In Mark Jones’ recent post, “A Brief Wrap-Up,” we read the following:
[P]lease note that I firmly believe, with all my heart, that we are as justified as we will ever be when we first believe. We cannot ever lose our justification. When Christ returns we will enter heaven based purely on the imputed righteousness of Christ. Along the way to heaven we will do good works that God has prepared for us in advance to do. These works are not optional (Rom. 8:13), but they do not have the merit to justify us before God. They are simply the path we walk on to eternal life. I agree entirely with Zacharias Ursinus in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism on good works.
I also agree entirely with Ursinus (see HERE) and agree entirely with this brief summary. In fact, this was my understanding when I first read John Piper’s controverted post; I was nevertheless quite concerned by it.
Never was I concerned by anyone noting the necessity of good works or pointing out that fruits of faith will be presented at the Last Judgement, nor have I ever been concerned by the distinction between Right and Possession (so long as understood as it was by Calvin and Ursinus). None of that has ever really been the issue here, so far as I can see. Sure I have had issues with some of the feedback from Mark Jones, D. Patrick Ramsey, Justin Taylor, etc., which was in my opinion tainted by some questionable reading and cherry picking of the tradition —not to mention the truly shameful treatment of Rachel Miller. But the most disconcerting aspect of their responses is that none of them seemed to be addressing what was actually controversial about Piper’s post. Everything they wrote reads like a defense of their own views of the relation between good works and salvation, while never actually defending Piper and his statements.
Once Again: What Piper Actually Wrote
So I feel the need to reiterate yet again: in the original article by Piper the question proposed was, “Does God Really Save us by Faith Alone?” not “Are good works in some sense necessary?” And Piper does in fact answer his proposed question. And his answer is “no.” The Five Solas only apply to Justification, not to Salvation broadly considered.
The clause that allows these modifying prepositional phrases [the Solas] to do their wonderfully clarifying work for the sake of the essence of the gospel and the heart of the Reformation is the clause: We are justified before God… or Justification before God is…
Only after justification can the five prepositional phrases follow and do their magnificent work to define and protect the gospel from all unbiblical dilution.
All five phrases serve to modify God’s work of justification
Don’t Substitute with the Solas
In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith.
The five solas provide wonderful clarity about the crux of the Reformation and the heart of the gospel, if the clause that the five prepositional phrases modify is “Justification before God is…”
To repeat: Piper’s claim is that only Justification can be said to be by faith alone; “salvation” broadly considered is not by faith alone. In the words of his fellow Desiring God author Greg Morse,
[W]hat about being saved by faith alone? You’re not. You’re justified through faith alone. Final salvation comes through justification and sanctification — both initiated and sustained by God’s grace.
This is just plain false and completely contradicts the teaching of the Scripture and the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, not to mention the Reformed tradition and its doctors. Why do so many continue to pretend as though this was not the point of the piece and the actual point of contention? It is indeed frustrating.
I suppose many are under the impression that Piper was really just saying that one will not receive salvation without God bringing him through the path of good works, granting him not only the right to the reward but also bringing him into actual possession by means of Spirit wrought fruit. Good works are, after all, part of salvation itself. Again, no one actually disagrees with this. But Piper has said something very different. And the argument of the offending post is not born on September 25, 2017, but has been an aspect of his teaching for a few decades.
In 2009, Christianity Today offered a helpful summary of the then ongoing debate between John Piper and N. T. Wright. On the question of “Future Justification,” Piper describes his own position as the following:
Present justification is based on the substitutionary work of Christ alone, enjoyed in union with him through faith alone. Future justification is the open confirmation and declaration that in Christ Jesus we are perfectly blameless before God. This final judgment accords with our works. That is, the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives will be brought forward as the evidence and confirmation of true faith and union with Christ. Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation.
Though I could make many complaints about this formulation (and have), I want here to zero in on the last sentence.
I suppose I could take it to simply mean that there will always be a validating transformation in the justified; therefore there will necessarily be fruits that will accompany; therefore there won’t be anyone saved from the wrath to come who hasn’t also produced the fruits of this transformation. And so (one more therefore), “Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation.” I would like to think this is so, but I rather think there is something else here. It appears to me that future salvation is conditioned on the validating transformation, i.e., good works.
The Underlying Theological Problem
And there is a reason for this. Piper has always rejected Reformed Covenant Theology, particularly the Covenant of Works. To him, there simply was never such a thing. He writes,
Has God ever commanded anyone to obey with a view to earning or meriting life? Would God command a person to do a thing that he uniformly condemns as arrogant?
[…] You can’t earn from God by giving him what is already his. You can’t merit anything from God by offering work which God freely enables (1 Corinthians 15:10; Philippians 2:12-13). All things are from God, and therefore there is no bartering, negotiating, or earning with God. There is only trust in his free provision, or treason.
It is true that God commanded Adam to obey him, and it is also true that failure to obey would result in death. […] But the question is this: what kind of obedience is required for the inheritance of life—the obedience of earning or the obedience of trusting? The Bible presents two very different kinds of effort to keep God’s commandments. One way is legalistic; it depends on our own strength and aims to earn life. The other way we might call evangelical; it depends on God’s enabling power and aims to obtain life by faith in his promises, which is shown in the freedom of obedience.
[…] There was no hint that Adam was to earn or deserve. The atmosphere was one of testing faith in unmerited favor, not testing willingness to earn or merit. The command of God was for the obedience that comes from faith.
Piper continues to explain that while Adam had failed in this faith-obedience bringing the curse upon he and his posterity, Christ came to fulfill this faith-obedience.
Christ rendered to God the obedience of faith that Adam forsook. He fulfilled the Law perfectly in the way that the Law was meant to be fulfilled from the beginning, not by works, but by faith (Romans 9:32). Thus he obtained life for his people, not by wages, but by fulfilling the covenant conditions of a faithful Son.
And ultimately to our point,
We are called to walk the way Jesus walked and the way Adam was commanded to walk. (A Godward Life: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life, pp. 171-173)
This is the crux of the issue. The confessionally Reformed have always believed that Adam was offered life (either continued or eschatologically advanced) by covenant reward for perfect, personal, and complete obedience. Life and death were set before him according to simple justice with the rewards of simple covenant merit (meritum ex pacto). He sinned and failed in this Covenant and by justice received the sanction of death for he and his posterity. Christ came as the Second Adam to take up the terms of this Covenant. By His perfect righteousness He merited eternal life, and by the infinite value of His suffering bore the full wrath of God against sin. All those, therefore, united to Christ by true faith receive Him with all His merited benefits, according to perfect justice.
This leaves two options for mankind before the Throne of Judgement. Because God will judge according to strict justice, one either stands at the bar with his own merit in hand or the merit of Christ. The former are condemned already by their works, the latter Justified since the moment of Union with Christ. Thus, on the Last Day, one will receive his sentence according to whether he has saving faith or not—faith being the lone instrument of apprehending the merits of Christ, with works as evidence of its reality.
But the situation is different when the doctrine of the Covenant is jettisoned. Strictly speaking, for Piper, Adam was never to merit eternal life, Christ did not merit eternal life, and the redeemed sinner is to walk in the way that both Adam was supposed to and that Christ actually did: evangelical obedience, or faith-obedience. The deep contrast between works and faith found within the Reformed tradition is resolved in his scheme into a contrast between works seeking merit and works born of faith. So when Piper speaks of works being the fruits and proofs of true faith, it is not just evidence of actual merit apprehending faith in Christ, but faith-obedience itself. When Piper says that “Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation,” there is actual conditionality implied.
It is one thing to say that works are necessary to salvation because faith always includes fruits, God having ordained the one to always accompany the other; it is quite another thing to say that no one will be saved without good works. The distinction may seem minute, but it is quite grand indeed. There is necessity that is not conditionality, and there is conditionality that is not causal. In the reformed tradition, works always attend Justification as God has ordained the ordinary means to glory to include them and true faith necessarily produces them. But it is not the works that therefore apprehend Christ; it is the faith that receives Christ and His merits. Sure there are many “conditions” that must obtain in order for one to be saved, but we do not therefore consider them proper causes. Being rational is certainly an ordinary “condition” of being saved, but we do not call rationality a proper cause of salvation. The sending of a preacher is an ordinary “condition” of salvation, but we do not therefore call third party human instrumentality a proper cause of Justification. That some language exist is also a “condition,” but language is not the cause of salvation. In fact, even though faith is the instrumental cause of salvation, faith itself is nevertheless not properly to be considered a condition of salvation. In Herman Witsius’ words,
Nor do I think it an accurate way of speaking, that faith is the condition which the gospel requireth of us, in order to be accounted righteous and without guilt before God. The condition of justification, properly speaking, is perfect obedience only; this the law requires: nor does the gospel substitute any other; but declares that satisfaction has been made to the law by Christ our surety; moreover, that it is the office of faith to accept that satisfaction offered to it, and, by accepting, appropriate the same. (Economy of the Covenants, Bk. 3.8.52)
But when the hard distinction between works and faith is collapsed into a distinction between merit seeking works and faith wrought works, a third path is invented by extra-Biblical fiat, a path where good works can be required for salvation and salvation itself conditioned upon good works, while still adamantly maintaining that good works do not merit salvation. It is all of grace, right? It was never about merit, with Adam, Christ, or the redeemed sinner.
Piper: A “Sufficient” Amount of Fruit Required
This is how Piper writes:
Jesus says that doing the will of God really is necessary for our final entrance into the kingdom of heaven. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). He says that on the day of judgment he really will reject people because they are “workers of lawlessness.” “Then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:23). He says people will “go away into eternal punishment” because they really failed to love their fellow believers: “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:45-46).
There is no doubt that Jesus saw some measure of real, lived-out obedience to the will of God as necessary for final salvation. “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). (What Jesus Demands from the World, p. 160)
Piper later in the same text makes a distinction between “location and demonstration.” Justification “locates” one in Christ by faith, with God entirely “for us.” But good works are the demonstration that we are in this location. The demonstration of this location is again necessary in order to be saved. But no matter to Piper; it is all still by grace because Christ gives us what is necessary, and evangelical obedience is only partial anyhow, Christ supplying what is lacking.
God establishes our location through faith alone. But he has ordained that it be fitting for the location to have a demonstration in the world. This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It is necessary, not optional. That is, Jesus assumes that if there is no demonstration of our location in God’s favor, then the location does not exist. Jesus says this demonstration is necessary for final salvation (as we say, going to heaven), because God wills to be glorified both for the grace of establishing our location in his eternal favor once for all and for the grace of supplying the help we need to demonstrate this location by our conduct. None who is located by faith in God’s invincible favor will fail to have all that is necessary to demonstrate this in life.
The assurance that our demonstration will be infallibly enabled by God rests on numerous realities. For example, (1) Jesus promises that nothing can snatch us out of his hand (John 10:28- 29). (2) He promises that a Helper will come and not leave us to ourselves in this battle (John 14:16, 26; 15:26). (3) Jesus himself promises to be with us to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). (4) Jesus prays that our faith will not fail and that the Father will keep us (Luke 22:32; John 17:11, 15). (5) Jesus assumes imperfection and makes provision for it (Matt. 6:12). (6) Jesus taught that what is required of us, even when it is impossible from our side, is not impossible with God (Matt. 19:26). (7) What is required in our demonstration is that there be evidence of God-given life, not flawlessness. These and other truths give us assurance that God’s work in our lives will bring about the grace-exalting demonstration required in the last day. (Ibid., p. 210)
Thus, Piper supposedly maintains his Calvinistic bona fides. Again, it is all of grace, right? So no problem with there being the condition of evangelical obedience, right?
And finally, after exploring the Biblical metaphor of trees and fruits, he concludes with the following:
In other words, a tree is cut down not for bad fruit here and there. It is cut down for producing so much bad fruit that there is no evidence that the tree is good. What God will require at the judgment is not our perfection, but sufficient fruit to show that the tree had life—in our case, divine life. (Ibid., p. 211)
This is simply not Reformed doctrine. It is not confessional doctrine. It is not Biblical doctrine. It is not the doctrine of Luther, Calvin, Ursinus, Turretin, the Westminster Divines, or even Twisse (in Latin). To say that the presence of “sufficient fruit” is required for salvation is to move beyond the Reformed distinction of Right vs. Possession and into a position where salvation is literally conditional upon good works. And just saying that the obedience required doesn’t have to be perfect, and that everything necessary to this obedience will be provided by grace anyhow, does not allay the concern.
Conclusion: No More Shade
In conclusion, I suppose we could assume that John Piper didn’t actually mean what he wrote. Maybe he was really just trying to say exactly what Mark Jones summarized in his brief wrap-up (even though he doesn’t actually share the theological underpinnings to do so). Maybe Piper is just a misunderstood theologian who is not precise enough, or accidentally misuses words and phrases (that have been debated for hundreds of years). Maybe. But the fact is, he did actually say it and has actually written it, and has done the same for decades. Regardless of intent or motive or heart or whatever, he has told the world that salvation is not in fact by (or through) faith alone—only Justification is.
And to be at my most charitable: even if Piper really didn’t mean it at all the way he said it, I tend nevertheless to agree with Ursinus’ response to those of his day who would speak of works as necessary for salvation:
[W]e would prefer not to use these forms of speech, 1. Because they are ambiguous. 2. Because they breed contentions, and give our enemies room for caviling. 3. Because these expressions are not used in the Scriptures with which our forms of speech should conform as nearly as possible. (See HERE for context)
Or better yet, the Marrow Men:
[S]ince this way of speaking of holiness with respect to salvation, is, we conceive, without warrant in the holy Scripture, dissonant from the doctrinal standards of our own and other reformed churches, as well as from the chosen and deliberate speech of reformed divines treating on these heads; and since it being at best but proposition male sonans, may easily be mistaken, and afterwards improved, as a shade or vehicle, for conveying corrupt sentiments, anent the influence of works upon salvation; we cannot but reckon preaching the necessity of holiness in such terms to be of some dangerous consequence to the doctrine of free grace. (See HERE for context)
A Final Plea
In the end, I know I am nobody. I know I’m just a cabinet maker with a stack of books and a Kindle app. But I nevertheless make this final plea to any and all of my Presbyterian and Reformed brethren who will listen: Please, either defend what Piper has actually said and written, or cease offering “a shade…for conveying corrupt sentiments.”
P.S. Yes, we know Piper doesn’t deny Justification by Faith Alone. And no, he is not a heretic; quite the opposite.
Dr. Mark Jones has kindly responded to this post here: “Piper ‘Plagiarizing’ Thomas Goodwin?”
I have likewise replied to his response here: “Right vs. Possession: A Last Bit of Shelter For John Piper?“