The subtitle of this engaging read is “A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry”. Titles like that tend to upset the reader’s equilibrium. One never knows what to expect when he hears the word “radical”. Will it be a radical new style of daily operation? Will it be a plea for a certain type of ministry? There will be, hopefully, encouraging direction offered, because the reader can be certain there will be some discomfort as he analyzes himself and his ministry. In general, Pastor Piper offers here plenty of encouraging direction for any discomfort the reader might feel. The encouragement mainly comes from this: his plea for a “radical” ministry is an impassioned appeal to get back to the basics of pastoral work on the basis of God’s Word.
In his opening words, Piper confronts the reader with this radical proposition then: “We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry.” The first chapter draws out this theme by contrasting the professionalism of the secular world with the spiritual occupation of the pastor. He says things like, “We are most emphatically not part of a social team sharing goals with other professionals. Our goals are an offense; they are foolishness (1 Cor. 1:23),” or “The world sets the agenda of the professional man; God sets the agenda of the spiritual man.” Essentially, Piper argues that pastors ought to be primarily concerned with being God’s message-bearers to the world and with being fired and fueled by his Word. In the chapters that follow, the reader is invited to consider that proposition under a variety of ministry areas and personal topics. The reader will encounter chapters on prayer, feeling the truth of hell, showing people why God inspired hard texts, or magnifying the meaning of baptism. This updated volume of the now decade-old first run includes six new chapters that “pressed themselves” on the author over the last decade. Old and new together, the author levels 36 pleas at the reader’s ministry head and heart.
I must confess to enjoying John Piper quite a bit. Now and again, I will follow up my own preaching on a text by listening to the author’s preaching on the same. He’s engaging to listen to: passionate, articulate, intelligent, well-read. Often I find that Piper asks questions I didn’t. He has a different way with words than I do and often employs insightful illustrations. At the same time, every time I find that Piper is a devoted Calvinist-Baptist and that there are things he might say that I definitely would not and things he believes that I definitely do not. The same holds true in this volume.
There were many insightful chapters filled with engaging content. For instance, in the middle of chapter 11 (“Brothers, Beware of Sacred Substitutes”), Piper quotes Luther’s response to Beskendorf the barber when he asked him how to pray. Luther’s characterization that good prayer “possess[es] the heart exclusively and completely” was a good encouragement to remember that pastors are to focus on “prayer and the ministry of the Word” and not simply business and busyness. Or consider the memorable call to original language study in chapter 15 (“Brothers, Bitzer Was a Banker”). The author references the 1969 volume “Light on the Path”, a help meant to improve pastors ability to interpret God’s Word in its original languages. The catching turn? Its author, Heinrich Bitzer, wasn’t even a pastor; he was a banker! Or take chapter 18, the encouragement to “pursue the tone of the text”. Here, Piper tries to thread the needle between the two truths always present in the pulpit-moment: 1) each man is a unique personality that God has called and promised to use as his pastoral servant and 2) each man, no matter his personality, is called to serve up the Word of God to God’s people. Piper’s question: “What tone should you aim at in preaching?” This he follows with ten reflections that encourage the preacher, among other things, to “embody…the tone” of the text and to make our pastoral tone that of Christ and his apostles. A memorable quote in this regard: “Marinating your mind in all of Scripture and basting your brain with the ladle of prayer will enable the tender to sound more appropriately tough and the tough to sound more appropriately tender—depending on the text.” (123) These sorts of things are characteristic of Piper’s preaching and writing and make him very engaging.
There were also words and chapters that mark the difference between our readership and the author rather strongly. In chapter 23, Piper straightforwardly pleads for a ministry that emphasizes “believer baptism” – the baptism of adults as a testimony of their faith in Christ. His argumentation aside, the last lines of the chapter present enough to make orthodox Lutherans queasy,
“I think we need to teach our people the meaning of baptism and obey the Lord’s command to baptize converts (Matt. 28:19), without elevating the doctrine to a primary one that would unduly cut us off from shared worship and ministry with others who share more important things with us.” (161)
Men of our pastorate ought to be presenting baptism as “primary” – it is one of the Means of Grace (particularly with baptism, a doctrine with which Piper would disagree). Our pastors ought not be relegating some doctrines to “primary” or “tertiary” status for the purpose of allowing or disallowing fellowship with the heterodox by sharing in worship and ministry. Piper’s perspective on baptism and fellowship is evidently different than Scripture’s; by way of logical assumption, in the end, he over-specifies and limits the audience of Baptism to “convertable” adults. In addition, the reader will find repeated emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the believer’s life of glory to God. Therefore, the reader will be engaging a book that is maximal and proverbial in nature, a sanctification-heavy work. The reader will not find repeated cries to make use of Word and Sacrament – Piper, rather, would fear sacramentalism and a Catholic “ex opere operato”. In all of these things, Piper speaks engagingly and disarmingly and amicably. So should we. But his way is not ours in many respects and the reader ought to beware.
In “Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper provides insightful comments about ministry and pastoral mind-set, about preaching and tone, about sanctification and service to God. This reviewer enjoyed Piper’s perspective. At the same time, there is much to set aside (whole chapters) and much to put into proper perspective before consuming. In the end, the author’s own encouragement about reading good books may lend direction here. Pastor Piper says, “There is so much soul-refreshing, heart-deepening, mind-enlarging truth to be had from great books! Your people will know if you are walking with the giants or watching television.” This is true. And there are a great many great books. That in mind, this reviewer suggests picking up this volume if you’ve got lots of time and lots of shelf room. It’s interesting, heartfelt, and introspective, but there are certainly other great books by which to warm your pastoral heart with the Spirit’s fire. Read some of them first.
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books. This volume is an updated and expanded version of the same published in 2003.
Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, by John Piper. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2013. 307 pages.