Review: John Piper’s “Spectacular Sins”

“I guess you had to be there.”

I’ve heard a lot about preacher and theologian John Piper. I’ve read some quotes that I thought were inspired. I’ve heard people talk about things he’s taught, which seemed to be a mixed bag.

To be perfectly honest, for that reason, I was reluctant to delve much deeper, to listen to sermons or read his books. To me, there are few things worse that can happen to a church than to allow a cult of personality to form around its preacher, and there are few things worse to happen to a Christian than to become part of a cult of personality around a teacher. When people answer theological questions not with “here’s what scripture says” but with “here’s what Piper says,” that frightens me, and it’s happened to me all to frequently recently. To paraphrase Paul, “When one says, ‘I am of Piper’ and another, ‘I am of Wright,’ are you not carnal?”

I say that not to be critical, though, but rather for two reasons. One, to explain my biases at the outset of this review, and, two, to say that because of all that discussion and devotion, I had certain expectations going into it when my Bible study group decided to study Piper’s Spectacular Sins: And Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ.  Surely this was going to be brilliant and inspired and informative. Surely this would let me see what it was that inspired that sort of interest and loyalty.  Like I said, guess you had to be there.

The problem that I had with “Spectacular Sins” is that it’s just a sloppy book.

I agree with Piper on some things. I disagree with him on some. There were many things in this book that, superficially, sounded like things I would agree with. None of them were particularly groundbreaking or made me think about things in new ways, but they still seemed to be good points.

The problem is, I’m not entirely sure; the logic in his arguments was so flimsy that I really didn’t have enough to judge their merits. The first three chapters of the book contained so many unsupported suppositions that the entire book collapsed for me from their flimsy support. Piper groups things like crimes and natural disasters together as “evil” with no explanation why. He essentially argues that someone doing something unpopular or with bad consequences is sin, even if it’s God’s will, with no evidence that this is the case. He takes examples of places in scripture where, he says,  “sin” is “caused” by God and applies those universally, with no acknowledgment or discussion of the examples that don’t say that.

(And, leaving this particular text for a moment, this doesn’t seem to be the only time Piper has done this. During the study, another participant, attempting to clarify Piper’s stance, referred me to an essay Piper had written in which he argues that God does everything for His glory, citing a handful of passages in scripture that say God did something to make His glory known [an important distinction from saying He did it for his glory, but that’s beside the point], ignoring all of the other reasons God did things throughout the rest of scripture. This same pick-and-choose approach could be used, for example, to focus only on times God did things regretfully to paint Him as depressed and petulant. That same approach basically is used by many Christians who paint God as angry and judgmental, and it’s just as wrong for Piper to do it as it is for them.)

And I was left wondering why. From all accounts, Piper is an intelligent enough man that he should see the holes in faulty logic. Does he simply take his beliefs so much for granted that he doesn’t realize there’s a need to support them? Is he trying to shortcut to a bigger focus and not realizing that he’s shortchanging the conclusion as a result? Does he believe that a bit of slight-of-hand is justified in convincing people of his views? Is he just an ingrained part of the preacher culture in which Christians are encouraged to take the word of professionals instead of figuring things out themselves? Again, I say this not to be critical of Piper but of the book; its flaws were so distracting that questions like these, not about the subject matter were the main ones I came out of it with.

As for Piper himself, I’ve already bought some more of his books, and I would love to discover that Spectacular Sins was just one bad experience.

Save your ten bucks, here’s all you need to know from the book, and the one point Piper did make convincingly — Some times God does good things when bad things happen.