John Piper, Christian Focus, 2009, 203 pages, 4 of 5 stars
Pastor, author, and theologian John Piper lucidly unpacks the doctrine of regeneration in Finally Alive. But after so many top-sellers, why pen a work on the new birth? He illustrates. The Christian research firm, Barna, suggests born-again Christians are just as likely to divorce as non-Christians. Piper finds the equation of church-going evangelicals with regenerated Christians a profound mistake and defamation to the term born again. The rest of the book is to show why.
Piper writes to illustrate the radical change rebirth makes in the life of a sinner (viz. 1 Jn. 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:4, 5:18). What brings the sinner is what will keep the sinner. Scriptural preaching? Yes. Miracles? No. “This is one of the great dangers of signs and wonders: You don’t need a new heart to be amazed at them. The old, fallen human nature is all that’s needed to be amazed….” (30).
“Whether the conversion experience is emotional (like Augustine) or sober (like C.S. Lewis), the born-again Christian (an acknowledged redundancy) will live differently.
Summary and Strengths
Though Finally Alive is divided into five sections, 90% of it is a commentary on John 3 and the book of First John. I appreciated his interpretation of the must disputed “born of water and the Spirit” passage in John 3:5. He gives four reasons why water is not referring to baptism but instead to one of two aspect of the new birth in Ezekiel 36: cleansing of the old (“water”) and creation of the new (“spirit”).
I wish he had delved a bit into the other views of water. I spoke to a pastor recently who believes adamantly “water” is referring to physical birth. The strength of this view appears to be the context, since Nicodemus had just spoken about physical birth in v. 4. It actually goes against the context, however, because Jesus in v. 5 is correcting Nicodemus, not building on his misunderstanding. He was a renowned teacher and he still missed it (v. 10). Piper didn’t touch on this but should have to strengthen his own argument.
Piper practices what he preaches. He encourages pastors to query the text and does this better than any author I know. By the score, he asks questions and then answers them. For example, he asks what “ought” means in 1 John 4:11 (“we ought also to love one another”). He writes: “When [John] says, ‘We ought to love each other,’ he means ought in the way that fish ought to swim in water and birds ought to fly in the air and living creatures ought to breathe and peaches ought to be sweet and lemons ought to be sour and hyenas ought to laugh. And born-again people ought to love. It’s who we are.” (156) What a great model for preachers and authors.
Finally, the book is practical with lists like “Ten Encouragements for Gospel-telling”, “Ten Explanations of Our Condition Apart from the New Birth (48-59, and a great section for your unbelieving neighbor to read) and “Eleven Evidences of Being Born Again” from 1 John (which he summarizes with wit: “No perfection; no defection”).
Yes, Piper is relevant, but not by what feels good but what is good. “I want to say things that are really significant for your life whether you know they are or not. My way of doing that is to stay as close as I can to what God says is important in his word, not what we think is important apart from God’s word.” (100)
Piper proves that writing a book line by line through Scripture can be enthralling and practical. Read him for exegesis. Read him for practicality. One example is his comment on 1 John 5:1, a welcome voice in light of Muhammad Ali’s recent death. “If you don’t love God, you can’t do anybody any ultimate good. You can feed them and clothe them and house them and keep them comfortable while they perish.” (135)