Our Thoughts on John Piper and Sola Fide

Our Thoughts on John Piper and Sola Fide

There is a lot of chatter out there about John Piper’s most recent article, Does God Really Save Us By Faith Alone? Obviously, given the title, the piece was intended to provoke a reaction. And… it did. Numbers have pushed back against Piper’s argument. And, numbers of others (and notable ones at that) have come to his defense. But, mostly numbers are confused. If you’ve not interacted with the discussion, simply google “John Piper and sola fide.” Then kiss the rest of your day goodbye. By the end of the same day, despite all the clarifications, one thing will remain the same: Piper’s argument is no less confusing than when the day began. On a certain level, it’s the persisting ambiguity that is the real concern for many. It is never a good sign when others must step in and explain what Piper meant by what Piper said on a cardinal doctrine like justification. If you are going to raise the question “Does God really save us by faith alone?” there’s no room for uncertainty in your answer. On the other hand, if you take his comments at face value, it’s clear Dr. Piper answers in the negative. “No, God does not save us by faith alone.” Best I can tell Dr. Piper believes we are saved by a combination of faith and works in the end and only faith alone in the beginning. I’m pretty certain this is the point he wanted to convey.

Some have argued that Piper has been misunderstood and is merely restating a Reformed view of the “necessity of works” in the Christian life. Or, he’s drawing the Reformed distinction between “right to life” and “possession of life” in union with Christ. But, Piper is not Reformed in the strict sense of the word and is, most likely, not arguing from this perspective. Piper is a leader of the New Calvinist movement that is broadly Calvinistic (doctrines of grace) and predestinarian in nature. Additionally, Piper is not favorable towards covenant theology that lies at the heart of a Reformed faith. It’s also notable that Piper has felt no need to clarify his view. What is clear in the article is Piper’s concern that sola fide might be overstated. In some ways, this concern is a central point of the article. Essentially, we must keep sola fide within its proper limits. Basically, according to Piper, sola fide does not apply to sanctification or final salvation. Of course, his basic premise is easily refutable. Consider Galatians 2:20 for example, “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me a gave himself for me.” There is a real sense that all of our life (including sanctification and glorification) is lived under the banner of sola fide. If Piper simply meant to underscore the believer’s participation in sanctification, there is a better and clearer way to make that point. Instead, his argument in restricting “faith alone” to justification creates some categories that are hard to figure out. What makes all this even more strange is that he’s putting out this argument on the five hundredth year of the Reformation. Which, if you haven’t heard, was fundamentally about the doctrine of justification. Ask the average evangelical, and they will not hesitate to affirm the centrality of sola fide and its application to the whole of the Christian life.

Piper is not the first person to argue against the primacy of justification. Many within the Reformed world would argue against this construct, and rather adamantly, but for different reasons. In both cases – the basic concern is the same. If you overemphasize sola fide, you could unintentionally encourage antinomianism, diminish any sense of transformation and minimize works in the Christian life. This fear is explicit in the article. Therefore, Sola fide can only apply to our original justification. Following our “initial” justification – faith and works cooperate to gain us entrance into heaven. Therefore, works are necessary to gain eternal life. Sola fide (faith alone) at the start and sola fidelas (faithfulness alone) throughout. Or, as Piper put it, “You can only apply sola fide to initial justification.” I think it’s safe to assume Piper’s use of “initial” implies a future or final salvation that is based on a combination of faith and works. We will be judged according to our works in the end. Ultimately, Piper ends up dichotomizing between justification (which is by faith alone) and our future deliverance (which is by faith and works). Sola fide can only be applied to the former and has no bearing on the latter. Of course, this is where the real confusion sets in. It raises serious underlying questions. Is our justification by grace through faith in Christ (which is an act of God’s sovereign grace) a guarantee of our future deliverance, or not? Does Piper mean that the remainder of salvation depends upon a combination of the believer’s efforts and God’s faithfulness? While he certainly does not deny sola fide, it’s hard to determine its efficacy in the future. Consider that when the Apostle Paul raised the question of our future deliverance his answer is remarkably consistent. It is by Christ alone (Romans 7:24-25). It’s also interesting at this point to contrast Piper’s thoughts the Westminster Confession of Faith on the role of good works and one’s entrance into eternal life.

We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. (Chapter 16.5)        

In all that’s been written about Piper’s perspective little has been mentioned of the long-standing history of his view on justification and works. In his defense, Piper has been arguing this very point over the whole of his ministry. So this is really nothing new. Only now, in light of his most recent article, people are paying attention to it. Everyone is scrambling to educate themselves on the “works as a necessary condition” language of the Reformers. But, Piper’s view has little to do with this historic discussion. The emphasis in his theology can be traced back to the influence of Daniel Fuller of Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller’s rejection of the covenant of works is well documented. This is why a Reformed voice coming to Piper’s defense is a little odd in this case. Besides, the Reformers never deny that justification by faith alone guarantees the future deliverance for those who believe in Christ for salvation. They also hold that works are an inevitable consequence of regeneration. In comparison, Piper’s view stems from a rejection of covenant theology and the covenant of works in particular.

Basically, it goes like this. The prohibition presented to Adam in the garden was a covenant, whereby; upon obedience, Adam would have merited eternal life for himself and his posterity. He was our federal head or our representative. Reformed theologians refer to this obligation as a “covenant of works.” Of course, Adam failed in his obligation casting himself and his posterity (mankind) into condemnation and corruption. This was the condition of the prohibition (Genesis 2:15-17). We were plunged into judgment. That original obligation of righteousness still hangs over all of humanity. We are all guilty of what Adam did (or did not do). Additionally, due to the corruption of our natures that followed his disobedience, no amount of works can result in a right standing before God. The Law and its requirements only condemn us. The works of the Law are useless to us as a means of justification (Romans 3:20). This is not due to an inherent problem with the Law, but an inherent problem within us. This is exactly why Christ is called the second Adam for those who believe. In the incarnation, the Son of God took upon himself the original obligation of Adam and merited us righteousness by his obedience. This “gift of righteousness” is imputed to us by faith. Paul breaks down the parallels between these two Adams in Romans 5:12-20. What the first Adam could not do for his posterity the second Adam did on behalf of His. Christ’s perfect obedience renders us righteous by faith alone. The whole point being, righteousness was merited for us by another. We receive that righteousness by faith and stand just before God in a righteousness which is not our own.

It is within our condemnation (in Adam) the Gospel comes forth as a glorious announcement of good news. “There is a righteousness that is available by faith and not by works!” A righteousness that has been merited by another (Christ) is ours by faith alone and not by works. The reason this is good news is obvious. Our works are useless. The declaration of grace in the Gospel runs parallel to the condemnation found in the Law. Each, the Law and the Gospel, find their origins in the nature of God. God is both “just and the justifier” of those who believe in Christ Jesus (Romans 3;26). The Reformer John Calvin would say that the great white throne judgment is transformed into a throne of grace for those who place their faith in Christ. The requirements of the law are neither ignored nor diminished. In Christ all is satisfied. Our sin is imputed to him and our just condemnation takes place on the Cross. That which is required of us – perfect righteousness – is imputed to us via faith from the life of Christ.

Since Piper does not recognize the covenant of works – the meritorious ground of righteousness through perfect obedience to the law – there is a tendency to blur the distinction between Law and Gospel. Between works and grace. In numerous places, Piper takes the Law to be a pattern of faithfulness for believers and not an absolute standard that condemns all men. When Piper reads a passage describing the requirements of the law he has a tendency to view those requirements in a relative and not in an absolute sense. Rather than letting the gospel answer the laws demands the law is laid on its side and works become a parallel path to our future salvation. In reality, the requirement of righteousness according to the Law stands over every human being – lost or saved. No man – except Christ – has met or fulfilled its commands. Only through faith do we stand righteous. We are righteous before God even though we’ve never actually met the standard ourselves.

This predisposition for conflating Law and Gospel can be observed throughout Piper’s works. This is especially true with his treatment of Romans 2:6-13. Rather than understanding this section as presenting the absolute and uncompromising requirement of the law to those who seek justification through works, Piper takes it as the general characteristics of the person who can hope to be saved in the end. Ultimately, this is how Piper ends up concluding that our works will play a role in our future deliverance. When Piper comes to Romans 2:13 and reads “[it is] the doers of the law who will be justified” he understands Paul as describing the type of person who will be justified and not how someone is justified under the law. In summary, those Christians who have spent their lives obeying the law are the ones who will be saved in the future. In reality, what Paul is describing is the Law’s requirement for perfect and complete obedience for justification. It’s impossible. In this particular context, this is intended to discourage any who would seek to be justified by the Law, not encourage the pursuit of salvation through it. For Piper the point is that obedient people can hope to be saved in the end. For Paul, the point is that your obedience can never justify you before God when you face Him in the future. The Law requires perfection. We know this is what Paul means because he goes on to say this exact thing, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)” Piper’s comments on the passage are helpful in understanding his point of view.

I think that when Paul says, “doers of the law will be justified,” he means that there really are such people, and they are the only people who will be acquitted at the judgment. This is not a hypothetical statement. It is a statement of actual, experienced fact. When Christ comes into a person’s life by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in the Gospel, that person becomes a “doer of the law.” Not a sinlessly perfect law-keeper, but one who loves the law of God (= the law of Christ), and depends on God’s help to live according to the truth (which now includes the cross of Christ and the work of the Spirit), and trusts God for his mercy when he stumbles (according to 1 John 1:9).

In other words, Paul’s point is not – only those who perfectly obey the law can hope to be justified before God by works. Rather, according to Piper, he means only those whose lives are characterized by obedience to the law in a general sense can hope to be acquitted at the judgment. Paul’s point is the exact opposite of Piper’s. He is actually describing a “sinlessly perfect law-keeper” because this is what the Law requires. This is what Christ was for us. Obedience to the law cannot merit righteousness before God and cannot justify any human being. We need a perfect righteousness which is not our own. A righteousness imputed by faith. This, of course, is where the announcement of the Gospel fits in Paul’s argument.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for fall have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-26)

In another place, Piper makes the same point.

When we stand before Christ as Judge, we will be judged according to our deeds in this life. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” This is not an isolated teaching in the New Testament. Jesus said in Matthew 16:27, “The Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and will then recompense every person according to his deeds.” And in the very last chapter of the Bible Jesus said, “Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to render to every person according to what he has done” (Revelation 22:12). In other words, the way you live is not unimportant.

It would seem evident on the surface of things that “not unimportant” means essential. But, no person can hope to stand before God and be justified before Him through their “deeds.” Again, this is impossible. Hence the Gospel. All of these passages point to its necessity. The Gospel offers us the perfect deeds of Christ received by faith as the only ground of our acceptance before him. Piper misses the reality of the Law and understands it rather as a means of reconciliation.  Referring specifically to Paul’s argument in Romans 2 Piper maintains,

Numerous texts point in this direction. One is in Paul’s letter to the Romans (2:5–7) where he refers to ‘The revelation of the righteous judgment of God,’ and then says (in vv. 6–8), ‘[God] will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality [he will render] eternal life; but to those who . . . do not obey the truth . . . [he will render] wrath and indignation.’ In other words, just as our text says, the judgment is ‘according to what a person has done.’ But here the issue is eternal life versus wrath.

All of this leads to the question Piper raised in the title of his article, “Does God Really Save By Faith Alone?” Of course, we would answer in the affirmative – “Yes!” No one could ever hope to stand before the holiness of God in the future and be accepted except by the righteousness of Christ that we received by faith alone in the first place. Calvin put it this way,

Whatever fine reasons we use to make ourselves look good before man, we will, as soon as God sits as Judge, still have to remain confounded because God’s righteousness is like an inextinguishable brilliant light.

To this question, I insist, we must apply our mind if we would profitably inquire concerning true righteousness: How shall we reply to the Heavenly Judge when he calls us to account? Let us envisage for ourselves that Judge, not as our minds naturally imagine him, but as he is depicted for us in Scripture: by whose brightness the stars are darkened (Job 3:9); by whose strength the mountains are melted; by whose wrath the earth is shaken (Job 9:5-6); whose wisdom catches the wise in their craftiness (Job 5:13); beside whose purity all things are defiled (cf. Job 25:5); whose righteousness not even the angels can bear [cf. Job 4:18]; who makes not the guilty man innocent (Job 9:20); whose vengeance when once kindled penetrates to the depths of hell (Deut. 32:22; Job 26:6). Let us behold him, I say, sitting in judgment to examine the deeds of men: Who will stand confident before his throne? “Who … can dwell with the devouring fire?” asks the prophet. “Who … can dwell with everlasting burnings? He who walks righteously and speaks the truth” (Isa. 33:14-15). But let such a one, whoever he is, come forward. Nay, that response causes no one to come forward. For, on the contrary, a terrible voice resounds: “If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who shall stand?” (Ps. 130:3; 129:3). – Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion; 3.12.1

Articles Listed In Order Of Appearance

  1. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/does-god-really-save-us-by-faith-alone
  2. https://www.google.com/amp/s/dennyburk.wordpress.com/2004/12/03/review-of-daniel-p-fullers-gospel-law-contrast-or-continuum/amp/
  3. http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/there-is-no-partiality-with-god-part-2
  4. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/what-happens-when-you-die-all-appear-before-the-judgment-seat-of-christ
  5. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/what-happens-when-you-die-all-appear-before-the-judgment-seat-of-christ
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