A Heart & Mouth Wrap-up on the John Piper “Sola Fide” Controversy

collage revised

(^Note the displeased Mr. Luther above.^ Yes…we are still debating Salvation by Faith Alone.)

Well, I think we have written enough on John Piper. I nevertheless thought it might be helpful to collect everything that has been published on Heart & Mouth on the subject into one place, as a shareable resource for the interested. I have also added a short tl;dr for each post below. Lord willing this will allow folks to pick and choose according to their particular interests, or at least grasp at a summary level the arguments that have been made.

One thing should be noted throughout: this debate is not so much with Piper himself, but rather with his Presbyterian and Reformed defenders. John Piper is John Piper, and it seems to me he just makes it up as he goes. The original post that kicked off this debate afresh, “Does God Really Save us by Faith Alone?”, was awful, but par for the course as far as I could tell. The real surprise was how many folks were willing to come out and attack Rachel Miller’s reaffirmation of salvation sola fide in response to Piper. And no, not fellow Bethlehem Baptists, but Presbyterian and Reformed teachers and pastors. It was this that was troubling and demanded response.

(1) Rachel Miller Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper, Part 1

In this first post we considered the claim that all John Piper was really saying is that there is no justification without good works attending, both being benefits of union with Christ. This point was indeed granted; but the instrument of this union with Christ is faith alone. We demonstrated this from the Scripture, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Ursinus’ commentary on the Catechism. The very inseparability of the benefits of union with Christ, and the fact that faith alone is the instrumental cause of this union, demonstrates that Salvation is properly Sola Fide. Thus, we concluded:

Either Piper and his defenders (1) must reject the doctrine of vital, existential, and personal Union as the sole means to all Christ’s benefits, Regeneration/Sanctification/Glorification included; or (2) must believe that these benefits are separable and can therefore have differing instrumental causes (contrary to Urisnus in the quote above); or (3) must believe that Union itself is conferred by both faith and works. Each of these options contradict the Reformed Confessions, and more importantly, the Scripture.

(2) Rachel Miller Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper, Part 2: “Salvation”

In part 2 of this series, we considered the claim that all that Piper was really saying is that “salvation” is a broader term than just “justification.” Justification is by faith alone, but there is more to salvation than simply justification. We granted this as well and demonstrated from the Scripture that there is indeed a past, present, and future sense of “salvation.” But, we argued, this is not to be seen as a progression wherein justification is granted, then one begins sanctification, and then at the End the whole of the life is judged and final salvation granted accordingly. Rather, justification is the present declaration of the future verdict of “not guilty” and “perfectly righteous” in Christ.

Justification is not just the first step from which one moves 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 believers walk to Glory; that is, a pronouncement on the whole of what constitutes Salvation in its broadest sense. Justification answers our guilt in Adam, both now and at the Last Judgement. This declaration is true and unchanging from the moment of faith and Union, through the entire course of Regeneration, Sanctification, and Glorification. It pronounces the end at the beginning and all along the way. And how are we Justified—how do we receive this holistic declaration of “not guilty” and “perfectly righteous?” By faith alone. Sola Fide.

(3) Rachel Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper: Part 3, Beginning at the End: The Marrow Men

In the third article of this series, we began to consider the Reformed tradition with reference to salvation sola fide and the nature and necessity of good works. Many have argued that Piper was really just saying what the best lights of the tradition had already said before, particularly the 17th century Divines. But rather than beginning in the 17th century, I decided to begin closer to the end, with the joint declarations of the Marrow Men in the 18th century. Since I think their words state my position well, I quoted a few of their answers to the Scottish Synod in full. It is almost as if they were responding to John Piper and his defenders when they concluded,

Wherefore, since 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.

We then moved back to Martin Luther with the intention of justifying the position of the Marrow Men from the previous Reformed tradition. Thus far we have reviewed the following theologians:

Salvation Sola Fide: Martin Luther and the Fruits of Faith

Salvation Sola Fide: John Calvin and the Causes of Salvation

Salvation Sola Fide: Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism

Salvation Sola Fide: Johannes Wollebius; From Justification to Glorification

More will be added, with Francis Turretin up next.

(4) Piper, “Final Salvation” and Reformed Baptists

In this post, fellow Heart & Mouth author Philip Comer attacks the very concept of “final salvation.” He argues forcefully that adding “final” to salvation is like saying, “I’m sorry…but”; the “but” deletes the “sorry.” To say that there is a final salvation distinct from the initial is to deny there is any salvation in this life at all.

Adding the phrase final salvation to the equation doesn’t actually add anything to salvation, it only cancels out initial part of it—and this by definition. Because either initial salvation was the real, indestructible, once-for-all eternal life Jesus promised or it wasn’t. Either we really have passed from death to life when God declared us to be righteous now and forever or we didn’t receive the declaration and the jury is still out. To take a human example, either your marriage vows made at the altar were valid or they weren’t. Either you’re pregnant or you’re not. If you defend the idea of a final salvation then you have necessarily abandoned the idea of an initial salvation altogether. Only one of those words can be attached to salvation and you have to decide which one it is.

(5) A Plea: Either Defend what Piper Actually Wrote, or Stop Offering Shade

Having made many arguments against Piper and his defenders, I began to marvel that nearly every defense I had read was not actually even defending Piper’s teaching. Every piece seemed to be just taking specific quotes from his recent controverted blog post and then pairing them with similar sounding words and phrases from orthodox Reformed theologians. No attention was given at all to the wider system of doctrine that Piper has presented over the years. Piper rejects the Covenant of Works, the notion of merit (even for Christ the surety), and sees the graciousness of salvation as God’s promise to give the “sufficient” fruit required on the Last Day. Knowing that his Presbyterian and Reformed defenders do not actually hold to his system of doctrine, I pleaded with them to either defend what he has actually taught, or please stop granting a cover for his errors. We concluded,

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.

[…]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.”

(6) Right vs. Possession: A Last Bit of Shelter for John Piper?

Dr. Mark Jones graciously responded to the plea above, but once again with a quote from Thomas Goodwin that only sounds a lot like what Piper had written. Dr. Jones then concluded (once again) that John Piper was really just infelicitously employing the Reformed Scholastic distinction between Right to Salvation and Possession of Salvation. But this, completely misses the mark. Either Dr. Jones was not actually interested in defending what Piper has really taught over the years, or he himself does not understand Goodwin. It must be the latter. After reviewing Goodwin’s writing on the subject, we concluded that the Right to Salvation includes “the whole lump” (Goodwin’s words); viz., not only justification but also final salvation. Justification does not equal Right and final salvation does not equal Possession. There is a right to the whole and a possession of the whole. And the right to the whole lump is had by faith alone. And the Possession is not some future and final salvation, it is simply 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 by faith alone. Good works are, after all, a part of Salvation itself—the blessed freedom from the tyranny of sin and the Devil.

Thus, we concluded:

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).

(7) What Precisely is the Disagreement with John Piper?

This post answers the question posed in the title. After many discussions, it became clear that some still believed that we were arguing that Piper was denying Justification by faith alone, or that one can be justified but fail to enter heaven. No, we know that’s not what Piper is teaching. His whole point was that only justification is by faith alone (it is the “only” there that we disagree with). The point is that Piper has always taught a very different model of how one gets from the beginning of salvation to the end of salvation—his model differing sharply with the Reformed Confessions and tradition. Piper teaches that, along with faith, good works and personal covenant keeping are conditions proper that must be met in order to enter heaven. We demonstrate this from Piper’s own writings, especially from his book Future Grace.

It is one thing to say that one will be saved on the Last Day because Christ has met, on our behalf, all the conditions of perfect righteousness required by God; it is quite another thing to say that one will be saved on the Last Day because one has personally met the conditions of faith and sufficient fruit, even though both are by God’s grace. The former can unequivocally say that we are saved by faith alone, since faith alone apprehends what is justly required by God: perfect, personal, and complete obedience. But the latter cannot say that we are Saved by faith alone, even if we were previously Justified by faith alone. Why? Because on Model Two [Piper’s model] we are Finally Saved by faith plus fruit.

(8) John Piper: “God never taught Adam or his Second Adam to do the Galatian Heresy”

This post is really just an addendum to the post above. More evidence, in his own words, is offered to show that his system varies widely from the Reformed tradition. He states unequivocally that he rejects the Covenant of Works, any system of merit, and rejects the Reformed understanding of sanctification. Oh, and Christ did not come to “earn” salvation, but rather became a Christian Hedonist in order to save us.

(9) Piper, “Grace”, and Baptists, a Follow-on

Again Philip Comer forcefully takes on John Piper, but in this post widens his target to include the whole concept of “grace” as it appears in much of Baptistic theology. Grace is often seen not so much as the passive reception of another’s righteousness, but as divine help along the way in displaying the faith, heart, and works required to be saved. John Piper speaks of faith itself as meeting the first condition of salvation, and it is the quality of this faith that is emphasized over against the quality of that which it passively grasps. In reality, Comer argues, salvation is extra nos. But for Piper and many others of the Baptist persuasion, faith itself includes the qualities—e.g., love—that make it a proper virtue for meeting the conditions that must be met to be saved in the end. On this scheme, the inner life of the believer is stressed over against the objective work done on his behalf unto salvation. For Comer, there is a fundamental conflict of worldviews underlying this controversy.

Both agree on the necessity of both, but if one has to be stressed uniquely, the Baptist thinks it should be faith. To the Baptist, it’s important to conclude service by inviting people to faith, while to the Reformed what matters is attending to the means of grace, thank you very muchAnd these two worldviews run along completely different fault lines for everything. To the Reformed, baptism is God’s pledge toward us (and should include infants); to the Baptist it’s our pledge toward God and should only be done by sincere adults. To the Reformed, the church is those gathered together; to the Baptist it’s only those inwardly, invisibly gathered. To the Baptist grace lifts us up; to the Reformed graces reaches down. The one is subjective, the other objective.

(10) Double Justification, Quadruple Justification, and the Defense of John Piper

In this, I presume, last post on the subject, I react to the currently trending Piper defense, that the Reformers and Reformed Scholastics all acknowledged a “Double Justification”—one by faith alone and another by works. Piper, it is implied, is really just employing these concepts, though confusedly. I argue in this post that this is not at all what Piper is doing. This is the same mistake that was made by assuming Right to Salvation could stand for Justification in Piper’s scheme, while Possession of Salvation stands for Final Salvation. The mistake here is to suppose that the Reformed understanding of multiple “justifications” means that there is one at the beginning by faith, but another at the end by works.  But this is not at all what the Reformers and Reformed Scholastics meant in their multiple uses of “justification.”

Rather, “to justify” is a general term in the Scriptures, and I suggest that there are at least four important uses that relate to the salvation of men.  But all four are declarations by God with respect to the beginning of salvation, the middle, and the end; not one justification for the beginning and another for the end. Further, only one of these senses of “justification” is unto life, and only one of these is properly coram Deo, that is, before the face of God, and it is that justification that is by faith alone—”Gospel Justification.” Last, the Gospel Justification that is by faith alone is the source of all other justifications, and anyone who is justified by faith will indeed receive these others as well. We concluded,

God, who gives true faith to His elect, thereby justifying them by the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness, will also in time and on the Last Day display the transformative work He has wrought in His elect by both justifying their works, justifying their persons before the world, and justifying His own declaration of “not guilty” and “perfectly righteous” in Christ. This salvation, “the whole lump,” is granted by faith alone.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10)

8 thoughts on “A Heart & Mouth Wrap-up on the John Piper “Sola Fide” Controversy

  1. Barbara Roberts November 16, 2017 / 10:01 pm

    Good work Heart and Mouth!
    I will share this on twitter and give it as ‘further reading’ at the bottom of some of my posts at A Cry For Justice.

    Personally, I found Number 7 (What Precisely is the Disagreement with John Piper?) the most illuminating.
    You really cracked it in that article.


    • Brad Mason November 17, 2017 / 2:25 pm

      Thank you so much! And for all your support.


  2. Steve Mason November 19, 2017 / 7:24 am

    My two cents……

    Faith Without Works Is Dead
    What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
    But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. James 2:14-26

    From a simple mind.


  3. Angela Werner November 23, 2017 / 1:55 pm

    Steve, your quotations make an excellent point. Our behaviour shows to this world the genuineness of our faith. If we truly believe that Christ has given us His all to save us, we will love Him and thankfully respond to His command, “then keep my commandments. But it would be a great insult to Him if we thought that our sin stained obedience could somehow complete the perfect righteousness He imputes to us to make us acceptable to a perfect and holy God.


  4. timedisplaced May 14, 2019 / 4:18 pm

    Is there any way to access Philip Comer’s posts anymore? (I’ve also asked him in an email.)


    • Brad Mason May 14, 2019 / 4:19 pm

      I don’t know. I sure hope so! I know he has his own site as well, but I can’t remember the URL right off.


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