Book Review: Future Grace by John Piper

19 08 2009

Future Grace by John Piper is one of his most enduring works, and one in which he sets out some of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of his life and ministry. The basic premise of the book is that ‘Future Grace’ ought to be a major impetus for godly living and dying. Piper’s contention throughout is that looking back at the past actions of God (particularly the life and death of Christ) is a hugely benefical exercise for the Christian – but that it is not enough in and of itself. The past goodness of God ought to serve as a spur for placing fresh faith in Him, and trusting Him for what lies ahead.

Future Grace is a long book, stretching to 399 pages, and ranging across 31 chapters. The book is purportedly designed in such a way that the reader can cover one chapter per day, pace him or herself through it, and take time to meditate on it with application and prayer. Whether it actually works in this way will be covered a little later on in this review.

One of the real successes of Future Grace is its potent mingling of theological argument and practical application. There are ten sections in the volume, and eight of them have a chapter at the end entitled ‘Applying the Purifying Power’ where the theological convictions of previous chapters are brought into confrontation with modern issues for godly living.

Piper begins by discrediting what he describes as ‘The Debtor’s Ethic’, whereby Christians seek to ‘pay God back’ for what He has done in the past. The author eschews this approach, and instead advocates a view of God which puts faith in Him for the future, falling as much on His mercy for what is to come as we have done in the past.

For me (and this might sound a little risque in our current evangelical climate of Piper veneration) this author’s books are not easy or straightforward to read. His prose can be opaque, his approach can be repetitive, and his logic torturously intense. Piper’s great gift in preaching ministry is his ability to think and think and think into an issue with microscopic diligence so that the implications of biblical logic are fully extrapolated. For me this works in sermonic form, but when it comes to writing it leaves the reader muddled at times, and at others bogged down in labyrinth-like machinations which seem a little adrift from the initial thesis of the chapter or section.

I don’t write this to be critical, but merely as an observation. I enjoy reading, am a big fan of literature of many kinds, and have read across genres and generations (particularly when studying English at Uni) but I find Piper’s writing style just too complicated at times. There are flashes of genius, and chapters in this text which are absolutely brilliant, garnished as they are with breathtaking biblical logic, but at other times I just found that I was suffering from information overload.

The basic premise of Future Grace is marvellous. The notion of looking to God in absolute trust for what He will do for in the future – right through death and eternity – is hugely heartening. It has been a tremendous help for me to read this book at the stage of life we are at as a family, with transition and change all around us, and to rest in the all prevailing and loving work of God at our core. For me sections VII (The Sanctifying Power of Faith in Future Grace) and VIII (Battling Unbelief in Future Grace) were electrifying and inspiring.

But there are other sections which leave Piper open to misunderstanding. His point that justifying grace is sanctifying grace is powerful and profoundly argued, but at times verges into areas where the author could be misread as linking works and salvation too closely. Given his stirling work on ‘The Future of Justification’ no one can doubt Piper’s commitment to justification by faith alone, and I don’t think that the problem with this book is Piper’s theology, but his methodology and vocabulary. Many of the areas in which he could be misrepresented are clarified in the application chapters but that is cold comfort when working through his concept of ‘Unmerited, Conditional, Future Grace’.

Perhaps the density of argument in the book is best explained by the author’s final chapter – ‘The Debt I Owe to Jonathan Edwards’. Piper’s love of Edwards’ writing does perhaps account for the philosophical depth of what he has to say. Again this may be akin to blasphemy in some circles, but I have never been able to relate to Edwards’ written corpus, finding him too philosophically speculative at times (by comparison, for instance, with John Calvin’s no-nonsense approach to thinking and theology).

It would be possible for this review to sound too negative. There are wonderful elements to this book, and Piper is at his pastoral best in the application chapters. It is unrealistic, however, to expect that ‘ordinary’ Christians could read this book a chapter at a time over 31 days. It is just too complicated and in-depth. In recent years the application chapters have been published on their own as Battling Unbelief and I think that this would be much more beneficial to most believers. Piper’s handling of the issues of anxiety, pride, shame, impatience, covetousness, bitterness, despondency and lust is majestic and masterful.

Future Grace is a good, but deeply flawed book, whose theological/philosophical rigour cannot be doubted, but whose readability is hampered by that very strength. The main lesson I take away from Future Grace is that our God is utterly dependable, that we can stake our life, our family, our future, our etenity, our all on Him without fear or reserve. To have that lesson reinforced in my heart makes some of the sweat entailed in making it to page 399 worthwhile by itself.
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