Crossway Books, 2020.
The new tome by John Piper is essential reading:
The topic of the providence of God is a major biblical theme, and properly understood, it is a hugely reassuring and comforting doctrine of Scripture. It has often been discussed at length over the centuries, certainly by those in Puritan and Reformed circles. This new treatment by Piper is the most recent, and it is one of the most thorough and detailed to yet appear.
Some recent treatments of the topic – of many – include (in order of their appearance):
G .C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God (Eerdmans, 1952, 1974).
Benjamin Wirt Farley, The Providence of God (Baker, 1988).
Paul Helm, The Providence of God (IVP, 1994).
Terrance Tiessen, Providence & Prayer: How Does God Work in the World? (IVP, 2000).
James Spiegel, The Benefits of Providence: A New Look at Divine Sovereignty (Crossway, 2005).
Piper’s volume of 750 pages is certainly very comprehensive indeed, and all aspects of this doctrine are covered in great detail. There are different ways one can approach a topic such as this. One can turn to apologetics, or offer a philosophy of religion sort of approach, dealing with questions, objections, conundrums, and so on.
While Piper does deal with some obvious questions that arise here, his main approach, in 45 chapters, is to simply let the biblical data be heard. And being both a pastor and a theologian, he deals with the biblical texts on this matter in a careful and wise fashion, making it not just theologically rigorous but pastorally practical.
Early on he reminds us that the term ‘providence’ is not found in Scripture, just as other key theological words such as ‘Trinity’ and ‘discipleship’ are not. But he prefers it to some other terms and argues that “purposeful sovereignty” may be the best way of understanding what is meant here. It is all about God’s hands-on involvement in all aspects of life.
Consider the concept of fate, which many folks – including many Christians – confuse and conflate with the biblical doctrine of providence. Following on from Spurgeon, Piper says fate is whatever simply happens – what will be will be. Providence however is God purposefully working out his plans toward a good end.
And the end of all this, says Piper, is what Paul speaks about: all of this is working to “the praise of God’s glory” (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). That is a major component of the thinking of Jonathan Edwards, and Piper has been seeking to popularise this theological emphases for decades now.
Of course in all these matters we have the long-standing issue of how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are compatible. Piper, like all biblical Christians, fully affirms both biblical truths. But as he often says, the ‘how’ of all this remains a mystery.
God has not told us how all this is possible, and our fallen and finite minds would likely not be able to grasp it even if God decided to tell us. So better to accept both truths while settling, not for contradiction, but for some mystery, as to how the two can coexist.
And the biblical examples of this are everywhere, and the bulk of this book is about looking at these texts in detail. It could be the entrance of sin in the world, or the way Pharaoh was hardened, yet served God’s purposes. It could be about pagan nations like Assyria and Babylon doing great evil, yet still fulfilling the purposes of God.
It could be about sleepless nights causing a pagan king to read a book, the end result of which is saving the Jewish people from certain destruction (see the book of Esther). And of course it can be about what was on the one hand the most horrific evil ever carried out, yet also the most glorious work of God ever: the crucifixion of Christ.
In all these episodes – and countless more – we see God providentially at work carrying out his wise and loving purposes, while we see human – and other – agents being fully responsible for choices that they have made – choices for both good and ill. Just HOW these two sides of the coin can be, we are not usually told in Scripture. But both are fully and consistently affirmed. So we must live with a bit of mystery here.
The cross, as mentioned, is the most obvious and most glaring example of all this. Just one key verse – of many – on this is Acts 2:23: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” As Piper writes,
“If God’s sovereign will ordains that someone act contrary to his revealed will (which indeed it does, as when he willed the murder of his Son for our salvation, Acts 2:23; 4:27-28), he always brings that sovereign will to pass in such a way that the human will makes a real choice and is morally accountable.”
He elaborates on these differences:
This distinction is warranted by the Bible. The simplest way to see it is to notice that God’s revealed will is “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13), while his sovereign will, in the case of Jesus, is that his Son be murdered. It was “the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isa. 53:10) “by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). In other words, God often wills that things come to pass that are sin, and therefore contrary to his “revealed will.”
Scripture clearly teaches, in other words, 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.”
There is so much more along these lines of course – both in Scripture and in this lengthy tome. Consider one more issue where the ‘how’ question can be hard to fully answer: that of sanctification. On the one hand it is quite clear that it is God at work in us to bring about Christian growth and maturity. He gets all the praise and the credit for this.
But on the other hand, we have hundreds of imperatives (commands) found in the New Testament. We are to DO so many things: deny ourselves, carry our cross, say no to the flesh, not grieve the Spirit, resist the world, put on the new man, and so on. We ARE responsible for how we grow as Christians.
So which is it? It is both of course. In a sense, we do our bit while God does his bit. It is not a matter of either/or but both/and. As Piper puts it, our sanctification is brought about “by the resolves and works of the people and through the grace and power of God.” Yes exactly.
Just HOW exactly all this works out is hard to get a full grasp of – at least in this life. But we have enough biblical revelation as to how we are to proceed. So instead of worrying about how it all occurs, we are to simply do what we are commanded to do, while also thanking God that he is fully at work in our lives.
Do the many questions we may have when considering such grandiose and amazing biblical truths all get resolved after reading an important volume like this? Well, not for me: I still have as many questions – perhaps even a few more! But a careful and detailed book like this really does leave an impression on the reader. It really does make verses like Romans 8:28 come to life so much more.
Yes, somehow, and some way, God really does work ALL things together for good for those who love him. And that makes some real practical differences as to how we live – even when my freezer just died moments ago. It made me think about God’s loving and detailed interaction with me, including every detail of my life!
Even if one has some theological differences with Piper and what he has said, this book will help us all think more deeply and carefully about these great truths. And it will also help us to grow in wonder and awe about the God we serve, and will lead us to worship him even more as well. Thanks John Piper.
(Australians will find this book at Koorong and Reformers)