On September 25th 2017 I began to hyperventilate.
This was because of a statement made by one of the most influential Christian pastor/theologians in my life, John Piper. I have read almost everything he has written and listened to hours upon hours of sermons, conference messages and seminars that he has produced. I always knew there were some things that I didn’t agree with. I’m not Charismatic. It took me a little while to realise that I’m not a Pietist either. These things did not bother me all that much…I was still a Piper fan. However, September 25th literally took my breath away.
On the abovementioned date, Piper released an article on the Desiring God website entitled “Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?” Given that it was released on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation I anticipated the answer “yes.” I was wrong. In the following year, Piper clarified, but did not amend, his views in an Ask Pastor John episode entitled “Will We Be Finally ‘Saved’ by Faith Alone?” Since then I have also learned that this is not a new development in his thinking but has been present for more or less the duration of his ministry.
In essence, Piper’s view is as follows.
- We are justified through faith in Christ alone.
- We are not finally saved through faith in Christ alone.
- We are finally saved (enter heaven/survive judgement) through faith and through the works that faith produces.
Sound familiar? That’s because it doesn’t sound very different from the sort of thing that was being said by the Federal Visionists of Auburn Avenue Church or the adherents of the New Perspective on Paul made popular through the teaching of Tom Wright. Although the theology of these groups is notoriously difficult to define, what was common to all is a version of soteriology which states that you start by faith alone, and continue by faith and works. Oh, foolish Galatians!
To be clear, there are significant differences between these movements and Piper. Unlike the Federal Vision and the NPP, Piper has an orthodox view on justification in and of itself. The problem is with how justification is related to salvation as a whole.
What’s wrong with Piper’s view?
- It is not biblical. Ephesians 2:8-9 (a text never referred to in all of his writings on this subject) makes it clear that salvation is by grace, through faith, apart from works. In other words, we are saved by faith alone. Well, that more or less ends the conversation.
- It is not historically Protestant. Reformed theology has always articulated the relationship between faith and works in the following way. “We are justified by faith alone but justifying faith is never alone.” Works are the evidence of justification by faith alone. Works are not the ground or instrument of salvation. Faith is the only instrument of salvation. Piper seems to feel the need to go further and make works instrumental in some way.
- It is not theologically sound. Justification is the final judgement brought forward in time. To be justified is to have the final judgement settled for you in the death and resurrection of Christ. That is, we have already been declared righteous because our sin has been imputed to Christ and His righteousness to us. Therefore the one who has been justified by faith alone has already been guaranteed a place in heaven and the New Creation because he or she has already passed through the final judgement. Why would any further works of ours be necessary? We cannot make such a sharp distinction between justification and salvation. Those who are justified are saved. Those who are saved are justified. True, salvation is more than justification but it is not something that can be separated from it.
- It’s not covenantal. Piper rejects the covenant of works. That’s not good because whenever someone rejects the covenant of works they end up turning the covenant of grace into a hybrid covenant of grace and works. Bad covenant theology leads to a bad gospel.
- It is not pastoral. No matter how much Piper claims he is not undermining Christian assurance, it is the inevitable result of what he is teaching. If justification by faith alone does not necessarily mean you are saved by the same faith in Christ then what is the benefit of justification? And if justification does not provide the basis for assurance, then what is the basis of assurance? Ultimately if my works play any part in my eternal security then I have no assurance because I can never be certain that I have done enough.