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On Publishing a Calvinist Book

Gods Desire for the Nations: The Missionary Theology of John Piper

Well, not exactly a Calvinist book, but a book about a Calvinist, in this case John Piper. This is another of my posts giving my thoughts on publishing a new title. It’s a couple of months late, but I think it’s still quite relevant. Be aware, of course, that I may be advocating buying this book, so if you object, you can wait for the next non-commercial post. In connection with this post, God’s Desire for the Nations will be on sale at Energion Direct for $13.99.

The book in question is God’s Desire for the Nations: The Missionary Theology of John Piper, by Philip O. Hopkins. The reason I say it’s not a Calvinist book, but rather a book about a Calvinist, is that it examines John Piper’s doctrinal teaching and whether that teaching is consistent with his missiology. It does not seek to defend or advocate the particular doctrinal positions. As Hopkins notes in the 5th and final chapter:

This work also did not examine whether Piper’s thought is correct; it sought to determine if it is consistent. Determining the “correctness” of Piper’s theology was not the goal. The goal was to see if Piper’s understanding of the glory of God, seen through his understanding of the Two Wills of God Thesis, motivated his missiology. Arguing whether Piper is correct is not relevant to the focus of this book. Instead, the purpose was to connect his theology with his missiology and must come first before defending or arguing for or against it …  (176).

Indeed, it would be quite a daunting task to both examine these doctrinal positions carefully and to advocate them at the same time.

Now my regular readers and those who know me will realize that I’m not a Calvinist, and that I’m likely to disagree with John Piper on many, many issues. Let me just say here in passing that the range of ideas that fall within the publishing mission of my company, Energion Publications, does indeed include both Calvinism and Arminianism. One of the problems I see in the church is that we tend to look largely at ideas we find agreeable, and to the extent that we look at other ideas, we look to variations within our own tradition streams.

There is value in listening to those who agree with us on many things, and disagree on minor points, but there is greater value, I believe, in taking a close look at ideas that are more radically opposed. I can find many variations in soteriology amongst people who claim the label “Arminian,” yet they do not challenge me to the extent that reading Reformed theology does.

Even when I continue to disagree I can disagree with the actual position. Let me illustrate. One of the most frequent questions I hear from Methodists regarding Calvinists is why Calvinists would do missions. Since they believe that people are predestined to either salvation or damnation, what difference does evangelism make? Some assume that Calvinists won’t be interested in missions or evangelism.

But observation of actual Calvinists proves this isn’t the case. The Calvinists in my head aren’t necessarily the same as the Calvinists in the real world. One finds Calvinists involved in missions every bit as much as (and possibly more than) their Arminian brethren. I recall hearing John Blanchard, a Presbyterian evangelist, speak at a conference here in Pensacola. One of the questions he was asked was: “If you believe in predestination why would you be an evangelist? How can you accept both?”

His answer? “Predestination is a doctrine, and I believe it. Evangelism is a command, and I obey it.” I can appreciate that simple and straightforward answer.

But what attracted me to the current volume in particular was a much more detailed look at how these doctrines interact in John Piper’s Reformed theology.

Now don’t get me wrong. This book is some serious reading. It’s not a simple primer to get you through the basics, though it does cover the basics. It’s a comprehensive look first at the foundational positions taught by Piper, and then at the missiology that results from that. Piper makes an excellent subject here because of his very firm commitment to missions in the church.
The text occupies only about 112 pages with about 80 pages of notes, presented as chapter endnotes, and about 31 pages of bibliography. You can read just the text and follow the argument. The notes provide extensive documentation for any point you want to follow further, and include references to a great deal of information available on the web. Thus this book could provide you with a guide to an extended study of John Piper’s theology.

In structure, the book has five chapters. The first introduces us to John Piper and the roots of his theology, including his family background and major theologians who influenced his thinking. The second chapter discusses Piper’s theology in general, and gives us an outline of the five points of Calvinism as understood by Piper, and several other elements of his theology. I was especially interested in the succinct definition of Christian Hedonism.

In chapter 3 we get to the meat of the book, as Hopkins discusses Piper’s missiology and then clarifies his picture by comparing it to that of Bosch and McGavran. I was actually not acquainted with the latter two theologians before reading this book, but the comparison does help clarify key points of Piper’s missiology. For those interested, it is also in chapter 3 that we have an extensive discussion of Piper’s view of hell, compared to that of others, including Pinnock (73ff).

The fourth chapter focuses in on the “two wills of God” thesis and specifically how this relates to the connection between God’s glory and missions. It is in this chapter, I think, that missiologists of the Arminian persuasion will get the most benefit, as well as find the most to disagree with (in Piper’s theology, not the presentation).

The fifth chapter summarizes and presents questions and ideas for further discussion. Should the reader choose to pursue those questions, both the notes (841 of them), and the 31 page bibliography will point the way.

I was discussing this book with my wife and partner in this business while I was thinking of writing this post. I mentioned that this was a hard book to hype. It’s solid. It does what it’s supposed to do, but what single paragraph can I present that has zing? She commented that for the person who has an interest in the topic, the very things I have just mentioned will be the real selling point, and she’s probably right.

So the bottom line selling point on this book is that it is a thorough treatment of the topic at hand. I think there are a few other reasons to take a look, but if you’re interested in John Piper and also interested in missions, you’ll find this book very useful.

I do have an additional hope, that Arminians, and particularly United Methodists will take the opportunity to look at this material and use it to hone their own missiology. The problem I see is that while I believe we have a very sound basis for missions, it has not been communicated to those in the pews as well as it might have been. We often wonder why Calvinists would pursue missions, but at the same time we often aren’t doing much to pursue them ourselves. What is it about our theology that we aren’t communicating? What is keeping us from acting on the very good reasons we have for missions?

That the notion that Calvinists don’t do missions is contradicted by some statistics cited in the book:

… Since then, Piper’s passion for God’s glory and missions have been inseparable. This can be seen in some statistics concerning missions emphasis and Bethlehem Baptist Church. For example, from 1987 to 2000 Bethlehem gave over $6.6 million towards missions. As well, in 1981, the missions budget was $62,270, 22% of the total budget, or $2.50 each week per Sunday morning attendee. In 1996, the missions budget increased to $439,661, 32% of the total budget, or $8.90 each week per Sunday morning attendee; a 356% increase in fifteen years. By 2005, Bethlehem’s missions budget was still about the same percentage of the total church budget, which had grown to approximately $2 million.

Yet I have been told that a United Methodist congregation that place 5% of its budget on missions is regarded as “missions oriented.” Typically the number is smaller. I served as missions chairperson for a church that had no budget for missions, and was also concerned with fundraising for separate mission money because the church itself needed to meet budgetary requirements. So perhaps a theological basis doesn’t necessarily result in action.

There are several things I’d like to see this book accomplish:

  1. Challenge all of us to greater support for the mission of the church, however we define and accomplish it. Too often we debate “how” while actually doing nothing concrete.
  2. Give us all a better understanding of Reformed theology and how it relates to the mission of the church.
  3. Contribute to the discussion of soteriology and particular of hell and its relationship to mission.
  4. Encourage all of us to think more deeply about our theology and the actions to which it should or does lead.
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  1. Arthur Sido says:

    I have to admit that I have spent a great deal of time reading authors that I already agreed with and books that just reinforced what I already thought. It was safer that way and helped reinforce my beliefs by reading others affirming them. It has really been only the last few years that I have strayed a bit from the Reformed party line and what I have actually found is that reading challenging books has done more to solidify my beliefs than reading just authors from the approved Reformed list. In fact the first book that I would put in that camp was The Jesus Paradigm by Dave Black. We could all stand to read more authors that we don’t agree with about every single doctrine and that might lead to less strife in the church between competing camps.

    1. The Jesus Paradigm is another book that was interesting to sell to Methodists, because the ecclesiology is so different. One pastor asked me if I was trying to run him out of a job. But there is so much in that book that can challenge you and help you even if you can’t accept the ecclesiology.

      But for some reason, the Calvinist/Arminian divide is often harder to get people to cross in their studies. I’ve found, however, that in many cases there isn’t quite as much difference as we suppose. I recall one event for youth in which I had invited both a Calvinist and an Arminian as speakers. The event was in a Methodist church so I suspect the Calvinist was a bit nervous and he asked me what to do if he was asked a question specifically about predestination, that being the primary doctrine that divided us.

      I commented that as I understood it, God is sovereign and human beings have free will. Where we disagree is on how to put the two together. I said that was all I would say on the topic if I were asked. He told me he could live with that, as I knew he would, because both points are in the Westminster Confession.

      I love to debate it, and I’ve learned much from doing so. There will always be a certain amount of Reformed literature on my reading list.

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