Piper on Justification

Last week, with our article, The Gospel According to Piper, we caused a stir here at the Semper Reformanda Radio in our assessment of Piper on final justification and final salvation. On September 25, 2017, Piper wrote an article Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?, answering in the negative: No, God does not save us by faith alone. Our article was in response to Piper’s.

Piper’s expressions affirm that while justification is by faith alone, “final salvation” is not. In his September 25 article, he expressed this in multiple ways. We provide here two examples of this:

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.

These works of faith [(1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11)], and this obedience of faith [(Romans 1:5; 16:26)], 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.

By such words, Piper expresses justification in terms of “faith alone” and final salvation by works that flow from faith, attempting to preserve sola fide without compromising the Scriptural emphasis on works “which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Our article, The Gospel According to Piper, was the work of two writers, but what may be the most controversial contribution to the article came from my hand: by “final salvation” Piper actually means “final justification,” and therefore Piper was actually expressing—under a Reformed flag—the Roman Catholic view of initial justification by grace and final justification by works. In support of our position I offered the following citation from Piper which summarized one of the main points in his book, The Future of Justification:

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)

It seemed sufficient to us that if a) in final salvation at the last judgment “faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne,” and b) in future justification at the last judgment the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives is brought forward as a “confirmation of true faith,” then c) we may say that Piper equates final salvation with future justification, and his description of justification and final salvation is really a description of initial justification by faith alone and final justification by faith and works.

Several of our readers considered this representation uncharitable and unfair for three main reasons:

  1. in other places Piper denies such a Roman Catholic formulation,
  2. by “final salvation,” Piper probably meant “final glorification” rather than “final justification,” and
  3. we should interpret Piper through the lens of forty years of his faithful preaching

Today I will address each of these three criticisms. The first objection is justifiable and compels me to apologize to Piper for overlooking his explicit denials of the Roman Catholic view of justification. I should have found them and included them in my contributions to the original article. I was wrong to omit them. The second objection requires that I provide compelling evidence that Piper means “final justification” by “final salvation.”

After addressing these two objections, I will spend considerable time on the third to explain why I remain concerned about Piper’s formulations on justification based on a survey of his shifting and contradictory expressions of the doctrine of justification over time. Piper’s teaching on justification has been changing for years, and is still changing now. Therefore, it is laudable but nigh impossible to defer to an ostensible continuity and clarity in Piper’s teachings.

Objection 1: Piper rejects the Roman Catholic view of justification

Because Piper’s statement on justification in Christianity Today grounded present justification on “the substitutionary work of Christ alone,” but said that future justification “accords with our works,” making mention of Christ’s righteousness only in reference to present justification, it appeared to us that Piper was summarizing his own position on justification in terms of an initial justification by grace through faith, and a future justification that is based on works. The Roman Catholic Tridentine formulation on justification is that the righteousness received in justification is “preserved and also increased before God through good works,” and that those works are not “merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained” (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 24). If according to Piper’s own formulation our initial justification is grounded on Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by faith, and our final justification “accords with our works,” we could not see how his expression of justification was substantially different from Rome’s similar expressions of initial, ongoing, and final justification.

Here two clarifying data pertain. First, the Christianity Today article we cited was intended as a summary of Piper’s The Future of Justification, which itself was a critique of N. T. Wright’s views of justification. In The Future of Justification, Piper expresses concern that Wright’s expressions explicitly affirm a future justification based on works. Piper finds this “startling”:

Wright makes startling statements to the effect that our future justification will be on the basis of works. (Piper, The Future of Justification (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007) 22)

Here Piper finds “startling” Wright’s final justification based on works, and what startled Piper so much is that Wright’s position appears to conform to that of Roman Catholicism in which the justified are finally “judged righteous (and receive eternal life) because they are truly righteous” (Piper, The Future of Justification, 183). As startling as Wright’s statements are to Piper, Piper’s are to us, for Piper’s own formulation is just as unsettling:

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.  (Christianity Today June 2009: 35-37)

Why did Piper recoil at Wright’s formulation, but when summarizing his own views, express a future justification that “accords with our works”? Part of the answer is how Piper differentiates between “based on works” and “according to works.” He writes,

I take [Paul’s] phrase ‘according to’ (kata;) in a sense different from ‘based on.’ I think the best way to bring together the various threads of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith apart from works (Rom. 3:28; 4:4–6; 11:6; Eph. 2:8) is to treat the necessity of obedience not as any part of the basis of our justification, but strictly as the evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ whose blood and righteousness is the sole basis of our justification (Piper, The Future of Justification, 110).

Whatever one may think of Piper’s various formulations on justification, in fairness to him the critic must at least acknowledge Piper’s attempt at differentiating between “based on” and “according to” when formulating an expression in which final justification is according to works. This writer failed to do so.

We will return to Piper’s varied, diverse and problematic formulations on justification below, but for now, I will simply acknowledge that my critics were correct to point out that Piper elsewhere objects strenuously to the Roman Catholic view of justification. It was my duty to consider those statements in my examination of Piper.

Objection 2: by “final salvation” Piper means “final glorification” rather than “final justification”

Some of my critics have said it is wrong to make “final salvation” mean “final justification” in Piper. It seems to them, rather, that Piper is talking about “final glorification” instead. For example, the following citation from Piper is taken to refer to “glorification”:

So, we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone. Love, the fruit of faith, is the necessary confirmation that we have faith and are alive. We won’t enter heaven until we have it. There is a holiness without which we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). (Piper, John, Faith Alone: How (Not) to Use a Reformed Slogan, September 13, 2017)

One problem with claiming that Piper is speaking here of glorification is that Piper repeatedly states that final glorification is our inheritance after attaining heaven or getting to heaven. Piper is in this passage speaking not of glorification but of getting into heaven prior to glorification, and the way to get into heaven is to be saved from the wrath of God on the Last Day by the fruits of faith. In fact, that was his whole point in Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?: “In final salvation at the last judgment … we are saved through that fruit and that faith.” There is a critical step between judgment and glorification and that step is “attaining heaven.”

Note well that Piper elsewhere speaks of glorification as a result of attaining heaven only after final salvation is secured at the Last Judgment: “Jesus transforms us so that we really begin to love like he does so that we move toward perfection that we finally obtain in heaven” (Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006) 160). When we obtain heaven, “we are going to receive a great inheritance, including our own glorification” (Piper, Children, Heirs and Fellow Sufferers, 2002). To Piper, the holiness without which no one will see the Lord is not “glorification” but “love, the fruit of faith.” To attain heaven one must first be acquitted in judgment, and to be acquitted in judgment—justified—one must have works.

Piper thus speaks of personal holiness as a “validating transformation” that will serve as evidence of true faith at the last judgment so that we can attain heaven, and he speaks of final glorification as the inheritance we receive upon attaining heaven after surviving that final judgment. Piper is speaking of, and has been speaking of, a final acquittal in judgment as a prerequisite to attaining heaven, which itself is a prerequisite to final glorification.

Yes, by “final salvation,” Piper means “final justification,” and “final justification” to Piper means “final salvation from future judgment.”

As evidence, simply read Piper’s own words. He speaks again and again of faith and works being necessary to be acquitted in the final judgment:

Final salvation from future judgment is conditional. It will not happen apart from our persevering faith. … “salvation” refers to our future deliverance from the wrath of God at the judgment and entrance into eternal life. (Piper, John, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Piper, John, Desiring God, Multnomah Publishers, 1996) 42) (emphasis added)

[Jesus] 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. (John Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World, 160). (emphasis added)

It is not accidental that the title of this book has a double meaning. The Future of Justification draws attention not only to where the doctrine itself may be going, but also to the critical importance of God’s future act of judgment when our justification will be confirmed. How will our obedience function in that Day? (Piper, The Future of Justification, 183-4). (emphasis added)

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. (Christianity Today, June 2009: 35-37) (emphasis added)

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. (Piper, Does God Really Save us by Faith Alone? (Desiring God, September 25, 2017) (emphasis added)

The fact is that in his own words, Piper sees “future justification” and “final salvation” as the same thing, and future justification is by faith and works.

The reader is invited to consider, as well, the fact that the summary on Piper provided from Christianity Today—in which future justification and future salvation are equated—was reviewed and confirmed by Piper himself as an accurate summary of what he was trying to say. Trevin Wax, who compiled the summary confirms this: “Please note that both John Piper and N.T. Wright looked over my work and made some slight revisions regarding their respective summaries” (Wax, Trevin, Piper vs. Wright on Justification: A Layman’s Guide, June 26, 2009).

Piper’s statements on final justification—final salvation from the wrath of God at the last judgment—were in response to Wright’s teaching on final justification in a debate on the meaning of justification. To propose that Piper really was talking about “final glorification”—something not even mentioned in the entirety of Piper’s The Future of Justification—is an unhelpful diversion that obscures the actual point Piper was making about “Wright’s view of justification  … in the present and at the end” (Piper, The Future of Justification, 103). How are we justified at the very end? By faith and by works, according to Piper.

Objection 3: we should evaluate Piper based on decades of faithful gospel preaching

Several critics considered our criticism of Piper uncharitable because we were taking Piper’s unclear teachings on justification and using them to interpret his clear teaching on justification. Instead we should consider the fact that Piper has taught clearly for decades on justification and salvation. This objection, however, assumes that Piper has taught consistently and clearly on justification until now. The fact is, Piper has wavered between several different and contradictory positions on justification, which makes it exceedingly difficult to determine which teachings of Piper are the “clear” ones, and which are the “unclear ones.”

In order to understand just how unclear Piper has been over the span of his career, we provide below a survey of his thinking on justification from 1985 through 2017.

Piper through the Years

Piper received his Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California (1968-1971) where he studied under Daniel Fuller and discovered the teachings of Jonathan Edwards. Piper was called to become the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1980 in which capacity he served until 2013.

It is worth noting that in his formative years, Piper was greatly influenced by Daniel Fuller who came under the displeasure of O. Palmer Robertson because of his problematic formulations on justification:

In substitution for the biblically clear distinction between the legally imputed righteousness of justification and the vitally infused righteousness of sanctification, [Daniel] Fuller opts for the flexible meanings that may be introduced into the phrase, the “obedience of faith.” Unwittingly it seems, Fuller plays on an ambiguity inherent in the phrase. When he speaks of “salvation” by the “obedience of faith,” does he mean

(1) faith as attaching to Christ altogether?
(2) the obedient actions arising from faith?
(3) faith considered in itself as an act of obedience?

Because of the ambiguity inherent in the phrase, Fuller may slide between its various meanings … meaning sometimes the obedience which is faith and meaning at other times the obedient actions done in faith. In other words, man is saved by doing, by keeping the revelatory law of Moses, which is the law of faith. … Fuller … leaves himself open to being understood as commending works of faith (the “obedience of faith”) as the way of justification.” (O. Palmer Robertson, Presbuterion, 1981, vol. 8, issue 1, Daniel Fuller’s Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum?, A Review Article, 84-91)

Robertson’s point is borne out by Fuller’s work, The Unity of the Bible: Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity (Zondervan, 1992). Fuller built his view of justification around Jonathan Edwards’ rejection of Calvin. While Edwards insisted on justification by faith alone, he struggled to grasp how a sinner could be initially justified by faith alone when the verdict on his final justification was still pending, awaiting the outcome of his perseverance. Edwards (and Fuller following) concluded that we are not actually saved by faith alone, but rather are “saved by perseverance.” Thus, in the initial verdict of justification, God “has respect to” the eventual perseverance of the sinner:

“But [contrary to Calvin] we are really saved by perseverance… For, though a sinner is justified in his first act of faith; yet even then, in that act of justification, God has respect to perseverance as being virtually [implied] in the first act.” (Fuller, Daniel, The Unity of the Bible (Zondervan, 1992) 296-298 (citing Edwards))

This is problematic. Our view on justification is that the righteousness God contemplates in His verdict of justification is Christ’s righteousness alone, imputed to us by faith alone. The Westminster Confession insists that God justifies believers “not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, … nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness,” not even their perseverance (Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.1). Edward’s problematic formulation has God contemplating the sinner’s perseverance in His verdict of justification, focusing on the “thing wrought in them.”

W. Robert Godfrey correctly recognized that Fuller had indeed proposed a different view of justification, and therefore a different gospel:

The clearest implication of Fuller’s work has to do with the instrumental cause of justification. What is implicit in his book is made explicit in his interactions with Robertson’s work where he states that faith and works are the instrumental cause of justification. (Godfrey, W. Robert, O. Palmer Robertson, Presbuterion, 1983, 9.1, Back to Basics, 80-81).

Godfrey’s concern, too, had been borne out in Fuller’s book. Let the reader keep in mind that Piper’s view on justification blossomed in the same sun and soil as Fuller’s. As Piper himself later acknowledged, “the plants of my pondering have grown” in Fuller’s garden. As we shall see, starting with Fuller’s ambiguous meaning of “obedience of faith,” Piper has wavered throughout his ministry between multiple positions, and is still even now trying to find his voice on justification. Piper’s apple did not fall far from Fuller’s tree, and Robertson and Godfrey could write the same  today of Piper as they did of Fuller.

1985: Bethlehem Baptist Church Staff: What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism

We provide the following statement to show where Piper was early in his teaching ministry. This is five years after accepting the call to pastor Bethlehem Baptist. Piper is entrenched in the justification construct Robertson and Godfrey found so disconcerting in Fuller. Piper, puzzled over how God can provide an initial verdict of justification before the sinner has even shown that he will persevere, attempts in this statement to reconcile the difficulty:

God justifies us on the first genuine act of saving faith, but in doing so he has a view to all subsequent acts of faith contained, as it were, like a seed in that first act. … God does not wait to the end of our lives in order to declare us righteous.  … Nevertheless, we must also own up to the fact that our final salvation is made contingent upon the subsequent obedience which comes from faith. …[W]e are justified on the basis of our first act of faith because God sees in it (like he can see the tree in an acorn) the embryo of a life of faith. (emphasis added)

That difficulty will continue to arise in Piper as he wrestles with the righteousness God contemplates in the initial and final justification of the believer.

1995: The Sinner is Justified by Faith in His Future Moral Improvement

It is now 1995 and Piper is still advancing Fuller’s constructs on justification. While Piper does not completely agree with Fuller on everything, he nonetheless formulated his own view of justification based on the latent ambiguity in Fuller’s “obedience of faith,” the very construct Robertson found so reprehensible:

Daniel Fuller’s vision of the Christian life as an “obedience of faith” is the garden in which the plants of my pondering have grown. Almost three decades of dialogue on the issues in this book have left a deep imprint. … His major work, The Unity of the Bible, is the explanatory background to most of what I write. (Piper, Future Grace (1995) 7)

For Piper, “[f]aith is primarily future oriented” (Piper, Future Grace, 13), which necessarily causes the sinner to focus primarily on his future transformation rather than on the past work Christ has already accomplished for him. We see Fuller’s influence as Piper explains his meaning: “future grace” is the Holy Spirit’s moral transformation in the believer, and the believer is justified by faith in that moral transformation:

“…the heart-strengthening power that comes from the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 3:16) is virtually the same as what I mean by future grace.” (Piper, Future Grace (Multnomah, 1995) 69).

“And this faith in future grace is the faith through which we are justified.” (Piper, Future Grace, 191).

Thus, to Piper, both God and the sinner have the sinner’s future moral improvement in mind in justification. God contemplates the sinner’s future improvement—the sinner believing, and God foreseeing—that the sinner will improve over time. Take Piper’s own words from Future Grace, and we have exactly what Robertson feared in Fuller: the sinner is justified by God’s knowledge of, and the sinners confidence in, his future moral improvement, “for the faith through which we are justified” is faith in “the heart-strengthening power that comes from the Holy Spirit.”

1999: Does James Contradict Paul?

In his 1999 sermon on James and Paul, Piper struggled to reconcile the two apostles, and could only resolve the tension by having Paul speak of the initial moment of justification at the beginning of the Christian life, and having James speak of maintaining an ongoing and final right standing with God through faith and works:

So when Paul renounces “justification by works” he renounces the view that anything we do along with faith is credited to us as righteousness. Only faith obtains the verdict, not guilty, when we become Christians. Works of any kind are not acceptable in the moment of initial justification. … For James, “justification by works” (which he accepts) means “maintaining a right standing with God by faith along with the necessary evidence of faith, namely, the works of love. (Piper, John, Does James Contradict Paul?, August 8, 1999)

Piper repeats the construct multiple times, insisting that Paul is speaking only about justification by faith alone in initial justification: “That’s how we get started in the Christian life – justified by faith alone.”  James, on the other hand, is talking about how “one maintain[s] an ongoing and final right standing with God.” (Piper, John, Does James Contradict Paul?, sermon audio, 28:26-34:26).

At the end of the sermon, Piper finally commends an entirely new construct to his listeners to resolve the difficulty: “justification by dependence alone on Christ alone.” Piper defined “dependence” as faith at the beginning of the Christian walk, and defined “dependence” as faith and works during the middle and end of the Christian walk. Here, in an attempt to clarify, he simply muddied the water in order to preserve a Reformational sola, but in reality imported works into final justification (Piper, John, Does James Contradict Paul? ,sermon audio, 35:30-35:50).

Like his mentor Fuller, Piper thus repeatedly “leaves himself open to being understood as commending works of faith (the “obedience of faith”) as the way of justification.” In fact, this 1999 sermon was simply a recapitulation of Fuller’s 19th chapter of The Unity of the Bible, Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity, “Abraham’s Persevering Faith” (281-304). It is important to establish this in Piper’s timeline to show that in 1999, Piper was still advocating a view on justification that the reformed community found reprehensible.

2002: Counted Righteous in Christ

Something apparently had happened between 1999 and 2002. During that time, Piper wrote Counted Righteous in Christ to defend “the historic Protestant view of the relationship between faith and obedience so that the two are not conflated in the instrumentality of justification.” A laudable concern, indeed, since his own mentor had conflated them, and he had as well. Gone from his writing was the ambiguous language of justification by “dependence alone on Christ alone.” Absent, too, was the talk about how justification at the “beginning of the Christian life is by faith alone” but “maintaining a right standing with God” is “by faith along with … works of love.”

Had Piper finally become Protestant? Perhaps even Reformed? While reformed teachers were cheering his new work, Piper’s mentor, Daniel Fuller, was deeply disappointed that he had wandered so far from the fold. “[I]s not such talk dangerous?” Fuller asked. In Fuller’s eyes, Piper had stumbled into the Galatian heresy (Fuller, Daniel, Reformation & Revival Journal (vol 12, no. 4, Fall 2003, “Another Reply to Counted Righteous in Christ” 115-120).

The plants of Piper’s pondering had apparently left Fuller’s garden at last. Let the reader note that until he published Counted Righteous in Christ, Piper’s formulations on justification did not elicit Fuller’s disapproval. From his seminary years until the turn of the millennium, Piper still agreed with Fuller’s erroneous construct on justification, and that status quo remained until Piper finally decided to defend “the historic Protestant view” instead of what Fuller had taught him. But the plant of Piper’s pondering would soon return to its roots.

2006: What Jesus Demands from the World

Piper’s 2006 work was written to instruct Christians on the need to obey Jesus’ commands (Piper, John, What Jesus Demands from the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books (2006) 17). We agree that Christians are to obey Jesus. One rather disconcerting observation, however, is found in Demand #21, in which Piper explains that Jesus will send some believers to hell “because they really failed to love their fellow believers.” We cited this same example above to show that Piper means “final justification” when he speaks of “final salvation.” We return to it now to demonstrate that Piper’s wavering on justification is due partly to Fuller’s tutelage, and partly to his own confusion.

To arrive at his conclusion that Jesus will send some believers to hell, Piper combines Matthew 7:23 “depart from me, ye that work iniquity” and Matthew 25:41-46, “Depart from me, ye cursed … Inasmuch as ye did it not…”. Piper thus shows that Jesus will send some people “‘away into eternal punishment’ because they really failed to love their fellow believers” (Piper, Demands, 160). The two passages say nothing of the sort.

Piper’s confusion is found in his assumption that the rejected persons in each passage—”Depart from me” (Matthew 7:23, 25:41)—are “fellow believers” with the children of God. Yet both passages actually portray them as unbelievers. In Matthew 7:23, those who are sent away from Him are “false prophets,” “ravening wolves” dressed “in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). In Mathew 25:41, those who are sent away from Him are goats, rather than sheep. As Christ explained in John 10:26, “ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep.” Only sheep believe. The people Jesus sends away to damnation are unbelieving wolves and goats. To arrive at his conclusion that Jesus will send some believers to hell, therefore, Piper had first to read “believers” into “wolves” and “goats,” something completely foreign to the text.

Compounding his confusion, Piper then attempted to justify his reading of Matthew 7 and Matthew 25 by appealing to Matthew 12. In doing so, Piper interpreted Jesus’ reference to faith as a reference to works, and on that basis concluded that Christians will be justified by works at the last day. Piper explained his rendering of Matthew 7 and 25, in this footnote:

Though it may cause confusion, it is possible to use the word “justify” to describe how the fruit of good behavior works in the day of judgment. The fruits can “justify” us in the sense of proving that we are believers and belong to Jesus and have a right standing with God in him. That is how I understand Matthew 12:37, “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Piper, Demands, 161n (emphasis added))

Here Piper has read “works” into “words,” completely foreign to the text. As we showed in our previous article, Jesus’ reference to people being justified or condemned by their “words” on the last day was a reference to being justified by faith or condemned for unbelief, not judged by their “works.” He was referring to the words of faith expressed by the Gentiles of Galilee (“Is not this the son of David?” (Matthew 12:23)) in contrast with the unbelieving words of the Pharisees (“This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils” (Matthew 12:24)).

To illustrate His point that people will either be justified or condemned by their words, Jesus gave two examples of people being justified by their words on the Last Day: the Ninevites who believed the preaching of Jonah (Matthew 12:41, Jonah 3:5), and the Queen of Sheba who believed the teaching of Solomon (Matthew 12:42, 1 Kings 10:9). Both would rise in judgment with this generation, and condemn it. The Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba had spoken words of faith upon the hearing of God’s word, and this present generation had spoken words of unbelief, “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). Jesus thus taught that we would be acquitted on the Last Day by the same righteousness we received when we first believed—just like the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba. Words here referred to “faith” or “unbelief.” They do not refer to “works.” To arrive at his conclusion that “the fruit of good behavior” justifies us “in the day of judgment” Piper erroneously substituted “the fruit of good behavior” for “words” and concluded that believers must be in some sense justified by their works of love on the Last Day.

Our concern with Piper’s 2006 position is twofold. First, in his analysis of the role of works in justification on the Last Day, he distorted three separate passages from Jesus to get to his point. Second, it shows that the “plant of his pondering” never really left Fuller’s “garden.” He was still right where he was in 1999 when he explained repeatedly that initial justification is by faith alone, but it is our duty to maintain our right standing with God through works.

Piper’s position in 2006 was not dissimilar to that of N. T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews and proponent of the controversial New Perspective on Paul. The year after What Jesus Demands from the World, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) rejected Wright’s formulations on the same grounds that Robertson and Godfrey had rejected Fuller’s:

It would appear that Wright is inconsistent when it comes to his means for receiving present and future justification. In the present, Wright argues that the badge of justification is faith alone and that no works are involved in this (Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 132). However, in reference to “final” justification, Wright argues that it is “on the basis of the whole life led.” But this is a contradiction: how can one be assured of “final justification,” if the final verdict is based on the whole life led (i.e. faith plus faithfulness/works)? Is there such a case as a person receiving present justification and not final justification? These inconsistencies seem to shift the means for receiving justification to works, since the only difference between one who receives present justification from one who receives final justification is that the latter works. (34th PCA General Assembly, Report of ad interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective and Auburn Avenue Theology (2007) 2228n)

We would ask Piper the same questions because of his own inconsistencies. Is there such a case as a person receiving present justification and not maintaining right standing with God through good works? Piper assures us that that could never happen: “None who is located by faith in God’s invincible favor will fail to have all that is necessary to demonstrate this in life” (Piper, Demands, 210). If so, then in what way does Jesus “really” send some of our “fellow believers” to hell on the Last Day?

2007: The Future of Justification

In his critique of N. T. Wright, Piper ironically criticized him for his ambiguous use of “the obedience of faith,” the very thing for which Robertson had critiqued Fuller. Piper wrote,

Adding to the ambiguity of how our works function in justification is Wright’s apparent conflation of “faith,” on the one hand, and “faithfulness” (or faithful obedience), on the other hand. … The issue is whether justification by faith really means justification by works of any kind, whether provided by God or man. That is the issue, and Wright again leaves us with the impression that human transformation and Spirit wrought acts of obedience are included in the term “faith” when he speaks of present justification being by faith alone. (Piper, The Future of Justification, 130-131).

We remind the reader that only eight years earlier, in his attempt to harmonize James and Paul, Piper was advocating for “justification by dependence alone,” as noted above, explaining that our initial right standing with God is by faith alone, but our ongoing and final right standing with God is maintained by both faith and works. Both were collapsed into the single construct, “dependence alone.” Like Wright, Piper was including “Spirit wrought acts of obedience” in the term “dependence,” holding to justification by “dependence alone” (meaning faith alone) at the beginning of the Christian life, and justification by “dependence alone” (meaning faith and works of love) throughout the life of the believer. Piper too, had been “adding to the ambiguity of how our works function in justification” less than a decade earlier.

2009: Piper, meet Doug Wilson. Doug Wilson, meet John Piper

Back in 2003, Douglas Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, suddenly began “to suspect that what he has believed for many years may actually be a truncated form of the truth, particularly when the subject concerns the gospel and salvation” (Wilson, Douglas, “The Objectivity of the Covenant,” Credenda/Agenda, volume 15, issue 1, p. 4, 2003). Wilson had recently bought into the controversial Federal Vision theology and appeared to be expressing the gospel in terms of justification by faithfulness alone, instead of by faith alone, the very construct for which Piper had criticized Wright in The Future of Justification. The Federal Vision would eventually be judged erroneous at the 34th PCA General Assembly (2007) mentioned above. The PCA report on Federal Vision expressed concern that its adherents were creating confusion about the gospel by combining justification and sanctification together:

[T]he way Federal Vision proponents collapse the distinct benefits of this mediation (i.e. justification, adoption, sanctification) into “union with Christ” creates significant confusion. Similarly, Federal Vision’s appeal to “the biblical usage” of justification as a way to collapse forensic and transformative categories also confuses doctrines that our Standards rightly distinguish (i.e., justification and sanctification). (2225-2225)

In 2009, John Piper invited Douglas Wilson to speak at the annual Desiring God Conference because he was deeply “persuaded that Doug Wilson gets the gospel right” (John Piper, Why So Many Presbyterian Speakers This Year). Wilson’s gospel is “very complicated,” Piper conceded, but it is not “another gospel,” and he just “gets a bad wrap from a lot of PCA guys who aren’t careful about the way they think” (John Piper on Doug Wilson). [Disclosure: this writer is a member in a PCA church]. In the same discussion, Piper insisted that, for all of his criticism of him, “I don’t think N. T. Wright preaches a false gospel, either. I think N. T. Wright preaches a very confusing gospel.”

What is so remarkable and ironic about Piper’s embrace of Wilson is that Wilson was drifting away from “the [ostensibly truncated] historic Protestant view of the relationship between faith and obedience” by conflating faith and obedience in the instrumentality of justification, at precisely the time that Piper felt compelled to distance himself from Fuller’s gospel and write Counted Righteous in Christ to defend “the historic Protestant view of the relationship between faith and obedience so that the two are not conflated in the instrumentality of justification.” And yet, in 2009, Piper returned to his Fullerian roots and concluded that Wilson had actually gotten the gospel right, even though he was expressing it in the same terms as Fuller and Wright—men from whom Piper had ostensibly been distancing himself since 2002.

2012: Still fine-tuning his understanding of justification

In 2012 Piper revised Future Grace, acknowledging exactly what we have been highlighting in this timeline: the inconsistent, wavering announcement of justification by [something] alone, and Future Grace‘s imperative of forward looking faith. Because of the latent ambiguities in his constructs on justification in the 1995 edition, and (we believe) because of the uncertain trumpet he had sounded over the years, Piper felt compelled to clarify his teaching once more:

In the never-ending question of how Christians, who are counted righteous in Christ by faith alone, should nevertheless pursue righteousness, this book is my answer. It is my fullest attempt to explain why the faith that justifies also sanctifies, without mingling or confusing those two glorious works of God.

Since publishing the first edition of Future Grace in 1995, I have walked through extended controversies surrounding the nature, ground, and instrument of justification. These controversies have sharpened my own grasp of what the Bible teaches. Some of that sharpening is captured in Counted Righteous in Christ (Crossway, 2002), The Future of Justification (Crossway, 2007), and Finally Alive (Christian Focus, 2007). Some people have felt tensions between the first edition of Future Grace and the message of those books. I hope that this revised edition will remove those tensions. (Piper, John, Future Grace, Preface to the 2012 edition (Multnomah, 2012)).

We are not convinced, however, that Future Grace can actually be corrected to fix the problem of “mingling or confusing” justification and sanctification. Just as Piper’s 1999 sermon on James and Paul showed that he was still at that time in Fuller’s garden, Future Grace, written four years prior, was based entirely on chapter 18 of The Unity of the Bible in which Fuller attempted to work out the implications of “faith’s futuristic orientation” and Edward’s view that the sinner’s perseverance is contemplated by God in His verdict of justification. We do not believe that Piper can truly extract himself from Fuller’s garden while consuming the fruit that grows there. For all of his protestations, shifting positions and subsequent clarifications, Piper appears only briefly to have departed from his Fullerian roots circa 2001, and has long since returned to them.

2013: Bethlehem Baptist Church updates What we believe about the five points of Calvinism

In 2013, Piper updated his church’s 1985 position on Calvinism. Correcting some of the tensions that had existed in previous expressions of justification, just as he did the previous year with Future Grace. He deleted “God justifies us [with] a view to all subsequent acts of faith,” and simply stated,

God justifies us completely through the first genuine act of saving faith, but this is the sort of faith that perseveres and bears fruit in the “obedience of faith.”

Also, instead of God justifying us because He can see in our first act of faith “a life of faith with its inevitable obedience,” the focus was shifted now to Christ’s righteousness: “The first time we believe in Jesus we are united to Christ. In union with him, his righteousness is counted as ours, at that moment.” Nevertheless, the statement on obedience being required for final salvation remained: “Obedience, evidencing inner renewal from God, is necessary for final salvation.”

2017: Does God Really Save us by Faith Alone?

In 2017, Piper showed that although he was trying to resolve the tensions present in his previous formulations on justification, the ambiguous construct Robertson criticized in Fuller was still present in his thinking: “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.” As Piper expressed back in 1995, “Final salvation” is salvation “from future judgment,” and in 2009, “Future justification is … This final judgment.” He is still advancing a double justification doctrine—and initial justification by faith alone, and a final justification by faith plus works.

Conclusion

In The Future of Justification, Piper recalled that Richard Gaffin had spoken at the Pastors Conference in Monroe, Louisiana in 2005 (the namesake of the Monroe Doctrine and by some reckoning the origins of the Federal Vision). At the Pastors Conference, Gaffin had expressed what Piper believed, upon further study, to be “the true biblical understanding of the function of works in the final judgment” (Piper, The Future of Justification,115-16).

In the 1970s, throughout the Westminster Theological Seminary justification controversy surrounding the teachings of Norman Shepherd, Gaffin was Shepherd’s ardent defender. At the heart of the controversy was Shepherd’s view of the role of works in the justification of the believer, and Gaffin had sided with Shepherd. Shepherd’s views were eventually  determined to be out of accord with the Westminster Confession and he was dismissed from the seminary in 1982. We provide here three of Shepherd’s theses that were so offensive to the reformed community:

Thesis 21: The exclusive ground of the justification of the believer in the state of justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, but his obedience, which is simply the perseverance of the saints in the way of truth and righteousness, is necessary to his continuing in a state of justification (Heb. 3:6, 14).

Thesis 22: The righteousness of Jesus Christ ever remains the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification, but the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Heb. 12:14).

Thesis 23: Because faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith, and because repentance is necessary for the pardon of sin included in justification, and because abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments (John 15:5; 10; 1John 3:13; 24) are all necessary for continuing in the state of justification, good works, works done from true faith, according to the law of God, and for his glory, being the new obedience wrought by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer united to Christ, though not the ground of his justification, are nevertheless necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification (Rom. 6:16, 22; Gal. 6:7-9). (from Thirty-four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works, November 18, 1978.)

After an extensive review of Piper’s teachings on justification, we cannot see how Piper’s current views differ in any substantive way from Shepherd’s offensive theses on justification. Thus, we stand by our original assessment of Piper’s views on “final salvation” and “final justification.”

We extend two closing comments for the consideration of our readers on this controversial issue. First, one of our critics agreed that even in a charitable reading of Piper, his language could still be understood to be problematic. We appreciate that even some who disagreed with us understood that it was possible that we were reading Piper charitably.

Second, some critics have suggested that we have engaged in controversy for the sake of controversy. Although, from our perspective, we are zealous to maintain the purity of the church, we nevertheless understand that we should as zealously strive to maintain its peace. We are happy for the reminder to pursue both, and concede that we are not immune to the temptation to pursue controversy for its own sake.

That said, we offer to our critics a matter for reflection: those who seek the peace of the church are just as susceptible to the opposite temptation to avoid controversy for the sake of avoiding controversy. As we examine the history of the justification controversy—it now spans two generations of theologians—we have seen the damage that is propagated when error is tolerated in order to maintain the peace of the church.

To that end, we remind our readers that this controversy did not start with Piper’s 2017 article. It is by no means a new controversy. It started in 1970s when the faculty of Westminster failed to respond timely to Shepherd’s errors and allowed them too long to fester within its walls. The controversy has long since metastasized and we are now dealing with the second generation of the fruit it has borne.

The history of this long standing controversy may be explored profitably starting with O. Palmer Robertson’s essay, “The Current Justification Controversy.” And while Piper has on occasion expressed his disagreement with the Roman Catholic view of justification, after examining his decades of attempts to express the doctrine, we are not entirely sure that Piper really understands the essence of the Roman Catholic view, much less the implications of the justification controversy itself.

To all of our readers—to those who disagree, and to those who do not—enjoy October 31, 2017 tomorrow, the 500th anniversary of the birth of the  Protestant Reformation.

Soli Deo Gloria.

1 Comment
  1. Cathy Kaech 3 weeks ago

    Thank you for your courage and your zealous attention to false teachings. God Bless and Strengthen. Cathy Kaech

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