I like to imagine that John Piper wrote his most recent book Providence in a flurry of activity over the course of four months at the start of the shutdown earlier this year. And I like to imagine that not least because Providence is 700+ pages long, and still not going to be the most well-known thing John Piper wrote in 2020. (That particular distinction almost certainly goes to the blog post that may very well have cost Donald Trump the election.) Though I’ll admit I don’t know if this counts as a book from 2020, since it technically won’t be released until January, 2021. I’m not really sure how the publishing world works when it comes to that sort of thing.
As with every book of Piper’s that I’ve ever read, Providence is roughly 20% too long. It is also challenging, convicting, thoughtful, and thoroughly Biblical. Piper stares directly into the doctrine of providence through his Biblical lens and tells us what he sees there about the delight we should have in God as those who have been saved by the glorious work of Christ on the cross.
So just what is ‘providence’ and where does it fit into that glorious work? Despite an introductory chapter called ‘What is Divine Providence?’ (in which Piper gives us several traditional definitions, as well as one that he crafted while a Pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church) we don’t so much get a set, working definition of ‘providence’ as we do the start of an unfolding picture of providence in action through the pages of Scripture. Specifically, Piper begins with (in the aforementioned introductory chapter) this definition:
“We believe that God, from all eternity, in order to display the full extent of His glory for the eternal and ever-increasing enjoyment of all who live Him, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his will, freely and unchangeably ordain and foreknow whatever comes to pass… We believe that God upholds and governs all things… in accord with his eternal, all-wise purposes to glorify Himself…” (37)
Again, this is just the beginning point of Piper’s view of providence (Part 1 of the book, and the shortest part). What we see as the book progresses is that God’s ‘ordaining’ and ‘foreknowning’ and ‘upholding’ and ‘governing’ stretch through all the activities and forces of nature, art, politics, angels and demons, and the work of salvation for God’s people (Part 3 of the book, and the longest part). All of this activity in directing and upholding creation and salvation is focused on God’s being “praised for the glory of his grace” (pg 52, and the focus of Part 2 of the book). Each subject we might study of whatever sort–again, nothing is exempt from Divine providence–must bend towards this end. This is nothing new to those who have read other works by Piper (or those who are familiar with Scripture, for that matter). In Providence we have a more thorough examination of what Scripture teaches about that truth across a wide array of topics.
To his credit, Piper doesn’t back down from the difficult passages and is more than willing to say “I don’t know” when required to by the text of Scripture. For example talking about God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, Piper writes:
“If we demand an explanation for how this can be–that God freely chooses who is hardened, and yet they have real guilt–we will probably be disappointed in this life. I do not offer such an explanation. I say what we see in the word: God hardens whom he wills, and man is accountable. God’s hardening does not take away guilt; it renders it certain.” (pg 441, all citations are from the galley copy, so the page # may very well change. And for those of you who are younger, once upon a time that hashtag symbol stood for ‘number’. I refuse to change with the times.)
What’s important here is that John Piper is well versed in the thought and writings of Jonathan Edwards and could very well have given a robust philosophical answer to this problem (and has done so other places). Nevertheless, he sticks with his version of ‘this is what we are told and there is no need to go beyond it using philosophy.’ His goal, and it is a good goal, is to let the Bible have the final say even on the tough stuff:
“My approach in reading the inspired Scriptures is not to silence the true meaning of one passage with the true meaning of another. If I find that two passages seem to contradict each other, my assumption is either that I have misconstrued the meaning of one (or both) of them, or that I am calling a contradiction what is, in fact, not a contradiction. In what follows, we will consider many biblical instances of God’s providence in governing sinful human choices. At every point, my assumption is not ‘This cannot be.’ I think that claim is a philosophical prejudgment, not a biblical assessment of what is possible for God.” (413)
This at times runs counter to my own inclinations, which demand an ironing out of problems in a question find reasonable solutions to apparent contradictions. Yet such an attempt is usually just me setting myself up as the final arbiter of the meaning of Scripture, rather than letting the Bible be the final authority on itself. What this means is that at times the explanations in the book are unsatisfying, even if Piper’s conclusions are surely the right ones. Whatever mysteries or philosophical difficulties Scripture leaves us with, we are to be encouraged by the knowledge of the fact of God’s providence over all things:
“And that fact will sustain us to the degree that we believe that nothing–absolutely nothing–can happen to us but ‘by God’s fatherly hand.’ This is why stories of God’s providence about in Scripture, but explanations of the mystery of how it works do not. Our faith needs the certainty of the fact, not the fathoming of the mystery.” (446)
There’s a lot more that can be said. Did I mention this book is over 700 pages long? There are many topics which bear further reflection; meditations which inspire praise; and even the occasional statement which merits mild pushback. All this to say that like every other work of his that I’ve read, John Piper’s book Providence is absolutely worth your time and I heartily recommend it.