Book Review: Providence, by John Piper
John Piper. Providence. Crossway, 2021. 711 pages.
20 years ago, I sat on a field outside Memphis, Tennessee with 40,000 other college students listening to John Piper preach for the first time. He was there as part of One Day 2000, a large gathering organized by Passion. He preached a message on Galatians 6:14 called “Boasting Only in the Cross.” Little did I know how God would use that message to embolden a generation of students not to “waste their life.”
After that windy spring day at Shelby Farm, I began reading everything I could get my hands on from John Piper. Reading Piper’s magnum opus, Providence, at this point in my life—as a 40-year old husband of nearly two-decades, raising young children, and pastoring a local church—has been a particular joy. This book not only encapsulates what Piper’s writing and preaching has meant in my own life and ministry, the timing of the book prepares us for future trials on the cusp of a new decade.
A WELL-TIMED BOOK
Last year (2020) has been a year of uncertainty. A worldwide pandemic, cultural polarization, a divisive election, racial injustice, hurricanes and wildfires, and economic upheaval are just some of the “thorns and thistles” we have met navigating this fallen world this past year.
Yet, how kind of God, that on the cusp of a new year (and decade) we would be given a book that unpacks the paradigm-shaping, heart-stirring biblical panorama of God’s purposeful sovereignty. This book, perhaps like no other Piper has written over the course of 40 years, feels tailored to the needs of the church and the world in this moment.
Piper is always at his best in helping us to see and savor the glory of our God. In this book, he surveys the biblical landscape of God’s providential involvement in our world. His stated goal is clear: to invite us into “a world of counterintuitive wonders,” penetrating beyond mere words into the very reality of a God-entranced world designed to help us know him better. He writes, “I am inviting you to know, maybe as you have never known, the God whose involvement in his children’s lives and in the world is so pervasive, so all-embracing, and so powerful that nothing can befall them but what he designed for their glorification in him and his glorification in them” (22).
In God’s kind providence, this book has arrived at a time in our lives where many have felt that our world is spinning out of control. Yet, far from being “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” or even the results of mechanistic impersonality, this world, according to Piper, is “not a machine that God made to run on its own. It is a painting, or a sculpture or a drama. The Son of God holds it in being by the word of his power (Col. 1:17; Heb 1:3).”
A BIBLICALLY-COMPREHENSIVE BOOK
After defining “providence” in Part 1—a concept he describes as “purposeful sovereignty”— the bulk of the book is an examination of the goal, nature and extent of God’s providence in the world, as revealed in the Bible.
- By goal, Piper answers the question: “What ultimate goal guides everything?”
- By nature, Piper answers the question: “What means does God use to accomplish His ultimate goal?”
- By extent, Piper answers the question: “How comprehensive is God’s sovereignty? How far does it extend?”
The Goal of Providence
About 1/3 of the book is taken up with the theme of the goal of God’s providence. While acknowledging the millions (understatement) of inscrutable goals God is working out in the world, the ultimate goal that guides all his sovereign activity is the display of his glory in the joy of his redeemed people. Working within the framework of biblical theology, Piper surveys this ultimate goal of God through the panorama of God’s work before and in creation, through the history of Israel, and in the New Covenant.
The Nature and Extent of Providence
The remaining 2/3 of the book explores God’s providence through the lens of systematic theology. He moves through various topics, highlighting God’s purposeful sovereignty over nature, Satan and demons, kings and nations, and life and death. He also zeros in on some of the practical implications for the Christian life as he looks into God’s providence over sin, conversion, and Christian living. The book concludes in the new heavens and new earth, where God’s ultimate goal is finally realized. He concludes with ten practical ways the providence of God should be “seen and savored.”
A LIFE-CHANGING BOOK
As I read this book, I returned in my mind to that May afternoon 20 years ago where I was confronted with the grandeur and greatness of God’s grace through John Piper on that field in Memphis. Like much of Piper’s work, this book should be savored, not just read. This makes its intimidating 700 pages realistic for even the slower reader. A few pages a day over the course of 2021 would grant, with each new day, a fresh reminder that “neither Satan at his hellish worst or human beings at their best ever act in a way that causes a revision in God’s all-wise plan” (691–692).
The vision of God in these pages is (to use some hyphenated Piperisms) hope-giving, pride-humbling, and mind-stretching. If this serves as Piper’s final theological opus (and here’s hoping it isn’t), it will be a fitting summation of the God-entranced vision of life and ministry that he has given to the church for the last four decades.
I’m glad God providentially led him to write it and those who read it will be the providential beneficiaries.