Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda

The Reformed Church must always be reformed. On the cusp of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation one long-time defender of the Reformed faith is coming under fire because his detractors detect some muddy water. John Piper has written an article suggesting that final salvation is not by faith alone. In his defense, Piper sounds awfully biblical. Unfortunately he also sounds a little confusing on the very issue we are all getting ready to celebrate at the end of the month. But if we say “the church Reformed, always reforming” we should consider whether he is taking us closer to the truth of Scripture despite our initial confusion. Let us seek clarity.

If you haven’t heard about this controversy, no worries: the Aquila Report is on top of it, promoting several pieces over the last couple of weeks that are critical of Piper’s thesis (which you can also read in another, older, form here):

What’s Piper trying to nail up on the door here?

What’s his thesis? You can find it in bold below:

Such [saving] 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.

He says that justification is the free gift of God. But to get to heaven we will need something besides justification. We will need the products of justification: love and obedience. At the Judgment Christians will not have imputed righteousness only. We also will have inherent righteousness. The imputed kind is the alien righteousness Luther rediscovered in the Reformation, the righteousness that is apart from Law (Romans 3:21). This is the righteousness we all look for from Christ. Only this imputed righteousness is sufficient to save a person from the wrath of God. The inherent kind, as Piper uses the term, is what God produces in everyone who receives the imputed kind. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us at justification and the Holy Spirit begins to produce faithful work in and through us. This resulting inherent righteousness is not meritorious–it doesn’t earn our justification. Rather it demonstrates that we are the blood-bought, justified and sanctified elect. This inherent righteousness, then, is required only in the sense that its absence proves the absence of Christ’s imputed righteousness.

That’s what I hear John Piper saying. And it sure rocks the boat because we are trained to shy away from any mention of inherent righteousness for fear that we will be heard preaching justification on the basis of that inherent righteousness.

If I am justified by grace through faith alone on the basis of Christ’s finished work alone I have nothing to fear! The Holy Spirit will produce His fruit in me (Galatians 5:22-23) as I, with a new heart, strive to enter the straight gate (Matthew 7:13-14). God will examine me for good works–not so that He can decide whether I am heaven-bound or not but so that His works in me will be revealed to all of creation (Romans 8:19). Not all saints shine equally bright in this world but at Judgement every saint will be exposed for who he was in this life: a justified, adopted, and sanctified son of God. Entrance into heaven will require, in this sense, that my life has the fruit of justification. We usually call this fruit sanctification. Not to be confused with perfection, it is also called holiness. And every justified child of God will have it in some degree.

Is this thesis biblical?

Because he is speaking about Judgment in terms unfamiliar to those who know only Ephesians 2:8-9 and the five Sola’s of the Reformation we must be careful to ask, is getting this from the Bible? Well, here he is again explaining what he means. See if this sounds like the Bible:

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). Mortification of sin, sanctification in holiness. But what makes that possible and pleasing to God? We put sin to death and we pursue holiness from a justified position where God is one hundred percent for us — already — by faith alone.

Since we have been justified, God now views our works as justified works. Even our repentance needs forgiveness by the blood of Christ and Piper says here, those works are forgiven. They come from a justified soul and so they are accepted. Then judgment is rendered on the basis of those works.

Final salvation, then, depends on works? Yes but we have been trained to speak about the basis of justification interchangeably with that of glorification. That is not the approach the Bible takes. How else do you explain passages like Matthew 25:31-46 if works are no part of the final judgment? Or what do you make of Romans 2:16 if, in fact, the secrets of your heart have absolutely no bearing on whether you are heaven-bound? Did Jesus get it wrong when He was wrapping up the Sermon on the Mount? If not, what does He mean here?

So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.‘ (Matthew 7:20-23)

Surely Piper’s critics will concede that Jesus was familiar with Reformed soteriology. But He definitely ties our Judgment to our works. Those who don’t do the will of God will not enter. Those who are busy doing great things but still doing evil things (hypocrites, to use the Bible word for them) will not enter.

We, however, talk about salvation by grace through faith, then we explain what happens at glorification without reference to a judgment. Sanctification is left out of the equation entirely because we are so focused on safe-guarding justification by grace through faith. This instinct is admirable but it short-circuits our reading of biblical texts that refer to the judgment. Passages like Matthew 25 and Romans 2 and Hebrews 2:14 show that God does, in fact, look at our works.

Piper’s thesis sounds like the Bible. Those texts he quoted do actually say what he says they say. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. In the context of a difficult and disturbing article (and he had to know it would disturb us), this took some real courage to say:

Since “Scripture alone” is our final and decisive authority, being faithful to Scripture is the goal. We aim to be biblical first — and Reformed only if it follows from Scripture.

Having listened to John Piper and read some of his books over the years I’m used to trusting him. So when he writes something like this, my reaction is not to jump all over his infelicitous phrase-ology. The Bible seems to back him up.

Does it violate “The Standards”?

For Presbyterians in the PCA this is the big question. Well, the Bible is a big deal, too. But when Presbyterians roll up their shirt-sleeves for a fight it’s not usually the Bible they are wrestling with. We are much more comfortable fighting about the subordinate standards, also known as the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

Well as it turns out John Piper (a Baptist) is only explaining what the the Westminster Confession itself also says (33.1), echoing the language of Scripture:

God hath appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgement is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.

Do the Reformers agree with this?

But I know the Reformers said it differently, right? Wrong.

Piper’s detractors are looking at what John Calvin, Martin Luther and Matthew Henry say about those parts of the Bible that discuss the free gift of justification by faith alone. But no one is questioning justification by faith alone.

Go to Calvin on Ephesians 2 and, sure, he sounds like he could easily pass a Presbytery exam in the PCA or OPC. Dead-center Reformed soteriology. Read Calvin on Romans 2:5-8, though, and you get this:

The meaning then is,–that the Lord will give eternal life to those who, by attention to good works, strive to attain immortality.

Rats! Now we have to discipline Calvin, right? Faithful Reformed bloggers to the rescue–where are your posts taking Calvin to task? Matthew Henry is even more off-the-charts into legalism:

There must be well-doing, working good. It is not enough to know well, and speak well, and profess well, and promise well, but we must do well: do that which is good, not only for the matter of it, but for the manner of it. We must do it well.

A continuance in well-doing. Not for a fit and a start, like the morning cloud and the early dew; but we must endure to the end: it is perseverance that wins the crown.

A patient continuance. This patience respects not only the length of the work, but the difficulties of it and the oppositions and hardships we may meet with in it. Those that will do well and continue in it must put on a great deal of patience…He will render to such eternal life.

The trouble may be that the apostle Paul was not trying to pass a Presbytery exam. He was moved by the Holy Spirit to declare what saving faith looks like. God is glorified in what He does in a believer so it makes sense that a believer’s life looks like God is doing something in him. So Paul wrote what he wrote and Calvin and Henry are faithfully passing it on.

Martin Luther believed in the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone. Obviously. Look at how he handles Galatians 5, “Whereof I tell you, as I have also told you before, that they which do such things, shall not inherit the kingdom of God”:

This is a very hard and a terrible saying, but yet very necessary against false Christians and careless hypocrites, which brag of the Gospel, of faith and of the Spirit, and yet in all security they perform the works of the flesh.

There’s the rub.

The bottom line:

The minute a slogan keeps us from understanding the meaning of a text, or a Latin phrase erases the fear of God from our hearts, we need to discipline its use or abandon it. I believe this is what Piper is after. And this approach is more Reformed and more faithful to Scripture than all the pants-on-fire theologians running around screaming Sola Fide! Sola Fide! Sola Fide! What I hear Piper saying is, okay, “faith alone…what, exactly?”

A better question may be, “what do you mean by ‘faith'”? Do you mean a faith that leaves you stuck in all your besetting sins? Can saving faith lie dormant and ineffectual forever? Will a saving faith refuse to acknowledge and obey the imperatives of the Bible because it fears the sin of legalism? Does saving faith have the appearance of godliness but deny the gospel’s transforming power? No—the Bible only mentions that kind of faith when James pronounces it DOA (James 2:17, 26).

Why? Because salvation involves the gift of a certain kind of life–we are not just convinced, convicted or won over. We are born again. This new life breathes a new air, hungers for new food, and grows in new directions. In other words, having been justified we also have a guarantee of sanctification and glorification. Since sanctification is the only one of the three we can see now, the Scriptures tell us about Judgment in terms of an increasing holiness that invariably follows our justification. If you have one you will have the other. Judgment will be the display of God’s fruit in your life. You will not be perfect or sinless but you will have fruit. The Holy Spirit is making every justified person holy. And God will reward His work.

No fruit? No faith. Even the thief on the cross did a faith-motivated good work when he rebuked a wicked man and publicly prayed to Christ (Luke 23:40-42). Works do not save but they are the mark of the saved. And Judgment proceeds by evidence.

Still worried that this is works-righteousness? Give this last quote from Calvin some hard thought. This is from his comments on Romans 2:6

As he sanctifies those whom he has previously resolved to glorify, he will also crown their good works, but not on account of any merit: nor can this be proved from this verse; for though it declares what reward good works are to have, it does yet by no means show what they are worth, or what price is due to them. And it is an absurd inference, to deduce merit from reward.

He says the judgment will reward our works–but not because our works earned our place in heaven. But because God’s judgment will reward His free gift and all its effects in the lives of His elect. We must never forget that one of those effects is obedience to His commands. By their fruit you shall know them.

So, the bottom line in this controversy is this: John Piper is not backing away from the Reformation. He is continuing it.

Thankful for this content? Let others know: