As a pastor and author, John Piper has long been known for singing the song of God’s glory with uncommon passion. His newest book, the massive Providence—written more than three decades after his signature volume Desiring God—confirms that Piper has even more Scripture-soaked verses to belt out.
At this stage of his ministry, it might be helpful to imagine Piper playing the role of C. S. Lewis’s character Digory Kirke from The Chronicles of Narnia. Piper, though, is Kirke at the age of his greatest influence, when he has grown from the boy Digory to the aged professor who welcomes the Pevensie children to stay at his estate to find in his wardrobe a portal to a new world.
Professor Kirke, the reader discovers in later volumes, has been to Narnia before and knows of the other world the children discover. Upon their return, he is eager to hear about their travels and point them “further up and further in,” so they can better see and understand that world and its maker. Piper, like Kirke, shows today’s reader just how much he has seen of God’s glory—and how much comfort and transforming truth there is to be had in the doctrine of providence.
A divine “seeing to it”
In the introduction, Piper opens the door to see God and his world anew, offering four invitations to study God’s providence. These are invitations to worship and know the God who “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all,” and to find assurance that through his providence he will “graciously give us all things,” very much including Christ himself (Rom. 8:32). What follows are 700 pages divided into 45 chapters, grouped in three parts.
The first part gives definition to Piper’s understanding of providence. This doctrine conveys the idea of purposeful action as God “upholds, directs, disposes, and governs ‘all creatures, actions, and things.’” Piper arrives at this definition not wanting to develop anything new. He works from the classical Reformed articulation of providence, citing key confessions of faith, including the Westminster Catechism and Confession (documents familiar to students of Piper given his famous edit of “and” to “by” in the catechism’s answer to the first question regarding the chief end of man—we are to glorify God by enjoying him forever).
Further, Piper’s definition is consistent with how the later Reformed tradition organized the doctrine in terms of preservation (God sustaining the world), government (ruling it according to his will), and concurrence (using the ordinary workings of nature to accomplish his purposes). Piper cites Charles Spurgeon to show how his definition distinguishes between providence and fate, and in fact he sounds a lot like Calvin (who cites Paul, Augustine, and Basil) in the Institutes: “We make God the ruler and governor of all things. … The plans and intentions of men, are so governed by his providence that they are borne by it straight to their appointed end.” That Piper means to write from within the Reformed tradition is significant, for the Reformers saw the doctrine of providence as a means of comfort and assurance in response both to the teachings of Rome in their day and to attacks on their well-being.
The second part of Providence explores the ultimate goal of God’s providential rule. In other words, it reveals Piper’s answer to the question, “Where is God taking the world?” Here the reader is treated to a full biblical theology of providence working from creation to the New Covenant and concluding with the glorification of God’s people. Piper underscores that this plan of God for Israel and for “the saving, global impact of Jesus on all nations” is “one plan,” not something that evolves or changes over time or under different circumstances.
Piper shows that while his understanding of providence draws upon classical Christianity, the Reformed tradition, and Jonathan Edwards, he does emphasize aspects of the doctrine that provide unique and needed answers to 21st-century questions. God, he assures us, is taking the world to a day when he will exalt himself, not to distract humanity from “what is ultimately satisfying,” but for the sake of “displaying it and inviting us into the enjoyment of it.” In short, there is no conflict between glorifying God, our joy through Jesus Christ, and God’s delight in our enjoyment of him. Bringing these things together is the ultimate goal of providence.
The third, and longest, part of Providence examines the nature and extent of the doctrine. By nature, Piper is referring to the question of how God influences what he governs. By extent, he has in mind the scope of God’s governance. Following the Bible and Edwards, Piper asserts that the world is God-entranced and that “nothing in nature happens without God’s wise and just and gracious providence.” In these chapters, marked by poetic language and an inspirational use of story, there are wide-ranging reflections on bears, the wind, and the thought of a day’s worth of un-thanked providences. Providence considers the nature and extent of God’s relationship to Satan, kings and nations, and life and death, concluding that “there is no sphere of life … where providence is suspended or limited in its ultimate or decisive dominion.”
Part Three’s largest section deals with God’s providence over sin and sinful human choices. Rather than seeing this as a topic to avoid, Piper labors to show why God’s actions are the ultimate hope for sinners and their victims. He explains, “Whatever verb I use to describe God’s relation to human choices, I always mean a kind of divine ‘seeing to it’ (providence) that never means God sins, or that man is not accountable for his choices. To be specific, God can see to it that sin happens without himself sinning or taking away the responsibility of the sinner.” In this section, like much of the volume, Piper engages the biblical text as his primary source and ultimate authority; he aims to stop where Scripture stops and acknowledges the limits of finite human minds to comprehend the mysteries still kept hidden of “how” God acts.
Yet this is not to say he operates without theological influence. The idea that God’s providence permits evil without willing it is consistent with the tradition of the early church in the works of Tertullian for one and Augustine for another, with Anselm and Aquinas carrying it forward to the Reformation era. Aquinas, leaning on Augustine, states, “God therefore neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills to permit evil to be done; and this is good.” Piper’s views of the compatibility of human freedom and God’s sovereignty follow Calvin, the Reformed confessions, and Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will.
The remaining sections address the nature and extent of providence in conversion, Christian living, and the future. While not addressing much of the modern era’s drifting theology by name, Piper’s arguments stand up well to refute the claims of deism, process theology, Protestant Liberalism, and open theism, not to mention other worldviews and world religions. Further, his admonitions toward joy- and love-filled Christian living in response to the nature and character of God serve well to address many of the questions evangelicals are asking or need to be asking. And his ten examples of the effects of knowing and loving God’s providence are a recipe for renewal among those who call themselves born-again and Bible-believing followers of Christ.
A pivotal doctrine
Piper closes with a full chapter on the hope shared by all who long for the return of Jesus Christ. This should move the reader to praise, much like the Puritan poet George Herbert at the end of his poem “Providence”:
All things that are, though they have sev’ral ways,
Yet in their being join with one advise
To honor thee: and so I give thee praise
In all my other hymns, but in this twice.
Throughout church history, the recovery and defense of the doctrine of providence has proved pivotal. From early church stability in response to heresy, to medieval certainty in response to philosophical quandaries, to Reformation comfort in response to a lack of assurance, to theological refutation in response to modern innovation and deconstruction, the doctrine of providence has served and preserved God’s people.
In our age of conflict, doubt, pessimism, and confusion, a recovery of the doctrine of providence is needed. Piper’s Providence allows readers to see God at work bringing hope and a grounding to weather the waves of cultural tumult. As Calvin wrote in the Institutes, providence provides comfort by reminding that “when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work.”
For decades, Piper has pointed to a big God of beauty and mystery, and in this big volume, he points yet again, extolling both beauty and mystery in providence for the present and future. Professor Piper, here in the Shadowlands, writes with joy of a real “other world” where God is known in full—and welcomes us all to go further up and further in.
Jason G. Duesing serves as provost and professor of historical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a coeditor of Historical Theology for the Church and the author of a new children’s book, The Moon Speaks.