Friday, March 30, 2007

What Jesus Demands from the World

A Book Review

What Jesus Demands from the World
By John Piper
Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL

I do not come across good books in secular bookstores very often, but one of those edifying books I had spotted recently in MPH is one by Pastor John Piper. This 400 page book published by Crossway Books is not written with the characteristic “Christian Hedonism” motif. It is practically a devotional book concerning Christian discipleship, and deserves a place in every believer’s bookshelf. I would emphasize that this book ought to be read by the regular pew warmer and the Laodicean Christian. With the current influx into Christendom of innumerable professing Christians of various bleating varieties, it would be good to challenge the convictions of these souls - be they sheep or goats - with a well-written book on what it means to follow Jesus. This book is likewise a wake-up call to reexamine our personal faith and standing in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 13:5).

The title of this book is telling. Jesus is not a sacrosanct Santa Claus in human form offering the greedy, fallen humanity more presents for the coming Christmas party. Neither is Piper suggesting that the Council of Trent is perhaps correct on the relationship between faith and works. But he is saying that the Bible is clear on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus had demanded the rich young ruler to examine his profession in the light of his lusts for his possessions, our Lord is similarly requiring us to count the cost before following Him. Jesus demands that we repent. Jesus demands that we believe in Him. And Jesus expects his followers to be obedient to His commandments, and not merely pay lip service to His words.

Piper, in his characteristic style, writes, “The ultimate goal of Jesus’ commandments is not that we observe them by doing good works. The ultimate goal is that God be glorified. The obedience of good works is penultimate. But what is ultimate is that in our obedient lives God be displayed as the most beautiful reality in the world. That is Jesus’ ultimate goal and mine (Introduction, p. 18).” In the same manner, Piper writes in a concluding chapter that, “Jesus’ demand to the world is that all human beings find in him the all-satisfying glory for which we were made. Then he demands that we turn from trusting in anything else and bank our hope on the great reward of everlasting joy in him. And then, in that hope and joy, he demands that we let that light shine in sacrificial good deeds of love, so that others will see and savor and spread the glory of God (Demand 48, p. 362).” It is in these words that we see the Piper we are all so familiar with. The familiarity, however, stops here.

No doubt that Piper himself suggested that this book can be, and should be, used as a devotional aid, whereby the reader can simply jump to a certain chapter and meditate on its content in relation to Scripture, the structure of this book is such that it builds upon the pilgrim’s maturity in the Christian walk. The first eight chapters (Demands 1 to 8) are closely related to the topics of repentance, faith and regeneration. These chapters are named as follows: YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN; REPENT; COME TO ME; BELIEVE IN ME; LOVE ME; LISTEN TO ME; ABIDE IN ME; TAKE UP YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW ME.

In this age of “easy believism,” whereby repentance is not even required for one to be called a “Christian,” the believer is challenged to reconsider his profession of faith in the light of scriptural teachings. Jesus did not die so that we can have license to sin. If regeneration and faith do not result in the sanctification of the believer, nothing ever will. One is not justified by his mere profession of faith; one is justified by genuine, saving faith in Christ - the way, the truth, and the life. And genuine, saving faith works!

Piper exclaims, “He did not die to make this life easy for us or prosperous. He died to remove every obstacle to our everlasting joy in making much of him. And he calls us to follow him in his sufferings because this life of joyful suffering for Jesus’ sake (Matt. 5:12) shows that he is more valuable than all the earthly rewards that the world lives for (Matt. 13:44; 6:19-20). If you follow Jesus only because he makes life easy now, it will look to the world as though you really love what they love, and Jesus just happens to provide it for you. But if you suffer with Jesus in the pathway of love because he is your supreme treasure, then it will be apparent to the world that your heart is set on a different fortune than theirs. This is why Jesus demands that we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him (Demand 8, p. 71).”

These convictions stand in contradistinction to common notions about the gospel, salvation, prosperity and healing. Jesus said, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head (Matt. 8:20).” However, some preachers today demand five and six-star hotels as accommodation for their ministry. Again, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. (John 15:18-19).” One is perplexed as to why the world seems to love certain preachers, while Jesus and His message were hated by the world. One also begins to wonder if the message of the Bible and that of contemporary Christianity is one and the same.

Believing in Jesus is getting easier these days. “Give Him all your problems,” they say. “If you have faith in Him, He will make you rich. Why would the Father in heaven be stingy with His sons on earth?” “Believe and receive the gift from above!” According to these preachers, Jesus is the salve for every sore and the balm of infected wounds. In fact, there is no need to treat that wound. Jesus will dress it up and make it look good, even as the worms eat up your flesh beneath the bandages.

While sin and evil is not dealt with in today’s perverted gospel and preaching, Piper makes it clear that Jesus has made demands from the world, and especially, his disciples. He wants seekers to count the cost before following Him. And salvation does not come cheap, for grace is free but never cheap. Piper writes, “Jesus has no desire to trick you into following him with a kind of bait and switch. He is utterly up front about the cost. In fact, he urges you to count the cost (Demand 8, p. 73).”

Addressing issues such as mammon, love, charity, marriage, stewardship, evangelism and church ordinances, Piper covers salient Christian doctrines in a practical, introspective manner. Drawing from his broad pastoral experiences, he relies heavily upon the plain teachings of Jesus and applies them to the believer’s life. As a personal note of interest, it is encouraging to read that Piper is not for remarriage after divorce, which is also the less popular (but correct) option for evangelical Christianity. He has also avoided discussing denominational distinctives (e.g. baptism), which has made the book more irenic and accessible.

Chapters (or rather, Demands) 9 to 27 loosely discuss the Christian character and his vertical relationship with God e.g. prayer, humility, anger, righteousness etc. The later chapters seem to deal with a Christian’s horizontal relationship with others, including how we should deal with our enemies. But one thing is for certain: by reading the chapters of this book, it is clear that Jesus is dead serious about dealing with sin. The question for us is then, “Are we as serious about sin in our lives?”

Jesus taught, “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell (Matt. 5:28-30).” It is interesting to read Piper’s insightful commentary on this portion of Scripture, “Jesus’ point is not that literally tearing out the right eye is going to solve anything. The point is not that inward desires can be controlled by external maiming. The point is how enormous the stakes are. They are so great, we must do what we have to do to defeat the bondage of sinful desire. It is astonishing how many people deal with their sin casually. Jesus demands otherwise. Fight for a pure heart with the same urgency as tearing out an eye and cutting off a hand (Demand 27, p. 208).”

Although we might not agree with all of Piper’s conclusions, the chapters within this book challenge us to conform to the Scripture and our Lord’s teachings, and especially, to consider our sins and standing before God Almighty. For those professors who have been living a life according to the ways of this world, beware! This book will definitely make them uncomfortable. And the only way to alleviate that discomfort is either to conform to the commandments of Jesus, or quit the false profession of faith, which is hypocrisy. And Piper certainly dealt with the issue of hypocrisy in chapter 25.

The only criticism I have for this book is this: Piper could have been more direct and harsher with certain issues. Sometimes, it might be more effective if one can simply hit the bull’s eye, rather than getting entangled within circumlocutory sentences. All in all, for those who are keen to learn how to tear out their right eye, or cut off their right hand, this is the book for the serious, practicing Christian in a fallen world.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Some Thoughts on the Lord’s Day

The Assumption of an Alleged Cultural Context under the Pretext of Biblical Hermeneutics

I have not posted for some time now, and I believe that I will continue to be busy for at least a while more. Nevertheless, I feel that it might be interesting to relate a conversation I had with a certain church elder on the Lord’s Day of 18th Mar 2007. While I do not want to make the content of this conversation a point of contention, I would like to draw out certain points I had observed.

We were having a very casual discussion regarding a specified Pauline passage, and it suddenly dawned upon us that we held fairly different hermeneutical principles for this particular chapter. The elder contended that it was possible for Paul to be arguing his point against a backdrop of ancient culture in 1 Cor. 11:1-16. While we both do not want to make the issue a point for doctrinal dispute, it was amazing how two brethren-in-Christ can reason for or against a particular passage, and arrive at two different conclusions. What concerned me during the conversation were not the arguments of Paul in this passage per se, but rather how one can arrive at the conclusion that Paul was merely attempting to relate a principle of Christian living as opposed to the notion that Paul was giving didactic instructions to the church at Corinth.

In the understanding of any passage of Scripture, a Christian must be very cautious to say that a particular passage does not apply to the church today. One can concede that the underlying biblical principle is still in play, but it is a far cry from a complete acceptance and submission to the ongoing authority of the biblical text in question.

As we reformed folks ought to know: Scripture must interpret Scripture. And to say that a particular passage is inherently cultural in its context, one must be able to exegetically defend this position, not from extra-biblical sources, but from the context and text itself. Paul’s epistles may have segments “in which are some things hard to be understood (2 Pet. 3:16),” but to reject 16 verses of Scripture as authoritative for the church today, while accepting the rest of the chapter (the last 18 verses) as part of the Lord’s commandments for the church smacks of inconsistency and poor contextual analysis.

Therefore, if one is adamant that a particular text of Scripture is not applicable to the Christian Church today in view of its alleged cultural considerations, one must reflect upon these preliminary questions:

  • “Did the apostle claim that the commandments were relevant only for the church being addressed to?”
  • “What are the exegetical evidence of a cultural context for this passage? Am I reading into the passage or out of the passage?”
  • “Does your conclusion contradict plain statements made by the author himself? For example, in this case, what did Paul mean in 1 Cor. 11:16?”
  • “Did the apostle argue from culture, or from firm theological bases i.e. 1 Cor. 11:7-10?”

I can accept the fact that a passage may be interpreted wrongly. In which case, we can sit down and study further. I can likewise accept the fact that a Christian brother may have difficulty in submitting to a particular portion of Scripture. In which case, we can pray, repent, and ask the Lord to help our weaknesses. Also, we could have acted or reacted out of ignorance to the Word of God. Once again, further study with a submissive, prayerful attitude is needed. But to say that a particular passage of Scripture may be perceived in more than one way, and that both are equally acceptable “because we are all not infallible” is denying the perspicuity of Scripture, as well as the ability of the Holy Spirit to give us illumination through prayer, fasting and hard study. God’s Word can have only one true, correct, accurate meaning. And to deny this fact is to deny the Word of God itself. Error cannot be regarded at the same level with truth. Error must be repudiated, reprimanded, and rejected, while truth must be embraced, upheld, defended, and taught.

Therefore, let us submit ourselves to God’s Word, and may the Holy Ghost lead us into all truth (John 16:13).