The Justification of God – John Piper
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
I first came across this book in the footnotes of another book by John Piper concerning election (Does God Desire All to Be Saved?). Most of my experience with Romans 9 has always been in the context of struggling to understand the intricacies of election as explained by Paul, but in this book, Piper places his arguments concerning election subordinate to his defense of the righteousness of God in electing and rejecting. His ultimate contention is that “the righteousness of God must be his unswerving commitment always to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory”, and that the whole economy of salvation must show that God is righteous.
I will give a brief summary of the book here, but my hope is that you will also read the book – the book is a lesson from a master theologian working his craft. He is always laying out what he’s after (how Paul defends the righteousness of God), what he’s afraid of (forcing Romans 9 to answer dogmatic questions it was never intended to answer), and where he’s going with his argument. But to give a brief glimpse into the content of the book, Piper’s argument runs like this:
Romans 9:6a (“It is not as though the word of God has fallen”) is Paul’s response to Romans 9:1-5, where many of Israel are seen to be accursed and cut off from Christ and the promises of God. The question Paul must contend with then is why are the Israelites, to whom God has made promises, cut off? Can the promises of God be changed?
Romans 9:6b-13 then becomes Paul’s defense of the fidelity of the Word of God – that God never intended n the salvation of every individual Israelite, for he says “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”. His example of Jacob and Esau, in the context of Romans 9, defines the word “election” as God determining who will be saved, “not because of works but because of him who calls”. So in regards to Paul’s heavy heart toward his fellow countrymen, Paul must accept that God’s sovereign election continues to work itself out even in the continued hardening of some of Israel.
The objection raised in Romans 9:14 then has to do with Paul’s view of God’s sovereignty in election: either Paul is right and God is unrighteous, or Paul is wrong and God is proven righteous. But to understand Paul’s denial of the grounds of righteousness of the objector, we must understand what Paul means when he declares God to be righteous by examining the quote from Exodus 33:19 (“I will have mercy…” Romans 9:15). Through the Old Testament, we find that Paul understands the glory (connected to the name) of God to be the freedom of God to show mercy to whom he will show mercy. And for God to be righteous, he must commit himself to honor his glory by dispensing mercy to whom he will show mercy.
The last objection that Piper tackles is Romans 9:19: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” Paul rebukes the one who complains, but not without leaving us one final glimpse in v.22-23 of God’s purposes. God desires to “show his wrath and to make known his power… in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy”. The mercy of God is painted against the backdrop of a canvas of wrath, that God may display the full range of his glory.
It is always difficult to write a book about Romans; it is undoubtedly one of the most written-about books of the Bible. Piper’s arguments are not novel – rather he interacts well with other commentators, drawing from their insights and quoting them where the things to be said concerning Romans 9 cannot be said any better. He disciplines himself to follow another person’s train of thought in their own terms, and he rebuts their arguments carefully. For example, when it comes to the question on whether Paul is dealing with the election of Israel as a nation, or with Israel as individuals, he dedicates a chapter to consider the case for national election. Ultimately, he rejects the case on exegetical grounds; he cites John Murray’s The Epistle to the Romans in saying that the application of Romans 9:6-13 to the national election of Israel fails to answer the question that Paul must answer in the first place:
How can the covenant promise of God be regarded as inviolate when the mass of those who belong to Israel… have remained in unbelief and come short of the covenant promises?… Paul’s answer is not the collective election of Israel but rather ‘they are not all Israel, who are of Israel.’
Though he interacts with secondary texts well, he does even better in his examination of Scripture itself. Piper carefully traces Paul’s line of thought, pinning down the unwritten thoughts and subtle emotions behind the letter to the Romans. He starts by highlighting the discontinuity of Romans 1-8 (justification, new life, new struggle, new hope) and Romans 9-11 (Is God fair in salvation?). The personal weight that Paul confesses in the first five verses of Romans 9 is highlighted by Piper, in which we see that
The unbelief of Israel, the chosen people, and their consequent separation from Christ (Rom 9:3) seem to call God’s word into question and thus to jeopardize not only the privileged place of Israel, but also the Christian hope as well.
One other example of Piper’s dissection of Paul’s text comes in his examination of the objection raised in Romans 9:14 (“What shall we say then? Is there any injustice on God’s part?”). Piper draws us back to the fact that the imaginary objection here is raised by someone who has an issue not with God or salvation, but with the unconditional election and rejection taught in 9:6-13. He breaks down the implicit objections that Paul must answer – either that Paul is right about the freedom of God (in electing and rejecting) and God is unrighteous, or God is righteous and Paul is wrong about the freedom of God. And Paul indeed does answer both these questions in 9:15,17 and 9:11-13, respectively.
Piper’s greatest strength in this book is his examination of Paul’s understanding of the Old Testament. His original study was on how 9:15 was a sufficient answer to the objection raised in 9:14 – Paul seems to answer an accusation that God is unrighteous by asserting God’s freedom, an answer that fails to satisfy the assertions of the objector – that God is either unrighteous or limited in freedom according to Paul. Piper spends time digging through Exodus 33:19 in order to understand how Paul conceived of the righteousness of God. In doing so, he provides key insights into the unfolding of the Old Testament in the writings of the apostles. The intertextuality is the capstone of the project, the logical steps of a heart pursuing the mysteries of God as adumbrated in the prophets and fully revealed in the New Testament. And Piper does well in showing us the cornerstone of Paul’s understanding of the righteousness of God and his defense of both the righteousness and the freedom of God in election and rejection.
That all being said, this book is not an easy recommendation to make. For starters, Piper spends some time dwelling on the Greek terms that Paul uses. To those who have no understanding of Greek, those parts of the book do not consist of profitable discussion. While the discussion of Paul’s Greek is a small part of the overall work, it does point to the fact that the intended audience of the Justification of God is much more academically inclined than the average layman.
It is also a book that requires careful reading and re-reading, and frequent check-ins with the outline as to not lose sight of what Piper is ultimately after in his argument. It is a book that must be read with Romans open in the other hand. He is constantly road-mapping the rest of his argument. He digs into the testament-spanning arguments of Paul and lays out the questions that Paul must reckon with in order to defend the righteousness of God.
Compared to other works by Piper, it is much more academic and a difficult read. However, my hope is that the difficulty of the book is not a detraction, but a challenge to the Christian – a call to turn the mind upon the mysteries of God.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”