Tim Challies, host of the Discerning Reader, reviews Finally Alive, by John Piper. Like many others, I believe this is one of the most important books Piper has written.
As I read the final page of Finally Alive I realized that I had found a new favorite book by John Piper. Those who have read my reviews of some of his previous titles know that while I greatly enjoy Piper’s ministry and am indebted to him in many ways, I have not always found his books easy to read. Yet I read Finally Alive with relish, enjoying it from the first page to the last. It is an incisive examination of a topic of profound importance. I think it represents Piper at his very best as an author.
This is a book about the new birth, about regeneration, about what it means to be born again. Born again is a term we hear often these days, both within the walls of the church and without. But it seems that the term is so often used in a different way than the doctrine as we find it in Scripture. It takes only a couple of pages for Piper to take issue with the term born again as used by people like pollster George Barna—people who desecrate it by taking it far outside of its biblical context. “In this research,” says Piper, “the term born again refers to people who say things. They say, ‘I have a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. It’s important to me.’ They say, ‘I believe that I will go to Heaven when I die. I have confessed my sins and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior.’ Then the Barna Group takes them at their word, ascribes to them the infinitely important reality of the new birth, and then slanders that precious biblical reality by saying that regenerate hearts have no more victory over sin than unregenerate hearts.” Piper doesn’t hold back.
Of course such research is not necessarily entirely wrong. It is undeniable that vast numbers of professing Christians live in ways that are completely at odds with the faith they profess. But the New Testament does not allow us to move from a profession of faith to the label born again. Instead, it “moves from the absolute certainty that the new birth radically changes people, to the observation that many professing Christians are indeed (as the Barna Group says) not radically changed, to the conclusion that they are not born again. The New Testament, unlike the Barna Group, does not defile the new birth with the worldliness of unregenerate, professing Christians.” This is a term Christians need to understand and protect.
Piper offers four reasons for writing this book on the new birth. First, so we can understand what God intends when the Bible uses this language of the new birth; second, to help followers of Christ know what happened to them when they were converted; and third, to serve as a possible means for those who do not yet believe to come to faith in Christ. “My aim is to explain the new birth as clearly as I can from the Bible so that readers can see it for themselves.” And he does so in just the way we’ve come to expect from John Piper—with clear exposition of Scripture and with undeniable passion and integrity.
Piper moves through the subject by asking five all-important questions. He begins his examination by asking simply “What is the new birth?” From there he turns to the question of “Why must we be born again?.” He then asks “How does the new birth come about?” and “What are the effects of the new birth?” before concluding with asking “How can we help others be born again?” Each of these questions is answered two, three or four short chapters, each of which can be easily read and digested in a single sitting.
Why does this all matter for Christians? Piper gives three reasons that believers need to know what happened when they were converted. First, “When you are truly born again and grow in the grace and knowledge of what the Lord has done for you, your fellowship with God will be sweet, and your assurance that he is your Father will be deep. I want that for you.” Second, “If you know what really happened to you in your new birth, you will treasure God and his Spirit and his Son and his word more highly than you ever have. In this, Christ will be glorified.” And finally, “In the process of believers discovering what really happened to them, the seriousness and the supernatural nature of conversion will rise and that, I pray, will serve a more general awakening of authenticity in the Christian church so that religious hypocrisy will diminish and the world will see real love and sacrifice and courage in the service of Christ.” This is no minimal, abstract theology. This is of foundational importance to the Christian faith.
Piper’s tone is gracious and compassionate throughout this book. He shows the heart of a pastor from the first page to the last. But he also shows the skill of a theologian and the passion of a prophet. I’m inclined to agree with my friend Adrian Warnock who says of Finally Alive, “I believe this is the most important book Piper has written.” I cannot recommend this book too highly. I really believe it is Piper’s best.