The debate over John Piper’s theology of works and salvation has caused a minor stir in the confessional Reformed community. I say minor because, it seems to me, a lot fewer people actually care than we might (wish to) think. Mr. Brad Mason has written a post that a number of people I know are sharing with me and a few are lauding it as a great piece. I, however, wish to disagree. I do thank him for engaging the theology and not getting too personal as some have. He seems like a person who really wants to think through these issues rather than score points against someone’s character with ad hominem attacks.
In the post, he says,
But the most disconcerting aspect of their responses is that none of them seemed to be addressing what was actually controversial about Piper’s post.
The controversial aspect of Piper’s post according to Mason is Piper’s stance that salvation is not by faith alone. Mr Mason says:
This is just plain false and completely contradicts the teaching of the Scripture and the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, not to mention the Reformed tradition and its doctors. Why do so many continue to pretend as though this was not the point of the piece and the actual point of contention? It is indeed frustrating.
There are two main problems with Mr Mason’s post.
First, he speaks of the main underlying theological problem: Piper does not quite hold to the covenant theology of the Reformed. Hence, Mr Mason says:
The confessionally Reformed have always believed that Adam was offered life (either continued or eschatologically advanced) by covenant reward for perfect, personal, and complete obedience. Life and death were set before him according to simple justice with the rewards of simple covenant merit (meritum ex pacto).
The initial problem I noted was that he did not say “meritum ex pacto” in brackets. He seems to have added that later on. Fine. Most of the divines I have studied did not believe Adam could merit anything. It simply isn’t ontologically possible. Only Christ can truly and properly merit. They were more willing to speak of Adam receiving grace than Adam meriting. “Ex pacto” was sometimes used, but only to make sure that we are not speaking of merit properly considered. I wonder if Mr Mason’s piece would maybe need to be changed if he re-thought some of Piper’s language on the garden in light of how certain divines spoke regarding Adam being unable to earn eschatological life? I don’t know, and, to be honest, it isn’t that important compared to the real issue at stake.
The second major problem with Mr Mason’s post is this: would he be willing to condemn Thomas Goodwin, who was a major player in framing the Westminster documents?
So faith alone doesn’t mean the same thing when applied to justification, sanctification, and final salvation.
Piper was clear that he was speaking of how to relate “faith alone” to not only justification, but also sanctification and final salvation.
Now consider these words from Goodwin as he writes about salvation:
Or if you will, you may take this distinction to clear it, which may help your understandings more in it; and that is, that that salvation which is applied here in this world, for we exclude heaven, is not through faith, not through faith alone; for in 2 Thess 2:13, we are chosen to salvation through faith and sanctification both: it is a medium through which he carries us. (Works, 2:315).
This is right before Goodwin goes on to explain the “right versus possession” distinction in some detail. Evidently, Goodwin (and I would say, most other Reformed doctors/divines) think we can be consistent Protestants and say, “salvation is not by faith alone”. He is not speaking of “salvation” narrowly (i.e., only with regards to the “right”).
Now, when I read Piper’s initial post and saw the outcry I didn’t understand the fuss. But I also admit that I can see how the language would be jarring to some. I appreciate that. And to those who wish not to throw around crazy accusations, I think we can get somewhere. Personally, I also would love to see Piper employ some good old Protestant scholastic distinctions to help him be a little clearer. So let me say that I have some sympathy with those who were confused.
Now, back to Goodwin. He continues and speaks of the right of salvation thus:
“1. One is an investing with a right, a title, a tenure, an interest in all benefits of salvation, be they what they will; to give us a formal, sure, legal, authentical interest, according to the rules of the word, to all benefits of salvation, whether in this world or in the world to come.”
“2. Or in the second place, there is an actual possession, or, if you will, rather call it an accomplishment of all the parts of salvation and works of God in us, which God carries on in us by degrees, works holiness in us by degrees, whereof quickening is the beginning; works glory in us by degrees, first raising us and then filling us with glory in heaven…”
They are both distinct, according to Goodwin. But both are called “salvation”. How does he come to this conclusion?
Well, as I have been arguing, when we first believe we are as justified as we will ever be: “we are as much righteous as ever we shall be in heaven” (Goodwin).
Even in sanctification, we have as much right to all the holiness we shall ever possess. The right guarantees that we will possess it all. So when some talk of possible “falling away” in this schema, it is clear they do not understand that the “right to salvation” guarantees the full possession of salvation. Hence we can understand “salvation” in this narrow (restricted) sense or in a larger sense.
In my mind, I could see what Piper was saying. I can also see why some got confused, upset, etc. But this is where we can have a conversation about these things rather than be quick to draw the sword. If people want to actually discuss the theology of what Piper says and the historical precedent for such language, I think some real confusion can be cleared up.
In other words, sanctification is not by faith alone. Faith is the instrumental cause of all holiness (Owen, Works, 3:414), but that does not mean we are sanctified by faith alone. Hence we are not going to possess final salvation by faith alone, according to the Reformed Orthodox that I have read. This is, I am sure, what Piper was saying and meant, albeit without using the classic vocabulary that has been so helpful to me personally in sorting through these thorny questions.
If Mr Mason can make a plea, maybe I can be permitted to say: Please do not listen to the personal attacks online. Read carefully what is being said and think to yourself, Can I read this in a generous way so as to unite brothers or must I read this in a way to bring division? I am not actually saying it must always be the former. I have been fiercely critical of the eternal subordination of the Son advocates as well as the antinomianism of Tullian Tchividjian. And while I have serious reservations about John Piper’s views on the Apostolic gifts, for example, I also believe that he is only saying what any thoroughly Reformed theologian would have said in the seventeenth century. Only today I spoke with three experts on the Westminster Assembly and they were all in agreement that Piper is not in error and this need not have been a controversy in the first place.
As for whether I am orthodox, I ask that you read Faith.Hope.Love (Crossway), and make up your own mind based on the evidence.