evil makes God evil or strips man of moral accountability. The question we should be asking is, What does the text teach about reality? Let us not bring to the text our philosophical assumptions that dictate what God’s wisdom and goodness and justice must do.
Like I said, this is the most, to me, the most controversial aspect of this whole Calvinism or Reformed System. And I’m not going to talk about that here, but I just want to say that I think it’s well explained in this book and it’s something for you to consider. I see it being put forward in a pastoral tone and not so much on a debating tone. I hope you can take it that way. And if you cannot agree with the conclusions, at least agree with the method and if you can do that, you can gain from this book and go beyond the cartoon Calvinist thinking or arguments.
Be Free From The Trivializing Effects Of Netflix
Now that is for those who disagree with Piper and can take a 700 page book. Now I want to talk to another group of people and there are people who can agree with Piper, who can read thick books but have been distracted by Netflix and other shallow entertainment.
Am I being too harsh? Have you listened to Paul Washer? He makes me feel like I’m wasting my life because I’m not planting churches in Peru. Compared to him, all I’m asking is that you read a book. But anyway I’m jest.
I believe the church needs people who can follow a sustained argument. I didn’t say argue a lot. I said follow a sustained chain of thought from what the Bible says to what the church teaches doctrine. Your watching sports or Netflix can be good relaxation. I’m not saying they are sin, but what I am saying is it’s quite difficult to see how Netflix helps build up the church. I’m sure you can make that argument but perhaps we can follow the argument in Providence rather than your argument from Netflix.
According to Piper, the fourth effect of seeing and savoring this providence is it helps protect us from the trivializing effects of culture and from trifling with divine things. And here is the chicken and egg situation. If you read this book, you will look at the serious things of God seriously and you will take lightly the things that the world takes seriously. The problem is some of us are taking the things of the world’s seriously and the things of God lightly. And it is this group of people who will not read this book. So the ones who really need to read this book are the ones who often times do not. So I ask that you consider, if not this book then another book, but stretch your mind, your heart, your spirit a bit more and try to feel the weight of divine things. That’s my plea to you.
700 Pages? Can I Have More?
Do I have any criticisms of this book? Yes, the book is too short. There should be Volume 2. The 10 effects are too brief. They come out like a machine gun at the end of the conclusion and I think that more can be said. But maybe Piper’s publishers said their printer could not take any more pages.
What can be in Volume Two? Well, you could have how this providence helps us in the day to day things. Not the heavier parts that Piper has explained. He has bridged into our world. So I’m not saying it’s all theological, scholarly. It’s not, it’s by no means a scholarly work. It’s meant to be read by the everyday man. But maybe Volume Two could connect the dots on school, work, marriage, parenting and retirement. Just help to connect the dots in everyday life.
Volume two could help us look at how providence is like in the saints. Piper has written many short biographies. I have counted 27 in the desiringgod.org. I read some and I recommend that you read them if you’re not familiar with Piper’s writing. These are very short books. Some are less than 10 or 20 pages. So if you’re not sure whether you want to buy or read Piper, you can just download and read these shorter biographies to get a feel for how he writes. And as I was saying, maybe these type of things can be in Volume Two. The whole point is to see what he has written in Volume One and to expand it a bit more in the effects it has.
But the funny thing is this, if there is such a volume. Most likely people will not read Volume One, they will just read Volume Two which just ruins the whole point of what I just said.
This Will Be Read 300 Years Later!
I really enjoyed this book and this is my concluding thoughts. This book has the potential to be a classic. We have John Owen’s books on temptation, Richard Sibbes’ Bruised Reed, Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. These are books that are still read 300 years later. 300 years! Piper’s providence might have a chance to be read 300 years later as thorough biblical exposition on God’s purposeful sovereignty.
Why Pay When It’s Free?
So what else can I say? Buy the book. No, seriously, I mean buy. I know the book is free. I knew it was free for download when I bought it, but I still bought the Logos version. Why Logos rather than Kindle? Well because uh Lagos has more features and is more suitable for Christian study. Kindle doesn’t cater for Christian studies and the features are limited. I can talk about it on another episode one day. But anyways, I bought the Logos version. Now why did I buy it and not just download the free one? Because I’m a fool.
I’m not brought up this way. I mean we don’t pay for things that we can get for free.
And my reason is this, my reason for paying rather than just downloading for free, is over the years I have gained much from Desiring God ministry in my Christian life and walk. But I know myself. I don’t see myself anytime in the future giving money to Desiring God ministry because I will give to my local church and the ministry here. But I would like to contribute or do something. And what I can do is buy the book.
I have watched a video where Piper explains that he doesn’t take in the book sales royalty. He says that all the royalties don’t go to him. Instead it goes to a ministry fund and at the end of every year the board sits and thinks on how to give the money away for ministry.
So my buying this book is just a way of contributing to a ministry that has helped me over my Christian walk.
Providence Brought You Here, Thank God!
I bought the book, having the confidence that I will profit, spiritually profit, from this book. I paid full price for this book and I profited greatly. I have no regrets. My hope is whether you pay or get the book for free, that you will profit from this God-exalting, Jesus-loving, Spirit-empowering, Providence- proclaiming, reviewer-exciting, reader-enticing book. This is a Reading and Readers review of Providence by John Piper.
What Great Providence has brought you to listen to this episode. Let me describe the chain of events. It just so happens that whatever circumstances you were in, it has led you to listen to this episode. It also just so happens that John Piper’s book of 30 years in the making was published in April, which just so happens to be the time when I’m looking for a good book to review after I just launched my podcast. So if I didn’t launch my podcast and Piper didn’t published this book on Providence, you wouldn’t have listened and profited as much as I hope you did today. So let us praise God for His Providence. And in my website, if you want to get the books or if you want the video link on Piper’s book sales, you can visit www.readingandreaders.com. Thank you for listening.
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