Review of John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020)

By Kevin Muriithi

John Piper is one of the most influential pastors of our time. What characterizes his ministry is passionate zeal, theological depth, biblical engagement and pastoral application. The gift of technology has allowed Christians all over the world, including fellow Christians and their leaders in Africa and Kenya, my home country, to benefit from his ministry. In a time when the world, even the Christian world, is grappling with a worldwide pandemic, Piper’s Coronavirus and Christ is a helpful guide.

The Book’s Central Purpose

Piper’s purpose is to point the reader to the sure foundation of Christ. He acknowledges that this is the only foundation that can deal with life’s surprising sufferings such as this pandemic: “This is a firm rock under my feet. It is not fragile. It is not sand.” (P 14) We are given a close up view as we face Piper’s past cancer diagnosis through the familiar encouragement of God’s Word in the book’s early pages. In facing the odds of cancer, Christ and his Word are a sure comfort for Piper. He emphasizes the aim of the book by saying: “This book is my invitation for you to join me on the solid Rock, Jesus Christ.” (P 19)

Six Ways God is Speaking to Us through the Coronavirus Pandemic

In a world and even within a church that has grown anemic to the truths of scripture, it is clear that Piper wants the church to recover the loftiness of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty as an anchor in life – especially when life takes unexpected turns. This does not reduce the complexity of God as he says “but neither is he without complexity. His character is more like a symphony than a solo performance”. Yet by acknowledging God’s sovereignty, we can clearly hear God speaking to us. Piper spends the last half of the book unpacking six distinct ways in which God is speaking through the coronavirus pandemic, founded on a quotation on Luke 12:56-57:

  1. Picturing moral horror (chapter 6) – i.e. the fall, human rebellion in creation and satan’s deception.
  2. Sending specific divine judgements (chapter 7) – for believers or the church “purifying judgement” as opposed to punitive judgement (p. 70) which has the effect of disciplining us (p. 70-72). Thus, coronavirus may be God’s way of purifying our faith.
  3. Awakening us for the 2nd coming (chapter 8) – that the birth pangs are a sign of the end of age (Rom 8:21-23) and thus we should “stay awake during the pandemic (p. 74-76).
  4. Realigning us with the infinite worth of Christ (chapter 9)
  5. Creating good works in danger (chapter 10) – coronavirus is God’s way of motivating saints to overcome fear and magnify Christ through good works (1 Pet 2:12, Tit 2:14)
  6. Loosening roots to reach the nations (chapter 11) – through the pandemic, God is challenging comfortable Christianity with radical mission.

This book is very helpful in recovering a high view of God, especially as it pertains to this global pandemic. However, I also wondered whether this beloved pastor, even a great inspiration for me, could have clarified on three issues.

Three Things I wish Piper could Clarify

First, it would be how Christians within the reformed tradition may end up seeming overly zealous without gracious sensitivity to the plight of people. It was telling to me that the first sentence read: “It matters little what I think about the coronavirus – or about anything else, for that matter. But it matters forever what God thinks” (p. 21) and citing passages such as 1 Pet 1:24-25, Jn 10:35, Ps 119:15. Though Piper qualifies this with “the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it” (p 23), I wondered whether this may further burden a suffering saint. What of the Christian who has lost a job or a loved one during this pandemic? If I was reading this first sentence as a Christian going through remarkable suffering, I might have been dissuaded from continuing on with this profound exposition of God’s sovereignty. It begs the question: how do we teach God’s sovereignty in a way that provides a firm foundation for our emotions? I agree with Piper that God’s sovereignty takes center stage, but surely, as he would say in many of his other writings, that sovereignty is to awaken joy within the soul of the believer – such that God’s sovereignty does not bypass the emotional life, but gives it a robust foundation for it to be stabilized and even to flourish.

The second point is minor. Piper seems to disprove the importance  biblical scholars when he says:

The way we come to know the glory of God in scripture is similar to the way we know that honey is honey. Science and technology may say that this jar contains honey because of chemical experiments – just like biblical scholars can argue compellingly that the Bible is historically reliable. But most people are not scientists or scholars. We know that this is honey because we taste it.

Coronavirus and Christ, page 26

On the surface this may seem counterintuitive, for Piper is himself a biblical scholar and also because he is making a robust theological argument through the pages of the book. I understand that the point is to validate Christian experience against scholarly opinions of Christianity. And I am sure that he is not implying that biblical scholars are unhelpful, even though some of them are. But it is precisely through the ministry of biblical scholars and even teachers and pastors, who are trained, that we have a taste of the depths of God’s Word when rightly taught. Certainly, that is why Piper, with Dr. Don Carson encourage pastors to be scholars in their book The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor.

Third, I wish Piper could have expanded on the missional responsibility for Christians in a pandemic age, although he briefly speaks about this in chapter 5. What I have seen within my pastoral context is the need for the church to share the eternal hope in Christ, through proclaiming this truth for an unshakeable world. Additionally, witnessing through acts of love is so indispensable during this global moment. In Kenya for instance, some people not only struggle with the uncertainty of this novel virus, but also have to grapple with crushing financial times, natural calamities such as the recent floods as well as corruption scandals in the face of such hardships. To such people, witnessing through the love of Christ both in word and deed may serve as a healing balm for them. Many churches have seen the opportunity to serve their neighbours through this pandemic. And that is certainly something at the core of our Christian convictions. How is God calling us to mission in these times?

A Biblically Wise, Theologically Profound and Practically Helpful Book

That said, Piper’s book unpacks the robustness of God’s sovereignty as a stabilizing anchor for the suffering and bewildered Christian in a pandemic age.

That said, Piper’s book unpacks the robustness of God’s sovereignty as a stabilizing anchor for the suffering and bewildered Christian in a pandemic age. I think the summit of the book is the closing prayer at the end, which brings together the various themes relevant to a biblical understanding of suffering: God’s sovereignty, human fragility, the world’s distortion through sin, the reconciliation of all creation through Christ, the call to witness for Christ and the hope of a new heavens and new earth. I think these are the themes that provide a robust view of the world and that edify the Christian as well as engage the skeptic, with the loftiness of the life in Christ. With a Kiswahili translation available, this book will be a blessing to many in Africa. I highly recommend this book. 

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