@The Reformed Libertarian, CJay Engel writes on Ethics and Self-Interest: Mises, Clark, Piper, and Rand which strikes a similar note as my old post Self-Interest.
John Piper recently answered a question about the use of confessions by a church. I’m thankful for several parts of his answer, and I have some comments to offer on the other parts.
First, Piper affirms and defends the validity, necessity, and value of confessions of faith:
Christianity that is unified around a written confession of faith, at its best, is the best Christianity… Confessional summaries of biblical truth really do help us in our faith, because I think faith thrives on deep, true doctrine that is brought out of the Scriptures, properly summarized, applied to peoples’ lives, and in our souls, in our families, in our churches, even in society. That kind of clear, doctrinal truth is healthy for life and for obedience to Jesus.
In light of this, Bethlehem Baptist Church created The Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith (I believe in 2003) and they modified their by-laws to state “Elders are also required to be in agreement with the Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith” The confession states
We believe that the cause of unity in the church is best served, not by finding the lowest common denominator of doctrine, around which all can gather, but by elevating the value of truth, stating the doctrinal parameters of church or school or mission or ministry, seeking the unity that comes from the truth, and then demonstrating to the world how Christians can love each other across boundaries rather than by removing boundaries. (15:2)
The rest of Piper’s answer focuses on why they wrote a new confession rather than holding to the 1689 London Baptist Confession. Many have criticized Piper on this point, but the criticism mainly focuses on his reasons for disagreeing with the 1689. Before addressing those disagreements, we should applaud Piper. Why? Because he properly recognizes the purpose of a confession. He notes that “the elders will all be officially united under the teaching of the BBC Elder Affirmation of Faith and held accountable to maintain it through life and doctrine.” The basis of unity in their church is that the elders all confess the same doctrine. The foundational assumption here is that when people affirm a confession, they affirm a confession. That is, they don’t affirm some essence or substance or system or vitals of the faith underlying the confession. They confess the confession. That’s the whole point! They specifically wrote a confession that they could all agree on all the points, and then they use that as the basis for unity. Very straightforward.
Methods of Subscription
However, such a straightforward approach to a confession is not practiced by Presbyterians and others. In a recent helpful piece On the Need for and Practice of Confessing the Faith, Samuel Renihan notes “It is a sad day when what we confess and how we confess must be dealt with independently.” What was described above is known as “full subscription.” It is the method of subscription held to by ARBCA because it is the most logical (see James Renihan’s lecture). Everyone agrees with the document that was written to express common agreement. This was how the London Baptist Confessions were used. However, it was not how the Westminster Confession was used.
This difference goes back to the fundamental difference in ecclesiology. Presbyterians believed that the visible church was one universal institution organized geographically. The church was national and there was only one. And this national church needed a confession of faith. However, this confession of faith was not intended to be a confession of what individual ministers believed, necessarily. Instead, it was the governing standard for the national church. It was requested by Parliament so that it could be the legal basis for defrocking a minister. Specifically, it governed what could and could not be preached in the local parishes of the one national church – that is, what could be preached anywhere in the country by anyone.
If a minister wished to preach the gospel, he could only do so as a licensed minister in the national church and he was required to adhere to this confession. However, he was not personally required to agree with the confession. He was only forbidden from contradicting the confession in his preaching. This distinction between public and private reflected their view of liberty of conscience as it related to punishment by the civil magistrate. A citizen had liberty to believe what he wished in his own mind, but no citizen was allowed to publicly blaspheme God or display an idol. He was not allowed to make his beliefs public.
Eventually, because of problems with unbelieving ministers filling pulpits, the Church of Scotland began to require individual ministers to confess or subscribe to the system of doctrine underlying the confession. They did not have to confess agreement with every point, but with the essence of the faith. The confession in full still stood as the legal standard for public preaching.
Building on this, Presbyterian churches in America today (note the plural) do not require “full subscription.” Instead, they each have varying levels of requiring ministers to confess something less than the confession (i.e. J.V. Fesko’s THE LEGACY OF OLD SCHOOL CONFESSION SUBSCRIPTION IN THE OPC, & the PCA’s adoption of Good Faith Subscription and here). But because American Presbyterians reformed the British Presbyterian doctrine of liberty of conscience to be more logically consistent and more in agreement with the baptist doctrine of liberty of conscience and its necessary implication of voluntarism, they no longer require full adherence to the confession in public preaching. After all, since there is no such thing as a national church and ministers have divinely granted liberty of conscience to voluntarily be a part of whichever denomination or tradition of Christianity they believe best reflects Scripture, what basis do they have for prohibiting a minister from preaching his conscience? In other words, there was no longer any logical basis for a distinction between private beliefs and public beliefs. So the use of the confession in “full” was discarded and all that remained was the use of the underlying “system” in the confession.
A Confession within a Confession
Of course, determining what exactly constitutes this underlying system and what would constitute an actual violation of the confession has been a matter of debate since then. For example, in response to a recent post by Mark Jones on this question, D. Patrick Ramsey notes:
How do we determine whether Hypothetical Universalism (or any other controversial view) is acceptable or not? Consider the following questions:
Do we accept HU because even though it is contrary to the Confession it is an allowable exception or scruple because it doesn’t strike at the vitals of the Confession as evident by its place within the Reformed Tradition?
If so, we are compelled to ask: What are the vitals of the Confession and why don’t we make that our Confession? How do we determine what are the vitals of the Confession? How popular must a view be in the Reformed Tradition for it to be acceptable? NOTE: I realize that we all operate upon the basis of there being the vitals of the Confession unless we don’t allow for any exceptions. But still, it does seem so elusive and subjective…
The real confession seems to be the confession within the confession.
Ramsey makes an important point: if the vitals of the Confession are the true boundaries of the Confession, why don’t they just make that their Confession without all the extra stuff they don’t all agree on? Isn’t that the point of a confession? Of course doing so would be a difficult process and it would mean departing from the historic confession, but the only other alternative is to make the meaning of the Confession “elusive and subjective” which defeats the entire point of the confession, as Piper rightly explains:
Without a written summary of biblical truth we tend to be vague about what we believe. Some people think that avoiding confessions of faith provides greater Christian unity, because writing things down requires precision and clarity and explicitness and all of those precipitate disagreements and arguments.
But the alternative is to obscure those disagreements under a cloud of vagueness, and the effect of that so-called unity is that it constantly depends on keeping clarity of truth at a distance. You can’t see it with precision up close and it lets you down in the end when crucial applications and decisions have to be made on the basis of truth, and it has now been kept obscure all this time and we don’t have it there to apply in crucial cases.
The purpose of a written confession is precision. If the precision of the written document is being discarded for an elusive, subjective, and vague “essence” then the entire purpose of the confession is being discarded. Samuel Renihan asks “Why hold to a confession of faith if you’re not confessing it to be true? Either remake the document or compose your own. And then confess that document. “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37, James 5:12).”
This is precisely what Piper and his church have done. They disagree with the 2nd London Baptist Confession so they do not confess it. They wrote down what they believe and confessed that instead. That is to be applauded. We need more of that. We need both the precision of written statements of faith as well as the willingness to affirm what is actually written. Commenting on the PCA’s 2003 adoption of “Good Faith” subscription, Ryan McGraw argues
A Confession of Faith, therefore, is a written summary of doctrines that are held in common by a definite body of believers for the purpose of together confessing with their mouths what they believe in their hearts… [T]his practice [good faith subscription] has effectively abrogated the role of the Westminster Standards from being the public profession of faith of the PCA. As a result, the PCA has become a church without a Confession of Faith…
The nature of Creeds and Confessions is to be subscribed to without equivocation or reservation… if the members of the group in question do not subscribe to the Confession of Faith en toto, then the Confession has lost both its nature and its proper function…
The case would be different if the PCA subscribed to a curtailed version of the Westminster Standards, or to some other Confession of Faith that her ministers could agree upon. Instead we have an undefined Creed, which in practice amounts to no Creed… [N]o Confession of Faith is infallible and unalterable. Instead of allowing undefined “exceptions” to the doctrinal Standards of the Church, the Church ought to change the Confession to reflect agreed upon terms of unity.
In this regard, Piper and his co-elders are more confessional than most Presbyterians who “confess” the Westminster Confession.
The reason that baptists and Presbyterians approach confessions differently is because Presbyterianism is still foundationally influenced by the medieval view of the church. The Dissenting Brethren of the Assembly (Congregationalists) said “we do professedly judge the Calvinian Reformed Churches of the first reformation from out of Popery, to stand in need of a further reformation themselves. And it may without prejudice to them, or the imputation of Schism in us from them, be thought, that they coming new out of Popery (as well as England) and the founders of that reformation not having Apostolic infallibility, might not be fully perfect the first day.” In short, Piper and the other elders in his church had the liberty to draft a confession that specifically reflected their actual beliefs. Their ordination and their very ministry was not tied to a confession they did not agree with. The hierarchy of Presbyterianism functionally inhibits a minister’s liberty, leading many of them to affirm a confession they don’t affirm rather than writing one they do.
Disagreements with the 2nd London Baptist Confession
Yes, Piper has disagreements with the 1689, and obviously I don’t agree with his reasons. But we can have a very meaningful conversation about those points of disagreement specifically because the differences are clearly written and articulated. Both sides agree that words have meaning. That provides the sufficient foundation for iron to sharpen iron. As Piper said “writing things down requires precision and clarity and explicitness and all of those precipitate disagreements and arguments.”
Here are his reasons:
1) The language is somewhat foreign. Its vocabulary is like reading the King James Version. And I think it is probably a mistake to try to enshrine that today as the one if you expect families to use it without any updated form.
2) While I am able to affirm that Genesis 1 refers to literal 24-hour days, I had a hard time thinking that I should make that a matter of confessional faithfulness to Christianity, and so I stumbled over that section.
Piper’s reasoning here is more commendable than those who try to argue the confession does not require one to hold to literal 24-hour days of creation.
3) The understanding of the Sabbath is, perhaps, more rigorous and narrow than my understanding of the implications of Jesus’s teaching about the Sabbath.
Despite his disagreement with the confession’s stance, there is still much to agree with in Piper over against NCT. For example, my post Resources for Studying the Sabbath opens with an affirmative quote from Piper. You can read my post there for more arguments on the topic, but again, if Piper doesn’t agree with the doctrine, then he is right not to confess it.
4) There are certain historic categories of theology, like the covenant of works and others, that have proved useful, but you might wonder: Shall I make that the structure of the theology I am going to present?
This is a huge point. Again, Piper is to be commended for recognizing that he is in disagreement with the 1689 on this point. Some, like Gregory Nichols, agree with Piper but still claim to hold to the 1689. In fact, several Presbyterians who confess the Westminster Confession are in agreement with Piper on the nature of God’s covenant with Adam (that it was gracious and non-meritorious and thus not of works) yet they still confess Westminster (see here and here, which provides context for here). That creates more problems than just disagreeing with the doctrine. Thankfully Piper’s desire for clarity and precision and his clear understanding of the words of the Confession mean we can argue and discuss whether the doctrine is biblical rather simply getting stuck arguing about the Confession and never getting to the part about the bible (as is happening in Presbyterian circles at the moment).
Second, Piper is to be commended for understanding that the covenant of works is not an accessory of the Confession but is instead part of it’s very structure. As Dr. Sam Waldron notes in his dissertation:
Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings.
–Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186
Piper is to be commended over against men like Shepherd who still try to confess Westminster, but notice the context of Waldron’s comments. Notice how serious of an issue this is. Piper’s disagreement on this point means he does not hold to the Reformed Baptist system of theology. The structure of theology provided by the doctrine of the covenant of works is the ground of the Reformation’s soteriology, rooted in a contrast between law (works) and gospel (faith). Apart from the covenant of works, there is no objective difference between law and gospel, which is precisely Piper’s view.
This is why Piper agrees with Doug Wilson on the gospel, calling him “brilliant” and his critics “dumb.” Perhaps Piper thinks Wilson is “brilliant” because in his ordination examination (which Piper specifically references), Wilson specifically quotes Piper to articulate his view of the covenant of works (the “examination” was a farce put on by the denomination he started).
45.Please comment on the following quote by John Piper:
“… I am hesitant to call Jesus’ obedience in life and death the fulfilment of a “covenant of works.” This term generally implies that “works” stand over against “grace,” and are not the fulfilment of faith in grace. Thus works implies a relationship with God that is more like an employer receiving earned waged than like a Son trusting a Father’s generosity. I see God’s grace as the basis of his relationship with Adam and Eve before the fall. I see this Christ, the Second Adam, fulfilling this covenant of grace (not works) perfectly by trusting his Father’s provision at every moment and obeying all his commandments by faith. His relationship to the Father was one of constant trust. His obedience was the effect of this trust. “Grace” toward Jesus was not exactly the same as grace toward fallen sinners. He never sinned (Heb. 4:15). Yet, in his human life he was dependent upon God similar to the way we are. Not only that, he took our sin on himself (Is.53:6). Thus God exerted a kind of “grace” in overcoming his curse on sin in order to exalt Christ (Future Grace, 413).
Wilson: I agree with this fully.
What is worth noting is Wilson’s answer to question 3:
3. Have you vowed to uphold and defend the system of doctrine contained in the WCF? Have you taken any exceptions to the WCF?…
… Chapter 7: Of God’s Covenant with Man— Para . 2: (cf. Chp. 19, para. 1, 6). We would clarify that the “covenant of works” was not meritorious and we deny that any covenant can be kept without faith. Good works, even in this covenant were a result of faith, as illustrated by the Sabbath rest which was Adam’s first full day in the presence of God.
So while Piper recognizes that his rejection of the covenant of works entails a rejection of the structure of the 1689 Confession, Wilson feels he can take an exception to the covenant of works and still hold to the Westminster Confession.
5. Do you have any exceptions, qualifications, or scruples to that confession in the areas of this examination? Please explain.
No, I do not have any exceptions in any area dealing with the federal vision controversy. However, one qualification I would like to note is that I believe the covenant of works mentioned in Chapter VII is badly named. I would prefer something like the covenant of life (WLC 20), or the covenant of creation. I believe that this covenant obligated Adam to whole-hearted obedience to the requirement of God. The one stipulation I would add is that, had Adam stood, he would have been required to thank God for His gracious protection and provision. And had Adam stood, he would have done so by believing the Word of God. In other words, it would all have been by grace through faith. Since Adam was not fallen, the nature of the grace would have been different than it is when dealing with mankind in sin. But it would have been gracious nonetheless.
…40.Was the covenant of works a gracious covenant? How is it to be distinguished from the covenant of grace?What is your view of the “covenant of works”?
Yes, the covenant of works was gracious in that Adam was surrounded by the goodness of a giving God. And if Adam had stood, even that standing would have been a gift from God, which he would have received by faith. But while all gifts are gifts, not all gifts are the same. The gift of preservation to an unfallen Adam is quite different than the gift of forgiveness to a rebellious and iniquitous race. The fact of giving is the same. The content of the gifts is different. I may give my wife a string of pearls one Christmas, and a coffee table the next. My desire and disposition to give is the same. But pearls are not a coffee table.
Unconfessional Doctrine and Church Courts
The method of subscription practiced by Presbyterian churches is clearly one of the factors (there are many) involved in their inability to keep Federal Vision pastors out of their churches (see Ryan McGraw’s comments on this point). Federal Vision theology clearly departs from the Westminster Confession, but departure from the Westminster Confession is not sufficient grounds to remove a minister from his office. On this very question of the covenant of works and the works principle, John Murray argued that the confessional position needed to be revised and recast in light of a better understanding of Scripture. He argued that there was no works principle in Scripture and he specifically rejected the Confession’s citation of Gal 3:12 and Rom 10:5 as proof of one.
In regards to this, J.V. Fesko argues that Murray’s rejection of the Confession on this point was acceptable because it was consistent with American Presbyterianism’s view of subscription.
Like their Old School predecessors before them, they [1st GA of the OPC] recognized that men could hold exceptions to the Standards, propagate them, and still be considered as officers in good standing…
“the commitment of oneself to every proposition [of the Westminster Standards] as the condition of exercising office in the Church is hardly consistent with the liberty of judgment on certain points of doctrine which has been characteristic of the Reformed Churches.” (Murray)
This statement, then, places Murray in agreement with his Old School predecessors as well as with the overall trajectory of the OPC on subscription. Murray does not merely allow semantic exceptions, but exceptions over entire propositions within the Standards…
Murray did not accept the Standards’ teaching regarding the Covenant of Works… Murray did not believe that he held to the common Reformed position that was historically advocated by Reformed theologians or by the Westminster Standards. In fact, he saw himself as a self-avowed revisionist on the subject of covenant theology…
Recall that the principle of Old School subscription states that a subscriber may take exception to propositions in the Standards. The subscriber may take exceptions to propositions so long as those exceptions do not undermine the overall system. With this in mind, we can see that though Murray reconstructs the Confession’s doctrine of the covenant, his reconstruction still retains the integrity of the overall system…
This is how, then, Murray can still subscribe to the Standards—his conclusions, though through a reconstructed and revised route, do not affect the overall system. It is important to note that this is yet another example of how an advocate of Old School ideology practices his confession subscription.
What Piper said about churches without any confession applies to churches with a confession they don’t fully confess (what Ramsey referred to as an elusive and subjective real confession within the written confession).
the alternative is to obscure those disagreements under a cloud of vagueness, and the effect of that so-called unity is that it constantly depends on keeping clarity of truth at a distance. You can’t see it with precision up close and it lets you down in the end when crucial applications and decisions have to be made on the basis of truth, and it has now been kept obscure all this time and we don’t have it there to apply in crucial cases.
While I appreciate Piper’s willingness to state clearly what he believes and does not believe, I think his disagreement with the confession on this point is unbiblical (For more on Piper’s view of the covenant of works, see here and here and here). While simply having a detailed confession of faith is a very good thing for a church, making that confession a historic confession has the benefit of leaning on many, many more men than just yourselves. While Piper and his co-elders strove to not be idiosyncratic, they could not possibly have deliberated over their confession to the same degree that historic confessions like the 1689 London Baptist Confession were simply by virtue of how many people were involved, if nothing else. Furthermore, it can be well argued that those men were much better theologians and thus more qualified to write a confession. Regardless, the takeaway is that Piper’s greatest point of departure from the 1689, and his strongest reason for not holding it, is simultaneously the most problematic aspect of his ministry.
5) This is going to sound so piddly — and yet you can’t be piddly in a confession — little things like saying that bread and wine are prescribed in the Lord’s Supper. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that wine was used in the Lord’s Supper. That comes as a shock to a lot of people. It doesn’t say that is what was used.
This is not a subject I’ve studied, but I have heard very good things about this sermon http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=322111921180 But once again, we should appreciate how seriously Piper takes the practice of confession. He could dismiss the issue as trivial and say he still holds to the 1689 Confession, but he doesn’t because he believes words matter.
A short demonstration on the importance of covenant theology:
John Piper denies a works principle anywhere in Scripture, including the Covenant of Works.
Has God ever commanded anyone to obey with a view to earning or meriting life? Would God command a person to do a thing that he uniformly condemns as arrogant?
In Romans 11:35-36, Paul describes why earning from God is arrogant and impossible. He says, ‘Who has first given to [God] that it might be paid back to him? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” The thought that anyone could give anything to God with a view to being paid back with merit or wages is presumptuous and impossible, because all things (including obedience) are from God in the first place. You can’t earn from God by giving him what is already his…
It is true that God commanded Adam to obey him, and it is also true that failure to obey would result in death (Genesis 2:16-17): “In the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (verse 17). But the question is this: What kind of obedience is required for the inheritance of life – the obedience of earning or the obedience of trusting? The Bible presents two very different kinds of effort to keep God’s commandments. One way is legalistic; it depends on our own strength and aims to earn life. The other way we might call evangelical; it depends on God’s enabling power and aims to obtain life by faith in his promises, which is shown in the freedom of obedience…
Adam had to walk in obedience to his Creator in order to inherit life, but the obedience required of him was the obedience that comes from faith. God did not command legalism, arrogance, and suicide… There was no hint that Adam was to earn or deserve. The atmosphere was one of testing faith in unmerited favor, not testing willingness to earn or merit. The command of God was for the obedience that comes from faith…
What then of the ‘second Adam,’ Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the obedience that Adam forsook (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:14-20)?… He fulfilled the Law perfectly in the way that the Law was meant to be fulfilled from the beginning, not by works, but by faith (Rom 9:32)…
We are called to walk the way Jesus walked and the way Adam was commanded to walk. Adam failed because he did not trust the grace of God to pursue him with goodness and mercy all his days (Psalm 23:6).
A Godward Life, p. 177
Piper is correct that man can never earn anything from God. But that is why our confession recognizes that God voluntarily condescended to Adam and offered him a reward for his labor that he did not deserve (LBCF 7.1). In so doing, he made Adam a wage earner. Piper rejects this. And because he rejects this, he does not believe there is any objective contrast between the law and faith.
When Paul says “the law is not of faith” (Gal 3:12; Rom 10:5; Lev 18:5) Piper says that refers to a subjective “legalistic” attitude towards law-keeping, and not to any objective difference between the law and faith. As a result, he says:
Let me declare myself clearly here: I believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved. In other words, I believe it is actually true, not just hypothetically true, that God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom.2:6–7).
The Future of Justification, p. 110
So Christians are called “to walk the way Adam was commanded to walk” in order that God may give us eternal life.
However, if we recognize the biblical truth taught in LBCF/WCF 7.1, we will see that God gave Adam the law *as a covenant of works* to thereby earn eternal life. This is the “works principle” articulated in Lev 18:5. This principle is quoted by Paul as a contrast to the faith principle, not because it referred to a subjective legalistic attitude in the Judaizers, but because it referred to an objectively different means of obtaining a reward: works vs faith.
Owen explains that Rom 2:6-7, 13 is a further statement of this works principle:
The words there [Rom 2:7] are used in a law sense, and are declarative of the righteousness of God in rewarding the keepers of the law of nature, or the moral law, according to the law of the covenant of works. This is evident from the whole design of the apostle in that place, which is to convince all men, Jews and Gentiles, of sin against the law, and of the impossibility of the obtaining the glory of God thereby.
We are not hereon justified by the law, or the works of it… The meaning of it in the Scripture is, that only “the doers of the law shall be justified,” Romans 2:13; and that “he that does the things of it shall live by them,” chapter 10:5, — namely, in his own person, by the way of personal duty, which alone the law requires. But if we, who have not fulfilled the law in the way of inherent, personal obedience, are justified by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto us, then are we justified by Christ, and not by the law.
-The Doctrine of Justification
There is also a twofold justification before God mentioned in the Scripture. First, “By the works of the law,” Romans 2:13; 10:5; Matthew 19:16-19. Here unto is required an absolute conformity unto the whole law of God, in our natures, all the faculties of our souls, all the principles of our moral operations, with perfect actual obedience unto all its commands, in all instances of duty, both for matter and manner: for he is cursed who continues not in all things that are written in the law, to do them; and he that break any one commandment is guilty of the breach of the whole law. Hence the apostle concludes that none can be justified by the law, because all have sinned. Second, There is a justification by grace, through faith in the blood of Christ; whereof we treat. And these ways of justification are contrary, proceeding on terms directly contradictory, and cannot be made consistent with or subservient one to the other.
-The Doctrine of Justification
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):
I’ve written in the past about some of Piper’s erroneous statements regarding justification. Justin Taylor recently posted a Foreword Piper wrote to Thomas Schreiner’s new book on Sola Fide. Piper says:
As Tom Schreiner says, the book “tackles one of the fundamental questions of our human condition: how can a person be right with God?”
The stunning Christian answer is: sola fide—faith alone. 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…
Such faith always “works by love” and produces the “obedience of faith.” And that obedience— imperfect as it is till the day we die—is not the “basis of justification, but . . . a necessary evidence and fruit of justification.” In this sense, love and obedience—inherent righteousness—is “required of believers, but not for justification”—that is, required for heaven, not for entering a right-standing with God…
Thus Schreiner closes his book with a joyful testimony—and I rejoice to join him in it: ”My confidence on the last day . . . will not rest on my transformation. I have too far to go to put any confidence in what I have accomplished. Instead, I rest on Jesus Christ. He is my righteousness. He is the guarantor of my salvation. I am justified by faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.”
A few logical implications follow:
- Being righteous before (“right with”/justified) God is insufficient to attain heaven.
- Christ’s righteousness is insufficient to attain heaven.
- Justification is not “the divine verdict of the Eschaton being brought forward into the present time and rendered here and now concerning the believing sinner.” (Reymond, p. 743)
- There is not therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
- Justification is meaningless.
- I cannot rest in Christ alone on the last day, but must hope in my transformation.
See follow-up posts:
I have posted elsewhere regarding John Piper’s “future” justification. If you read Piper’s writings on the topic, he leans very heavily on the idea that the phrase “according to” means something completely different than the phrase “on the basis of” when it comes to our works and justification. He has to lean heavily, because without such a distinction he is guilty of muddying the gospel.
Here is how he argues in his book The Future of Justification:
Now we are in a better position to comment on Romans 2:13 where Paul says, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Again, as we saw with verses 6–11, Paul does not say how being a “doer of the law” functions in relation to being justified at the last day. At least the same four possibilities that I mentioned above exist, plus one more: Doing the law could be (1) the basis of justification in a meritorious way; or (2) it could be the basis as Spirit-wrought fruits of faith; or (3) it could be, not the basis, but the evidence and confirmation of faith in another basis, namely, Christ who cancels the debt of all sin; or, extending that last possibility beyond forgiveness, (4) it could also be the evidence and confirmation of faith in Christ as the one in whom not only forgiveness but also divine righteousness is counted as ours. Or (5) Paul could be stating a principle that he affirms but that he believes never comes to pass for sinful people. Thus, John Stott says, “This is a theoretical or hypothetical statement, of course, since no human being has ever fully obeyed the law (cf. 3:20).”
What is not said in verse 13 is that people are justified “by works.” Paul does not use the phrase ej x e[ rgwn (“from works”), which I take to be roughly what is usually meant by the English phrase “on the basis of works,” as opposed to the phrase “according to works” (kata; ta; e[ rga auj tou` ).*** Paul is clear that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Rather, he says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Does this mean that the statement “It is . . . the doers of the law who will be justified” (v. 13) only expresses a principle of doing over against hearing so as to remove the objection that the Gentiles don’t have access to “hearing”?
Given the demands of the flow of the argument in Romans 2:6–16 which we saw above, I doubt that we can press this statement very far for the defense of justification by works. Paul makes a statement that in this context functions as a principle (doing, not hearing, will matter at the judgment), rather than a declaration about how that doing relates to justification—let alone whether the doing of Christ may supply what our doing lacks. The verse was not written to carry that much freight. However, the verse does raise the question that must be answered: How does the obedience of the Christian relate to his justification?
***[footnote] Wherever the phrase ej x e[ rgwn is connected to justification in Paul, the point is that justification does not happen this way. Rom. 3:20; 9:11, 32; 11:6; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 19; Eph. 2:9; Titus 3:5. In Matthew 12:37 and James 2:21, 24–25, justification is said to happen “by your words” (ej k . . . tw` n lov gwn sou) or “by works” (ej x e[ rgwn). Other contextual factors incline me to take Jesus and James to mean not that justification is “based on” our deeds the way our justification is “based on” Christ as our righteousness, but rather that our deeds confirm our faith in Jesus so that he remains the sole basis of our acceptance with God, in the sense that his death alone covers our sins and his righteousness alone provides all the obedience that God requires of us for God to be totally for us—the perfect righteousness implicitly required in the phrase, “God counts righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6). It is likely that Matthew and James are using the word dikaiov w differently than Paul is (just as Matthew and Paul use kalev w differently, Matt. 22:14; Rom. 8:30). So, James and Matthew may also be appropriating the phrase “from works” differently than Paul. While Paul chooses to never employ that phrase in reference either to present justification or future judgment, James and Matthew, without differing from Paul conceptually, employ a phrase that Paul wouldn’t to say something (conceptually) that Paul would. I am not saying that there are distinct and uniform usages of the two phrases ej x e[ rgwn and kata; ta; e[ rga. The latter can carry the sense of “on the basis of” at times, though not always. Therefore, we must draw our conclusions concerning Paul’s understanding of the function of works in relation to justification not merely from the phrases themselves, but from the wider teaching of the apostle as well.
How I See Works Relating to Justification
Let me declare myself clearly here: I believe in the necessity of a trans- formed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved. In other words, I believe it is actually true, not just hypothetically true, that God “will render to each one accord- ing to his works [ta; e[ rga auj tou` ]: to those who by patience in well- doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:6–7). I take the phrase “according to” (kata; ) in a sense different from “based on.” I think the best way to bring together the various threads of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith apart from works (Rom. 3:28; 4:4–6; 11:6; Eph. 2:8) is to treat the necessity of obedience not as any part of the basis of our justification, but strictly as the evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ whose blood and righteousness is the sole basis of our justification. How this is the case, while justification is by faith alone apart from any basis in that very obedience, has been one of the main themes of my preaching and writing for the last thirty years.***
***[footnote] See most fully my extended treatment of this issue in The Purifying Power of Living by Faith in Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1995). See also “The Pleasure of God in Personal Obedience and Public Justice,” in John Piper, The Pleasures of God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000, orig. 1991), 233–257; “Fighting for Joy Like a Justified Sinner,” in When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 71–94; What Jesus Demands from the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), especially 174–180, 242–248; “Letter to a Friend Concerning the So-Called Lordship Salvation,” http://www.desiringGod.org/ResourceLibrary/ Articles/ByDate/1990/1496_Letter_to_a_Friend_Concerning_the_SoCalled_Lordship_Salvation/
So you can see what a lynchpin Piper’s interpretation of “according to” is. You can access the PDF from the link above to read more on pp 116-120.
However, Piper’s interpretation of the phrase “according to” does not stand the test, and as a result, his view of the final judgment has serious problems.
Richard Gaffin tries to argue, on the basis of the grammar involved in a similar Pauline statement, that works are not the ground of judgment: “It is not for nothing, I take it, and not to be dismissed as an overly fine exegesis to observe, that in Romans 2:6 Paul writes, ‘according (kata) to works,’ not ‘on account of (dia),’ expressing the ground, nor ‘by (ek) works,’ expressing the instrument” (By Faith, Not By Sithgt [Carlisle: Paternoster, 2006], 98-99; similarly, Venema, Gospel, 266). Though Gaffin’s comment concerns Paul’s statement in Romans 2:6, at the same time we find the same prepositional combination with the accusative in John’s statement in Revelation 20:12e, the only difference being in the use of the singular and plural pronouns (cf. Rom 2:6). Gaffin argues this point because he wants to preserve sola fide in the judgment of the works of the believer. Relying upon the analysis of Ridderbos and Murray, Gaffin’s finer point is that the judgment kata works is “in accordance with” the works, and such works are synecdochical for faith in Christ (see Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard de Witt [1975; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992], 178-81; Murray, Romans, 78-79).
Yet can such a fine distinction be supported by the grammar alone? The use of “dia” with the accusative means “because of, on account of,” and the use of “kata” with the accusative means “in accordance with, corresponding to” (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 368-69, 376-77). One must ask, what difference exists between the two? In fact, when we delve more deeply into the significance of “kata” with the accusative, we find that “often the noun that follows kata specifies the criterion, standard, or norm in the light of which a statement is made or is true, an action is performed, or a judgment is passed. The prep. will mean ‘according to’, ‘in conformity with’, ‘corresponding to.’ This use is common in reference to the precise and impartial standard of judgment that will be applied at the great Assize (Matt. 16:27; Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:8; 2 Tim. 4:14; 1 Peter 1:17; Rev 2:23)” (Murray J. Harris, “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” in NIDNTT, 3:1200). Pace Gaffin and Venema, their argument apparently fails to account for judgment kata works for the wicked. This point seems to be borne out by Paul’s own use of kata, as he says, “He will render each one according to [kata] his works” (Rom. 2:6), but this rendering kata works is for both the righteous (v. 7) and the wicked (v. 8). According to Gaffin’s interpretation, are the wicked judged according to their works, but are they not the ground of their condemnation (see 2 Cor. 11:15)? Again, note how Paul uses kata: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due [to de ergazomeno ho misthos ou logizetai kata charin alla kata opheilema]” (Rom 4:4; see also Brian Vickers, Jesus Blood and Righteousness [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006] 95; Yinger, Paul, 21-26, 89-90, 135-136, 175, 182, 186). Judgment therefore is indeed kata (in accordance with, or on the basis of) works – the evil works of the unbeliever and the good works, or righteousness, of Christ.
“Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine” p. 315
I certainly don’t mean to focus more than necessary on Piper, but he tends to be involved at significant levels in a number of different issues. I was recently talking with people on facebook about double predestination. Someone linked to Piper’s Are There Two Wills in God?, a very, very commonly linked article. I said that Piper was wrong, and when asked why, gave the following explanation (along with this link to an AOMin response to Piper’s article http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php/2008/12/10/1-timothy-24-an-exegesis/):
Marc, thanks for the opportunity to clarify. Please see the link I provided as it interacts with Piper’s article.
It implies that God decrees one state of affairs while also willing and teaching that a different state of affairs should come to pass. This distinction in the way God wills has been expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. It is not a new contrivance. For example, theologians have spoken of sovereign will and moral will, efficient will and permissive will, secret will and revealed will, will of decree and will of command, decretive will and preceptive will, voluntas signi (will of sign) and voluntas beneplaciti (will of good pleasure), etc.
This is true. But Piper does not understand these two wills in the same way that typical Reformed theologians do. Thus he is creating confusion and is unjustified in the way he attempts to find support for his view in Reformed history. (If someone can point me towards Jonathan Edwards’ interpretation of 1 Tim 2:4 I would appreciate it)
The distinction simply stems from the fact that the word “will” can refer to more than one thing. In the Bible, it refers to God’s decree and it also refers to God’s commands (or law, as Piper quotes Edwards). But note that those are two very different things. It is not a contradiction or even a paradox to say that God commands men to do something, and then decrees that they do not do it.
“we must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen, and [that] both of these things can be spoken of as God’s will.”
It is important how one understands that phrase. By “what God would like to see happen” do you simply mean what God commands? Or do you mean God longs for and desires for something that He does not actually accomplish? If the latter, then you have a problem with Is. 46:10; Ps 115:3. If God does not decree something, it is because He does not desire it.
What Piper is actually arguing for is 3 wills in God: a decretive will, a preceptive (command) will, and a will of unfulfilled desire or simply, a wish. Piper creates confusion by claiming his third view is just God’s preceptive will. It is not.
Piper’s error can be seen in his attempt to apply an understanding of God’s preceptive (command/precepts) will to John 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:4.
1 Timothy 2:4, for example, is not talking about God’s command to repent and believe. It is referring to God’s redemptive *work* of salvation. It is referring to something God does, not to something man must do. Therefore it refers to God’s decretive will. That being the case, it simply does not make sense to say it refers to some kind of lower desire in God that is superseded by a greater desire (“God’s will to save all people is restrained by his commitment to the glorification of his sovereign grace”). If God’s will to save all is restrained by His commitment not to save all, then we shouldn’t pray and ask Him to save all. (Let me give you an example. If I have a desire to go on vacation with my wife, but I have a greater desire to pay rent, why would I tell my wife to continually ask me to go on vacation?) It just doesn’t make any sense of 1 Timothy 2:4. Either the Arminian interpretation is correct (or the Universalist’s), or John Calvin’s interpretation is correct. Piper’s is not exegetically viable.
Let me know what you think. Aside from all the other issues, of particular interest to me is that Piper’s interpretation just doesn’t seem to make any sense of 1 Timothy 2:4.
R.C. Sproul is a good enough communicator to recognize that what John Piper is arguing for is really 3 wills in God, not 2. In his Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, he says
“When we speak about God’s will we do so in at least three different ways… The three meanings of the will of God: (a) Sovereign decretive will is the will by which God brings to pass whatsoever He decrees. This is hidden to us until it happens. (b) Preceptive will is God’s revealed law or commandments, which we have the power but not the right to break. (c) Will of disposition describes God’s attitude or disposition. It reveals what is pleasing to Him [Sproul places Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11 in this category].”
Whether one agrees with Sproul’s reading of the Ezekial passages or not, he is much more helpful in that he does not muddy the waters of God’s preceptive will, as Piper and others do.
Also, I came across a critique of Piper’s essay written by an Arminian. It is worth taking note of:
The fact that God wants all men to be saved, set in juxtaposition with the fact that not all men end up saved, suggests that there is not only one will in the universe, but at least two. Arminians say that there is the will of God and the will of man – two wills at odds in the universe. Calvinists say the two wills that are at odds are both in God. That is, in one sense, God wishes all men would be saved; in another sense, He really wants millions of people to burn in hell for all eternity. Piper opens his essay with this ambitious statement of purpose:
“My aim in this chapter is to show from Scripture that the simultaneous existence of God’s will for ‘all persons to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4) and his will to elect unconditionally those who will actually be saved is not a sign of divine schizophrenia or exegetical confusion.”
I have been surprised to see how many readers seem to think that he accomplished this goal. He does make about as good a case as can be made for such a doomed postulate, but he does so by tricking the mind of the inattentive reader (I don’t suggest that John Piper intends to “trick” anybody. I am sure that he is very convinced of the validity of the case he makes, but Calvinists have in many ways allowed themselves to be “tricked” by a faulty logic which they would never accept if used by their theological opponents. It manifests the phenomenon of how intense desire to believe a thing to be true will lead a man to accept uncritically the flimsiest case in its defense).
“There is but one will of God; however, there is a distinction in the objects to which His will relates. Therefore in recognizing this distinction we differentiate between the will of His decree and the willof His command… The will of God‟s command is also referred to as His preceptive will or His revealed will. This will has reference to the regulative principle of life as well as to the laws which God has made known and prescribed to man in order that his walk might be regulated accordingly… it is primarily descriptive of man‟s duty… In making a distinction in the will of God, we are not suggesting that God has two wills. In God the act of the will is singular. The difference rather relates to the objects towards whom His will is exercised. Much less do we suggest that God has two wills which are incompatible, as if God with His revealed will would desire something and His secret will would be opposed. When we consider the will of God as being either secret or revealed, this distinction pertains to decidedly different matters [commands vs volition].”-Wilhelmus à Brakel A Christians Reasonable Service, vol. 1, 114-115
“The first and principal distinction is that of the decretive and preceptive will. The former means that which God wills to do or permit himself; the latter what he wills that we should do… Therefore Godcan (without a contradiction) will as to precept what he does not will as to decree inasmuch as he wills to prescribe something to man, but does not will to effect it (as he willed Pharaoh to release the people, but yet nilled their actual release).” -Francis Turretin, Institutes, 3rd Topic, 15th Question
“The will of precept has no volitional content, for it simply states what God has commanded *ought* to be done by man… So it is quite inappropriate to say that God wills something to be with reference to His will of command, for the preceptive will never pertains to the futurition of actions, only to the obligation of them.” -Matthew Winzer, review of Murray’s “The Free Offer of the Gospel”