So in one sitting today I read all the way through John Piper’s new book, Finally Alive. Some have written that it’s the best book he’s written since Desiring God, so I knew I just had to read it. It’s essentially an argument that being saved is not what we typically think of. It’s part of a chronological timeline where God does something before our belief, and we do something after our belief that verifies our belief was genuine.
Piper kicks the book off with a pithy introduction, first giving the conversion testimonies of Augustine and C.S. Lewis, and then comparing how the Barna Group and the Bible use the term “born again” differently. This one-two punch is designed to reveal how the contemporary evangelical church has a radically different view of conversion then historic Christianity… not to mention the New Testament. I could go off on how Barna is complicit in the degradation of the church he now is so fond of negatively prognosticating, but that would result in a rabbit trail.
Piper states three reasons he wrote a new book for Christians concerning salvation:
1 When you are truly born again and grow in the grace and knowledge of what the Lord has done for you, your fellowship with God will be sweet, and your assurance that he is your Father will be deep. I want that for you.
2 If you know what really happened to you in your new birth, you will treasure God and his Spirit and his Son and his word more highly than you ever have. In this, Christ will be glorified.
3 In the process of believers discovering what really happened to them, the seriousness and the supernatural nature of conversion will rise and that, I pray, will serve a more general awakening of authenticity in the Christian church so that religious hypocrisy will diminish and the world will see real love and sacrifice and courage in the service of Christ.
As you can see, this is not a book written for the purpose of erudition, but as with all of Piper’s writings, it is firmly targetted at the affections. John Piper wants to use this book to encourage you in your walk with Christ, specifically by causing you to wrap your joy and your love up in the person of Jesus Christ. More on this in a minute.
Piper takes many diverse passages and breaks them down exegetically, pulling out the necessary implications and explications in order to carefully build an understanding of the new birth. He begins with the essence of the Gospel: those who believe will be saved. He moves backwards and forwards from this point, outlining what must follow belief, and also what must precede belief. In doing do, he comes to two grand conclusions.
First, the faith of a believer must be preceded by regeneration, which is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Scripture doesn’t use language of death to describe our spiritual life prior to salvation for no reason. It’s not metaphorical; there’s no like or as attached to the language of death. We were dead; God has made us alive through Christ. As Piper puts it:
His begetting causes our believing.
Second, the born again believer will be holy in this life before they’ll be holy in the next life. Someone won’t be truly justified and cleansed from their sin through faith and repentance, and then live life as if nothing ever happened. There will be a movement towards holiness that may be interrupted or seemingly frustrated at times, but it will be obvious. This is much of the argument in 1 John and 1 Peter which Piper helpfully points out. No easy-believism allowed. Piper comments on 1 John 3:1-5:
Purification is explicit. John says: If you have experienced the new birth, you will love the day of Christ’s appearing and long for the day when you will be transformed into his perfect likeness (as verse 2 says, “when he appears we shall be like him”). And then, he says in verse 3, “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” That means everyone who loves the day of his final purification loves purity now, and hates impurity now, and fights sin now.
Which means that the new birth, which awakens faith and fills us with love for that last great day of purification, produces the fight for purity.
Piper speaks about other implications of being born again, a couple of which I really appreciate. You can really sense a bit of his previous work, The Future of Justification seeping through here. He’s on guard against N.T. Wright and others who would say that the Gospel and new birth are about an affirmation of Lordship, rather than about a transaction of righteousness; and yet, Piper also confirms that the allegience to Christ is crucial. He just puts it in its place in relation to justification.
Also very helpful is his repeated insistence that all of this is grounded in the death of Christ as a historical fact. Theologians aren’t just randomly pulling bits of info together to cobble together this idea of salvation; no, Jesus Christ Himself in conjunction with the Father and the Spirit purchase and secure our salvation from beginning to end at the Cross. This reality is mind-shattering, when you think of it. Jesus Christ died to actually save, not merely potentially save.
In short, it’s Calvinistic soteriology through-and-through, but unlike other books that argue for similar conclusions, Piper is adamant about this being for our relationship with Christ. He’s not out to grind a theological battle axe. No, he’s here to point us to the preciousness of the truths of election. This is written so that we might fall in love with Christ. As he said in a seminar at his church in March of 2008:
These things aren’t for fighting about, to me. They aren’t for winning arguments about. They aren’t to puff yourself up or to distinguish yourself from anybody. They’re to live by, they’re to survive with…
…these doctrines are not mainly there just to entertain our intellects, they’re there to provide rock under our feet when everything around our soul gives way, which it will sooner or later in your life.
Amen, amen. I highly recommend it. You can read it for free online.