John Piper’s Works Righteousness “Gospel” (Part 3) — Doctrines of the Reformation compared to Piper
John Piper: 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, The Justification Debate: 2009, Compiled by Trevin Wax]
The London Confession of Faith: Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.
John Piper is immensely popular among Christians. His influence has been huge, and it continues to be. Myriads of people unquestioningly believe that Piper is sound in his doctrine and that he has done more than anyone to cause a resurgence in reformed theology. In contrast, we maintain that John Piper teaches a legalistic works righteousness gospel that is to be rejected. We have received some comments suggesting that we should only focus upon his erroneous teaching of the permanence view of marriage and divorce and remarriage. That we cannot do. Why? Because Piper’s permanence view of marriage, as well as much of his other teaching, is driven at its heart by a false gospel of works righteousness. That is to say, we believe that Piper’s view of marriage, a very legalistic and enslaving one, is a fruit of his works righteousness doctrine of salvation. The two are intimately connected. And this subject is of vital importance to every Christian and in some ways of particular importance to abuse victims.
In this post, we are simply going to set out statements from some of the articles on justification that are found in the confessions of faith produced during the Reformation. We will then provide you with some quotes from Piper’s writings (in addition to the one above) that plainly demonstrate that Piper is introducing works into the requirements for justification, a distortion that turns the true gospel into a false one that cannot save and which does not liberate. Piper, very much like those of the federal vision error, fails to consistently emphasize the active obedience of Christ (i.e., Christ’s perfect obedience to the Law of God during His earthly life in our behalf), and instead most frequently focuses only upon the passive obedience of Christ (i.e., His suffering and death). That means that for Piper, WE still have some law-keeping to do ourselves that is necessary for our salvation.
Listen once again to The London Confession of Faith of 1689 in regard to justification (The Westminster Confession has virtually identical wording in its statement on justification):
1. Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God. ( Romans 3:24; Romans 8:30; Romans 4:5-8; Ephesians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:30, 31; Romans 5:17-19; Philippians 3:8, 9; Ephesians 2:8-10; John 1:12; Romans 5:17 )
2. Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone [i.e., only] instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love. ( Romans 3:28; Galatians 5:6; James 2:17, 22, 26 )
And here is the Westminster Larger Catechism:
Q. 73. How does faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and his righteousness.
Here are statements from the Lutheran Book of Concord (section III), which rejects the very errors that Piper is teaching. Piper may imply that he has some new and deeper insight into justification, but there is no error new under the sun:
We reject and condemn all the following errors:
1) That faith has the first place in justification, yet renewal and love also belong to our righteousness before God in a particular way. Although renewal and love are not the chief cause of our righteousness, nevertheless our righteousness before God is not entire or perfect without such love and renewal.
2) That believers are justified before God and saved jointly by Christ’s righteousness credited to them and by the new obedience begun in them. Or, believers are justified in part by the credit of Christ’s righteousness, but in part also by the new obedience begun in them.
3) Faith does not justify without good works, so that good works are necessarily required for righteousness, and without their presence a person cannot be justified.
And again, from section IV of the Book of Concord:
Good works certainly and without doubt follow true faith — if it is not a dead, but a living faith — just as fruit grows on a good tree (Matthew 7:17). We believe, teach, and confess that good works should be entirely excluded from the question about salvation, just as they are excluded from the article of justification before God.
We reject and condemn the following ways of speaking when they are taught and written: ‘Good works are necessary to salvation.’ Also, ‘No one ever has been saved without good works.’ Also, ‘It is impossible to be saved without good works.'”
These statements are in accord with the other confessions of the reformation, and we believe are in accord with Scripture. The sinner is justified before God through faith alone, and although this genuine faith which is the gift of God will evidence itself through love for God and love for one’s neighbor, neither the act of believing nor the working of this faith by love are a basis for the believer’s justification. We are justified by God solely by the imputation (crediting) of Christ’s perfect obedience to God’s Law and His perfect atonement for our sins on the cross, to our account. Listen to Walther (Lutheran Theologian) explain:
The Word of God—Law and Gospel—is not rightly distinguished, but mingled, when one preaches that faith justifies and saves because of the love and renewal it produces….The Holy Scriptures emphatically testify that there can be no genuine faith without love, without a renewal of heart, without sanctification, or without an abundance of good works. But at the same time Scripture testifies that the renewal of heart, love, and the good works that faith produces is not the justifying and saving element in a person’s faith. Innumerable passages of Scripture could be cited to prove this statement.
If something that we ourselves must do belonged to the justifying quality of faith, the apostle would be drawing a false conclusion here. In that case Paul should have said, “By faith, insofar as it enables us to accomplish something good.” But that is not the reason faith justifies. It justifies because it accepts the merit of Christ. Faith is only the hand with which we grasp what God offers.
The Papists occasionally say that a person is justified and saved by faith, but they add: “provided love is added to faith.” They do not mean to say merely that a person who has no love has no faith. That is what we teach too—just as Scripture does. What they mean is this: A person may have true faith created in him by the Holy Spirit. But if love is not added to it, they claim that faith is absolutely worthless. That is why they call love the forma of faith. In theological terms, as you know, forma makes matter what it is—its essential quality. The Papists declare that if love is not added to faith, such faith may be genuine, but it is not justifying faith. Love is the forma of faith, which they say makes justifying faith what its name indicates. Such faith they call fides formata, faith that has received the proper form. However, if love has not been added, they call that faith fides informis, that is, faith without its proper form. The Decrees of the Council of Trent, ch. VII, canon 28: “When love is not added to it, faith neither forms a vital union with Christ, nor does it make a person a living member of the Body of Christ.” The Papists do not speak of “faith from which love does not proceed.” That would be correct. If faith does not produce love, it is a mere fake. Rather, what they mean is this: You might have good faith, but that does not justify you if you do not add love to it. Love should not flow from one’s faith; that is something altogether impossible according to their teaching. They understand faith to be mere lifeless agreement with the doctrines of the Church. Love, they say, must be added to faith. Then faith will justify you. Well, if that is the case, then what does justify? Only love, only a person’s good works. They do not say this in plain terms, but any person who reflects even a little on what they are saying cannot help but draw out of their remarks this meaning: If faith does not justify in the first place, then something must be added that on its own achieves justification.
Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther (1905-07-02). Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible (Kindle Locations 8264-8376). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
Let us show you through John Piper’s own words that he in fact teaches that the works produced by faith are necessary for our justification and salvation. In other words, we show here that John Piper teaches that justification is by faith plus works, and therefore Piper is teaching a false gospel, being of the very form that the reformed confessions reject and which Walther is identifying as Roman Catholic:
The crucial question is: How is Jesus the path to perfection? One historic answer is that Jesus himself is our perfection. That is, when we are connected with him by faith, God counts us to be perfect because of Jesus, even though in ourselves we are not. Another historic answer is that Jesus, by his presence and power within us, transforms us so that we really begin to love like he does and move toward perfection, which we finally obtain in heaven. It seems to me that Jesus gives us good reason to believe that both of these answers are true.
John Piper (2006-09-30). What Jesus Demands from the World (Kindle Locations 2386-2390). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
In relationship to him we are counted as perfect, even though we are still sinners. This is what it means to be justified. We will deal with the second answer in the next chapter, namely, that Jesus, by his presence and power within us, transforms us so that we really begin to love like he does and move toward perfection.
ibid, (Kindle Locations 2429-2431).
We saw in the previous chapter that the rich man who was seeking eternal life “lacked one thing.” If he “would be perfect,” he needed Jesus (Matt. 19:21). Jesus is the path to perfection. But how is he the path to perfection? The last chapter answered: by being the basis of our perfection before God as we trust him. Now we turn to another answer, which is also true: Jesus, by his presence and power within us, transforms us so that we really begin to love like he does and move toward perfection.
ibid, (Kindle Locations 2442-2445).
The answer of the last chapter by itself does not account fully for Jesus speaking the way he does about doing the will of God. Jesus says that doing the will of God really is necessary for our final entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
ibid, p. 160, (Kindle Locations 2447-2449).
There is no doubt that Jesus saw some measure of real, lived-out obedience to the will of God as necessary for final salvation. “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). So the second historic answer to the question, how is Jesus the path to perfection? has been that he enables us to change. He transforms us so that we really begin to love like he does and thus move toward perfection that we finally obtain in heaven.
ibid, p. 160, (Kindle Locations 2453-2456).
Therefore, Jesus does not anticipate a time in this age when we will not need daily forgiveness. That is why I say 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. But though our lived-out perfection only comes in heaven, Jesus really does transform us now, and this transformation is really necessary for final salvation. But the way our new behavior is necessary is different from the way trusting Jesus for our perfection is necessary. Trusting Jesus connects us with him. Then, because of Jesus’ work alone, God counts us righteous, even before our behavior is transformed. The tax collector who cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) would not dare point to any righteous behavior in himself as the basis of his justification. He looked away from what he was and pled for mercy. God declared him righteous before his behavior changed. Therefore, trusting Jesus is necessary in order to be connected to Jesus who is the foundation of our justification. But new, transformed behavior is necessary as the fruit and evidence of this connection with Jesus.
ibid, pp. 160-61, (Kindle Locations 2459-2467).
We have seen that even though commandment-keeping will never provide a righteousness good enough to gain acceptance with God, nevertheless, the effort to do God’s will is essential.
ibid, p. 162, (Kindle Locations 2487-2488).
Third, notice what is at stake: hell. “It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Many Christians who love the truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone—which I love, and which I believe Jesus teaches (see Demand #20)—find it difficult to take these threats of Jesus at face value. But there is no way to avoid them. They are strewn throughout the Gospels, and they clearly imply that if we forsake the battle for purity, we will perish.
ibid, p. 208, (Kindle Locations 3226-3230).
If we do not have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). Everything we have seen in this chapter shows that Jesus is not thinking here mainly of his own righteousness that is imputed to us. He is thinking of the kind of internal transformation and external application revealed in the following six antitheses of Matthew 5:21-48. How then do we enjoy security in Jesus when what he requires is real change of heart and real righteous behavior? I tried to answer this question especially in Demand #24. Indeed I am trying to give an answer to it throughout the book. So I close this chapter with another summary statement. Think of our sense of security—our assurance that we are going to enter the final manifestation of the kingdom of God at the end of the age—resting most decisively on our location in God’s invincible favor, but also on our behavioral demonstration that we are truly in that location.
ibid, pp. 208-9, (Kindle Locations 3231-3239).
What God will require at the judgment is not our perfection, but sufficient fruit to show that the tree had life—in our case, divine life.
ibid, p.211, (Kindle Locations 3270-3271).
It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. Clearly, justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64: 6, which says our righteousness is as filthy rags, or “a polluted garment.” “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” But in the context, Isaiah 64: 6 does not mean that all righteousness performed by God’s people is unacceptable to God. Isaiah is referring to people whose righteousness is in fact hypocritical. It is no longer righteousness. But in the verse just before this, Isaiah says that God approvingly meets “him who joyfully works righteousness” (v. 5). It’s true — gloriously true — that none of God’s people, before or after the Cross, would be accepted by an immaculately holy God if the perfect righteousness of Christ were not imputed to us (Romans 5: 19; 1 Corinthians 1: 30; 2 Corinthians 5: 21). But that does not mean God does not produce in those “justified” people (even in the Old Testament before the Cross) an experiential righteousness that is not a “polluted garment.” In fact, he does, and this righteousness is precious to God and is, in fact, required — not as the ground of our justification (which is the righteousness of Christ only), but as an evidence of our being truly justified children of God.
Piper, John (2012-09-25). Future Grace, Revised Edition: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God (Kindle Locations 2851-2864). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Now, if Piper’s statements here seem foggy and confusing to you, that is because they are. He leaves himself “wiggle room” so that he can deny that he is teaching salvation by faith plus works. Some of you are probably thinking after reading his words here, “But surely he just means that real faith produces good fruit/works.” But no, that is not all that he is saying. He is doing exactly what the confessions of faith quoted above specifically say we must not do — that is, Piper is taking those works, calling them the “obedience of faith,” and introducing them into the necessary elements in the formula for justification. He is indeed preaching a false gospel of faith plus works. The following comment is a very appropriate way to close this post:
Piper has many patterns. One is to say things so many different ways that by the time you think you know what he’s saying, he switches direction and goes at it from a different angle. Very confusing. He goes after time-held positions, replaces them with his own, then turns around and softens his stance…but the next chapter will find him attacking all over again. (Carmen S, ACFJ blog commenter)
In our next post in this series we will consider Piper’s teaching that the Christian must enter the narrow gate twice.
For further reading
For further critiques of Piper and the unbiblical idea of a final justification according to works, check out the following links:
- Mark Seifrid: Piper Nearly Tridentine on Justification
- John Gill: The Necessity of Good Work Unto Salvation Considered
- J.V. Fesko: Paul on Justification and the Final Judgment
- John Robbins: Pied Piper
- Is John Piper Reformed? by R. Scott Clark
Posts in this series
Part 3: Is this post.