Book Review: Finally Alive, by John Piper
The last time I visited my hometown, I received a history lesson from an old family friend at the dinner table. She told us how two churches in our town had multiplied into six over the past fifty years. That might sound like a pretty impressive church planting strategy for a town of 2,000 people, at least until you discover that all this “growth” was due to a number of church-splits. The splits were the result of bitter feuds between families, a stubborn refusal to forgive, and quarrels exploding well beyond the walls of the church.
As I listened to this wise and godly woman rehearse a sad history, it was clear that the pain of those experiences ran deep. She was not angry or bitter, but she was bewildered by how people who claim to bear the name of Christ could be so nasty to each other.
If I could go back in time to ask the church leaders and others involved in these church splits, “Are you born again?” my guess is they’d answer, “Of course!” But is this the way “born again” people treat each other?
Didn’t Jesus say that the way that the world would know we are his disciples is by how we love each other (John 13:34-35)? What then does it mean to be born again? What difference does it make for an individual Christian? For a church?
In his 192-page book Finally Alive, John Piper sets out to answer those questions as a careful theologian and experienced pastor. In many respects, the book is one I’d recommend for anyonewho claims to follow Christ. But what I’d like to do here is to think specifically about how this can be a helpful book for pastors and church leaders.
WHY CHURCH LEADERS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK
I may not be able to go back in time to talk to those church leaders from my hometown, but if I could, I might send them the following letter with a copy of Finally Alive:
Dear Church Leader,
I’m sorry to hear about the challenges you’re facing right now. Caring for the church of God is not something for the faint of heart, but it is without a doubt an amazing privilege! I’ve included a book with this letter that I hope you’ll take the time to carefully read in light of the difficulties your church is facing.
If you’re like me when facing a problem, it’s easy to focus first on circumstances rather than theology. You’ll notice the book I’ve sent you is not a practical “how-to” guide but rather a book focusing on the theological idea of being born again. Why might this be a useful resource for you and your church right now?
It explains what the new birth is and why it’s necessary.
Piper explains, “Most people do not know what is really wrong with them. One way to help them make a true and terrible and hopeful diagnosis is to show them the kind of remedy God has provided, namely the new birth” (20). Jesus didn’t say we needed a little moral tidying up. He said, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” He provides a radical remedy for a radical problem.
Teaching our churches the biblical truth of the new birth motivates us to let go of petty differences because we see the real problem more clearly. It also humbles us because we’re reminded that, apart from the mercy of God, his wrath would remain on us (John 3:36). I pray that considering these truths would move you and your congregation to be humble, forgiving, and united.
It helps clarify what a Christian is.
Jesus is no fan of hypocrisy. That’s why he called the religious leaders “serpents” and a “brood of vipers” when they lied about God with their hypocrisy. What characterizes a true Christian, as opposed to a hypocrite? In chapters 10 to 13, Piper looks at John’s first epistle to show that a Christian loves others, obeys God, and believes the truth about Jesus. We’ll do none of these things perfectly this side of heaven, but all of them are necessary characteristics of one who is born again. A Christian loves Jesus more than his or her sin. When a Christian is confronted about sin, he or she doesn’t stubbornly hold on to it, he or she repents.
A biblical understanding of the new birth demands that we first examine ourselves as leaders, then encourage our congregation to do the same. Piper follows the Bible’s example in calling those who bear the name of Christ to either follow him faithfully or stop pretending and dragging his name through the mud.
That might seem harsh or unloving, but just the opposite is true. If we see a friend in danger, we warn them because we love them. Better is open rebuke than hidden love (Prov. 27:5).
It models how to lead with love and truth.
The new birth can be unsettling. It confronts us with our dire condition and our inability to fix things on our own. But as you read the book (and I hope you do) you’ll be led by a wise pastor who sets a good example for us to follow. He writes, “I do not want to cause tender souls any unnecessary distress. And I do not want to give false hope to those who have confused morality or religion for spiritual life” (27).
Let him guide you in his example of warning and encouraging. But also, follow his example of depending on God. When we see the truth about the new birth, it shapes the way we preach, pray, counsel, and lead others because we realize we are dependent on him to do the work.
I pray God would use the truth about the new birth to give your congregation the humility, love, and unity that brings honor to his name. I pray he gives new birth to any among your congregation who are still dead in sin. And I pray that as you read this book, you will be encouraged, strengthened, and awed by the God who gives new life and grows churches in unity and love.