Written by Tim Shaughnessy and Timothy F. Kauffman
In every generation there arise men from within the church who stumble into the Roman Catholic view of justification, and having stumbled, then attempt to import that Roman Catholic error into the Church of God so that the children of God might stumble with them. John Piper is just the latest in a long line of such men, and he will not be the last. Remarkably, on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Piper attempts to show that neither the Scriptures nor the Reformers held to final justification by faith alone apart from works. On September 25th, 2017, Piper published an article entitled Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone? In the article, he maintains that initial justification is by faith alone, but introduces a concept that is completely foreign to the Bible: the concept of “final salvation” on the basis of our works and obedience. He writes,
In justification, faith receives a finished work of Christ performed outside of us and counted as ours — imputed to us. … 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.[i]
In Piper’s new view of final salvation, he makes a distinction between justification and salvation in which we are justified by faith alone apart from works at the beginning, but we are saved by faith plus works at the end. He writes,
These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven (Hebrews 12:14). So, we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone.
Essential to the Christian life and necessary for final salvation is the killing of sin (Romans 8:13) and the pursuit of holiness (Hebrews 12:14).[ii]
Before we address Piper’s statements in detail, it is important to establish that when Piper says, “final salvation,” he means “final justification” or “future justification,” as evidenced by his summary of his position in the “Justification Debate” with N. T. Wright in 2009. Piper said,
“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.” (Piper, John, and N.T. Wright. “The Justification Debate: A Primer.” Christianity Today June 2009: 35-37 (emphasis added))
We must, therefore, caution those who would otherwise be prone to vagueness and ambiguity when responding to serious doctrinal error. It is never helpful to duck and dodge or hem and haw over issues concerning the gospel. Paul asks the question, “if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8)[iii]. When the gospel is at stake we must take to the battlefield to defend it, but who will get ready for battle if we give an indistinct sound. This is why it is necessary that we be emphatically clear in our response. We do not want to give an indistinct sound with respect to this gospel issue.
Final Judgment, Justification & Salvation
Let’s first consider what Piper says about final judgment, final justification and final salvation. Piper has put forth the notion of a “final justification” or a “final salvation at the last judgment [in which] faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith.” He has further stated that “works of faith,” and “obedience of faith… are necessary for our final salvation.” Piper is correct about there being a final judgment which is a judgment of works. Dr. Robert Reymond writes,
Now it cannot be denied that the Scriptures uniformly represent the final judgement as a judgement of works. (Ps. 62:12; Eccles. 12:14; Matt. 16:27; 25:31-46; John 5:29; Rom. 2:5-10; 1 Cor. 3:13, 4:5; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 6:7-9; 1 Pet. 1:17; see also Westminster Confession of Faith, XXXIII/i) and that they hold forth the promise of rewards for faithful living (Exod. 20:5-6; Prov. 13:13; 25:21-22; Matt. 5:12; 6:1, 2, 4, 16, 18, 20; 10:41; 19:29; Luke 6:37-38; Col. 3:23-24; 2 Tim. 4:7-8: Heb. 11:26).[iv]
But while Piper is correct about there being a final judgment of works he is wrong about it having anything to do with our “future justification” or our “final salvation.” Rather, the works by which the believer is to be judged are merely the basis for rewards. John Murray writes,
We must maintain… justification complete and irrevocable by grace through faith and apart from works, and at the same time, future reward according to works. In reference to these two doctrines it is important to observe the following: (i) This future reward is not justification and contributes nothing to that which constitutes justification. (ii) This future reward is not salvation. Salvation is by grace and it is not as a reward for works that we are saved. [v]
In the Biblical view, this final judgement of works has absolutely nothing to do with our justification or our salvation. The concept of a future justification or a final salvation that is dependent upon our works or obedience is completely foreign to the Bible and the Protestant tradition but it is not foreign to Roman Catholicism. In Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics Ron Rhodes writes,
Certainly, Catholics deny that their Church teaches a works salvation. They will talk about how salvation is impossible apart from the grace of God. But though things start out by grace in the Roman Catholic system of salvation…works do indeed get mixed into the picture. By virtue of the fact that a life of meritorious works is necessary to gain final salvation, it is clear that in reality, the Roman Catholic view of salvation is works-oriented. Salvation may involve grace and faith, but it is not by grace alone (sola gratia) or by faith alone (sola fide).[vi]
As we will see upon further examination of Piper, Rhodes’ assessment of Roman Catholicism—“that a life of meritorious works is necessary to gain final salvation”—is an adequate rebuttal of Piper, as well. What Piper writes is strikingly and eerily similar to what Ron Rhodes rightly identified as the Roman Catholic works-oriented system of salvation. He would talk about how salvation is impossible apart from the grace of God. But though things start out by grace in Pipers system of salvation… works do indeed get mixed into the picture. In Piper’s view, works “are necessary to gain final salvation” and works will be the necessary ground of our “future justification.” In his view, future justification or final salvation may involve grace and faith, but they are not by grace alone (sola gratia) or by faith alone (sola fide). For Piper to say that “these works of faith, and this obedience of faith… are necessary for final salvation” is to say that works and obedience are necessary for justification and salvation. This is pure Romanism at its heart and it directly contradicts Ephesians 2:8-9 which reads, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Again, [Salvation] depends on faith, [“apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:38)], in order that it may rest on grace” (Rom. 4:16). This is why Dr. Reymond writes, “If God were to permit the intrusion of human works into the acquisition of salvation to any degree, salvation could not be by grace alone.”[vii]
Alien vs. Native Righteousness
When Piper speaks of “final salvation,” he is referring to a “future justification” that is based on faith plus works, a righteousness that is our own, not Christ’s. It is a justification based on our own personal moral improvement. It is important to point that out because in the foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s book Faith Alone—The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters (The Five Solas Series), published on September 15, 2015, Piper appears to deny that our personal righteousness is the ground of our “justification.”:
Such faith always “works by love” and produces the “obedience of faith.” And that obedience— imperfect as it is till the day we die—is not the “basis of justification, but… a necessary evidence and fruit of justification.” In this sense, love and obedience—inherent righteousness—is “required of believers, but not for justification”—that is, required for heaven, not for entering a right-standing with God.[viii]
In reality, Piper is only denying that personal righteousness is the ground of our present justification. Regarding our future justification, Piper explicitly says that “obedience—inherent righteousness,” is required of believers for heaven, and is, in fact, the ground of our final justification. But Jesus taught that we are justified and saved, wholly and completely at the end by the same righteousness we possessed at the beginning. He did not teach an initial justification that is comprised of an alien righteousness plus a final justification based on a native righteousness developed over time through personal sanctification.
When we examine Christ’s admonition that “in the day of judgment,” the individual will be either justified or condemned “by thy words” (Matthew 12:36-37), we find that He gave two very remarkable illustrations about what He meant: the Ninevites (Matthew 12:41) and the Queen of Sheba (Matthew 12:42). Both would face “judgment with this generation” but would be justified based on their words, whereas the men of “this generation” would be condemned based on theirs. The key to understanding the passage is to examine which words Jesus contemplates in the acquittal of the Queen and the Ninevites, and He actually tells us which words they are: the words they spoke from the heart upon their first hearing and believing of the Word of God, for the Ninevites “repented at the preaching of Jonas” and the Queen of Sheba believed “the wisdom of Solomon.” “[T]he people of Nineveh believed God” upon the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:5, KJV) and the Queen of Sheba exclaimed, “It was a true report that I heard” (1 Kings 10:6, KJV).
When Jesus says that the believer will be justified “by thy words” on the day of judgment, the two examples He gives are the words spoken by the Queen of Sheba and by the Ninevites at the moment they first believed, and their final justification is based on the very same righteousness they possessed at the moment they first believed. Notably, Christ explained this truth at the same time He taught that a man speaks “out of the abundance of the heart” (Matthew 12:34) and also admonished the Pharisees that the only sign they would receive is the sign of Jonas, for “so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). Here Jesus has taught to us the very concept Paul would one day restate in his Epistle to the Romans:
“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.” (Romans 10:9-11, KJV)
The Queen of the Sheba and the Ninevites will be justified by their words on the last day, and those words were the overflow of the faith of their hearts—a faith that was lacking in the Pharisees.
Such men as Piper often appeal to the famous passage in which the sheep are separated from the goats in Matthew 25, desiring by the recitation of the believer’s works to prove final justification (see, for example, Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006) 276). The problem with such an appeal to Matthew 25 for final justification based on works is that the sheep and goats are separated into two groups before anyone’s works are evaluated. In other words, they are separated into two groups based on whether they are sheep or goats. Since sheep are defined as those who believe (John 10:16,26), the scene of judgment in Matthew 25:31-33 actually has the sheep separated based on faith, not works, which is to say that the sheep were separated based on a righteousness apart from works. Neither the sheep nor the Shepherd has entertained works in the separation of “His sheep” from “the goats.” Even when the works of the sheep are recited, the sheep are unaware of them and clearly had not anticipated a discussion about their works, i..e, “when saw we thee …? … when saw we thee … ? … when saw we thee?” (Matthew 25:37-39, KJV). The sheep had arrived at the throne of judgment without their own personal holiness or moral improvement in mind.
The precise language of Matthew 12 and 25 is worth examining for these reasons. Whereas in Matthew 12, we have the concept of final justification on the Last Day, Jesus curiously omits works in His discussion of the verdict. Faith is what He has in mind. In Matthew 25, we have the concept of works being contemplated on the Last Day, but we do not find those works contemplated in the separation of the sheep from the goats, for sheep are separated based on faith before works are contemplated, and further, the sheep did not have their works in mind. It is a curious reality to discover that when Jesus does mention justification on the last day (Matthew 12), He leaves out works. When He mentions works (Matthew 25), He mentions them only after the sheep have already been separated based on righteousness apart from works, and the sheep had not arrived expecting to offer their works in exchange for eternal life. In both chapters of Matthew, it is clear that on the Last Day, the sheep will be set apart based on faith alone apart from works, which is exactly what the sheep are expecting.
Our point in highlighting these facts is to show what is missing in the Gospel of Jesus and Paul. What is missing is Piper’s Roman Catholic construct that with the heart man believeth unto initial righteousness and then by the accumulated holiness of works the man arriveth at the judgment seat to determine whether his personal holiness is sufficient to merit eternal life, and then entereth into final salvation that he has earned by his works. In other words, Piper has now adopted a different gospel than the one Jesus taught to Paul.
Not only is Piper’s position heresy; it is damnable heresy. It is, in fact, the Roman Catholic system of salvation by works through the gradual accumulation of the merit of personal holiness. But according to Jesus, there is no distinction to be made between one being justified and being saved, and there is no difference between the righteousness contemplated when we first believed and righteousness by which we will be acquitted on the last day. It is all, and only, Jesus’ righteousness.
Works That Follow Justification by Faith
To be sure, the works that Piper is referring to are post-justification works which every Christian ought to exhibit to some extent. The problem, however, is that Piper says these post-justification works are necessary for salvation or necessary in order to attain heaven. Again, it is highly revealing to note the consistency of Piper’s theology in what he wrote two years prior in the foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s book,
The stunning Christian answer is: sola fide—faith alone. But be sure you hear this carefully and precisely: He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God. In fact, one must already be in a right relationship with God by faith alone in order to meet the other conditions.[ix]
We should take notice of the consistency of these statements over the years. What Piper recently wrote was not simply a slip of the pen. Here he makes the distinction between being right with God and entering into heaven. He states there are other conditions, besides faith, that one must meet in order to attain heaven and that one must already be justified in order to meet these conditions. Piper is suggesting that post-justification works are necessary for us to attain salvation and heaven. John Robbins responded emphatically to this notion when he wrote,
Paul damned the Judaizers for teaching that post-[justification] works of righteousness are necessary for entrance into Heaven. The contention of both the Roman Church and the Judaizers [and now Piper] is that one cannot be saved without post-[justification], that is post-regeneration, works of righteousness. The Judaizers taught that one must be circumcised and obey other parts of the Mosaic law; the Roman Church teaches both the necessity and meritoriousness of good works of Christians for salvation;” [and now Piper teaches both the necessity of works and obedience of faith for salvation].[x]
James on Justification and Works
Piper appeals to James chapter 2 for support of his view of a final salvation that is in some way dependent on our works and obedience. He writes,
Especially as it pertains to final salvation, so many of us live in a fog of confusion. James saw in his day those who were treating “faith alone” as a doctrine that claimed you could be justified by faith which produced no good works. And he vehemently said No to such faith… The faith which alone justifies is never alone, but always bearing transforming fruit. So, when James says these controversial words, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24), I take him to mean not by faith which is alone, but which shows itself by works.[xi]
Piper is correct to point out that the faith which justifies is a faith which shows itself by works. However, he is wrong to think that these works have anything to do with our final salvation. Piper fundamentally misunderstands the point that James is making with respect to justification and works. James is speaking about bearing fruit before men, not about being declared righteous or justified before God at the final judgment. The faith that justifies is not a faith that is alone, but rather it is accompanied by works which in turn justifies our profession of faith before men; not before God. This is why verse 18 of James Ch 2 say, “I will show you my faith by my works.” This demonstration of faith is before men, not before God at the final judgment.
Unfortunately, there is much confusion surrounding what James meant about justification and how it relates to what Paul meant by justification. When we compare James 2:24 with Romans 3:28 we see that both Paul and James are speaking of being justified, but justified in what sense? James is referring to justification with respect to one’s profession of faith being justified or (validated) before man while Paul is referring to justification with respect to one being justified or (declared righteous) before God. James is answering the question how does one justify their profession of faith before others while Paul is answering the question how does one stand justified before God.
The reformers correctly recognized, on the basis of Scripture alone, that a person is wholly and completely justified and saved by faith alone in Christ alone. Romans 4:5 states, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Here we notice that righteousness unto salvation comes by faith, not by works. Some theologians have stated that we are saved by faith alone but that works are part of faith. But this too is an egregious error for if we “hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Roman 3:28) then works cannot be part of faith. Works are not part of faith but rather a consequence of faith. Dr. Reymond writes,
Whereas Paul is concerned with the question of how a man may achieve right standing before God, and turns to Genesis 15:6 to find his answer, James is concerned with the question of how a man is to demonstrate [before others] that he is actually justified before God and has true faith, and turns to Genesis 22: 9-10 as the probative fulfillment of Genesis 15:6 to find his answer.[xii]
Paul condemns works added to faith while James commends works which are produced by faith. In its simplest comparison, James is addressing how a person can justify their profession of faith before men while Paul is addressing how one can stand justified before God and enter into heaven. We have to be discerning here because our salvation does not rest on what we do but rather it rests entirely in what Christ has done for us. James asks the question in verse 14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” This is the issue James is confronting. If someone says he has faith but does not have works then he is a liar and the truth is not in him. He is a false convert, a hypocrite who is self-deceived. James is asking what good is that profession of faith. Can that profession of faith save him? The answer is no because that is merely a false profession of faith rather than a true and living faith. James says in verse 17 “so also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” A true and living faith will necessarily manifest itself in works but it does not add anything to our salvation. Not now or ever! Unfortunately, Piper is wrong and this teaching of his is not only heretical but dangerous.
[i] Piper, John. “Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?” Desiring God. September 25, 2017. Accessed September 27, 2017. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/does-god-really-save-us-by-faith-alone.
[ii] Piper, John. “Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?” Desiring God. September 25, 2017. Accessed September 27, 2017. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/does-god-really-save-us-by-faith-alone.
[iii] All scripture passages are quoted from ESV unless otherwise noted.
[iv] Reymond, Robert L. A new systematic theology of the Christian faith. 2nd ed. Nashville: T. Nelson, 2001.
[v] Murray, “Justification,” Collected Writings, 2:221 quoted in Reymond, Robert L. A new systematic theology of the Christian faith. 2nd ed. Nashville: T. Nelson, 2001; emphasis mine
[vi] Rhodes, Ron. Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics. Harvest House Publishers, 2000.
[vii] Reymond, Robert L. A new systematic theology of the Christian faith. 2nd ed. Nashville: T. Nelson, 2001.
[viii] Schreiner, Thomas R. Faith alone– the doctrine of justification: what the reformers taught … and why it matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015 (emphasis added).
[ix] Schreiner, Thomas R. Faith alone– the doctrine of justification: what the reformers taught … and why it matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015 (emphasis added).
[x] Robbins, John. “The Gospel According to John MacArthur.” Trinity Foundation. May & june 1993. Accessed September 20, 2017. http://trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=193.
[xi] Piper, John. “Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?” Desiring God. September 25, 2017. Accessed September 27, 2017. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/does-god-really-save-us-by-faith-alone.
[xii] Reymond, Robert L. A new systematic theology of the Christian faith. 2nd ed. Nashville: T. Nelson, 2001.