Review of For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper

May 6, 2011

A Review of
For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper,
edited by Sam Storms and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2010).

Reviewed by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte NC

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” This central truth of Christian Hedonism summarizes John Piper’s life and ministry. When we want to see how this truth is worked out in missions and preaching and marriage we turn to Let the Nations Be Glad! and The Supremacy of God in Preaching and This Momentary Marriage – or to Piper’s thirty years of sermons, all available online.

But John Piper is not alone in highlighting the biblical centrality of spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. In For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper – a book presented to Piper at the 2010 Desiring God National Conference – Justin Taylor and Sam Storms bring together more than two dozen scholars and pastors to write about Piper’s ministry and to extend his thought. The result is a helpful and challenging volume which displays both the great influence Piper has had, and the biblical moorings of Christian Hedonism.

The book has seven sections (after an initial note of apology to Piper for a book in his honor):

  1. “John Piper:” An opening personal section written by Bethlehem Baptist Church pastors and elders;
  2. “Christian Hedonism”
  3. “The Sovereignty of God”
  4. “The Gospel, the Cross, and the Resurrection of Christ”
  5. “The Supremacy of God in All Things:” A catch-all title to cover a wide array of topics;
  6. “Preaching and Pastoral Ministry”
  7. “Ministries:” Descriptions of the vision and ministries of Desiring God and what is now Bethlehem College and Seminary.

The result is a volume particularly valuable for both pastors and serious students of the Word. Those who are basically familiar with Piper will value the personal insights of his friends and colleagues, and will profit from the attempts to extend his thought by scholars. This book is not an introduction to Christian Hedonism – Desiring God and, even better, When I Don’t Desire God serve that purpose well – but rather an attempt to examine the implications of Christian Hedonism to theology, to the Christian life, and to pastoral ministry. With that understanding, it succeeds marvelously.

Highlights of the book include:

  • David Michael’s 2000+ word prayer in the book’s opening chapter, effectively setting the stage for the remaining chapters.
  • Mark Talbot’s chapter “When All Hope Has Died: Meditations on Profound Christian Suffering” exemplifies the best way to honor another student of the Word. Talbot shows how much he has learned from Piper, and then critiques and modifies his thought. The author argues that the pursuit of our own joy cannot be the sole motivation for following God, claiming that profound “sufferers have abandoned pursuing any pleasure because they have lost all hope of feeling any pleasure again” (p. 96). Yet even those in such situations (like Naomi, Job, and Jeremiah) are able to glorify God: “God is also glorified in us when . . . we continue faithfully to acknowledge and proclaim his truth in spite of the fact that we are unable to conceive how any alteration to our future circumstances could make our lives seem good and pleasurable again” (p. 98). While this chapter would have been even better had it interacted with When I Don’t Desire God – particularly Piper’s chapter, “When the Darkness Will Not Lift” – Talbot gives us a profitable and thought-provoking article.
  • Don Westblade’s chapter analyzes Jonathan Edwards’ wrestling with issues of divine sovereignty and human moral ability. This is a particularly helpful article, worth reading slowly. Edwards (and Westblade) argue that the doctrine of divine sovereignty is rational, even if, as Edwards says, “there may be some things that are true that . . . [are] much above our understandings” (p. 124).
  • Bruce Ware’s chapter on prayer and the sovereignty of God is an excellent analysis of that conundrum. Carefully and engagingly written, this chapter can serve well as the first resource for any serious inquirer about these issues.
  • Don Carson’s chapter “What is the Gospel – Revisited” is perhaps the finest of all. Carson painstakingly surveys the uses of the gospel word group in Scripture, and then examines implications for us today. Along the way he evaluates the slogan, “Preach the Gospel – use words if necessary;” distinguishes between outcomes of the Gospel (for individuals and for society) and the Gospel proper; emphasizes that Kingdom ethics and Kingdom fulfillment cannot be divorced from the plotline of the Gospels; shows that the word “evangelist” in the New Testament refers to anyone who proclaims the Gospel; and offers us this superb paragraph:

The heart of the gospel is what God has done in Jesus, supremely in his death and resurrection. Period. It is not personal testimony about our repentance; it is not a few words about our faith response; it is not obedience; it is not the cultural mandate or any other mandate. Repentance, faith, and obedience are of course essential, and must be rightly related in the light of Scripture, but they are not the good news. The gospel is the good news about what God has done (p. 162).

  • Wayne Grudem’s chapter elaborates on Piper’s The Pleasures of God, which includes a chapter on “The Pleasure of God in Personal Obedience and Public Justice.” Piper based his work primarily on 1 Samuel 15:22, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?” Grudem looks instead at a number of New Testament passages that emphasize God’s joy in our obedience, as we actively depend on Him to work in us. Grudem’s chapter would have been even more helpful had he interacted with the well-known first chapters of Jerry Bridge’s The Discipline of Grace, which argue that we wrongly think we are acceptable to God on our good days.
  • C.J. Mahaney’s chapter begins with Paul’s benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14, and shows how this summarizes the pastoral ministry: “Through our prayers, our preaching, our counseling, and all facets of our leadership, we must position those we serve to experience the grace of the Son, the love of the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (p. 389). Easily accessible yet profoundly challenging, this chapter is a gem. Every pastor would do well to think hard about the eleven “I must . . .” statements on p. 391.
  • David Powlison’s contribution concerns, not surprisingly, the pastor as counselor. He shows the centrality of counseling –broadly defined – to pastoral ministry, and lays out distinctives between the pastoral task and what the world defines as counseling. A quote from Bonhoeffer serves to summarize the chapter:

Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. . . . The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ (p. 429, quoted from Life Together.)

  • John MacArthur’s chapter considers the maternal and paternal images of the pastor’s role found in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12. Elaborating on each, MacArthur argues persuasively that every spiritual leader must be both: tender yet uncompromising, compassionate yet firm, affectionate yet in authority.

How could this excellent volume have been even better? Here are four considerations:

First, we honor those whose ideas we take seriously – seriously enough to cause us to think deeply about the subject. That thinking may lead to areas of disagreement, yet that very disagreement honors the author. Other than Mark Talbot’s chapter, the book contains little of this type of analysis. More could have been included. For example, Justin Taylor and Thabiti Anyabwile, in their chapters on Piper’s preaching on the sanctity of life and racial harmony, could profitably have asked: If this type of preaching is exemplary, why do none of the other pastors who contributed to this volume follow Piper’s pattern of preaching one sermon on each of these topics annually? As editor, Taylor could have pursued this line of questioning – and the answers would have been informative.

Second, Scott Hafemann’s contribution is, in many ways, exceptionally helpful and deserving of inclusion in the list of highlights. He walks the reader through Scripture, looking at the concept of the Kingdom of God as manifested from creation to universal worship in the new heavens and new earth. But his definition of Kingdom is problematic – and this problem is especially curious in a volume that honors John Piper. Hafemann defines the central theme of Scripture as “The historical revelation of God’s glory as King through the obedience of his people” (p. 237, his emphasis). “Obedience” must be replaced with “joyful obedience.” Add that word, and this sentence is consistent with Piper and Scripture; leave it out, and the sentence is terribly misleading. Hafemann’s original sentence sounds as if God commands duty rather than delight. Indeed, many today understand obedience to God to be a teeth-clenched, nose-holding, checking-off-a-list rule-keeping that they must do, contrary to their own joy. Piper has shown that obedience of this sort – obedience a la the elder son – is not glorifying to God. Obedience a la the Pharisees is not a picture of the Kingdom. Hafemann could well argue that teeth-clenching obedience is not biblical, and thus not what he intends by the term. Fair enough. But his terminology too easily lends itself to this misinterpretation. Whether we like it or not, in our society the word “obedience” has these connotations of perfunctory rule-keeping. And that has never been God’s object.

Third, the book would have benefited from some interactions among the various authors. For example, Beale and Grudem both interact with texts on justification by faith and their relationship to the way God looks upon the obedience of His people. Hafemann also highlights the centrality of our (joyful!) obedience. Seeing how they would respond to each other would have been valuable. While the challenges of enabling such interaction are large in a book of this type (as opposed to a conference volume), the benefits also might have been high.

Finally, the lack of a chapter on missions to unreached peoples for the glory of God is glaring. Perhaps the editors asked Ralph Winter to write such a chapter, and that remained unfinished at his death. But Let the Nations Be Glad is one of Piper’s most powerful books; indeed, the increasingly influential course “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” was turned upside down by the ideas of chapter 1 of that volume. Furthermore, one of the key distinctives of Bethlehem as a church is having missions at its core. This emphasis appears too rarely in a book devoted to honoring Piper’s influence. Should the Lord tarry for 100 years, I suspect Piper’s impact on the goal of missions and on reaching the unreached will be his greatest legacy. Furthermore, such a legacy would give him personally the greatest of all joys.

Nevertheless, this is an exceptionally valuable book. Many thanks to the editors and authors for their labors to produce this volume and to keep it secret from Piper until the presentation. Surely this too will serve to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Let the nations be glad!