Right vs. Possession: A Last Bit of Shelter For John Piper?



I concluded my most recent post with this plea: Either Defend What Piper Actually Wrote, or Stop Offering Shade. Dr. Mark Jones was kind enough to respond in his post, “Piper ‘Plagiarizing’ Thomas Goodwin?

The content of his response was largely just pointing out (1) that not everyone in the Reformed Tradition has agreed that Adam was offered life by merit, and (2) that Thomas Goodwin wrote something on Sanctification so close to Piper, that it is possible there is plagiarism (obviously in jest).  Indeed, the words are very close. The content? Not so close. I hope to show this below.

Its About the Beginning and the End

The emphasis throughout my previous post was not so much on the doctrine of Sanctification, but rather on Final Salvation. Certainly there are senses in which we can say that Sanctification is sola fide and senses we cannot. As Turretin says, good works are “constitutive” of Sanctification. To say that having faith alone—in the sense of having no active obedience—is to nevertheless be in process of Sanctification is not so much false as it is simply a category mistake or a misuse of the words.  It’s like saying one could be healthy without having any biological ingredients of good health. Good works (in part) simply constitute Sanctification, as we have defined the term.

But what I have actually been concerned about from the beginning is that John Piper has set different terms for the beginning of our Salvation than for the end. I have criticized elsewhere this progressive view of salvation that treats Justification as just the first hurdle to be cleared before we move on to the next stage (see HERE). Justification is not just the first step from which we move on into the rest of the benefits of saving Union with Christ. It is the declaration at the beginning of what will be at the end. Justification is the definitive, present, juridical, and authoritative pronouncement on the whole of the believer’s walk to Glory. But it seems different for Piper. The beginning (Justification) is by faith alone, but the end (the verdict on the Last Day) is by a different standard, faith and fruits.

This is the reason I bring up Piper’s rejection of the Covenant of Works. Not to discuss whether Adam could merit life, ex pacto, condign, congruent, or otherwise. It was to point out that Christ has merited life by strict justice; this is the merit that will be required of us on the last day, either His or ours, and it must be perfect. And thus, the terms are the same at the end as at the beginning: perfect righteousness according to strict justice, either His or ours. Faith alone is that which apprehends Christ and His merit; as such faith alone apprehends all that is required by perfect justice, both at the beginning and at the end. But for one who rejects the notion of merit outright, there is clearance to change the terms from the beginning to the end. And then all he has to do is say that it is God who provides the grace necessary to all who are Justified to meet the end terms just as He did the beginning terms; that is the “sufficient” amount of fruit will be graciously provided.

Let’s remember exactly what Piper has written:

Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation.

Jesus says that doing the will of God really is necessary for our final entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

He says that on the day of judgment he really will reject people because they are “workers of lawlessness.”

There is no doubt that Jesus saw some measure of real, lived-out obedience to the will of God as necessary for final salvation.

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.

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. (See previous post for citations and context)

Right vs. Possession: A Last Bit of Shelter?

The last-ditch shelter for Piper, so far as I can tell, is to claim for him that he is just speaking about the distinction between Right and Possession.  Well, if that is so, Piper himself must not understand the distinction at all, by name or concept. In this clarifying distinction of the Divines, Right is not equated to Justification and Possession to Final Salvation; that is, the “right to salvation” is not a synonym for “initial Justification” and “possession of salvation” a synonym for “Final Salvation”. We can stick with Thomas Goodwin, as Dr. Jones has begun, to explicate this. Goodwin helpfully summarizes the distinction while assessing Ephesians 2:

[Right] 1. One is an investing us with a right, a title, a tenure, an interest in all benefits of salvation, be they what they will; to give us a formal, sure, legal, authentical interest, according to the rules of the word, to all benefits of salvation, whether in this world or in the world to come.

[Possession] 2. Or in the second place, there is an actual possession, or, if you will, rather call it an accomplishment of all the parts of salvation and works of God in us, which God carrieth on in us by degrees, works holiness in us by degrees, whereof quickening is the beginning; works glory in us by degrees, first raising us and then filling us with glory in heaven. (Works, Bk. 2, p. 315)

You see, the distinction is not that one gets the right to salvation in Justification by faith alone and then later gets the possession of salvation through faith and fruit at the Judgement. No, not at all. God gives the right to the whole of salvation upon faith in Christ—every benefit of Salvation included. Thus we read of the Right in Goodwin,

[H]ere is whole salvation in the very lump, it is all given at once, given at first; the whole of it as it lay in the womb of God’s decree and free grace, it is completely, according to the right and title of it, bestowed upon us at once, and it is received through faith. “By grace ye are saved through faith,” saith he[…]. They are, I say, all bestowed upon us at once; all that are, or as they are, acts of God upon us; that great salvation, “so great salvation,” as the Apostle calls it, is given all at once: and by grace ye are thus saved, completely and fully, and this as soon as you believe, eodem die, as Jerome speaks. Here is the greatest gift that ever was given; “not of yourselves,” saith he, “it is the gift of God.” The Apostle hath penned the words so that they will refer as well to salvation as to faith. It is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, the whole lump of salvation is. And by grace ye are thus saved; salvation in the lump of it, it is given to you by grace, and received by faith. (p. 316)


Now then, this same right to salvation, and to the whole of salvation, and all that ever you shall have, it is truly and properly called salvation. Why? You were once sinners: for you to be saved from your sins, saved from wrath, to have a kingdom added to it, and to have a right to all the blessings that ever the grace of God means to bestow, and to have all this reputed yours, this is to be saved truly and properly[…]. Now when he [Paul] saith God saveth us, his meaning is, he saveth us as a judge, as the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, by endowing us with the pardon of all sin, and righteousness, and adoption, and whatever else; which are all forensical actions, actions of a judge, without us. (p. 317)

This is the Right to Salvation.  It is the “whole lump” granted by title, the beginning and the end, the initial Justification and the final entrance into Glory (see Goodwin on Eph. 2:6 for more). The “Right” is to the beginning of Salvation as well as the consummation.  And this is all by faith alone. Why?

There is nothing else but faith could have taken in the whole of salvation completely. “We are sanctified by degrees, we shall be glorified many years hence; it is glory reserved to the latter day ; we have it by parcels in the possession. “What grace is there that could take in the whole at once? that could look to all that is to come and to all that is past?” Nothing else but faith. The Apostle, when he saith here, ‘ye are saved,’ he referreth to what he had said before: we sit, saith he, ‘in heavenly places in Christ,’ and we are ‘risen with Christ;’ these are things to come, if we respect the actual bestowing of them. The right we have now, what can take this right in? Nothing but faith can make me see myself sit in heavenly places with Christ, and see myself risen with Christ. Faith can take in all that was done before the world was, can take in all that God means to do, yea, and give a subsistence thereunto. Love cannot do this; love may make a fancy of the party, but it cannot make the party present; but faith makes all these things present. (p. 335)

[S]o faith is that which doth immediately receive it, receive the whole of salvation.(p. 323)

So, what then is the distinction that makes for Possession? The distinction is that possession is given by degrees:

Now there is this difference between these two, that the one is given at once, and the other the Lord doth give by degrees, and go on to perfect it one after another. (p. 316).

This is because Possession is the actual transformation of the believer in time into the image of God.  It is the existential reception and enjoyment of the benefits flowing from God and consummating in the eternal reward. We may even say it is the possession of good works themselves, having already received the right to them. Good works are, after all, a part of Salvation itself—the blessed freedom from the tyranny of sin and the Devil. As quoted above, Possession is indeed “actual possession, or, if you will, rather call it an accomplishment of all the parts of salvation and works of God in us, which God carrieth on in us by degrees, works holiness in us by degrees, whereof quickening is the beginning; works glory in us by degrees, first raising us and then filling us with glory in heaven.”


This is all dramatically different than what Piper has written. The Right includes Justification and Final Salvation, and both on the same terms: faith alone. Why? Because faith alone apprehends the merits of Christ, the perfect righteousness that will be required on the last day. God will not lower the standard at the end to let sinners slip by with their meager, meritless works, just because we’ve decided to call it “evangelical obedience.” Again, why? Because the standard is the same at the beginning as well as at the end. As such, I agree wholly with Witsius that “the justification in the next world is not to be so very much distinguished from the justification in this world” (Economy of the Covenants, Bk. 3.8.77).

If Piper really just wants to say what Goodwin has, he had better start soon. It would do he and his readers a great service. But so far, he just plain hasn’t.

22 thoughts on “Right vs. Possession: A Last Bit of Shelter For John Piper?

  1. Sam Powell October 26, 2017 / 1:59 pm

    Again, fantastic post, Brad. Very well done. You nailed it perfectly.
    The difference can be seen in question 114 and 115 of the Heidelberg. No one can keep the law as God requires, so why does God so strickly command us to keep it? Why the warnings? So that we might never forget our sinful nature, and never cease to beg God for the gift of the Spirit. It isn’t so that we can work harder, try more, or live in despair, guilt or deception. But so that we might know Christ more. That is everything.


  2. Alex Harris October 26, 2017 / 2:55 pm

    You said, “It was to point out that Christ has merited life by strict justice; this is the merit that will be required of us on the last day, either His or ours, and it must be perfect. And thus, the terms are the same at the end as at the beginning: perfect righteousness according to strict justice, either His or ours.” What passage proves this? I can think of many passages that do not speak this way at all, not to mention our sin will not be counted against us.

    Thanks, Alex


  3. John October 26, 2017 / 3:00 pm

    Right on. Ditto Sam.


  4. Barbara Roberts October 26, 2017 / 11:41 pm

    Like Sam Powell said above, this is a fantastic post, Brad. You nailed it perfectly. I hope Mark Jones reads it and comments here on it, rather than giving this thoughts on his fb page or on Calvinist International.

    As you rightly observed in this post, Brad —
    “Thomas Goodwin wrote something on Sanctification so close to Piper, … Indeed, the words are very close. The content? Not so close.”

    On his fb page Mark Jones stated that he did his PhD on Goodwin. Perhaps when MJ first read Piper’s statement, his mind leapt to seeing it through a Goodwin lens because he knows Goodwin so well. I hope he is now willing to reconsider what Piper said and recalibrate his understanding of Piper.

    And thank you Sam Powell for pointing out how questions 114 and 115 of the Heidelberg Catechism are relevant to Brad’s post.

    bless you Brad.


  5. Amy Mantravadi October 27, 2017 / 2:33 pm

    Here is what I would like to know from Piper, and if I listened to all his sermons and read all his books I would probably figure it out, but I have not the time at the moment. When he says “faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne”, does he mean it is confirmed to the individual, to others, or to God? We just read a quote from Vos yesterday that suggested it was a testimony to OTHERS, not to God. This is what I want to know. If it cannot be certain that our faith is saving faith until it is backed up by our good works, then what are the implications for God’s foreknowledge? No, I can’t possibly believe that people can consistently say salvation is monergistic, or that God is completely sovereign, and then suggest that something at the final judgment has to “prove” to God that we really meant it. Any scriptural language that talks this way is describing how God proclaims at the final judgment the justification we already had, or that we are being judged for some kind of rewards (not the mansion kind), or alternatively, that all of this is evidence to human beings and not to God. The Lord knows whom He has effectually called and He knows that they will persevere. He knows that their faith is truly saving faith. The only people who need assurance are human beings. God doesn’t need an outward testimony of our faith when He knows the depths of our hearts. Am I off base here? So either Piper is using language poorly, or he is holding beliefs inconsistently. Well, someday I will read more of those books and figure it out.


    • Barbara Roberts October 27, 2017 / 2:45 pm

      That’s a good question, Amy.

      My view, from having read a moderate amount of what Piper has written, is that when he says “faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne”, he mean it is confirmed to God.

      Never once have I read him explaining that he means that sanctifying fruit confirms our faith to ourselves or to others.


      • Brad Mason November 1, 2017 / 8:49 am

        I think that is absolutely true. If God doesn’t see the lamp light, HE turns off the power. Yikes!


  6. AJ October 27, 2017 / 7:14 pm

    Piper has a tendency to use language in a different way. From having read Piper, I think he is saying that when we stand before God, He will show us and others, that we have truly believed and here is what our faith looked like in action, words, and mind. If God opens His book and no evidence of good works (which in some degree has to be present), then that person never had a true saving faith. So in that sense, Piper is right that it is faith alone that justifies, but for true final salvation it is by faith alone and the good works, which will be impossible to not have as a true Christian will confirm this faith as true to us and others. Finally, I think Piper may be saying if you add Christianity to your life, that may not be a truly saving faith, compared to Christianity should BE your life. Many people have added Christianity to their lives and it may be the most important, but Christ needs to BE our life instead and those will perseverve. If Piper is indeed saying these things, I have no argument with him.


  7. Ted Beam October 27, 2017 / 10:23 pm

    I think Piper deserves every single critique he gets when it comes to the clarity of his writing. If his Wikipedia page is accurate, he has published 54 books! As someone who studied English and edits professionally, I cannot accept the statement “Piper has a tendency to use language in a different way” when speaking of a published author. Especially a Christian author who seeks to instruct in doctrine. This is the little drum that I will keep beating as an observer in these debates about Piper (that never seem to recede). He has a large fan base (if you’ll allow me to somewhat cynically use that phrase) who take his words to heart and who have never read Thomas Goodwin.


    • Barbara Roberts October 29, 2017 / 6:32 pm

      Amen to what Ted Beam said.

      I’m not a professional editor, but I’ve been a volunteer editor. I agree that a person who has published over 50 titles ought to be able to avoid ambiguity and lack of clarity in what they write.

      I conclude that Piper is intentionally ambiguous and unclear in his writing. I think he knows full well that if he remains unclear, it will be harder for people to discern what he really believes and harder for them to discern that his is (a) teaching a heretical doctrine of salvation and (b) being cruel to victims of marital mistreatment in his doctrines of marriage and divorce.


    • Brad Mason November 1, 2017 / 8:46 am

      Very good point! I think we’ve all been as charitable as possible, but being a native speaker of the English language is all that is really required to understand him after 54 books and thousands of articles. Thank you for reading!


  8. Tim October 30, 2017 / 8:06 am

    Thank you for clarifying sound doctrine and exposing Piper’s mistaken teachings. He has been dividing up salvation in such a way as to sat faith and grace are not the sole means of receiving all aspects of salvation. It’s a sad day when someone claims to be a minister of the gospel but then preaches opposite to the gospel.


  9. tiluenkendhal October 23, 2019 / 11:07 am

    what does he mean by “Love cannot do this; love may make a fancy of the party, but it cannot make the party present; but faith makes all these things present.”?


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