How likely are you to contract the coronavirus? To die of it? Or at least to know someone who does?
Even if you knew those odds, such knowledge would bring little comfort. In these uncertain times you need something more solid that you can trust. You need a foundation you can stand on. In this pandemic, God is inviting us to build our lives on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ. God is good, and he is in control.
In a new book, Coronavirus and Christ, John Piper writes, “The coronavirus is God’s thunderclap call for all of us to repent and realign our lives with the infinite worth of Christ.”
John Piper is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He is also a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. The audiobook (read by John himself) and eBook for Coronavirus and Christ are now available free of charge at Desiring God. It will also be available for purchase in paperback from Crossway.
John Piper joined me on Gospelbound to discuss what God is doing in the coronavirus and the recent articles by N. T. Wright for Time. We also discussed how we can persevere in prayer for an end to this pandemic, and why the health-and-wealth gospel from the likes of Kenneth Copeland must be exposed as impotent and dangerous.
This episode of Gospelbound is brought to you by Southeastern Seminary. In a disenchanted world looking to themselves for answers, Southeastern’s three-year Doctor of Ministry in Faith and Culture plants graduates at the intersection of theology, culture, and church to bring the world a better story—the gospel. Learn more at sebts.edu.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: How likely are you to contract the coronavirus, to die of it or at least to know someone who does? Even if you knew those odds, such knowledge would bring little comfort. In these uncertain times, you need something more solid that you can trust. You need a foundation you can stand on. In this pandemic, God is inviting us to build our lives in the solid foundation of Jesus Christ. God is good and He is in control. In the new book Coronavirus and Christ, John Piper writes this: “The coronavirus is God’s thunderclap call for all of us to repent and realign our lives with the infinite worth of Christ.”
Collin Hansen: John Piper is the founder and teacher of desiringgod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary. He is also a council member of the Gospel Coalition. The e-book and audiobook for Coronavirus and Christ are available for free at desiringgod.org. And you can also purchase the book on Amazon, published by Crossway. John Piper joins me on Gospelbound to discuss what God is doing in the coronavirus, how we can persevere in prayer for an end to this pandemic and why the health and wealth gospel must be exposed as impotent and dangerous. Thank you for joining me, John.
John Piper: Well, thanks Collin for having me.
Collin Hansen: Can you open the book, recounting your cancer diagnosis on December 21, 2005, what did you learn then that comforts you now?
John Piper: While I was waiting for the urologist to go get the machine that does the biopsy, the Lord spoke. And I said in the book that I don’t hear voices, but oh my, do I hear the Lord. He said, “God has not destined you for wrath, John Piper, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep …” In other words, he didn’t tell me I wasn’t going to die. He said, “Whether you wake or sleep, you will live with me.” What I learned was that among the thousands of precious promises that there are in the Bible, God is able to bring to mind the ones we need when we need them most. You know, you were referring to odds, it doesn’t help to know what your odds are.
John Piper: Goodness gracious there was so much about odds being said. The odds for surgery and the odds for radiation, the odds for this and that. And Noel and I smiled at each other and said, “Isn’t it great that we lean on God and not odds?” I just revel every time I think about how well-timed God’s help is. You know, I love that translation. It’s my own translation anyway of Hebrews 4:16, “Let us, with confidence, draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace.” Then literally, it’s for a well-timed help. So I think it was a sweet lesson that the Lord confirmed that whatever you need is, whatever your crisis is, if you’ve stored up God’s Word in your heart, He’s going to bring something really precious to mind.
Collin Hansen: John, we know God is good and we know that God is sovereign. This can be a difficult thing to reconcile theologically, it can also just be difficult to reconcile emotionally. How do we reconcile his sovereignty when we struggle to see his goodness during a pandemic with a virus that we can’t see?
John Piper: If I wanted to be really clever here, I could quote Charles Spurgeon. Why would you want to reconcile friends?
Collin Hansen: Right, exactly. Exactly.
John Piper: That’s been worked over long enough so I won’t go there because I really do think there is a problem and it’s not that simple to just say that and be done with it. I have two answers that I tried to make plain. One is the secret … It’s not a secret if you read the Bible, but the sweet secret of experiencing sovereignty as sweet in the midst of a bitter providence, and that’s exactly what I think it is. I don’t think it’s unbiblical to say that God has dealt bitterly with the world right now. It’s the bitter providence. And yet, I’m going to make the claim that Christians can experience sweetness in it.
John Piper: The key is this, knowing that the same sovereignty that could stop the virus and doesn’t is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it. That’s the key. In other words, if I give up sovereignty to protect his goodness, I lose the very power that enables him to work all things together for my good. That’s my first approach to reconciliation, is to say sovereignty, while it creates problems, on one hand, is the solution in that very problem on the other hand. But here’s the other one and I think this is really more important, and that is to realize for our sakes, for our children, I think for anybody that would listen, that God’s sovereignty is purposeful. Since it’s purposeful and he’s good and wise, his purposes are always good, even if you can’t see all of them.
John Piper: I mentioned in the book that God has billions of purposes in this. There’s 7 billion people being affected by this one way or the other, and He’s got 10 purposes for each of them, at least. Whatever that number is, 10 times 7 billion. I know, you know, 0.00001 percent of what he’s doing and only know it because what’s the Bible is true. I go to the Bible and I look at the story of Joseph sold into slavery. And at the end, you see God meant it for good, those brothers meant it for evil. That’s the sentence I write over the fall.
John Piper: Satan mean it for evil, God meant it for good. I write it over the crucifixion, Satan, meant it for evil. Judas, meant it for evil. God meant it for good. I write it over Ruth, I write it over Esther, I write it over Romans 8:32. It says, “God’s going to give us all things.” Then one of them is we’re being killed all day long and yet we’re more than conquerors. I think the answer is that our friends, the goodness of God and the sovereignty of God are not at odds. The key answer is his purposefulness in all of his painful providences are good.
Collin Hansen: My church happens to be going through the story of Joseph right now and a long exposition through Genesis, very kind of God in his providence to be able to guide us through that section of Scripture during this time. I find, John, even then, it’s still a fight for me to seize on to the Bible’s theological promises of future hope in Christ when I’m dragged down by today’s news. My job does not really afford me the ability to be able to avoid a lot of exposure to that news if I want to just put my head in the sand and try to get through that way. But how can I see these glorious promises you’re talking about here from scripture as they really are, which is more real than what I’m perceiving about my circumstances?
John Piper: The reason my mind goes here is because I’ve recently spent a lot of time since I had a trip to Asia canceled. I devoted all those weeks to working on Look at the Book, this video teaching thing that I do to Ephesians. I did 60 Look at the Books on Ephesians chapter one. I was so gloriously immersed in that chapter that when that question was asked of, “How can I see the promises for what they really are? How can I see them, know them, feel them, embrace them, live in the power of them?” It hit me. That is the question that Paul was thinking when he wrote Ephesians 1. The reason I know that is because when he gets to the prayer in verse 16, and he prays that we would have a spirit of Revelation and the knowledge of him, he says, “I want the eyes of your hearts to be opened, enlightened to know.”
John Piper: And that’s better than Devil knowledge, right? The Devil knows these things but he hates them. This is experiential, joyful, embracing knowledge that you may know, three things, the hope to which you’ve been called, the glory of your inheritance and the immeasurable greatness of God’s power that he worked in you when he raised Jesus from the dead. That, I think, is precisely what you’re asking. How can I know? How can I feel? How can I see? I have an inheritance, I know I have a great hope, I know God died for me and that there’s a great power exerted toward me to raise me from the dead. That’s exactly what he’s writing to, that you may know this.
John Piper: The first answer is pray like Paul did. I mean, this is a prayer. He’s praying for the Ephesian believers that they would experience the life walloping power of those three glorious realities. Here’s the other thing, he doesn’t pray until he’s written the longest sentence in the Bible. Verses three to verse 14 is all one sentence and it’s all about, “You were chosen. You were predestined for adoption. You were redeemed by the blood of Christ. There are riches of grace for you. There’s lavish wisdom and insight for you. He’s going to sum up everything in Christ. He works everything together for the counsel of his will. He’s guaranteeing your inheritance by sealing you with the spirit all to the praise of his glory.”
John Piper: He writes these breathtaking descriptions of who we are in Christ and how we got there and what God’s doing to keep us there, then he prays. I just see theology in prayer, that is no God with your head and pray down the Holy Spirit until that knowledge simply blows you away. It’s just so encouraging to me that Paul structured Ephesians 1 exactly that way. That’s the way it is. How many verses is that? 11 verses of theology and it’s the richest in the world and then comes, “God, grant these Ephesians to know this.” Feel this, love this, live in this. That’s the way I feel about right now, it’s what we feel about my family. I feel about the people I love at Desiring God, about some college and seminary. We got lots of theology. We’re ready for this. We’re theologically ready, but are we ready? Are we spiritually, heart ready? That’s all the difference when we need the Holy Spirit.
Collin Hansen: It was also kind of God, the M’Cheyne Reading Plan has just gone through Ephesians and Colossians. With those wonderful prayers from Paul, while at the same time, we’re just diving in now into the Psalms, which is wonderful. That plan never fails because God’s Word never fails. Amazing how timely it is, no matter what happens to be scrolling through our Twitter timelines.
John Piper: Oh, my goodness.
Collin Hansen: Speaking of which, there are some Christians who might think it’s presumptuous for us to ask what is God doing through the Coronavirus. But you argue this new book, Coronavirus and Christ, that it’s not presumptuous to ask that question. Why?
John Piper: If God hadn’t said anything, it would be presumptuous because what I think doesn’t matter at all. I try to make that clear in the book, that my opinion and yours, Collin, and no other human being’s opinion counts for anything when it comes to things like this. But God has spoken and he’s given us his Word. And that Word is not silent about sovereignty, it’s not silent about suffering, it’s not silent about his wisdom, not silent about his purposefulness. Therefore, when you put together God’s sovereign, purposeful, wisdom in all things, it would be in my judgment, absurd—indeed, blasphemous—to say that God has no purposes in what he’s doing in the most historically amazing thing that’s ever happened. I say that as an overstatement because it’s unique.
John Piper: I mean, all the other plagues that have come and gone haven’t been quite like this just because of the connectedness of the world. They’ve been worse, maybe, in their mortality. But this one, we’re watching in real time touch every nation in the world. If that’s true, if it’s that big, if there’s a God, he’s got purposes. Then the only question is, has he said anything that would clue us into what they are? I’ve read my Bible now for 65 years. I know that there are many, many things God has to say about this. I mentioned six of them in the book. Let me just bullet two or three things.
John Piper: In Luke 13, he’s confronted with, “What about the people on whom the Tower of Siloam fell?” He looks them right in the eye and says, “You’re astonished that that tower fell upon them? It’s not about them, it’s about you. Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” I think that is Jesus’s way of saying whenever you begin to speculate about what other people, how they had sinned, when something horrible happens to them, you should pause and realize, “No, horrible things are in the world to cause you to repent.” It’s a summons to repent and I don’t think it would be at all a stretch to say that applies to this moment. I think God is summoning the world to repent and realign their lives with the infinite worth of Jesus.
John Piper: Or Paul’s experience in 2 Corinthians 1 where he’s so devastated, he despairs of life itself. Then he says, “That was to help me rely not on myself but on God who raises the dead.” I don’t think it’s wrong to generalize and say, “Okay, if God brings Paul to the end of his rope through suffering, that he might rely upon God, then surely that would be a gracious purpose of God in bringing other peoples to the end of their rope.” I think probably most fundamental text and all the New Testament about suffering is Romans 8:19 to 23, where it’s connected to the fall and the fall is the description of how moral evil resulted in physical pain.
John Piper: I’ve pondered for years why is that? Why would the heart preference of Adam and Eve for Satan and for self over God, the heart preference, which introduced sin and death into the world, introduced death, misery into the world, why would God take that out on their bodies? Why would he take it out on nature with all kinds of futility and corruption? My answer is sin, by the very nature, is blinding to us. We don’t see the outrage of our hatred against God or belittling God or giving God less time than we give our hair. Nobody loses any sleep over that kind of treason. But let God touch our bodies, the bodies of our loved ones and then we really get our backup. Because bodies are precious to us, but not God. Not the belittling of God. That’s no big deal.
John Piper: But, “My cancer’s a big deal. My arthritis is a big deal. The wreck that I just had with somebody is a big deal.” I think God’s subjecting nature when nature didn’t do anything. God subjecting nature to futility and corruption is a drama put in front of people every day of their lives. Sin is this serious. The belittling of God is an outrage just as serious as the coronavirus and more. So I think Romans 8:19-23 is a profound analysis of why there is such misery in the world and what message it has for us. There are many other passages that would point us to what God is doing. I don’t think it’s right at all to say that it is presumptuous to ask God, from his Word, what he’s doing.
Collin Hansen: I think that’s the key. You talk about from his Word. You’re citing specific passages that have fairly general application. They could apply to any number of things individually and collectively. But as you said, the magnitude of this makes us think it’s not presumptuous to wonder if God’s trying to get our attention here.
John Piper: Right. When you hear when you read the book of Job, for example, it’s clear that the author wants us not to attribute Job’s suffering to his particular sins. The first sentence in the book is that he was a just and holy man. There was anybody as good Job in this author’s experience. What you’re about to read in this man’s tragic loss of children, loss of health is not about his personal sins. I don’t make any statement in this book about anybody’s particular sin being identified with their particular suffering, though that’s possible.
John Piper: I mean, God struck Herod down for his pride and he can do that to anybody he wants. But you can’t draw the inference, for sure, about that. But the book of Job is written for a reason. For a reason. And it’s to help us know that God has his purposes. As James sums it up is that God is merciful and gracious. That’s the lesson he wanted us to learn from the book of Job, “In God’s sovereignty over life and death and health.”
Collin Hansen: John, you’ve read N.T. Wright’s comments saying that it’s presumptuous to judge what God’s doing through the Coronavirus, but you disagree. You don’t think that’s presumptuous, what did you make of that article by N.T. Wright?
John Piper: Well, first of all, I assume that the title, which was quite provocative was not his choice. I don’t want to blame titles on anyone except the people who write them. And so maybe or maybe not. But I think he said enough in the article to warrant the title and therefore, it was not unduly provocative probably. I found the article really problematical at numerous levels and I consider N. T. Wright a friend. I mean, we’ve had our disagreements over the years, I consider him my brother. I think he’s brilliant, a lot smarter than I am, I think. He knows a lot more than I do about a lot of things.
John Piper: I don’t go after this article as going after somebody that I don’t like or don’t admire. There are times when I say, “N. T. Wright, please, what are you doing? This is just so unhelpful.” What I have in mind there is when he says … I think this is the most telling sentence, “What if there are moments,” he writes, “What if there are moments when the only advice is to wait without hope because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing.” Well, I just am not sure what he was trying to do with the sentence, “There are moments when the only advice is to wait without hope.” I think that’s not true.
John Piper: I don’t think there are any moments in the Christian life where we need to wait without hope. We are justified, we are free from condemnation. We have eternal life, we’ve been sealed for the day of redemption. There is always hope for the Christian. And so he must have meant something there different than what the word seemed to say. I don’t think that was a pastorally or theologically helpful sentence. I think it’s very strange to set up your position by caricature in other’s decisions as silly. It’s not silly to want to know what God is doing and to try to find out from the Bible.
John Piper: He calls it a knee-jerk would-be Christian reaction. It’s not knee-jerk. My life has been devoted to this for 50 years, it’s not knee-jerk. I hope it’s not would-be Christian, but really Christian. He calls it a reflection of rationalism. He just finds that as, “Everything must have an explanation.” No. No, everything doesn’t have to have an explanation that we know. Everything does have an explanation, God knows it. But it isn’t rationalism that wants to know why God does what He does.
John Piper: People long before the Enlightenment wanted to know why things were happening and got help from the Bible from the Bible’s general statements is what I deal with in this book. He says, “We string together dodgy speculations.” No. No, we’re not just stringing together. They’re not dodgy, they’re not evasive, they’re not tricky, they’re not speculations, they’re straight out of the Bible. He said, “Rationalists want explanations, romantics want a sigh of relief.” Actually everybody, deep down in their sober moments, want explanations and need help from the Bible. That’s why it’s written. The Bible is a very glorious, big, rich book and it is lavish grace that we are given wisdom and insight in the Bible as to what God is up to in the world.
John Piper: It’s not romanticism to want to have a sigh of relief. When he defines lament as what happens when the question why doesn’t get an answer, that’s simply too narrow. It’s taking one aspect of Scripture and using it to silence other aspects of Scripture. There are numerous laments, which are precisely in response to what we know exactly what is happening and it’s painful. Psalm 107 is a good example or Romans 8. I think the groaning of Romans 8 is lament. It’s groaning, “Oh God, oh God, I can hardly stand this pain that I’m in.” That’s what people who are born of God, full of the Holy Spirit feel when they’re dealing with the corruption and futility of this world and it’s not without explanation. That very chapter is full of rich help from God.
John Piper: I find that kind of setting up of his position, of not offering explanations over against caricatured silliness and dodginess and knee-jerk would-be people is really quite unhelpful. I hope people will look beyond that kind of counsel to the way the Bible really does give concrete, specific, helpful answers to people’s questions. It is so true that God is doing a billion things in this Coronavirus, and those billion things are unknown to us 99.999%.
John Piper: But he has said specific things in his Word that are so incredibly helpful about the reason God ordains pain in many of our lives. Those things are stated in such a way that it is not fanciful to draw a line from them to the coronavirus, which is what I tried to do in the last part of that book. So I was very disappointed and I hope that … I am sure that Dr. Wright in his pastoral labors with people does give them hope. So I’m really quite perplexed by what he wrote there.
John Piper: Where he said, “I command you. I command you. I command.” I think you said, “Demand that you …” And I thought to myself, Are you kidding me? Will he have any credibility when this is over? The answer is, “Yes, he will. Yes, he will.” Because people, if they can’t see what’s in the Scripture, then they probably won’t see what’s in front of their face unless God comes in power.
Collin Hansen: In preaching that passage in June, and you’ve done some work for me, which I appreciate. Were there not people who saw the reason Jesus who didn’t believe in him?
John Piper: Yes. Here’s the crazy thing …
Collin Hansen: That’s a prophecy even of his own experience. People would see the risen Christ, know that this man was resurrected and they still didn’t believe in him.
John Piper: Yeah. As soon as the possibility is revealed to the Pharisees, that the tomb is empty, they are immediately spinning it. Instead of going toward evidence as a possible undermining of their prejudices, they are spinning it to justify their own preferences. That’s the way they did all the way along. I think it needs to be said, Collin, and I didn’t see this for 20 years, where Jesus said, “The Pharisees were lovers of money.” You know, most people don’t think of Pharisees …
Collin Hansen: Judas himself.
John Piper: Judas, I can kind of get. He was a thief. But Pharisees are the embodiment of theological orthodoxy, but deep down, it says they were full of rapaciousness. Old-fashioned word for greed. They love money and they love the praise of man. Those two things are so powerful in the sinful human soul that you can put Coronavirus right in front of their face and they’ll say, “We can heal that. We’re going to heal that. We can drive that out.” I mean, sin is a scary thing. It is so unbelievably insane producing.
Collin Hansen: The parables are designed to keep the blind blind. Only the Lord opens the eyes. One thing that you write very hopefully about in this book is that you’re encouraged that you could foresee God’s purposes in the Coronavirus actually fueling global missions. We’d love to hear what you hope and what we can pray that God would do in that way.
John Piper: I was just so encouraged this morning. I got an email from J, D. Greer and I don’t think he’d mind me sharing this. He was thanking me for that section in the book. Because he’s just written a book to try to help people not waste their lives, get a vision for the unreached peoples, make much of their lives in global missions. He thought, “Shoot. It’s so poorly timed, because nobody can do anything and …”
Collin Hansen: Nobody can go anywhere.
John Piper: That’s right. Nobody can go anywhere so it looks like Satan’s getting the upper hand. And missions is being shut down to which he and I both want to say baloney. That’s just not the way God is. God suffers His cause to have tactical setbacks in order to get strategic victories. That’s the absolute biblical key. The text I use in the book to support it is Acts chapter eight, where eight chapters after being told, “Take this gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth,” and they’re still stuck in Jerusalem eight chapters into this history.
John Piper: What has to happen? Stephen has to be killed, persecution arising from Stephen to martyrdom has to arise and the saints are driven out of Jerusalem, every one of them. What do they do? They go preaching through where? Judea and Samaria. That’s not an accident in Luke’s account. So the point is, if God has to, he will use utterly unexpected means to get his mission accomplished. That’s one way. Right now we can’t see it. I can’t see it. I don’t know how that’s going to work. I just know he means to get this done. This gospel will be preached throughout the world as a testament to all the nations and then the end will come. It’s going to happen because the gates of hell can’t prevail against the church.
John Piper: But here’s a second thing of the way I think it works. Human beings tend to not go into missions because they’re just so settled. Everything is rosy, “I’ve got my plans. My business is going this way, my family’s going this way. I’ve got my retirement in view, blah, blah, blah.” And suddenly the world comes crashing down like this. What does God do? He takes a good tree and he loosens and he shapes it. So the roots are loose. Now if, God willing, this thing passes, what will they do with their lives? My guess is 10,000 that we’re going to do something different. I hope many of those are going to be oriented towards finishing the Great Commission.
John Piper: A third way is just the sense of eternity. I mean, my goodness, most people go through life with no sense of mortality, no sense of eternity. And right now, it’s pretty hard to go to bed at night having looked at some predictions and not think a little bit about whether you’re going to die. That’s such a good thing. It is a good thing. It’s good for our children. I think parents who try to hide this from their kids and not let them think any deep or scary thoughts or not thinking clearly about what it means to get their children ready to live in the real world. That’s another way that God could do it, is just shaking everybody into a sense of eternity really matters. God is real, sin is real, Christ is real, heaven and hell are real. Let’s go finish the Great Commission because we had a long eternity in front of us and life here is very, very fragile.
Collin Hansen: Amen. I have one more request for John Piper. His new ebook and audio book. John, I think this is the first audio book you’ve read yourself. Is that right?
John Piper: That’s true.
Collin Hansen: Okay. Excellent. So it’s available for free, desiringgod.org. You can also purchase the book on Amazon, published by Crossway. I want to make this request. At the end of the book, John, you conclude with a prayer. I would love for you to just read that aloud for our listeners. We’re just going to close that way, lead us and help us together to pray through this coronavirus.
John Piper: Okay. I’d be happy to do that, Collin. Father, at our best moments, by your grace, we are not sleeping in Gethsemane, we are awake and listening to your Son’s prayer. he knows deep down that he must suffer but in His perfect humanity, he cries out, “If it is possible, let this cup pass.” In the same way, we sense deep down that this pandemic is appointed in your wisdom for good and necessary purposes. We, too, must suffer. Your Son was innocent. We are not yet with him in our less than perfect humanity. We too cry out, “If it is possible, let this cup pass.”
John Piper: Do quickly, oh Lord, the painful just and merciful work you have resolved to do. Do not linger in judgment, do not delay your compassion. Remember the poor, oh Lord, according to your mercy. Do not forget the cry of the afflicted. Grant recovery, grant a cure. Deliver us, your people, helpless creatures from these sorrows, we pray. But do not waste our misery and grief, oh Lord. Purify your people from powerless preoccupation with barren materialism and Christless entertainment. Put our mouths out of taste with the bait of Satan.
John Piper: Cut from us the roots and remnant of pride and hate and unjust ways. Grant us capacities of outrage at our own belittling of Your glory. Open the eyes of our hearts to see and savor the beauty of Christ, incline our hearts to your word, your Son, your way, fill us with compassionate courage and make a name for yourself in the way your people serve. Stretch forth tour hand in great awakening.
John Piper: For the sake of this perishing world, let the terrible words of Revelation not be spoken over this generation, yet still they did not repent. As you have stricken bodies, strike now the slumbering souls. Forbid that they would remain asleep in the darkness of pride and unbelief, in your great mercy. Say to these bones, live and bring the hearts and lives of millions into alignment with the infinite worath of Jesus. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.