Monday, October 12, 2009

John Piper has it backward

"Worship is first an identity before it's ever an activity."
~Paul David Tripp

Not quite 15 years ago, I began hearing a buzz about this Baptist pastor from Minnesota who had begun to change the way that some people were thinking about the Christian life. In fact, he was challenging the way that people thought about the first question of the
Westminster Shorter Catechism! (This was WAY before the "young, restless, Reformed" movement-- so imagine my surprise that a Baptist pastor was even AWARE of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.)

Of course, this pastor was John Piper, and he, through his writings, lectures, sermons, and other platforms, has continued to be formative in the lives of many believers-- Baptist, Presbyterian, and other identities altogether. That book that I was introduced to in the mid-90s,
Desiring God, remains one of his most popular titles and, in fact, lent its name to the ministry that spun out of his Baptist congregation and serves as the launch-pad for so many of his ministries outside of Bethlehem Baptist Church.

These days, Desiring God Ministries is huge, and Dr. Piper has become almost a celebrity in some circles. He, along with literally just a few others, have spurred a movement of the introduction of Calvinism to the hearts and minds of believers. I've known people who are convinced that Dr. Piper is the pre-eminent leader of our generation, and others who can quote from his books as others quote from the Bible. A friend of mine coined the term "Piper-Calvinist": someone who isn't exactly "Reformed" but is familiar with Dr. Piper's brand of Calvinism and embraces it. Doubtless, John Piper is a brilliant man, and an influential thinker.

But I think, on at least one substantial point, he is wrong. Or rather, backward.

Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
~Westminster Shorter Catechism, question #1

I was given a copy of
Desiring God, and I read it (and even read through it and discussed it with a good friend). The fundamental principle that drives the book-- and subsequently, so much of Dr. Piper's ministry-- is his idea of "Christian Hedonism", which he spins out of his adaptation of the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Dr. Piper's adaptation goes like this:

Answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God
by enjoying Him forever.

In other words, we seek our pleasures in God, and that is the most glorifying thing that we can do. When we find our delight in God, we are, in fact, glorifying Him.

Now, I'm not convinced that this is
wrong. I think Dr. Piper has some fair points in his angle on this (though I think that, in several places, he takes it too far in the book). I believe that the basic principle is right, and even probably biblical: it IS glorifying to God to delight in Him.

But I don't think that is what the Westminster Divines (the guys who wrote the
Westminster Shorter Catechism) meant. In fact, I think they would probably be fairly appalled at that interpretation of Question #1. And while I believe it to be a biblical assertion as one end, I don't think we find that in Scripture as man's chief end.

[An aside: To be frank, I think that the Westminster Divines would be fairly appalled, in general, at how we have venerated the
Westminster Standards (the Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms). I'm simply not convinced that they intended for that work to become a standard that some would elevate (almost) to the level of Scripture in its authority.]

This is where I think he has it backward: Dr. Piper asserts that the first part of man's chief end is dependent on the second. Thus:


I won't elaborate; if you're quite interested in how he comes to that conclusion, he develops the idea pretty thoroughly in Desiring God. As I said above, I don't think the idea of glorifying God by enjoying/delighting in Him is wrong; I just don't think it is man's chief end.

As I read Scripture, however, I see that man's chief end is precisely the inverse of Dr. Piper's assertion: the second part of man's chief end is wholly dependent on the first. Thus:


All of the Bible compels me to believe that we were made to be worshipers-- and that God intended us to find our ultimate fulfillment in the worship of Him. To "glorify God" according to Scripture is inherently tied to worship. And we cannot be truly worshiping God if we are first of all seeking our own pleasure and delight.

Instead, our identity must fundamentally become all about the worship of God. As Paul David Tripp says (see the opening quote), "worship is first an identity before it is ever an activity." When this becomes our
identity, then the consequence is that we enjoy God forever through the satisfaction of fulfilling our own identity!

This is, by our contemporary way of thinking, a convoluted manner of understanding our enjoyment of God. In part, this is because we are such individualists that we default to a "me-first" attitude-- and the notion of putting God first in our chief end is incongruent. Also in part, this is because we secretly suspect that God is not interested in what gives us enjoyment-- we believe His law to be oppressive, not freeing.

But it is largely difficult for us because it is "upside-down" to our normal way of thinking. But this is the way of the Gospel-- everything is upside-down.

The cross tells you everything you have heard in the world is wrong. Because the cross says the way up is down, the way to get real power is to give your power away, the way to get real riches is to give away your money radically and generously, the way to get tremendous self-esteem, assurance of your beauty, is to admit that you are such a terrible lost sinner that somebody had to come from heaven and die for you.
~Timothy Keller

To be perfectly fair, I believe that Dr. Piper would largely agree with much of what I've just said (though not entirely). But the way that many of his "disciples" apply his notion of "Christian Hedonism" is far afield from this way of thinking. Therfore, it may have been more accurate to label this "John Piper's disciples have it backward-- but then that wouldn't have gotten your attention as easily!

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