November 26, 2020

Book Review: God is the Gospel by John Piper

[The entire text of God Is The Gospel is online at Crossway.]

godgospel.jpgMany of my readers will be aware that I recently removed the essay “The Piper Project” from this web site. I am an unabashed fan of John Piper; a listener to his preaching, a student and reader of his work and a teacher of his theology to others. I’ve travelled to hear him, and he is near the top of my list of people who have deeply influenced my life.

Still, in “The Piper Project” I ventured two paragraphs of criticism amidst 15 paragraphs of praise, and the mail just never stopped. Finally, it became clear to me that my essay would be used by critics of Piper in a way that I never intended, and that was never my goal. So, I let it go.

And now, here I am again, wanting to praise John Piper for what is, perhaps, one of the most significant evangelical books of the year and, certainly, one of the finest works to come from his pen. Yet, there are some critical issues as well. Can we hear both? We shall see.

God is the Gospel is an unabashed, God-centered, God-saturated corrective to the overall direction of pragmatic, Purpose-Driven evangelicalism. Without mentioning a single name or book, Piper fires a broadside at every evangelical writer, ministry and church that focuses on the benefits of being a Christian, the principle-centered program for having a Christian ___________ (anything), and the practical benefits of the Christian life more than on God himself. By a relentless focus on God himself as the primary and ultimate good in the Gospel, Piper questions everything–and I do mean everything–else that is ever presented as a “good” benefit of believing the Gospel.

This includes taking a searching inventory of all Biblical benefits of the Gospel, and recalibrating each one in relationship to God as the ultimate end and benefit of the Gospel itself. Forgiveness is wonderful, but it is wonderful because it removes a barrier between ourselves and God, not simply because it relieves guilt or makes us happy. Justification is the heart of the Gospel, but only because it is God declaring that we are now in a position to see and enjoy him forever.

These distinctions will seem petty to some, but they are not. They are important, because all of scripture is a revelation of the glory of God revealed in Christ for God’s sake. All our Gospel benefits are really ways to one benefit: to eternally know and derive infinite joy from God himself.

Piper makes a tremendous clarification of how a true view of the glory of God is the root of sanctification. It is in coming to see Jesus as a treasure, and in coming to have a sense of spiritual beauty and worth, that sin loses its grip on us. This is vitally important in a day when so much of the promise of cleansing and liberation from sin and addiction is marketed pragmatically and in a version of human happiness that makes God a means, and not the ultimate and final end. Piper hints that all of our dealings with persons struggling with sin–such as pornography–must be, finally, Gospel efforts to bring the beauty of the glory of God in Christ into their consciousness, not to just make them more accountable. Otherwise, whatever “breaking” or “remaking” takes place is spiritually insignificant, because God is not glorified in Christ.

Piper’s use of the Bible is the best I’ve ever seen in any of his books. At times, Piper’s use of scripture to maintain Christian Hedonism seemed strained, but with a focus on the glory of God as revealed in Christ, Piper makes a convincing use of scripture that focuses on the glory of God himself as the great benefit of God for his people.

In a previous book, God’s Passion For His Glory, Piper had introduced the idea that modern Christianity was moving toward a heresy of valuing God to the extent that he values us, and that this was extending even to the modern evangelical view of the sufferings of Christ himself. Piper uses the language of Jonathan Edwards–Edwards is a constant voice in this book–to say that we are tending to “make much” of God only as he “makes much” of us. Anyone who has listened to contemporary evangelical preaching or worship music knows exactly what Piper is talking about. The idea that the cross is a measurement of how valuable and special we are is now full inculcated into popular evangelicalism.

In previous work, I have criticized Piper for not dealing adequately with the doctrine of creation and the idea of “the ordinary” Christian experience, but in this work, Piper does clearly talk about the reflected value that comes to us in our creation and that can be found in the Christian doing all things to the glory of God–not just missionary church-planting in closed countries. Piper is helpful in showing that all things can be enjoyed and valued as a refection of God’s glory, and says that a parent can fully love a child as a way of seeing God as the ultimate focus of our love. This was an important corrective, because I feel Christian hedonism can legitimately be critiqued for making it appear that only a direct, mental focus on God has value in any human activity. Piper is careful to avoid this, and to show that the light of the glory of God reflects from all things and in all things.

There is, however, a controversy lurking in this book.

We are making it plain that there is no salvation through the Gospel where the best and highest and final good in the gospel is not seen and savored. That good is the glory, the worth, the beauty, the treasure of Christ himself who is true God and true man. (168)

In other words, there are a lot of people who are not saved, but who are involved in some level of Christianity for its benefits.

Piper does not believe there is salvation in an engagement with Christianity for any benefit that eclipses God himself. Using his own vocabulary, he would say that if we are not treasuring and savoring Christ above all things, there is no salvation present. Believing for the benefits–including heaven, eternal life and avoiding hell–is not saving faith. Saving faith, according to Piper, is a valuing of Jesus above all things as God’s glory and our greatest good. That is what must be apprehended, and he makes it clear that it is this sovereign awakening of the soul to the glory of God in Christ that marks true conversion.

This is a devastating blow at the concept of “seeking” and even to the idea of conversion by way of gradual growth in faith if that faith does not start with a true treasuring of God in Christ. Piper believes that the seed of all true faith is an immediate and supernatural valuing of Christ. Should our “faith” be a valuing of Christ for the sake of anything else above God, or a valuing of Christ as a way of “making much” of ourselves, or a valuing of Christ as less significant than the benefits of salvation now, then we cannot say salvation is present.

This is a return to the kind of Calvinisitic evangelism that presents Christ and nothing else to the sinner; that prays for heart conversion to Christ; that preaches Christ as God’s glory and not as the solutions to “felt needs.” Piper’s contention that coming to Christ to avoid hell is not saving faith will surely be controversial, since a vast amount of evangelical and fundamentalist evangelism is centered on Christ as the one who rescues you from the wrath to come and gives you eternal life. Piper, agrees, of course with that much of the message, but would say that if it is not clear that heaven is focused entirely on Christ, and not on golf or a family reunion, then the message is not the Gospel.

Piper bluntly asks if we would want heaven if Christ were not present as the all-in-everything in heaven? If not, then we have not believed the Gospel.

God is the Gospel. God is the ultimate good in the Good News. God must be the ultimate good in all the “goods” we proclaim, teach or practice. Piper is convinced that this is the message of scripture and that it is an increasing minority report in evangelicalism.

Is he correct? That’s another post 🙂 Piper is a controversialist and he knows it. He purposely provokes response with his vocabulary and his way of reasoning. He stands far back from engaging other Christians and speaks what he believes scripture is saying. In this case, however, the ghost of Edwards is everywhere, and there is a legitimate question as to whether Edwards’ understanding of grace in the Gospel truly presents how God deals with sinners. Edwards’ views of Christian experience are controversial, in my opinion, and are not to be accepted uncritically or to become the grid for reading scripture.

Anyone reading George Marsden’s biography of Edwards would wonder to what extent Edwards is a reliable guide to the issue of the assurance of salvation. To be honest, Edwards often appears to be nearly obsessive, and sometimes dangerously introspective, on these issues. There is good evidence in Marsden’s book that Edwards may have not been a good pastor to those with sensitive consciences. The results may have been disastrous. Piper’s reliance on Edwards often seems uncritical, and this is troubling.

While Piper doesn’t say “seekers are lost,” he does say that the person who comes to Christ wanting deliverance from divorce more than he wants Christ has not believed the Gospel. In our human frailty, even with regeneration, do we ever value Christ as he ought to be valued? Do we ever treasure him in a way that we can truly say he is the only and ultimate good in all things? Does God not save those who come to him with some other benefit, besides God himself, at the forefront of their desires…even if they trust all they know of Christ? Do the Gospels, in their focus on healing and exorcism miracles particularly, underline Piper and Edwards, or do they suggest that God receives sinners graciously even if they are still on the way to treasuring Christ above all?

If you want an overview of much of this material, Piper preached on some of the texts and themes at Bethlehem earlier this year. See “What Makes The Good News Good?” at Piper’s preaching archive. Another summary is currently available at the Desiring God News page, but that will disappear soon.


  1. Eric Phillips says

    Sounds like an expansion of an article I’ve read by Piper, and with the same big problem. He’s right on target in 95% of what he says, but then he says, well, what you’ve identified as a problem. He says that without a conscious focus on wanting GOD as opposed to wanting things like forgiveness and eternal life, you’re not actually saved. And that’s just really, really, really bad.

    Really bad.

    Really very bad. Bad enough that I don’t think I can even focus on the other 95% of his argument.

  2. Eric said it before me, but I agree. Here is the part that gets me: If Piper is right, I might as well throw in the towel right now. I don’t think I can ever love God as much as he deserves, though I try. And if being saved means I must *always* want God more than anything, 24/7/365, never letting up for even a nanosecond, I’m doomed, because being human and a sinner, that won’t happen. I will stumble.

    Where’s the hope in that?

  3. Piper is clear that our experience of this is imperfect and incomplete.

    I am most concerned with the uncritical use of Edwards. JE was brilliant, but on Christian experience he needed a massive dose of Luther.

    I mean people in his church went nuts, maybe even committed suicide, under this introspection stuff.

  4. Michael,

    Thanks for the review. I am looking forward to reading it. Until I can buy it I am reading it online here.

    The thing that worries me is what the others have said. 24/7 there are things I love more than God.


  5. Eric Phillips says

    Of course Piper has to say it’s imperfect and incomplete, because he isn’t _insane_. But that really doesn’t help matters. Here’s the quandry it leaves us in:

    1) We know we can’t desire God perfectly.
    2) But we also know we have to do it to SOME degree, or we’re screwed.
    3) Short of perfection, there is no other measure of degree we can actually recognize.
    4) Therefore we simply don’t KNOW if we’re screwed or not, which
    5) Causes us to doubt the Gospel. Or at least to doubt that it’s for US, which is the same thing.

    It’s a new kind of works righteousness, and more damning than the old kind, because it’s all based on emotions instead of actions.

  6. I haven’t read the book, so maybe it’s not the right time to comment, but suppose you examine yourself and find that your motives or desires don’t line up with Piper’s (and presumably God’s), then what do you do? I know from long experience that it is nearly impossible for people (me) to incubate and cultivate emotions or desires. What’s the solution?

  7. Here is an earlier post with a critique of JP by Steve Brown.

  8. Eric, that is exactly what I mean. Thanks for saying it better than I did.

  9. >>I haven’t read the book, so maybe it’s not the right time to comment, but suppose you examine yourself and find that your motives or desires don’t line up with Piper’s (and presumably God’s), then what do you do?<<
    From what I have read of Piper previously, I think that he would say that’s part of the point; we cannot make ourselves love or hate something. Therefore, we need God to renew our hearts and minds.

    In my general experience reading Piper, it seems like he would recognize that this is a work of God that we must grow in. Maybe I’m simply reading parts of my own theology into his. Regardless, if “immediate sanctification” is the impression one gets from reading this book, then that is a problem. Many people may pick up this book, like it, and read more of Piper to get a better picture (if, in fact, that better picture is there). However, a number of people are likely to simply read this book alone, and come away with issues.

    Of course, if we read almost any book alone, we’ll come away with issues.

  10. I, too, have not read the book and, so, and probably unqualified to comment. But that’s never stopped me before!

    Isn’t it a plausible interpretation, based not only on Piper’s prior works, but the works of folks like Ortberg and Willard, that the point here is “why would anyone who doesn’t love Jesus want to be in heaven if heaven is just a maximalized relationship with Jesus?”

    It seems we’re criticizing Piper based on the idea that salvation and happiness are objective “things” separate and apart from God Himself that he controls and can give out and bestow on whomever he pleases.

    This has always been Willard’s response to the question of “why” we should desire and submit to discipleship – the answer is because we love Jesus.

    It also goes to Lewis’s point about God not *providing* happiness, but *being* happiness. It’s not that God withholds fulfillment and happiness from unbelievers, it’s just that there *is no way* to be happy outside of enjoying God – because *that’s what happiness is*.

    It seems that we might have to think carefully about describing salvation – maybe that’s Piper’s point. Salvation may not be “plucking someone from a lake of fire” – salvation may be “nothing” more than _being with God_.

    Thus, if we come to God to _receive_ happiness, as defined by a contented life delivered from divorce, for example, it may simply *not be possible* for God to give us that, since all he can truthfully offer is himself.

    Thus, we are left with the decision, do I seek happiness as *I* see it or trust God that he *is* happiness and that surrending to him will deliver happiness.

  11. Piper’s definition of saving faith and Luther’s are mutually exclusive; Luther claims that it is impossible to love and treasure Christ in himself and for his sake exclusivey; that all of us come to the Cross with some measure of self-seeking. The glory of the Gospel is that God forgives even our selfishness in desiring salvation.

  12. Jeff, I think that is very well put.

  13. Eric Phillips says


    I fully agree that God IS happiness. What I object to is Piper preaching that people have to _recognize_ that truth in this life, and not only recognize it but engage it emotionally to such a degree that their whole desire for salvation becomes just an extension of desire for God, IN ORDER TO BE SAVED.

    If Piper were just reviving the wonderful Augustinian philosophical / devotional point that properly viewed, God is in His gifts, and we ought to love Him _through_ them, and them _because_ of Him; if he were just encouraging Christians to understand things in this way–to view God as the be-all-end-all and not just as the King-who-likes-you–I’d be all for it. He would be performing a good and useful service. But no, he goes beyond that, and says that unless you attain this rather advanced state of spiritual maturity, you aren’t even saved.

    If Piper tells me, “I don’t think you’re saved; you don’t love God enough,” I’ll ask him, “How on earth am I supposed to love God enough, if He hasn’t saved me?” We love Him because He first loved us. We start from the KNOWLEDGE that God has saved us in Christ; THAT is what inspires deep and abiding love in the Christian. To make that knowledge hinge on the presence of that love is entirely backwards. Medieval monasticism never taught anything worse than that; it just included hair-shirts for variety.

    The Bible says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” It says, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” It never, anywhere, says, “Love God above all things, EVEN ABOVE HIS BEST GIFTS, making careful distinctions so you’ll be sure your affections are properly aimed, and He’ll save you.”

  14. Evan Donovan says

    As you all (Josh S. and Eric Phillips at least) were writing this, I wrote a rather long post on the subject on my blog. Now perhaps what I’ve said is a little out-of-date. Anyway, I think Josh’s point is well-taken and much more succinct than my post is. “our tears need to be washed; we need to repent of our repenting” – as someone once said. After all, our affections are stained with sin even as our actions are, perhaps more so because of their very interiority and existence often beyond our awareness and control.

    Eric’s point develops that, and goes along with the quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux at the bottom of my post. We need knowledge of an objective work of God for us before we can know that He is God for us and love and have faith in Him. So we have the Cross – God in Christ saying, “This is how I love you.” That, not a supernatural moment of regeneration, not our affections, should be our focus and our solid ground.

    Ultimately, yes, God will be all in all. But we’re not there yet. I like what you said, Michael, about Christ’s interactions with sinners in the Gospels. We need, more and more, to learn how to let stories like that shape our theology, devotion, and ministry.

    I can only hope we’re all misreading Piper, and that people are not being misled by perfectionist teaching.

  15. Sounds like any potential convert has to have a pretty well-developed theology! 😕

  16. I reviewed and did not recommend the book because of his backloading of the gospel. As I said then, there is a tremendous point to be made – that our ultimate focus and pursuit must be of God and not the gifts of God – but he has confused salvation and sanctification. That’s just not acceptable.

    I really wanted to like the book, but the flaws were too great for me to overlook. I think he’s been on-target most of the time in his ministry and passion, but he’s seriously missed the mark this time.

  17. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Maybe most of us are like the father with the demon possessed boy in Mark 9:24–I do believe! Help me in my unbelief!

    The idea that we must learn to love God regardless of anything God has done for us doesn’t match up with the Psalms where we are commanded to praise the Lord because of what He has done as much as for who He is.

    But it does match some of the mystical writings of Jean Guyon and others. Now I don’t happen to think Jean Guyon’s Method of Prayer is all that bad but she’s clearly writing to people she trusts are already Christians about how to progress in their walk. The distinction between justification and sanctification still seems firm even in this mystic writer’s vernacular.

    But since I haven’t read any Piper I don’t know if this connection makes any sense. I’m just connecting dots based on what people are saying about him here.

  18. To be completely honest, I like John Piper but I’m a little afraid to read some of His stuff because though I agree with the “very basics” of Christian Hedonism, I think he can be a little too intense. I think that enjoying God and doing all things to His glory can easily drive someone (like myself) into legalism or despair. I mean, what does one do who finds that they do not glorify God as they should in their basic day to day duties? Do you begin to imagine or think in your mind that you are doing everything to God’s glory? If this is the evidence of true faith then I’m doomed. I see how people can be driven to the law instead of crying out for grace. Still I would rather sit and listen to a Piper sermon than 95% of the other junk out there.

  19. Where were you people when I took down the Piper Project? 🙂

  20. A couple of things.

    First, I listened to the recommended sermon and came away with a surprisingly more dogmatic take from Piper than I’d assumed he would have when I wrote my initial comment. He makes 5 “observations” regarding the “God is the Gospel” concept 2 Corinthians 4, Acts 26 and 2 Timothy 2. It does sound disturbingly legalistic.

    Having said that, and to Eric’s point:

    “It never, anywhere, says, “Love God above all things, EVEN ABOVE HIS BEST GIFTS, making careful distinctions so you’ll be sure your affections are properly aimed, and He’ll save you.””

    I agree. And I wasn’t arguing that point in my earlier comment. I was only saying that we may have made the philological error of treating salvation as something separate and apart from God himself – as if it were truly a gift distinct from Himself that he can bestow at his will. Whereas, I think, Piper and Lewis and Willard might argue (in various ways and to various degrees, I suppose) that salvation is nothing more than *being with God*.

    Thus, if your current desire is to be happy, and and you believe that by accepting (i.e., believing) certain intellectual truths or conjuring certain emotional responses to Christian tenets and rituals you will be made happy (defined variously as “without sadness”, “contented”, “at peace”, “filled with a sense of fullness and completion”, etc.), this would be deficient by the above deficientn.

    But carefully think why it is deficient. Not because God is “withholding” salvation because you haven’t jumped through the right hoops – it’s not legalism. It’s just a logical impossibility. You won’t be happy (i.e., saved) because you haven’t done the one thing that is guaranteed to make you saved.

    Now for the Calvinist, this seems easy. God slams you with you love and faith and you’re in. For the Arminian, it’s a bit trickier – but no moreso here than under any other definition of “salvation”.

    Or think of it in the negative. Say you’re right and my love for God is not what saves me – but my submission and confession. Now I get to heaven and find out that all it is *is God* and since I was rather lukewarm to the whole God thing in the first place, *WILL I BE HAPPY*? THis is Willard’s question vis a vis discipleship. Heaven – salvation – is just a perfected relationship with God. If I don’t desire that or rejoice in that here (“through a glass darkly”), why in God’s name would I want that amplified beyond imagination for all eternity?

    In other words, as I said before, it may be a problem with how we’ve defined salvation. We’ve always said it was pulling someone from a burning building. OK. But what if it’s really more of “pulling a Vegan from a burning building and throwing them into a slaughter house”? The salvation we offer is really only going to be salvation for people who want a fully realized relationship with God.

    And the hard part for us to accept is that there will really be people for whom that just isn’t appealing. I think this is Piper’s point – they can’t see the glory.

    It seems, even given Piper’s extreme language in setting the boud

  21. Some of you who haven’t read Piper may be getting a wrong impression. He has addressed “When I don’t Desire God” in an entire book, available free online:

  22. Eric Phillips says


    Yes, heaven is the perfect experience of God, but no, there is no chance at all that I’ll be disappointed by that fact, because _I_ will be changed! You’re really missing that. When the dark glass is removed and we see God face-to-face, then “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). God predestined us to be transformed into the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). When we die, we are buried in a natural body, and raised in a spiritual body (I Cor. 15:44). Because of the resurrection, we will actually be given TO PARTAKE OF THE DIVINE NATURE (2 Peter 1:4). There is absolutely, positively, no possibility whatsoever that I–or any other member of Christ’s body–will get to Heaven and be disappointed by it. If Heaven is not a place, but a Person (and I agree with Piper that this is so) then you can’t GO there. You can only GO to PLACES. You get to Heaven by being TRANSFORMED. If I was still my own failing, sick and sinful self, then by definition I wouldn’t be in Heaven at all. I’d be in Hell.

    The suggestion that we need to change ourselves NOW in order to have the appreciation of God that GOD HIMSELF will give us THEN, is bankrupt and foolish. It’s downright diabolical, in fact, because it makes us the hopeless authors of our own salvation. And I know Piper, good Calvinist that he is, would never say WE have to change ourselves, but what he’s saying is only the slightest bit less heretical: that if God has actually saved us, we will experience this beatific vision of God-as-all NOW, instead of being distracted by anything else–even eternal life itself!

    That’s not the Gospel. Not remotely. That is counsel that could only make me despair, or swell my head up as some spiritual elite who thinks he’s somehow managed to _love God_ in a way that’s pure and disinterested.

  23. You people are all Anti-Piperites!

    Here are some verses that irrevocably prove Piper’s position:

    1 Peter 1.8-9
    “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith… which of course does not involve in any way from your end, the desire to be saved.”

    Acts 2.40
    ‘And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Don’t worry about saving yourself from this crooked generation because that is not the point. Just focus on the greatness of God.”

    Acts 16.26-30 (abridged)
    “and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he turned to Paul and Silas and said ‘Far out man! That was one really impressive piece of divine action. Man, what must I do to give glory to God and not worry at all about my salvation?”

    Matthew 5.30
    “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than to not focus on the glory of God as the most important thing.”

    Have you been convinced yet you bunch of imonkeys????!!!!1111eleven!!

    “And we know that of the butchering of Bible verses there is no end…”

    (I better get a lightning rod…OUCH!!!!!!)

  24. It seems that some of you are missing the point…

    I don’t get the feeling that Piper is suggesting there is a ‘level’ of desire that we must achieve in order to be saved, but rather, if a love for Christ is not our motivation for ‘conversion’ then it’s not true… so simply to avoid hell, or get into heaven, there is no love for Christ.

  25. The only thing that’s ever really bothered me about Piper’s writings are his views of perseverance. I always felt he went way beyond what the WCF says (although he’s a baptist, so that’s irrelevant). As Bill likes to point out about baptism, it saves except when it doesn’t. I feel the same way when I read Piper talk about perseverance. It proves that you were/are a Christian, except when it doesn’t.

    Piper isn’t for everyone. If you can’t take intense sermons and writings and filter it through real life a little bit I recommend staying away. That said, there probably isn’t a pastor that I can point to that has made a bigger impact on my spiritual life than John Piper, and for that I am thankful.

  26. Andrew, you are correct, but this leads right to the problem.

    What percentage of the time do I treasure Christ above his gifts and benefits?

    As a gift of the Spirit, I agree. As a continuous, growing reality, I’m screwed.

    Bring me my Luther.

  27. This new book still isn’t available in any of the book stores in Mobile. I’m anxious to read it after looking at all these posts. I’m a big fan of Piper’s preaching and writing.

    I think some of you guys, escpecially the ones that haven’t read much Piper are confusing desiring God *only* because of what he can do for you(which is what his main beef is with), and desiring God in and through and _for_ his great works (which Piper, or any other sane Christian, has a problem with). Its more of a state-of-being thing and less a conscious-effort thing, but maybe I’m just way off track.

  28. The entire text of “God is the Gospel is online at Crossway:

  29. Eric Phillips says


    When the Philippian jailer was scared and asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” did Paul say, “Wait a sec. You just want to be SAVED? Like from earthquakes and stuff? Uh-uh. You need to desire UNION WITH THE DIVINE!” No. He said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and he went back to the man’s house and baptized him–THEREBY GIVING HIM UNION WITH THE DIVINE, whether the guy had any idea that’s what he was in for or not. God gives us more than we ask for, “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” He doesn’t wait for us to attain a high level of spiritual enlightenment, and then reward us with salvation. He gives us salvation up front, and then educates us.

  30. Eric Phillips says


    What’s the difference between “desiring God *only* because of what he can do for you” and desiring Him “_for_ his great works”?

    As for that “in” and “through” stuff, that takes a little theological sophistication. You know, like salvation doesn’t.

  31. Eric….

    I have to say that you aren’t representing Piper very well. “Union” with the divine is never mentioned. Piper would say that Paul’s answer to that jailer would be something like “Consider God as revealed in Jesus more precious than even your life and you will be saved.”

    There is no sense of achieving “union” with the divine as a condition of salvation.

    Again, Piper makes it perfectly clear, in this book and in the entire book “When I Don’t Desire God,” that our treasuring of God in this life is imperfect.


  32. Eric Phillips says


    I’m not surprised if Piper doesn’t use the term “union with the divine.” That’s what he’s talking about, though: desiring God instead of desiring salvation, or rather, desiring (with a clear vision and good discrimination, and an uncanny ability to know your own heart) God _as_ salvation. In other words, desiring union with God, whether he would choose to say it that way or not.

    And again, of _course_ Piper recognizes that our valuation of God in this life is imperfect. He’s not _insane_. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop him from teaching that we have to value God MORE THAN we value salvation, or we aren’t saved. And _that’s_ the problem.

  33. >Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop him from teaching that we have to value God MORE THAN we value salvation, or we aren’t saved.

    If you’ve read Piper I won’t attempt to correct you.

    He says repeatedly that a salvation in which God is not the chief benefit is not salvation. If we value the benefits of salvation more than we treasure the God who is the focus of all those benefits and gift, then we have a false salvation. That is his position.

    And I’ve read every Piper book and listened to hundreds of tapes. His definition of human relationship to God is reformational, not mystical and not Eastern.

    He would speak of “union” with Christ in the sense that Paul does in the epistles.

    I share a concern for some of what is said, but I am not in agreement with your assessment as it has developed. But I appreciate your point of view.

  34. Eric Phillips says

    “He says repeatedly that a salvation in which God is not the chief benefit is not salvation.”

    That’s obvious–completely above contest. There is only one salvation, and God is it. The problem is that Piper expects people to _recognize_ this fact clearly in order to be saved–a stipulation God Himself doesn’t make.

    And it’s not just a biblical problem he has there, but a philosophical & psychological one too. We know God’s beauty from His gifts–the ones in nature and the ones He’s specially revealed. If it weren’t for these gifts, we wouldn’t know that God was beautiful at all. Our very desire for God is nothing more than a desire for His gifts, with this added realization tacked on: “If His GIFTS are this good, HE must be INCREDIBLE.” We desire Him as the SOURCE, not in any abstract, absolute sense; and you can’t separate desire for the source from desire for the things that flow from it. How much sense would it make to insist that someone drinking from a river “value the source” of the river above the water he’s drinking? We’re well into the realm of mysticism here.

    St. Augustine prayed, “He loves You too little who loves anything besides You, that he does not love because of You.” So this is Christian mysticism with a good pedigree; as you advance in your Christian life, maybe you actually will be able to catch glimpses of that inversion, where you do love the river only because it comes from the source, and not the source because it gives you the river. Or at least, you think you do. For about two minutes. But the rest of the time, heck, yeah! I DO love God too little. That’s a fact. Thankfully, He’s united me to His Son, and after the resurrection I’ll experience that in all its full reality; I’ll love Him first and foremost and absolutely and abstractly at all times. But if I need to be able to distinguish successfully between the source and the river here in _this_ life, as a PREREQUISITE for that transformation, then I’m screwed, screwed, screwed. All of us are.

  35. “Again, Piper makes it perfectly clear, in this book and in the entire book “When I Don’t Desire God,” that our treasuring of God in this life is imperfect.”

    Michael, you say that, but I think that ‘perfectly clear’ is a stretch. This has always been a tight-rope that Piper walks across and many years ago Richard Mouw warned him that he almost removed any notion of sanctification.

    I read his responses and disclaimers, but then he carries on with the exaggeration and passionate language that – for many readers – simply creates a sense of despair and condemnation. And I say this as a Pastor who whole-heartedly recommended Piper for 10 years and then had to deal with the come-back.

    What he says would be great as a definition of God’s saving activity (not a one-point-in-time conversion) and perhaps describes well what happens when we are saved. But to suggest that the one turning to God has such a well-developed doctrine of salvation (and, in fact, anthropology) just seems strange to me. In that, I wonder if Piper isn’t actually perpetuating and increasing Edwards faults (of whom I am a great fan).

  36. Eric –

    Thanks for the response.

    You say,

    “Yes, heaven is the perfect experience of God, but no, there is no chance at all that I’ll be disappointed by that fact, because _I_ will be changed! You’re really missing that. ”

    I strongly disagree. I think I do understand that each of us will undergo a tremendous change when reaching heaven – as I clearly allude to several times in my post by noting that our relationship *here* will be *maximalized* and *perfected* there.

    Think of it as marriage. I love my wife now, but I also recognize that as a fallen man, I do not love her perfectly and completely. I *desire* that perfection – and I strive to get there, though I know that on this side of total regeneration, I won’t make it.

    That is the picture of the Christian, isn’t it? We desire the perfected relationship regardless of how imperfect it is now. And, yes, with our submission, God will change us fully and completely *then*.

    But what about the person who *doesn’t desire God* – the person for whom Christianity represents protection from the fires of Hell or the promise of peace and fulfillment here and now? Are they akin to the person married for the social and sexual benefits? Do they desire the relationship at all – or are they merely seeking the more immediate benefits with no deeper commitment to the other person?

    It seems that this is Piper’s picture (however poorly he paints it) rather than the “all or nothing” picture you are portraying (though I surely could be wrong).

    I still think you’re making a category error here with your conception of salvation. Is it something separate from the relationship or is it the relationship itself? And if it’s the latter, and I don’t desire the relationship here-and-now, will God force it on me there so that I will *enjoy* heaven? And if he won’t force it on me, could I enjoy a fully perfected relationship there any more than I enjoy an imperfect one here?

  37. Eric,

    You wrote,

    “God gives us more than we ask for, “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” He doesn’t wait for us to attain a high level of spiritual enlightenment, and then reward us with salvation. He gives us salvation up front, and then educates us.”

    This is an excellent point! And it goes to the marriage example. When I was married, I had NO IDEA what I was getting into! I had some vague concepts of the “benefits” as I stood there, but now, 15 years later, I see how much more I *got* from the covenant than I ever realized I was going to get – it was more than I could have asked or imagined all those years ago.

    So it is with God. We come to him with some anemic, misinterpreted desire for Him – and, yes, this is where Piper errs – because this desire might be twisted into the trivial – but if based on a desire to *know* Him, these will fall away into the ultimate desire of being unified with Him.

    Clearly, if Piper is saying that any person who responded to God’s love because of these “pre-motivators” has an invalid relationship, he’s heretical and unbiblical. I’m just not sure that’s what he’s saying – despite some admittedly poorly chosen hyperbole.

  38. First off, I think Michael’s comments about the dangers of an uncritical use of Edwards is worth pursuing. I’ll have to put the Marsden bio on the long list of books to read.

    However, I think I’m going to have to agree with those who are saying that the problem with God is the Gospel is that it doesn’t give the context of some of Piper’s other writings. On BHT Michael commented that Piper needed a “good shot of Luther,” particularly in the area of confusing justification and sanctification. But Piper himself (elsewhere) pleads that very case!

    Most clearly it is heard in “When I Don’t Desire Joy,” Piper’s response to the anticipated criticism that the pursuit of joy in Christ is a new form of works righteousness that leads to inevitable failure and despair. On p. 84 there is a section titled “Confusing Justification and Sanctification Will Kill Joy” in which he warns against just such a conflation. He says, “Confusing [justification and sanctification, both by faith] will, in the end, undermine the gospel and turn justification by *faith* into justification by *performance.* If that happens, the great gospel weapon in the fight for joy will fall from our hands.”

    So I think this critique of Piper needs to look at his arguments in “When I Don’t Desire…” to be fair. There may still be a problem, but for now Piper’s biggest problem may be if he left that balance out of “God is the Gospel”

  39. Michael, thanks for your review of Piper’s book. It’s interesting to see all the emotions he stirs in people. It’s good for me to read criticism of Piper because I ingest his works wholeheartedly and so would ingest any errors he makes along with the good stuff.

    I wanted to recommend a book for everyone on the issue of assurance/sanctification/justification.

    Here’s the book:
    How Can I be Sure I’m a Christian? What the Bible Says About Assurance of Salvation by Donald Whitney

    This is an author who should be widely read. He is an amazing teacher who puts forward what the Bible
    says about a given issue in simple, straightforward terms, then lets it be. He doesn’t crowd the truth in
    with extraneous words, so that I can read 400 pages and feel like I’ve changed; he simply sets forth
    the truth for what it is.

    Anyway, I’ve always felt that criticism of Piper for being works oriented (based on statements that our love for God is never perfect) borders on criticism of the books of
    James and 1 John. Perhaps what Bonhoeffer termed ‘cheap grace’ has infected the church? I’m not crazy about the way Bonhoeffer termed that, because grace comes to us not only cheaply but freely, but his point — that grace comes freely, but not without effect, is correct. In point of fact, we are mistaken if our hearts have not been changed but we call ourselves Christians.

    That said, we do call it ‘progressive’ sanctification for a reason. Everyone starts at a different point, and so plenty of saved Christians may be less moral then the most hardened atheist. But if God has created
    in us a new man, then that new man is in us, and so part of us at least has a deep affection for God.

    I challenge those of you who are criticizing Piper on justification/sanctification/assurance t to check your view of what a Christian should be
    against what Jesus, Paul, and John said and did rather than against your own experience. The bar is high. Sin deceives us. We and our communities are not reliable guides for what the Christian life should be. Every person is imperfect. In the Bible, however, we see what it means to live the Christian life.

    Regardless of where you come down on Piper’s formulation, it seems clear to me that we all love God because He
    has loved us in Christ Jesus. That’s amazing.
    Let’s be wary of letting malice grow in the body of Christ over disagreeements about human teachers. 1 Corinthians 1:12-13 “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” We are one body because of Christ’s sacrifice for us. So as we (rightly) attempt to guard one another from what each of us perceives to be false teaching, let’s be sure to maintain the bond of the Spirit in love for brothers and sisters we don’t even really know.

    Grace and peace to all the saints,

  40. Eric Phillips says

    Jeff asks,

    “But what about the person who *doesn’t desire God* – the person for whom Christianity represents protection from the fires of Hell or the promise of peace and fulfillment here and now?”

    If somebody approaches Christianity as if it were an incomprehensible business transaction with a hopelessly eccentric billionaire, something along the lines of, “I’ll give you a million dollars as long as you wear a duck on your head,” and has no concept of sin and forgiveness _at all_, then no, he’s probably not a Christian. He’s probably just an opportunist who somehow manages to be really gullible and really cynical all at the same time. But look, that’s really bizarre, and Piper hardly limits himself to that sort of extreme situation.

    The scenario that’s much more likely, much more common, is someone who understands that he’s not good enough for God (without _beginning_ to understand really how bad he actually is), and that God offers amnesty and eternal life to those who believe on His Son. In that situation, it would be quite accurate to say that he loves salvation more than he loves God Himself, because salvation is what motivates him to act, whereas he hasn’t gotten around to thinking much about “God Himself.” But he DOES “desire God,” simply BY desiring salvation. And he DOES submit to God, by letting Him call the shots and submitting to His definition of righteousness and His way to forgiveness. It’s not very enlightened desire, but it’s absolute crap for anyone to say, “Oh no, that’s not desire for God, that’s desire for SALVATION.” Whatever. What is Piper’s desire for God, but a more mature and enlightened version of desire for salvation? He’s thought about it a long time, and realized that the source is where the river comes from, and that he should focus on the source. This other fellow _hasn’t_ thought about it that much, and isn’t going to; but every time he savors the water, he IS savoring the source, because he knows, and does not deny, that salvation is from God.

    “We will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” There is no chance that the hang-ups and the errors in his understanding of God in this life will be able to persist in eternal life. When he’s like God, he will love perfectly.

    Jeff also says, “I still think you’re making a category error here with your conception of salvation. Is it something separate from the relationship or is it the relationship itself?”

    I’ve already said that God IS salvation. Salvation is union with God in Christ. There is no category error here. The error is Piper’s, for speaking as if this relationship can’t exist unless the human half of it pulls its affective weight. The relationship exists because GOD LOVES ME and has united me to Himself, not because I love God and cling to Him (as carefully distinguished from His gifts) with fervent desire. When I have been transformed into the image of Christ, then yes, I will love and desire God with all the purity Piper could want. Right now, we’re all on the long slow slope at the base of that peak. And on that slope, it’s not really possible to distinguish between desire for God and desire for His gifts.

    And anyone who tells your salvation depends on making that distinction is destroying the Gospel.

  41. Eric Phillips says

    Drew writes,

    “But if God has created in us a new man, then that new man is in us, and so part of us at least has a deep affection for God.”

    I agree. That’s beside the point, though. Piper is not restricting himself to statements of OBJECTIVE fact, like this one. He is saying that we need to _get in touch with_ this part of us that loves God purely and absolutely, and that until we do, we can’t even know we’re saved.

    And sorry, if I can’t know that God has saved me, how am I supposed to convince myself that I love Him?

  42. Eric,
    I think you’re more certain Piper’s wrong on this than you should be. I think your only major problem with him is vocabulary. It seems to me based on your second to most recent post that you and he would agree. Seriously, check out “When I Don’t Desire God”.

    As Michael has said, Piper clearly states that when we start focusing on our own emotions rather than the Gospel, we’re looking at the wrong place.

    Salvation is of the Lord, not of the affections.

    But salvation has necessary consequences, i.e. holiness, or setting our sights on eternal things, considering all else rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ, etc.

    If you want to know how you can be sure you’re saved, read 1 John.

    Think of this book this way: what is the ultimate point of the Gospel? Answer: God’s glory. God is the gospel.

    Do you have to grasp that perfectly and in all its nuances to be saved? Surely not. I doubt Piper believes that. All theology is a work in progress, residing as it does in the minds of men in whose hearts wages a battle between light and darkness. Let’s try to be charitable to our brother.

    I basically take this book as Piper saying that “without holiness, no one will see God.” That’s what Hebrews 12:14 says. If you don’t like that statement, take it up with God in prayer, not with Piper.

    Affection for God, in some measure, is a necessary fruit of salvation. Piper recognizes it won’t always be there in the same way, all day every day, but still sees it as something worth fighting for. Again, read “When I don’t Desire God.”

    I think that by not even focusing on the other 95% of his argument, you have missed the broad agreement you seem to have with Piper, constructed a straw man, and ferociously gone after it.

    Grace to you,

  43. I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read almost everything else by Piper, and listened to 100+ of his sermons as well (for those of you who judge content based on familiarity). He’s probably been the most influential author in my life, even if I have problems with how he says things.

    I think we should extend our discussion of Piper’s “fault” to a discussion of the tension between Law and Gospel. Piper serves to flesh out the fullest meaning of the Law–to love God with ALL our heart, soul, mind and strength (which no one except Jesus has ever accomplished). To know the Law is great knowledge indeed, but it’s not going to save you.

    To Piper, Christianity is a God-given desire to want to start fulfilling this Law because we recognize (to some degree) the worth and glory of God himself. Good theology should lead you to notice that none of this takes place before salvation.

    We ought to fulfill this Law, but we can’t. In order even to begin to do it experientially, we must be saved and regenerated by God. We cannot be saved based on fulfillment of the Law. Once we are saved, we continue to break the Law. The Gospel says that, even though that will always be the case in this life, it’s all right–Jesus loved God perfectly for us. This inspires us in some small way to keep the Law (love God for himself), which itself is some small proof that we are saved.

    But the biggest proof that we are saved is that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose for our justification. If you doubt whether you love God enough to be saved, then be assured–you don’t. But Jesus took care of it.

    The “fault” with Piper is that he seems to spend all his time trying to motivate people to keep the Law (love God), and the Law gets confused with the Gospel because it highlights the centrality of loving God in real relational Christianity. You see it on a lot of Christian college campuses–young people get excited about the insider information that Christianity is about loving God rather than obeying rules, and they don’t realize they’ve replaced external rules with internal rules. So they walk around excited that they’re fulfilling the Law, and they condemn those who don’t understand that they OUGHT to love God rather than just behaving a certain way. Either way, Christianity is reduced to OUGHT.

    The good news is that at the heart of Christianity is Good News–Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again–not a set of rules (internal or external) that we ought to keep (but can’t).

  44. Eric Phillips says

    The 5% is not a straw man, Drew. It’s a dozen barrels of dynamite at the very base of Piper’s whole edifice.

    For example, you write, “As Michael has said, Piper clearly states that when we start focusing on our own emotions rather than the Gospel, we’re looking at the wrong place.” But that’s an empty qualification, considering that his whole project is to redefine the word “Gospel.” In his new definition, “focusing on the Gospel” doesn’t mean believing that Christ died to save me from my sins; it means loving God more than everything else. And what is love? Why, it’s an emotion! So how on earth can he tell me, “Look at the Gospel, don’t look at your emotions”?

    God is NOT the Gospel. God is salvation. The Gospel is the Good News; that’s what the word means. And what is the Good News? Is it that God is beautiful and desireable beyond all the beautiful and desireable things in this world? Absolutely NOT. We KNEW that already, and it was very BAD news for us, because it condemned us every time we chose to root around in sin and filth instead of contemplating Him. The Good News is that Christ died for my sins so that I might rise to His righteousness. If I believe that, and I am baptized into Christ, I am saved.

    The books of I John and James teach me what my Christian life should look like as it develops; but whenever I realize how far short I’m falling, the only antidote is to remember that Christ died for me. As for Hebrews 12:14, you do realize, don’t you, that the holiness without which no man will see God is _Christ’s_ holiness, given to us by grace, apart from works? We need to strive to live lives worthy of that holiness, but all success in that area is relative. No one really does live a fully holy life.

    I agree that “Affection for God, in some measure, is a necessary [I would say ‘inevitable’] fruit of salvation.” But Piper is saying that this measure must be very high indeed, and suggesting that if it’s not high enough, we’re not saved. Now, anybody who understands sin and Christ’s forgiveness will automatically love God “in some measure.” It’s unavoidable. But it’s a very different thing when Piper says, “Forgiveness is precious for one final reason: it enables you to enjoy fellowship with God. If you donÂ’t want forgiveness for that reason, you wonÂ’t have it at all.”

    No, no, no. That’s a lie. Get thee behind me.

  45. Eric Phillips says

    Good stuff, Theo.

  46. Theo: “Law and Gospel” is a major problem with Piper. I agree, and that’s why I think he’s read enough Edwards and needs to read Luther.

  47. Eric,

    You may well be right that I am reading Hebrews 12:14 incorrectly. If so, please walk me through it. Here is the entire verse of Hebrews 12:14 (which, incidentally, follows verses 4-13, all exhortations to respond to the Gospel in various ways): “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

    It seems to me that this verse is saying that we must all make every effort to be holy before we die, or we won’t go to heaven. How holy? More than when we were saved. If we are not, than we were never saved. I feel like I’m a little out of my depth here, so please feel free to disagree/correct me. But I always thought that this is basically what perseverance of the saints is about.

    Regardless of whether I interpreted this particular verse correctly, the point stands: if someone’s ‘salvation’ bears no good fruit, they were not saved.

    I really think you should go read the first chapter of the book. Context can change the meaning of words by defining the limits in which they apply, among other means. But, I woudl be interested to see that quote you cited in context — what page of the book is it on?


  48. Eric Phillips says


    I was quoting from an internet posting Piper made on his site. The date on it is Nov. 13, 2002, and it is called, “God is the Gospel.” I was hoping it was buried and forgotten. The publication of a book of the same title shows it was not, alas.

    Hebrews 12:14 teaches us to pursue holiness; then anticipating the question, “Why?” explains that holiness is required to see God. In other words, holiness is the most important thing in the world, because the ultimate reward is attached to it. Set your sights on ultimate things. If you aren’t following holiness, you’re living like a fool.

    The verse leaves open the question of whether or not it’s possible for us to make ourselves SO holy that we’ll actually merit that reward, but this is a question that the rest of the Bible answers many times over. “All your righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” There would be no way we could become holy enough to see God, except that Christ has paid our debt, and we have been baptized INTO HIM. In Him we are holy–clearly not because of what we do here in this life, since we live according to the Spirit only in a fitful and unsatisfactory way–but because HE is holy. We get to see God because we are holy IN CHRIST. Left to our own devices, or even given the indwelling of the Spirit but not a saving identity with Christ (if it were possible to separate the two), we could never make ourselves holy enough to deserve an audience with God.

    So in the context of the whole Gospel, this verse is not implying, “If you’re good enough, you might even get to see God.” It’s saying, “It befits you as one made holy by Christ, and destined to see God, to live in accord with that destiny.” It’s like Paul saying, “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s. That’s not, “If you glorify God, then you can be bought.” It’s “since you HAVE been bought, glorify God.”

    Also, it’s true that a holy life is good protection against sins that can steal the heart and lead people into apostasy. Since holiness is our aspiration, we should live accordingly, lest we come to love our unholy lives instead, and fall away. But this doesn’t add up to your summary, “We must all make every effort to be holy before we die, or we won’t go to heaven.” Have you made every effort to be holy? Neither have I. Neither has anyone. If we could lose our salvation simply by manifesting the same sinful failures that Christ needed to save us from in the first place, nobody would be saved! On the contrary, since our failures as Christians ARE the same sinful failures Christ determined to save us from before we became Christians, they too are forgiven. Nor is it true that we’re saved only if we manage to die in a holier state than we were in at salvation. The verse doesn’t say, “Without comparative holiness no one will see God,” or, “Without a reasonable increase in holiness, no one will see God.”

    Personal holiness is a symptom of regeneration, yes. However, we cannot put our confidence in it, or allow our confidence in Christ to be shaken by its apparent absence. Lots of times, what looks like holiness, even in our own lives, isn’t actually holiness, and what really IS holiness, even in our own lives, goes unnoticed. How would I even go about judging the question, “Have I increased in holiness since I became a Christian”? I’ll let God judge that, and cling to Christ, who died for me that I might live in Him. At the times I feel, “Hey, I really AM making progress,” I’ll thank God for working in me and encouraging me, and I’ll pray not to be made complacent or believe my own hype. At the times I feel, “Man, I’m going backwards if anything,” I won’t despair, but will turn to the remedy of Christ, dying for me and living for me.

    So when you say, “if someone’s ‘salvation’ bears no good fruit, they were not saved,” there are two big problems. First, it’s awful hard on people who receive Christ at the point of death. They don’t have TIME for fruit. And what about people who bear good fruit for a while, and then near the end of their lives, ruin it all with some serious sin? Will repentance save them, or will Jesus say, “Sorry, you don’t have enough time left to address the sanctificational deficit you’ve just created.” That’s the kind of thinking that leads to the doctrine of Purgatory, you know. Second, it’s a useless principle if you can’t be certain you’ll _recognize_ the fruits when you see them. People who aren’t Christians at all experience moral improvement in their lives. Is that growth in holiness? No. So when we experience moral improvement, how do we know that’s growth in holiness? It might be exactly the same thing our unregenerate neighbor experienced.

    The Bible tells us our good works will impress the world, encourage the brethren (including ourselves), and glorify God. And it also tells us that the branch that bears _no_ fruit will eventually be hewn off and thrown into the fire. But it doesn’t tell us how to turn that knowledge into a litmus test for salvation. At all times, whether we are dealing with other people or with ourselves, there is only one litmus test for salvation: Do you repent of your sins and cast yourself on the mercy of God in Christ?

  49. Eric Phillips says

    Also, Piper threatens the orbit of the earth.

  50. (jn)