Review: Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, Updated and Expanded Edition
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Brothers, We Are Not Professionals is not a new book. It’s been reviewed before. But the second edition is new, and six chapters in it are, too. So I will focus this review on those new chapters: 4, 6, 13, 18, 22, 27.
Those chapters were added for various reasons:
- Piper added chapters 4 and 6 “for theological reasons where I felt I needed greater clarity or correction.”
- He added chapters 13 and 18 “in pursuit of being a better preacher.”
- He added chapter 22, he writes, “for family reasons relating to my own sanctification.”
- And he added chapter 27 for unspecified “personal reasons.”
Chapter 4: Brothers, God Does Make Much of Us
Early in his ministry Piper perceived a lack, a pretty massive oversight, in much of evangelical theology. Most of his writing ministry has been dedicated to filling up that void, and it boils down to this sentence: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Though human satisfaction is always present in Piper’s thought (he is, after all, a “Christian hedonist”), it holds a decidedly second place. God is in supreme first place: Piper takes a radically God-centered approach to this universe. Piper uses numerous rhetorical devices to communicate this truth, and one of them is this question: “Do you feel more loved by God because He makes much of you or because, at great cost to His Son, He frees you to enjoy knowing Him and treasuring Him and making much of Him?” In other words, even the deepest joy God can give humans still resolutely keeps God first, not man.
This truth, Piper says, he still believes ardently. But chapter 4 of Brothers We Are Not Professionals issues a “mid-course … corrective” (one Piper has made elsewhere) in order to make sure he doesn’t “fall off the horse on the other side”! (16) He’s concerned that he not be seen to deny that God does “make much of us.” Simply put, God’s God-centeredness doesn’t somehow utterly obscure humanity. God does, He really and truly does, love us.
The reason it took comparatively long for Piper to perceive his need to make this correction is revealed in this chapter: he has always been more concerned about nominal Christians headed for hell than about genuine Christians who doubt that God truly loves them. (17) But there is a problem on the other side of the horse, a problem experienced by confused but genuine Christians, and this is Piper’s new way of getting at it: “Why does God perform His acts of love toward us in a way that reveals He is loving us this way for His own glory?” Piper is concerned to answer this question in order to demonstrate that God’s God-centeredness doesn’t make it impossible for Him to truly love human beings.
It’s classic Piper, the root of his real strength as an author, that his default method for answering such an apparently philosophical question is careful appeal to Bible statements. He finds exegetical connections between God’s love and His own self-glorification, and he explains them. Connections like this: “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.” (Ephesians 1:4-6 ESV) In other words, God’s love for us has as its ultimate end the praise of His glorious grace. But this doesn’t lead Paul to feel in any way nervous about saying God loves His children.
Piper marshals numerous passages that demonstrate this point—and then numerous passages that demonstrate a related point, that God makes much of us by various means. For example, Piper notes that “God makes much of us by ascribing value to us and rejoicing over us as His treasured possession” (Matt 10:29, 31; Zeph 3:17). (22) He also makes much of us “by granting us to sit with Christ on His throne” (Rev 3:21; Eph 1:22–23). (23)
I used to read a lot of Piper; he’s had a major impact on me. But as I got older I felt I had imbibed his perspective and I largely set his books aside (he has said before that you only need to read one of his books, because he always says the same thing!). And, interestingly enough, I began to come toward the problem he addresses in this chapter by another route. I began to wonder whether or not Piper’s radically God-centered viewpoint ends up in a kind of monism, a view in which God is so big that humanity is entirely swallowed up. In other words, if God really loves us only because we bear His image, does He really love us—do I have an identity in any sense apart from or in addition to being an image-bearer of God like everyone else? Does God really love me?
I kept telling myself that there can be no other source of value in this universe than God Himself. That I can’t separate my existence from His. And then, to get practical, a young upstart theologian (namely, one younger than I) once complained to me that Piper can be so God-centered that he erases concern for the masses of unredeemed humanity. Yes, “missions exists because worship doesn’t,” the opening line of Piper’s missiology book, and in scriptural terms, God desires worshipers (John 4:23). But that young theologian pointed out that compassion for the lost can be unhealthily overshadowed by too much emphasis on God’s own God-centeredness.
So I like this chapter 4 of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Because in the end what I need is a scriptural balance: I need to say “what the Bible says, in the way it says it, to the degree it says it.” And this is what Piper tries to provide (admittedly in the short space of a chapter) by going back to Scripture. This is a chapter, and these are verses, that I need to spend some time meditating upon.
Chapter 6: Brothers, God Is the Gospel
In this chapter Piper argues in brief space for the thesis of his 2008 book, God is the Gospel. In short, God Himself is “the highest and best and final good that makes all the other good things promised in the gospel good” (47). In other words, forgiveness of sins, redemption from slavery to sin, rescue from hell, eternal life, heaven, deliverance from pain—none of these are truly good unless you get the final good, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Christ died “that he might bring us to God” (1Pe 3:18).
Piper is here at his most Edwardsean, his most God-centered (and his most Augustinian, I’d add). The ultimate end of every choice be God’s glory because the only ultimately righteous motivation for every act is the will’s attraction to God. I think this is an excessively important point, and I’m indebted to Piper for, once again, marshaling scriptural arguments for his God-glorifying theology. Biblical commentaries can be famously dry because they never move from exegesis to theology. Devotional literature can be famously vapid because it skips over exegesis to a theology that is scripturally baseless. But Piper does the work of building from careful, scriptural exegesis to carefully formulated theology.
Chapter 13: Brothers, Be Bible-Oriented—Not Entertainment-Oriented—Preachers
“Unbroken seriousness of a melodramatic or somber kind will inevitably communicate a sickness of soul to the great mass of people. This is partly because life as God created it is not like that.” (86) “But we live in a day when, it seems to me, few pastors are falling of their horses on the side of excessive seriousness. The trend is all in the other direction—toward the flippant, casual, clever, and hip feel of entertainment. The main problem with this is that it is out of sync with the subject matter of the Bible and diminishes our people’s capacities to discern and feel the weight of glorious truth.” (87)
True to form, Piper does not leave us with this clearly valid thought. He goes to Scripture. And also true to form, he starts with God. God, he points out from Isaiah 66, looks to someone “who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
He moves from God to sin to hell to the cross to perseverance to preaching, showing how every one of those topics brings with it scriptural reasons for dead earnestness.
The fundamental difference, Piper says, “between an entertainment-oriented preacher and a Bible-oriented preacher is whether there is a manifest connection between the preacher’s words and the Bible as what authorizes what he says.” (90) Even the “stories and illustrations [of the Bible-oriented preacher] are constrained and reined in by his hesitancy to lead the consciousness of his hearers away from the sense that this message is based on and expressive of what the Bible says.” (91)
Chapter 18: Brothers, Pursue the Tone of the Text
This point summarizes the chapter pretty well: “Texts have meaning, and texts have tone. Consider the tonal difference between, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden” (Matt. 11:28), and “Woe to you, blind guides…. You blind fools!” (Matt. 23:16–17). The preacher should embody, not mute, these tones.” (121) This means that, guided by the text, “in one sermon more than one emotional instrument should be played.” (123) Piper offers some probing thoughts on this theme, thoughts borne of decades of expository preaching.
Chapter 22: Brothers, Help Them Act the Miracle
This is a chapter of the moment, but one that every Calvinist needs to hear no matter the moment. Here Piper explores the implications of a God-centered view of sanctification—and how he failed to be fully biblical in his own approach. It boiled down to this: he was willing to actively fight lust, but he somehow felt that other sins—selfishness, sullenness, anger—would change naturally as God changed him from the inside out. “Out of the abundance of the hear the mouth speaks.” No effort would be required.
This, he realized after a lengthy sabbatical for healing his life and improving his marriage, was not the teaching of the Bible. And true to Piperian form yet again, he plumbs various Bible passages to make the point. He camps longest on Philippians 2:12–13 (ESV): “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” The work and effort are real, but God is the ultimate worker. Piper shows from other verses that God intends to use a Spirit-empowered will—but a human will nonetheless, exercised in godly directions—to bring sanctification to someone’s life. “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom 8:13 ESV)
This was very helpful for me. As a firm believer in God’s sovereignty I have definitely fallen into the trap of assuming that if I don’t change, it was somehow God’s fault for not willing it before time began!
Chapter 27: Brothers, Bodily Training Is of Some Value
Piper applies Scripture and mines his own experience for some helpful thoughts on the role of healthy eating, exercise, and rest.
The chapters added to this book are all classic Piper, and in the very best way: they mine Scripture and probe it, comparing verses and lifting them up to the light, then pressing them helpfully into daily practice. Chapters like “God Does Make Much of Us” probably won’t make good sense to someone unfamiliar with Piper’s ouevre, likewise with “God Is the Gospel.” So I recommend starting with his most God-centered and most important book, The Pleasures of God before reading anything else he writes. But with that foundation, these chapters and this book are helpfully brief meditations and probings on significant issues for those of us who work in ministry.