Book Review: Spectacular Sins

I just finished reading the book Spectacular Sins by John Piper and while I’m not quite sure that I share the same perspective and point of view as JP, I did enjoy the book. I was in agreement with the ultimate consensus and bottom-line conclusion of Spectacular Sins, but did (and presently do not) not follow the same path to arrive at those conclusions. If you are not familiar with the book, I’ve probably got your specsins_bcoverappetite whetted by now wondering what in the world I’m referring to.

The basic premise of the book is that God Almighty is the power and authority behind the greatest and most spectacular sins in the history of all Creation; I mention all Creation because Piper includes the Rebellion and Fall of Satan as one of these “spectacular sins.” The book is meant to reveal and highlight the extent and magnitude of God’s sovereignty over all things trying to convince the reader that God has planned and orchestrated all the events (including acts of sin) for the express purpose of bringing more glory to himself through the person of Jesus Christ. Hopefully, I am not oversimplifying or misrepresenting the substance of Spectacular Sins.

I said that I did not follow or agree with the line of reasoning that JP put forth to explain his position. In the next paragraphs I will endeavor to share the points that I view differently; however, one of the foundational passages of scripture that Piper uses for this thesis is from Colossians 1:15-20 with an emphasis on Colossians 1:16 “For by him all things were created…all things were created through him and for him.” This is worth remembering, and JP qualifies later that all things were created for him and by him yet scripture does not say they were created evil; he goes on to support this position by quoting from Jude 6 “…angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling.” Piper says; “They were created good, and they rebelled against God.” (p.35) So far, I’m tracking well and in full agreement with the Piper Premise.

Chapter Three is titled “The Fall of Satan and the Victory of Christ,” and was an interesting read. For the most part I continued to track in agreement with the line of reasoning and the defense that JP was building for this thesis. Several pages into chapter three (pp.44-46), Piper puts forth an explanation that there are different types of authority that God exercises; one type of authority is in his written law, such as the Ten Commandments. This, Piper explains, is decisive authority. The other type of authority he defines as absolute, effective authority and he gives the example of Jesus commanding unclean spirits and them submitting to his will and command. Once more, although I had not considered the differentiation between God’s authority, it makes sense and I find no reason to think this would be otherwise…especially since scripture seems to support it without conflict or contradiction. I’m still tracking.  JP closes this chapter with a great list and reminder for how the Christian should respond (as well as not respond) when confronted with evil. I don’t want to run into copyright issues with a full posting of this list, but will say it is an excellent reminder and worth reading the book for. (pp.50-51)

As good as the Christian Response to Evil is (mentioned just a moment ago), the subtitled paragraphs in “The God Who is There” is awesome…a simply brilliant and classic monologue from John Piper (found on pp. 56-57). In fact, with the exception of a couple of points, most of chapter five is a great discourse (thorough and concise) on the topic of original sin. One exception, and where I began to jump the track of JP’s “train of thought,” came on pg.59. Piper writes; “Saving grace was the plan that made sin necessary.” I don’t think I can fall into agreement with this statement.  I don’t believe sin was necessary in the sense that Piper conveys it. I think that maybe it is better understood (in my mind), by grace being the necessary instrument to right sin…as opposed to “saving grace being the plan that made sin necessary.” Maybe it is my Wesleyan-Armenian belief system and position of believing in the creation of man with a free-will that creates the difficulty in understanding Piper’s thought process, but I think God permitted sin through the gift and creation of man (Adam) with free-will and grace brings Him glory in its redeeming work on sin and ultimate reconciliation-restoration of man in and through the work of Jesus Christ. Ok, so I’m still tracking and enjoying the great explanation with its wonderful points, but I differ on sin being necessary for there to be a show of (or demonstration of) grace…at least in the way I understood it being explained.

Time for a couple of great quotes:

P66“What is your own root sin and what does God think of it?” “What has He done to rescue you from it?”

P67“The human condition is just like Adam and Eve. We will decide for ourselves what is best.”

Piper opens with the archetypal illustration of God’s sovereignty at work in chapter six and the story of Joseph from the Genesis account. We (generalization coming) are too quick, in most circumstances, to see things (situations and personal difficulties) from our own myopic positions rather than weigh them in the balance of the “big picture.” JP gives a perfect illustration and reminder of this big picture on pg.77 in a brief paragraph subtitled “God’s People Enter through Many Afflictions.” Another great example and reminder of God’s sovereignty in the middle of man’s sin comes in the form of “God’s invisible Hand at work” on pg.78. Once more, this is something I can wrap my mind around and find agreement with. I might not be able to fully comprehend how God can work in the middle of man’s rebellion and sin to effect His purposes and will, but I can see (through scripture) that He does. I’m not sure that God wills the actions of men to sin in order to effect His plan though. I’m unable to track with this…

Up to this account (the life of Joseph), Piper has been building the case for his thesis, following the points of God’s big picture (p.77) and His Invisible Hand at Work (pg.78), JP begins to zero in on his thesis conclusion (which I believe or understand to be that God is the Author and Orchestrator behind every action of man…even sin…in order to bring ultimate glory to Himself through Jesus Christ).  Pages 80 and 81 invite the reader to entertain “Two Biblical Descriptions” of how the people of Israel arrived in Egypt (still considering the story of Joseph). The two descriptions that Piper recounts are the famine, which led the brothers to Egypt, and the murderous plot against Joseph by the brothers. Piper describes his thoughts in detail on these pages, but he summarizes them in this statement on p.81:

“The brothers meant the sale of Joseph for evil, but God meant it for good. Notice it does not say that used their evil for good after they meant it for evil. It says that in the very act of evil, there were two different designs: In the sinful act they were designing evil, and in the same sinful act, God was designing good.”

Piper goes on to further qualify this distinction by calling it “saving sin.” It is incredibly difficult for me to reach this rationalization; it seems more like some exercise in semantics to justify something we cannot fully comprehend. I mean, if I consider the implications of such a position, it leads me to the question; “is it simply heart motive that determines whether an act qualifies as sin?” I cannot agree that God simply foresees events and plans or plots around them. I think we have ample evidence that He allows the free-will of man (and their sinful nature) to act within the context of creation. Man is allowed to rebel and act in sin against God. Satan is allowed to rebel against God…on his own accord. I do not think Satan or mankind are puppets and pawns regardless of the big picture and master plan; the very thought of this course of thinking strikes against the nature of God to my understanding. I think a more plausible (even if indefensible) explanation is found in the scenario of God, with foreknowledge, allowing man to act against His perfect will and still working His sovereign providence in the midst of those acts of rebellion and ultimately to His supreme glory through the work of Jesus. Piper continues his line of thinking in chapter seven (pg.87) and presupposes that every sin was planned by God for good while man’s execution of it was evil and wicked. Maybe I am oversimplifying what he (JP) writes, but it is the way I am understanding him. I don’t know that I can find any way to agree with this. It seems like the entire argument is a stretch to validate God’s ultimate sovereignty. I don’t think such a stretch is necessary; what if God simply redeems our sinful actions by turning them to good? Does He necessarily have to have been the author of them in order to be sovereign? This is the critical difference I have with the Calvinist position. I think God can be sovereign and man can exercise free-will without impugning God’s sovereignty.

Final thoughts: I like the book. I like my theology being challenged. I love John Piper, and his theology…I just disagree with some of his positions and I don’t think his or my position is worth arguing over. I’m as secure and at peace with my salvation and calling as is he…I’m sure. A couple final quotes I think are worth sharing on an endnote follow:

A reason for this book showcasing the sovereignty of God; “that they would have a profoundly practical effect in making you strong in the face of breath-stopping sorrows and making you bold for Christ in the face of dangerous opposition…” (pg.97)

P99-100“Satan does not take innocent people captive. There are no innocent people. Satan has power where sinful passions hold sway.”

And lastly, (p.103) Piper describes a slew of prophecies that describe the spectacular sins against Jesus which ultimately played out to and through his crucifixion; he writes:

“These things did not just happen. They were foretold in God’s word. God knew they would happen and could have planned to stop them, but didn’t. So they happened according to his sovereign will. His plan. And all of them were evil. They were sin. It is surpassingly sinful to reject, hate, abandon, betray, deny, condemn, spit upon, flog, mock, pierce, and kill the morally perfect, infinitely worthy, divine Son of God. And yet the Bible is explicit and clear that God himself planned these things. This is explicit not only in all the prophetic texts we have seen. But also in passages that say even more plainly that God ordained that these things come to pass.”

Ummm ok, but I don’t think that it is that explicit and I don’t think that because something has been prophesied that it means that it has been “planned.” Perhaps prophesy can occur because an omnipotent and omniscient God foresees the evil that a man will do. Perhaps God himself allowed and permitted this wickedness and evil to be perpetrated upon Himself in the Incarnation, but does that necessarily entail that He must have planned it too? I don’t think so; at least it has not been proven beyond any measure of doubt…not explicitly nor clearly…not to me anyway.

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