John Piper wrote a post some time ago on justification, good works, and salvation. Most Reformed folks agree with his basic position, but there is a vocal minority who accuse him of compromising the doctrine of justification. The man who took on N.T. Wright to defend justification is himself actually just as bad, so it would seem if these critics are correct.
So, does Piper say things that compromise the doctrine of salvation or is he merely echoing what Reformed theologians have said over the centuries on the necessity of good works for final salvation?
This is Piper’s offending phrase:
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 Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”
Here’s the problem for these critics of Piper. This isn’t really a problem. And if you write blog posts taking issue with Piper on this particular topic, but claim to be Reformed, you probably need to spend some time getting theological training and then, after that, publishing via peer-reviewed journals, books, etc., before you can be taken seriously. And even then, it’s possible that you could have such a built-in bias against someone that you’d find a problem with them for saying “Jesus loves sinners.”
Imagine the Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly looking at Piper’s offending language. And then ask whether the Prolocutor has written equally offensive stuff on the doctrine of salvation after reading these words below:
Good works are the dispositive [Lat: dispositiva] cause of salvation” Or, “as for the causes of salvation, not only faith, but also repentance and good works go before … as preparative causes …” Or, “It is incumbent for all the elect to seek salvation not only by faith but by works also.”
Now, please tell me, should we write a blog post saying the Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly has compromised the doctrine of justification? What if I were to tell you that I could add to Twisse many other theologians from the Westminster Assembly who wrote similarly?
I keep referring to this distinction, namely, the right to life versus the possession of life. If you do not have a thorough acquaintance with this distinction you have no business writing critical blog pieces on this topic. As Herman Witsius argued, the right to life is “assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” However, regarding the possession of life, “our works…which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter.”
Again, tell me, is this different than what Piper says? Let me highlight Witsius’s words again: “our works … contribute something to the [possession of] salvation.”
Similarly, Petrus van Mastricht once wrote:
In so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10.
There above is the “right” versus the “possession” distinction. God will not grant eternal life unless there are good works, according to Mastricht. Or Zanchius,
“Good works are the instrumental cause of the possession of eternal life; by these indeed, just as by an obvious and legitimate way, God leads us into the possession of eternal life.”
The instrumental cause of justification is faith alone. But Reformed orthodox theologians had no problem speaking of instrumental causes for salvation (broadly considered). Good works function as an intstrumental cause. They are part of the necessary path we walk on as we enter through the narrow gate to eternal life. Paul says in Romans, “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (13:11). Obviously, salvation must mean more than justification or this verse makes no sense at all to Reformed Protestants. In fact, arguing that salvation is broader than justification actually protects justification as a once-for-all act of God that can never be revoked. Ursinus was correct, therefore, to say that we do good works to escape eternal punishment (he cites Rom. 8:13). They are, he says, a means to an end.
In light of what I have briefly noted above, now ask yourself whether Michael Horton is closer to John Piper and the Reformed Orthodox or whether he is saying something totally different:
The New Testament lays before us a vast array of conditions for final salvation. Not only initial repentance and faith, but perseverance in both, demonstrated in love toward God and neighbor…Holiness, which is defined by love of God and neighbor…is the indispensable condition of our glorification: no one will be seated at the heavenly banquet who has not begun, however imperfectly, in new obedience.
It is kind of difficult to fault Piper for saying something that is explicitly said in the Scriptures. Paul says, “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). I mean, the Bible says we are saved through sanctification. Our job as theologians is to explain what that means, which is what Piper does in the article. Others before him have spoken of how we are saved “through good works” (i.e., possession). They managed to do that while at the same time upholding the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
It really isn’t all that difficult, unless you want to make it so.
Not only justification but also adoption, sanctification, and glorification are gifts given to Christ’s people when they receive him by faith. We have the right to all these gifts. But the Christian life is just that: a life. We thus possess eternal life by walking the sanctified life, which includes good works. According to the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian Francis Turretin, good works are required “as the means and way for possessing salvation.” Thomas Goodwin says, “Distinguish between the right and the possession, and you have clearly the Apostle [Paul’s] meaning [in Ephesians 2:8–10].” This distinction has several advantages.
Mainly, it helps us to safeguard the fact that when we trust in Christ, we are united to and possess all blessings in him. This denotes the “right” of salvation (based on Christ’s meritorious work alone). When we first believe, we are as justified as we will ever be. “Upon believing,” says Goodwin, “the whole right of salvation is given us; but all the holiness and works we have do not serve for the right, but only we are led through them to the possession of it.” Also, this distinction helps us to make sense of the “conditional” language of Scripture (see Phil. 3:12-14). What Piper says in his article fits very nicely with all that has been argued above, namely, being saved through “good works” is merely a way of expressing that good works are the path upon which the Christian must necessarily walk as he/she possesses final salvation.
Why people like Rachel Green Miller and R. Scott Clark have taken issue with this is beyond me. My guess is that nothing above will change their mind, but that’s not my problem.
But, if you have a problem with Piper, I ask: do you also have a problem with literally hundreds of other Reformed theologians who have said precisely the same thing? Zanchius, Mastricht, Goodwin, Owen, Twisse, Ursinus, etc., are all wrong if Rachel Miller is right….think about that!
The Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. Dr. Jones is the author of several books, including his most recent, Knowing Christ.
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