Owen contra Piper on Justification & Heaven

In my last post I listed several disastrous implications that follow from statements that John Piper made. Piper’s root error is that he separates justification from heaven, denying that justification is “the judgment of the Last Day regarding where we will spend eternity, brought forward into the present and pronounced here and now.” (New Geneva Study Bible, 1995, p. 1852)

But be sure you hear this carefully and precisely: He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God [bold added]


Such a view is completely incoherent because it renders justification meaningless. What is justification if not entitlement to heaven? As Owen explains:

There is a justification of convinced sinners on their believing. Hereon are their sins pardoned, their persons accepted with God, and a right is given unto them unto the heavenly inheritance. This state they are immediately taken into upon their faith, or believing in Jesus Christ. And a state it is of actual peace with God. These things at present take for granted; and they are the foundation of all that I shall plead in the present argument. And I do take notice of them, because some seem, to the best of my understanding, to deny any real actual justification of sinners on their believing in this life. For they make justification to be only a general conditional sentence declared in the gospel; which, as unto its execution, is delayed unto the day of judgment. For whilst men are in this world, the whole condition of it being not fulfilled, they cannot be partakers of it, or be actually and absolutely justified. Hereon it follows, that indeed there is no real state of assured rest and peace with God by Jesus Christ, for any persons in this life. This at present I shall not dispute about, because it seems to me to overthrow the whole gospel, — the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and all the comfort of believers; about which I hope we are not as yet called to contend. (289)

Well, now we are called upon to contend. So gird up the loins of your mind.

“[J]ustification is the way and means whereby such a person does obtain acceptance before God, with a right and title unto a heavenly inheritance.” (25)

“Wherefore, until of late it might be truly said, that the faith and doctrine of all Protestants was in this article entirely the same… that it is the righteousness of Christ, and not our own, on the account whereof we receive the pardon of sin, acceptance with God, are declared righteous by the gospel, and have a right and title unto the heavenly inheritance.” (90)

“Wherefore, notwithstanding the differences that have been among some in the various expression of their conceptions, the substance of the doctrine of the reformed churches is by them agreed upon and retained entire. For they all agree that God justifies no sinner, — absolves him not from guilt, nor declares him righteous, so as to have a title unto the heavenly inheritance, — but with respect unto a true and perfect righteousness; as also, that this righteousness is truly the righteousness of him that is so justified; that this righteousness becomes ours by God’s free grace and donation, — the way on our part whereby we come to be really and effectually interested therein being faith alone; and that this is the perfect obedience or righteousness of Christ imputed unto us: in these things, as they shall be afterwards distinctly explained, is contained the whole of that truth whose explanation and confirmation is the design of the ensuing discourse.” (94)

“[T]o be justified is to be freed from the guilt of sin, or to have all our sins pardoned, and to have a righteousness wherewith to appear before God, so as to be accepted with him, and a right to the heavenly inheritance. Every believer has other designs also, wherein he is equally concerned with this, — as, namely, the renovation of his nature, the sanctification of his person, and ability to live unto God in all holy obedience; but the things before mentioned are all that he aims at or designs in his applications unto Christ, or his receiving of him unto justification.” (158)

“[Justification] comprises both the non-imputation of sin and the imputation of righteousness, with the privilege of adoption, and right unto the heavenly inheritance, which are inseparable from it.” (177)

“Justification is at once complete in the imputation of a perfect righteousness, the grant of a right and title unto the heavenly inheritance” (195)

“[W]e need not much inquire how a man is justified after he is justified.” (210)

“This proposition, — that God… gives… a right unto the heavenly inheritance, according to their works, — is not only foreign to the gospel, but contradictory unto it, and destructive of it, as contrary unto all express testimonies of the Scripture, both in the Old Testament and the New, where these things are spoken of…” (213)

“The substance of the inquiry wherein alone we are concerned, is, What is that righteousness whereby and wherewith a believing sinner is justified before God; or whereon he is accepted with God, has his sins pardoned, is received into grace and favor, and has a title given him unto the heavenly inheritance? I shall no otherwise propose this inquiry, as knowing that it contains the substance of what convinced sinners do look after in and by the gospel.” (270)

“This, therefore, is that which herein I affirm: — The righteousness of Christ (in his obedience and suffering for us) imputed unto believers, as they are united unto him by his Spirit, is that righteousness whereon they are justified before God, on the account whereof their sins are pardoned, and a right is granted them unto the heavenly inheritance.” (271)

“That justification does give right and title unto adoption, acceptation with God, and the heavenly inheritance, I suppose will not be denied” (341)

“From what has been discoursed, it is evident that unto our justification before God is required, not only that we be freed from the damnatory sentence of the law, which we are by the pardon of sin, but, moreover, “that the righteousness of the law be fulfilled in us,” or, that we have a righteousness answering the obedience that the law requires; whereon our acceptance with God, through the riches of his grace, and our title unto the heavenly inheritance, do depend. This we have not in and of ourselves, nor can attain unto; as has been proved. Wherefore the perfect obedience and righteousness of Christ is imputed unto us, or in the sight of God we can never be justified.” (345)

“Faith is expressed by the receiving of Christ; for to receive him, and to believe on his name, are the same. It receives him as set forth of God to be a propitiation for sin, as the great ordinance of God for the recovery and salvation of lost sinners. Wherefore, this notion of faith includes in it, —…
5. There is nothing required on our part unto an interest in the end proposed, but receiving of him, or believing on his name.
6. Hereby are we entitled unto the heavenly inheritance; we have power to become the sons of God, wherein our adoption is asserted, and justification included.
What this receiving of Christ is, and wherein it does consist, has been declared before, in the consideration of that faith whereby we are justified. That which hence we argue is, that there is no more required unto the obtaining of a right and title unto the heavenly inheritance, but faith alone in the name of Christ, the receiving of Christ as the ordinance of God for justification and salvation.” (390)

“1. It is of the justification of men, and their right to eternal life thereon, that our Savior discourses. This is plain in verse 18, “He that believeth on him is not condemned; but he that believeth not is condemned already.”
2. The means of attaining this condition or state on our part is believing only, as it is three times positively asserted, without any addition.” (391)

“A justification by the remission of sins alone, without a righteousness giving acceptance with God and a right unto the heavenly inheritance, is alien unto the Scripture and the common notion of justification amongst men… by faith in him we have adoption, justification, freedom from judgment and condemnation, with a right and title unto eternal life” (391-392)

“As to the scope and design of the apostle Paul, the question which he answers, the case which he proposes and determines upon, are manifest in all his writings, especially his Epistles unto the Romans and Galatians. The whole of his purpose is, to declare how a guilty, convinced sinner comes, through faith in the blood of Christ, to have all his sins pardoned, to be accepted with God, and obtain a right unto the heavenly inheritance; that is, be acquitted and justified in the sight of God. “ (490)

(quotes from the Doctrine of Justification; page references to this PDF):

10 thoughts on “Owen contra Piper on Justification & Heaven

  1. John Owen also wrote, “Any man in whom the death of Christ for sin, has not become his death to sin, shall die in his sin.” It seems to me that means Owen believed salvation is about more than justification. Our works of obedience in the process of sanctification form no part of the basis of our acceptance in God’s presence or our entrance into the eternal kingdom, but apart from sanctification and glorification, we will never see gods’ face in peace.

    I don’t believe any man is inerrant in his statements apart from divine inspiration. I certainly don’t believe JP is inerrant. Perhaps he could have used a better choice of words. I probably would not have said “conditions for attaining heaven” [for one thing, I believe the heavenly kingdom will be on earth]. The question for me is whether Piper would deny that there is any other basis for our acceptance before God’s holy throne than the obedience and righteousness of Christ. If he is denying that, then he is clearly contra Owen and every other true believer. Do you know of other statements he has made in which he unequivocally denies that Jesus’ work is all we need? To me, though he may not have stated his view as artfully as he might have, his statement doesn’t seem to deny that. Clearly, nothing that occurs after our initial justification forms any part of the basis of our justification before God nor does anything we do after having been justified secure our inheritance in the heavenly kingdom. Believers do not earn any merit through our obedience in sanctification but no professed believer will see God’s face in peace without sanctification. I would really like to see more evidence before assuming Piper really believes we have to do more to earn our inheritance in the heavenly kingdom.

    Randy Seiver
    H.I.M. (Hispanic International Missions, Inc.)
    Blog: http://www.truthunchanging.wordpress.com
    YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIDEGMAR73Cd4OadCtXKa_A


    1. Thanks for your thoughts Randy. The question at hand is not at all whether saved Christians will bear fruit. When I get to heaven, I’ll have some fruit to show. But I had a right to heaven before I had any works to show. The question is whether one attains heaven by justification or not. Piper says no. Owen says yes. This was not a momentary poor choice of words for Piper. This is a well-contemplated view that he has cultivated over his entire ministry, following his mentor Daniel Fuller (whom Piper says is the most influential theologian in his life). Daniel Fuller says “I would say that Moses was justified by the work, or obedience, of faith….. [There are] many passages in Scripture in which good works are made the instrumental cause of justification.” (A Response on the Subjects of Works and Grace,î Presbuterion: A Journal for the Eldership, Volume IX, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Fall 1983, 76) See also http://heidelblog.net/2014/10/daniel-p-fullers-doctrine-of-justification-antithetical-to-the-reformation/

      For more quotes from Piper and how it relates to Fuller http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=113

      Piper is very clear in the quote I provided that justification does not include title to heaven.


  2. markmcculley

    Mark Jones is much too important to read blogs and comments, but somebody told him about it—-“I’ve been told that some folk are taking issue with John Piper’s Foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s book on justification. According to Piper, who agrees with Schreiner, we are “right with God by faith alone” but we do not “attain heaven by faith alone.” He adds that “there are other conditions for attaining heaven.”

    Based on what I believe is a charitable and straight-forward reading of Piper, there is not a single word in his Foreword that seems out of place in terms of the basic Reformed approach to justification, salvation, and conditionality.

    Piper affirms strongly and clearly that works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation. But Piper also wants to affirm that good works should be considered necessary for the obtaining of salvation. I fail to understand how this idea isn’t present in literally dozens of Reformed luminaries from the Early Modern period. As Francis Turretin says:

    “This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the ‘way’ to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the ‘sowing’ to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)…of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the ‘contest’ to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27).”

    Again, Piper says we do “not attain heaven by faith alone” and Turretin speaks of the “indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory”. I don’t see why we can’t agree that they are saying essentially the same thing; and, indeed, if they are, what is the problem?

    For those who have trouble grasping how Piper can affirm that justification is by faith alone, but that entering glory is not by faith alone, we must keep in mind the well-known distinction between the right to life versus the possession of life.

    Herman Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is “assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” However, regarding the latter, “our works…which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter.”

    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.”

    Is there anything in Piper’s Foreword that could not have come from the pen of Witsius or Turretin or Boston or Ball (see Patrick Ramsey’s post here) or Owen or Rutherford or Mastricht? I’m having trouble understanding what the problem is both biblically and historically. In fact, I can point to works by authors in the Reformed tradition who have stated the matter perhaps a little more strongly than Piper does (e.g., Mastricht, Davenant).

    It seems one would have to have a built-in bias against Piper – perhaps because of his relationship to Daniel Fuller or perhaps for some other reason – to raise questions about the orthodoxy of his Foreword. And, let’s be honest, it is a serious thing to raise questions about the orthodoxy of someone on this point. It isn’t like we’re talking about complementarianism.

    Piper speaks of good works as necessary for attaining heaven. Reformed theologians have spoken of good works as necessary for possessing heaven. In my mind, that’s the same thing. And, quite frankly, I think that’s the better approach rather than causing unnecessary division where there really doesn’t need to be any.

    In sum, as Piper says, “there are other conditions for attaining heaven”. Or, by someone else:

    “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.”

    And if you don’t like that last quote, you can take it up with Michael Horton. But I happen to agree with it completely.
    – See more at: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2015/09/in-defense-of-piper.php#sthash.1RDVZBX9.dpuf


  3. markmcculley

    Mark Jones is saying what Edwards and Mastricht said. They were also very wrong. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/…/14-1_mcdermott.pdf

    Gerald R. McDermott, “Jonathan Edwards on Justification: Closer to Luther or Aquinas?,” Reformation & Revival 14, no. 1 (2005):

    “Jonathan Edwards’s supreme devotion to Petrus van Mastricht, the late-seventeenth-century Dutch Reformed theologian who was steeped in Suarez, was not without effect. Edwards agreed with Thomas Aquinas -more than with many of his evangelical followers and that faith is inherently related to Christian living,that justification changes the regenerate soul.”, p 132

    .”Edwards would have agreed with the New Perspective that, for Paul, faith and works are not mutually exclusive, and justification has a not yet dimension. We have seen that Edwards understood justification as dependent, in one sense, on sanctification (or “perseverance,” as he put it). He also spoke of a two-fold justification.” 134

    “Faith is not the instrument that gets members attached to the body, but is the act of union itself, and so is the badge identifying the members. Since these are members of the person of Christ, they will gradually begin to resemble that person. Any discussion of justification must therefore include both juridical and participationist language…, faith cannot be abstracted from works of love. Edwards suggests that we must eschew false dichotomies between faith and works, imputation and infusion, justification and sanctification, soteriology and ecclesiology.” p 135

    Jonathan Edwards: What is real in the union between Christ and his people, is the foundation of what is legal; that is, it is something that is really in them, and between them, uniting them, that is the ground of the suitableness of their being accounted as one by the Judge (Justification by Faith, in Works

    Edwards: “We are really saved by perseverance…the perseverance which belongs to faith is one thing that is really a fundamental ground of the congruity that faith gives to salvation…For, though a sinner is justified in his first act of faith, yet even then, in that act of justification, God has respect to perseverance as being implied in the first act.”


  4. Pingback: Is John Piper Confessional? | Contrast

  5. Pingback: Piper’s Foreword | Contrast

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