John Piper’s book responding to the work of N. T. Wright has been one of the most anticipated titles of the year. I have no figures to back that up, but I think it’s true. And yet, in a summary on Piper’s web site, Piper’s assistant comes out of the gate with this sparkling endorsement: “Not everyone should read John Piper’s new book on justification.”
The reason for this is not because it’s not a good book, but because it’s a book written to respond to a specific theological development that has been influential in some circles and made no headway at all in others. So if you’re reading this review and you’ve never heard of N. T. Wright, or the “New Perspective on Paul,” then this book might not need to be on your Christmas list. But if you know of Wright and the influence of his ideas, I highly recommend it. In fact, I think it’s a model of serious, robust theological study in the service of God and his church. A few distinctives of this book make this true:
- Piper’s goal is not to win a fight, but to serve the truth. I highlighted this in a post last week. His motivation for this book is concern over Wright’s teaching, not a personal need to beat up an opponent. Of course, anybody could just declare this at the beginning of a book, but the rest of this book actually bears the marks (it seems to me) of what Piper calls the “desire to be a faithful steward of the grace of truth.”
- Related to this is the rigorous concern to be accurate in explaining and responding to Wright’s views. There are no straw men to be found in this book. In fact, Piper sent Wright a copy of the manuscript and asked for his comments, and Wright’s response more than doubled the length of the book. Piper has clearly taken the time to comprehend and process Wright’s ideas. The book quotes Wright extensively, and seeks to honestly unpack what Wright means. More than once Piper actually defends Wright against incorrect conclusions people could conceivably draw from his work.
- The book places the focus where it always should be for the theologian: the Word of God. Of course, it’s entirely legitimate to use other sources, but Piper consistently does straightforward, careful exegesis of Scripture, and that is the backbone of the book. This is vital for theological discussion to do any good in the service of the church.
- The fruit of reading a book like this, at least in my own heart, is rejoicing in the cross. I think N. T. Wright is badly mistaken on some points. But I didn’t walk away from the book thinking Wright was an idiot (far from it); I walked away from it humbled and thankful to God for giving me the gift of his own righteousness in place of my sin, counting his perfect record as mine. That the book led me to glory in Christ, not the intellect of John Piper, makes it an example of great Christian scholarship.
Piper, for my money, is the best living example we have of theology on fire: a rigorous mind and a passion for God, not balancing each other out or offsetting each other but informing each other. His love for the truth of the Word and the glory of Christ in the gospel are on full display here. I found his arguments compelling, of course, but I appreciated the book even more as an example of Christian scholarship.