We had a good email exchange recently with a sharp mail-order customer, a friend working at an impressive church who was ordering a book display from us to have on consignment as they tried to sell some books to their people. She noted that they hoped the books would be "gospel-centered."
Well, of course. But does that mean, I wondered, that they wanted a general Christian perspective on the topic (it happened to be sexuality in all its human glory and sorrow) or was that phrase suggesting a bit more, perhaps serving as a bit of a code-phrase (as it is in some conservative Calvinistic churches these days.) Was any basic Christian book acceptable, or did they mean something specific, something more?
We have found that for some the phrase "Gospel-centered" does imply more than just a general, Biblical perspective, but one that particularly holds up the facts of the atonement, the way exalting the cross of Christ is the key not only to our salvation, but how we are to mature and grow and find some measure of sanity amidst the "idol-making factory" that is the human heart. Any issue of spiritual growth can be answered by affirming our being freely adopted and given Christ's pledges of promise. Beyond God's acceptance of us through the atonement made by Christ, our growth happens as we appropriate the same gospel truths. God saves us, God sanctifies us. The gospel is the answer. That take on gospel transformation is heard in books like Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges (NavPress) or In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life by Sinclair Ferguson (Reformation Trust) or the several good books coming from New Growth Press. There is, in fact, a popular 9 session small group curriculum created by World Harvest Mission called Gospel-Centered Life and we stock the Leaders Guide and the Participants Guides to help mentor disciples into these amazingly useful foundational concepts. We also stock the study book by Tim Chester & Steve Timmis (from Good Books in England) that interestingly carries the same title (Gospel-Centered Life: Becoming the Person God Wants You To Be) and works out the same grace-based theme, a resource we recommend. These books insist that the very good news of Christ's atoning mercy is the power to grant us saving faith and also is the power to form us into effective agents of God's Kingdom. This is more than just a basic Christian perspective on a topic, but a vision to apply God's own righteousness as seen in the atonement to the details of our lives. God's grace is always the answer; God at work in us to shape us into the image of Christ. Mercy. Grace. It is an angle on discipleship that resonates with Luther's famous dictum that we must "preach the gospel" to ourselves, at least.
It is this Christ-exalting, gospel-centered, God-glorifying vision that undergirds the preaching and writing of John Piper, perhaps the most important and popular Reformed evangelical leader today. Piper's books are many but his theme relentlessly focused. Influenced by C.S. Lewis and a particular sermon of Jonathan Edwards ("The End to Which God Made the World") Piper over and over (and over) calls us to find God and Christ's gospel as the great treasure upon which we stake our lives and in which we find our highest joy. He made a name for himself by his thick book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Multnomah) making a case for "Christian hedonism" by which he means that we find our greatest joy by making much of God. ("God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him" he says, a phrase I think which is well worth pondering.) The basic message of that complex book was released in a pocket sized hardback entitled The Dangerous Duty of Delight: The Glorification of God and the Satisfied Soul (Multnomah.) Jesus said we are to find ourselves by losing ourselves for His sake, after all, and Piper makes a lot of sense telling sinners such as we that we are in worse shape than we admit and God's grace offers so much more than we could expect. This singular passion to exalt Christ can propel us to do great things. "Let goods and kindred go" the famous hymn says. Piper's call is a dangerous and passionate one, suggesting great risk and sacrifice (he renounces greed and the American dream more than any other conservative evangelical leader.) His inner city church in Minneapolis continues to thrive as a church that stands for this one thing: we are never happier than when God is glorified in us. He is the most insistent voice for a "gospel-centered" worldview than any writer today.
The brand new hardback Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian is, to explain it simply, a quintessentially Piper-esque, gospel-centered view of racial injustice and how the gospel itself can bring about ethnic and racial reconciliation. On several levels and for several reasons I think it is one of the most important books of the year. It may be one of the most significant books Piper has written. It is a book that I hope our more liberally-minded progressive customers who care about social change and racial justice will read and I hope it is a book that our more theologically and socially conservative customers who love inspiring Bible study will also read. It is not the last word on this subject, but his passion and clarity and balance and wisdom make it a very, very useful resource for churches of all sorts. Nearly anyone will find something in it to inform or inspire or shape them. Nearly everyone will find something off-putting or stretching. Nearly everyone will be touched and impressed and some will roll their eyes at a few things. Hey, this is what makes for a great read. You'll want to underline and mark it up and interact with it too.
There are a few of us who think that Piper is sometimes more repetitive than he has to be. Yet, the preacherly gospel-centered lines he repeats bring me great joy, so I don't really mind: to be reminded that we do whatever we do (in this case, working for racial healing and justice) motivated by grace and in order to exalt Christ, to honor Him, to help establish His glory in the world, that we can do little on our own but that in His Holy Spirited power we have much to hope for, well, that keeps this old luke-warm heart glowing a bit more than it might if the writing were less preachy or more subdued. Or if he took for granted that, well, this is an evangelical Christian book and we can just presume all that Pauline truth about atonement and justification and such.
Look: I know that there are other tones and vocabularies and ways of getting this all said, but I do appreciate Piper's mantras; few authors underscore the things he does in the way he does, and it does us good. These texts and themes preach well. I need to be reminded and I suspect you maybe do too. If it isn't your style of religious discourse, I dare you to try it out anyway. If you wish for some other Biblical soundings and theological tones, fine. At the very least, it will remind you of a ton of Bible verses since he cites so darn many. I commend it especially to my mainline friends, even if we don't always name all this stuff in our typical Sunday sermons or push to the front these particular texts and teachings or describe their influence in quite the way he does. On one hand that is what makes this such a very interesting, passionate book. Get ready to scribble in it a bit. But know this: it is serious business.
Interestingly, Piper seems particularly remorseful about his complicity in racial segregation in the 60's in his hometown of Greenville South Carolina, growing up just a few miles from Jesse Jackson. He will soon release an on-line 20 minutes video documenting this and you can see a short trailer for it here. His mother, a Yankee Baptist from Pennsylvania, was the only vote to oppose a resolution passed in his boyhood church forbidding blacks from attending (his father was out of town during the vote.) At the wedding of her daughter, John's sister, she personally walked the family of their black cleaning lady, Lucy, down the isle of the church (when the ushers were perplexed what to do.) He writes that his Godly mother washed his mouth out with soap once for telling a sibling to 'shut up.' "She would have washed by mouth out with gasoline if she knew how foul my mouth was racially when she was not around," he writes. The passage almost moved me to tears.
I have lived in an rough urban neighborhood, worked in numerous racial reconciliation projects, attended rallies against the Klan and done other such work with mostly mainline denominational church folk (or progressive secular activists working on housing or human relations laws and such) and have conversed with people who knew Dr. King. Yet, I have never heard anybody name their own racial shame as Piper does. His understanding of the supreme holiness of God causes him to take his sins, such as they were, seriously. (I have for years read other pietistic authors who write about sin and holiness and never has anyone shared anything like Piper does here.) His glorying in the full gospel, including the liberating reality of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us, gives him the basis for a profound antidote to this sickness of soul. I think of another racist whose perverse chains fell free, John Newton; "amazing grace" indeed!
Piper has other reasons to care about this perplexing issue. He and his wife adopted an African American child when he was 50 years old so these concerns are very intimate to him. I have heard him speak of her before and I can't imagine how seeing what he has surely seen as she grows up has broken his heart and strengthened his resolve. As I said, his Bethlehem Baptist church is in a poor and racially diverse neighborhood. He has homeless and mentally ill people in his church and he and his wife and sons are racial minorities in the primarily African American neighborhood in which they has lived for well over 30 years. Considering his experience with global missionary work, he has friends from every continent, I am sure, and has had more cross-cultural experiences than most pastors I know.
Yes, he is cross-culturally experienced and has a profound heart for ethnic diversity. But, mostly, he is a blood-bought Baptist preacher who teaches the five points of Calvinism routinely from his pulpit, convinced that serious historic Protestant theology is the foundation for personal growth and wholeness among his flock. Some think that---as I wonder myself--he obsesses too much with the fine points of justification theory and is limiting the vision of his people by an overstatement of these good things. Although he has written on vocation, on marriage, on suffering, on fasting, on missions, he regularly brings a Pauline tone. Everything else is rubbish except knowing Christ and Him crucified. Over and over. With long sentences with lots of hyphens---"Christ-exalting, God-glorifying, Bible-saturated, justice-pursuing..." is just one hopped-up example. I love those truths, (and the hypens, for that matter) but is it healthy to sound like a dogmatic, broken record? To some it just feels like bombast, I suppose, but I don't mind it so much.
And then he does a book like this, with moments of personal tenderness and remorse and this huge concern for social justice and once again I'm reassured that Rev. Piper's longing is to honor God not just by proclaiming these truths so forcefully over and over but by showing them, by doing it, by loving the world well. If he can lead a church that has set goals about racial diversity and reached some of them by teaching the details of Calvinism and doing detailed Bible exposition, well, the proof is in the pudding, is it not? We should rejoice in Piper's desire to honor God and nurture glad, obedient disciples, and affirm that it seems to be bearing fruit of sacrifice and service, mission, care for the poor, and sustained attention to this major, complex matter of ethnic diversity. There is a whole chapter about what his church is trying to do and it is candid, instructive and inspiring. Piper is correct that liberal concern about rights or over-reacting white guilt or well-intended sentimental desires to be diverse are not adequate to uproot the evils of personal and institutional racism. What is needed is a gospel-centered approach and in Bloodlines, we have it, clear as a bell. Racism is rooted in sinful hearts and embedded in our culture and society as idolatry and institutional injustice so only a Risen Lord who "disarmed the powers" is able to solve the vastness of the problem.
This doctrinal, Reformed, gospel-driven emphasis is Piper's great contribution to this large field of faith-based books about being anti-racist congregations.
Who else gives us a chapter entitled "Dying With Christ for the Sake of Christ-exalting Diversity" or "The Creation of One New Humanity By the Blood of Christ"? Or sentences like this: "The doctrine of unconditional election severs the deepest root of all racism and ethnocentrism."
Or this, rumination on Paul's rebuke of Peter when Peter backed offered eating meals with those who were considered suspect (Galatians 2:11-13):
What is clear is that Paul's response to Peter's unwillingness to eat with those who were ethnically different took him straight to the gospel. There was no sentimental talk about how hurtful it is when you snub someone. That's true. It is hurtful. But Paul didn't go there. He had something much deeper and more serious to do. The remedy for Peter's fear and his hypocrisy was to see more clearly and love more dearly and follow more nearly the gospel.As is often the case, the pastoral answer, as Piper sees it, and apparently as Paul saw it here, is to "fall in love again with the gospel." In part because, Piper warns,
The implication of this for our day, among other things, is that any kind of racially or ethnically based exclusion will send the wrong message about the basis of our acceptance with God. It will subtly suggest that something about our race or our ethnicity or our works or our natural distinctives is the means of our justification. But if faith in Christ alone is that means, then Christ becomes the sole foundation of our justification, and everyone who trusts him is on the same footing of acceptance with God.From another place and time (South Africa a decade or more ago) written from a somewhat different theological tradition, came the Belhar Declaration, that said something similar. Racism is wrong because it is idolatry.
Yes, Piper cares deeply about race and racism and he offers hints throughout the book that indicate that this is a topic very, very close to this heart. As I've said, he is soon releasing an on-line video documentary about his journey to his boyhood home, so maybe that is part of it. He tells of a few other decisive moments in the book. But he cares about theological integrity and his preaching of the gospel even more. He goes to great lengths to show why this is so, and why it must be (and why it is finally the most pragmatic, effective strategy, after all.) I think he is right about that. Others, smarter than I, have agreed. (Tim Keller, for instance, wrote a very glowing introduction, encouraging folks to learn from Piper.)
So, Bloodlines by John Piper is different than, but stands alongside, great resources which we've stocked for years. It supplements excellent, urgent books like More Than Equals by Chris Rice and Spencer Perkins (IVP), Free at Last by Carl Ellis (IVP), Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church by Soong-Chan Rah (Moody), Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson, Christian Smith et al (Oxford University Press.) I love Native American Randy Woodley who wrote the very useful, deeply gracious, Living in Color: God's Passion for Ethnic Diversity (IVP.) How about the splendid book by Tony Campolo & Michael Battle, The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality of Racial Reconciliation (Judson)? And of course there are the many books of John Perkins---if you haven't read at least one of his, you are missing out. His first one was reissued a few years ago, his own story called Let Justice Roll Down (Regal) although the one he wrote recently with Charles Marsh called Welcoming Justice: God's Movement Toward Beloved Community (IVP) is so rich I would put it near the top of any reading list.
Do you know the very insightful sociological study Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum? Or the heavy anti-racism classic recently updated and reissued by Joseph Barndt, Becoming the Anti-Racist Church: Journey Toward Wholeness (Fortress)? I really appreciate the neo-Calvinist worldviewish perspective of foreign language scholar David Smith who wrote Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity (Eerdmans) as it brings a somewhat scholarly, hospitable bit of research to the conversation. Even more scholarly is the extraordinary and highly reviewed (if dense) work The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings that came out last year on Yale University Press. More practically, I hope every church leader or youth worker, especially, has practical educational resources like Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ To Engage Our Multicultural World by David Livermore (Baker), or the practical books on increasing and navigating congregational diversity by Manuel Ortiz (IVP.) Do you know the progressive theologian and Episcopalian church diversity trainer, Eric Law? Or the books by Curtis DeYoung? Or Brenda Salter McNeil? Howard Thurman? Cornel West? None of these standards, though, do quite what Piper does with quite the guts and theological gusto.
Here are 10 things that are strong about Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian and reasons why it is distinctive and important. â€¨
1. It is very clear in helpfully defining terms. Piper has obviously thought carefully and read widely and offers some helpful information about what we mean by race, what ethnicity means, and how sociologists and anthropologists have pondered these things. (And did I mention he brings a gospel-based, Biblically-intense approach to this, with Bible stories and Greek exegesis on every other page?) This is basic, but good.
2. Piper describes two main schools of thought regarding how to move forward on racial issues in the "post civil rights" era in which we now find ourselves. He explains each view, affirming aspects of those who think that individual blacks must take responsibility for their own choices to overcome attitudes of dependency and entitlement even as he also affirms some of those who think that institutional, structural policy and cultural changes must be pressed as the first order of business. He reviews representative voices, drawing on Bill Cosby, Shelby Steele and Juan Williams for the former and Michael Dyson, especially, for the latter. It is very important to follow this conversation and I think that Piper gets it pretty right, reminding us all that the best approach is "both/and" and that the gospel can transform personal hearts and lives as well as social structures and institutional dysfunctions. I would have appreciated some Piper-esque insight about the work of Cornel West, and a bit more about the whole business of white privilege (which he does address in one very moving section, and again in a powerful excerpt from Shelby Steele.) Still, Piper covers this basic debate with clarity and kindness (which is, frankly, more than we get in most books on this topic, that seem ideologically driven from the right or the left.)
3. He does what he does--as I've explained above--by literally linking the solas of the 16th century Reformation and the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) to the demolishing of racism. He confesses the ways in which those who most often talked about these glorious Reformed views of the sovereignty of God and the majesty of Christ failed to apply these theological concepts to this topic. Then he shows how we might advance that project: unleashing these basic doctrines would be explosive, even over Satan and his deforming influences, precisely regarding this area of racial pride. Whether you are a Calvinist or not, this is good, good, stuff, and is a fine example of how a preacher, hanging out on basic Bible texts and standard doctrinal truths, can connect dots with the needs of the world. Connect Word and world, we often say. Piper shows us how he does it and it is instructive.
(I name this as one of the great strengths of Bloodlines and it is. BookNotes readers who are well read and engaged on social issues should take it up and see if this approach is helpful. However, I am truly hopeful that those who are most punctilious about their doctrinal purity--who mostly respect Piper I'd think---would take him up. When he talks about the end of Luke 4 and Jesus' surprising, controversial invitation for non-Jews to get in on His Kingdom grace, it is radical stuff. May the truly Reformed take notice that one of their own most reliable preachers is relating doctrine to life in this inclusive, subversive way.)
4. Piper reminds us over and over why it is easy to get fired up about this issue for a while but, with little headway and maybe with too-thin skins, we get discouraged and back off. We move on to other causes. He reminds us why that isn't an option. He pushes us onward, calls us to gospel fidelity, encourages us to keep at it over the long haul. With great gospel hope he inspires us to dream big dreams and yet also seems rather ordinary about it all. He never overstates the problem and never uses guilt to motivate anyone. God bless him. He wants ordinary folks to be moving forward, faithfully, in God's gracious mercy, step by step. You can do this. And you should.
5. In a handful of pages he wonderfully re-tells the story of William Wilberforce. He has written about Wilberforce before (in The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce and the Wilby chapter of that book was published as a small paperback as Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce, both published by Crossway.) It is obvious how much Piper admires him and his tenacious anti-slavery campaign. He points out that Wilberforce published just one book in his illustrious career and it was a book about how culture might be changed, and how nominal church members could become alive, if they were to trust in Christ's saving work. Although pitched as a book of basic Christian discipleship, it was also a book about the need for good doctrine. Linking justification and social justice is the theme of Tim Keller's recent Generous Justice, of course, but Wilby beat him to it in the 1797 book, still in print today, now known as A Practical View of Christianity (Hendrickson.)
6. There is a chapter on interracial marriage, which Piper sees as a blessing. It may be a hardship, but, as in other things, Christians can trust that God will use hardship in their lives to bring greater glory to Himself and advance His Kingdom. It is interesting, especially given Piper's socially conservative social setting that he is as bold about this as he is. He wrote a paper about this under Lewis Smedes when he was a student at Fuller in the early 70s and he's been promoting the topic ever since. It is a rare chapter, deeply pastoral, and very interesting. He makes a passing reference to trans-cultural adoptions, and this chapter might be of interest for those involved in that experience as well.
7. There is a short exegetical appendix about the often (mis)used passage about Noah's "curse of Ham" in Genesis 9:25. Of course, the text itself may not be a prophetic judgement from God, but just a weary curse of old Noah. Even if it does carry the weight of a Divine judgement, the curse went to Ham's son Canaan (as in the Canaanites, not dark-skinned people) not to his other offspring whose names are, in fact, connected to Africa. (Cush, as most of us know, is most likely modern-day Ethiopia; Put's descendants are Northern African Libyans.) It is a brief study, but one worth having at your disposal if you ever hear anyone spouting this nonsense that God judged blacks via Noah's curse upon Ham.
8. Chapter 3 of Bloodlines is called "Global Shifting and the Future Face of the Church." If you haven't read the important work on this by Philip Jenkins or Soong-Chan Rah, he cites them both and it is a good introduction to the global church, useful, too, to frame our peculiar racial burdens in the US by these larger shifts toward non-Western, multi-cultural churches in our lifetime.
9. He tells of the influence of brother Carl Ellis' very influential work Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience (IVP) cites it several times, and explains why he is noticeably moved by it. Those of us that have met Ellis and read his book understand just how important it is. It is fantastic to hear Piper speak of it with such appreciation, even the bit about how historic black preachers bring a "jazz" style in contrast to the more "classical" approach of most white preachers. And Piper eagerly concedes this to him. Right on.
10. John Piper offers a great service in highlighting many Scriptural verses that prove that God delights in drawing diverse ethnicities together, that Christ's gospel bridges the dividing walls, that folk from "every tribe and nation" will gather together in the end to praise the God of all creation. Many of us know these things. It does us well to notice them again. We need not always prooftext our deepest convictions but we do need to know what the Bible says about God's desire for racial diversity and how Christ unites all manner of folk at His cross. Piper has a good eye for this. He believes it deeply. Bloodlines is a helpful resource you will want to draw on in ongoing conversations. These issues are not going to go away. I hope you have tools for the fight ahead. This is not the only one you need, but it is a good one in naming so many simple phrases from the Bible that point us to the fact that God loves racial diversity.
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