Results tagged “John Piper” from Reformation21 Blog

James Is, You Know, in the Bible

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A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was discussing the necessity of works to salvation when a fellow Reformed minister accused him of legalism.  This pastor, noted for promoting a radical version of Lutheran soteriology, cut him down with a slashing riposte.  "You sound like a follower of James!" he stabbed.  Unbloodied by this thrust, my friend answered, "James is, you know, in the Bible." 

This conversation came to mind as I read Mark Jones' defense of John Piper in his insistence that Christians attain to heaven not merely by faith but also by works.  ("Attaining to heaven," here seems to correspond with the character of one's post-conversion Christian life.)  If one replies that Jones and Piper sound like the apostle James, well, James 2 is in the Bible. 

It is by now standard for Reformed Christians to realize that when James wrote that "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (Ja. 2:17), he was not contradicting Paul's teaching of justification through faith alone.  The most common explanation is that while Paul taught that we are justified through faith alone, James taught that our faith is justified by works.  Hence the non-contradiction.  This is a helpful formula, yet it may not do James full justice or give the full emphasis of his point. 

Consider the explanation in James 2:21-24.  First, James writes that "Abraham our father [was] justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar" (Ja. 2:21).  This refers, of course, to Abraham's obedience in Genesis 22.  The angel of the Lord noted the importance of this obedience in Abraham's salvation, saying, "now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" (Gen. 22:12).  Evidently, fearing God is of soteric importance to those who have been justified through faith alone.  It was on the basis of this fearing God that the covenant promise given long before in response to faith was confirmed again in Genesis 22:17.  Unless we are to make this episode a pointless footnote to Abraham's story, we must say that the patriarch did not attain to salvation apart from obediently fearing the Lord, a matter that was important enough to God that he tested Abraham in so onerous a manner. 

How, then, do we relate faith and works in Abraham's salvation?  Conveniently, James tells us: "You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works" (Ja. 2:22).  Here, James leaves Paul's doctrine of justification through faith alone undamaged.  Both initially and finally, faith alone remains the instrumental condition of our justification.*  But if we ask how a believer occupies himself between conversion and final glory, i.e. how he attains to salvation, James answers that faith is active in and finds its expression through works.  So essential is this relationship between faith and works that James famously insisted: "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (Ja. 2:17).  It is in this sense that James concludes not only that our faith is justified by works but that "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (Ja. 2:24).  Here we see the necessity of works, not only as evidence of true faith but as characteristic of the justified believer, such that a professing Christian without works has no basis to consider himself justified.  As Abraham's example shows us, a person who is justified through faith alone attains to salvation by a life characterized by God-fearing obedience and good works.  This person remains a sinner, of course, who stands justified before God only in Christ through faith.  But being in Christ through faith involves a necessary and organic connection to good works (see also Eph. 2:8-10).

I can think of few messages more urgently needed by our worldly churches today than the necessity of pursuing practical holiness through obedience and good works.  I realize that many even of our Reformed brothers would rather ignore James' teaching than work through its challenges, both doctrinally and practically.  But as my friend insisted, "James is, you know, in the Bible."

 

* The word "condition" in theology does not always mean "instrument of."  My guess is that people who are alarmed by Piper saying that there are other conditions than faith for attaining heaven are thinking of "condition" only in this narrow sense.  I do not see Piper espousing the kind of initial vs. final justification teaching that you see in N. T. Wright, an approach that Piper has clearly refuted in The Future of JustificationSince, Piper reserves faith alone as the instrumental cause of our justification, I have taken his use of "condition" here to refer to the necessary characteristic of the justified Christian life.  In this sense, James 2 urges full agreement.

More on the new Calvinism

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I don't want to steal Rick Phillips' thunder, and I don't believe I will be trampling over his toes. However, I should also like to pick up on John Piper's lecture at Westminster, but from a different angle. Here are the twelve characteristics of the new Calvinism that Piper identified, as recorded by the friends at the Reformed Forum.
1.    The New Calvinism, in its allegiance to the inerrancy of the Bible, embraces the biblical truths behind the five points (TULIP), while having an aversion to using the acronym or any other systematic packaging, along with a sometimes qualified embrace of limited atonement. The focus is on Calvinistic soteriology but not to the exclusion or the appreciation of the broader scope of Calvin's vision.
2.    The New Calvinism embraces the sovereignty of God in salvation, and in all the affairs of life in history, including evil and suffering.
3.    The New Calvinism has a strong complementarian flavor as opposed to egalitarian, with an emphasis on the flourishing of men and women in relationships where men embrace a call to robust, humble, Christ-like servant leadership.
4.    The New Calvinism leans toward being culture-affirming rather than culture-denying, while holding fast to some very culturally alien positions, like positions on same-sex practice and abortion.
5.    The New Calvinism embraces the essential place of the local church. It is led mainly by pastors, has a vibrant church-planting bent, produces widely-sung worship music, and exalts the preached word as central to the work of God locally and globally.
6.    The New Calvinism is aggressively mission-driven, including missional impact on social evils, evangelistic impact on personal networks, and missionary impact on unreached peoples of the world.
7.    The New Calvinism is inter-denominational with a strong (some would say oxymoronic) Baptistic element.
8.    The New Calvinism includes charismatics and non-charismatics.
9.    The New Calvinism puts a priority on pietism or piety in the Puritan vein, with an emphasis on the essential role of affections in Christian living, while esteeming the life of the mind and being very productive in it, and embracing the value of serious scholarship. Jonathan Edwards would be invoked as a model of this combination of the affections and the life of the mind more often than John Calvin, whether that's fair to Calvin or not.
10.    The New Calvinism is vibrantly engaged in publishing books and even more remarkably in the world of the internet, with hundreds of energetic bloggers and social media activists, with Twitter as the increasingly default way of signaling things new and old that should be noticed and read.
11.    The New Calvinism is international in scope, multi-ethnic in expression, culturally diverse. There is no single geographic, racial, cultural governing center. There are no officers, no organization, nor any loose affiliation that would encompass the whole. I would dare say that there are outcroppings of this movement that nobody (including me) in this room has ever heard of.
12.    The New Calvinism is robustly gospel-centered, cross-centered, with dozens of books rolling off the presses, coming at the gospel from every conceivable angle, and applying it to all areas of life with a commitment to seeing the historic doctrine of justification, finding its fruit in sanctification personally and communally.
I have a particular interest in this because, as some may be aware, a few months ago Evangelical Press published a short study of mine called The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment (Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk). In it, I set out to consider the characteristics of the new Calvinism, offer some commendations, and then identify some cautions and concerns, before offering some conclusions.

Of course, it is vital to remember that the new Calvinism is not monolithic. John Piper is a key spokesman, but not the sole spokesman, so his assessment may not be endorsed by everyone else who carries the label of the new Calvinism. Indeed, we should also take into account the fact that what we label Calvinism, up to the end of the 20th century, could hardly be considered monolithic either. Beyond that, we must maintain some awareness of continuity and discontinuity between what many will call the old Calvinism and what is generally described as the new Calvinism.

Here I try to map Piper's assessment - "twelve features [not unique and exclusive distinctives] of the movement as I see it" which are, he said, "not dividing lines" between the old and the new Calvinism, matters of separation - over mine for the purpose of a very brief analysis. I understand that we are not always saying the same things, but it is interesting to look at the points of contact.

I suggested that the characteristics of the new Calvinism were:

  • Calvinism that owes a great deal to Edwards, and - in some - offers more than a nod to Amyraut. (Piper #1 and #2)
  • Characters (or figureheads, personalities, celebrities or gurus, depending on how pejorative a label you wish to apply, or what kind of a follower you are dealing with).
  • Conglomeration - it is a movement of coalitions, of conferences, of networks, and of networks of networks, numbers of men and churches operating together. (Piper #7 and #11)
  • Consolidation - a settling over time.

Then there were six qualified commendations:

  • New Calvinists set out to be Christ-oriented and God-honouring. (Piper #1 and #2)
  • The new Calvinism is in many respects a grace-soaked movement. (Piper #1, #2, #9 and #12)
  • The new Calvinism is an avowedly missional movement. (Piper #6, #11 and #12)
  • The new Calvinism is substantially a complementarian movement. (Piper #3)
  • New Calvinists tend to be both immersed and inventive. (Piper #4 and #10)
  • The new Calvinism is committed in principle to expository preaching. (Piper #5, #7 and #12)

Then six nuanced cautions and concerns:

  • A tendency in many new Calvinists to pragmatism and commercialism. (Piper #4, #5, #10 and #11)
  • There is in much of the new Calvinism an unbalanced view of culture. (Piper #4, #6, #10 and #11)
  • Many within new Calvinism manifest a troubling approach to holiness (incipient antinomianism and confusion about the nature of sanctification). (Piper #9)
  • There is within the new Calvinism a potentially dangerous ecumenism. (Piper #7 and #11)
  • For many new Calvinists there is a genuine tension with regard to spiritual gifts. (Piper #8)
  • A degree of arrogance and triumphalism in some new Calvinists.

I am not going to rehash all these here or offer particular conclusions (that is what the book is for). I must admit that - in the face of some reviews which suggested that my assessment lacked nuance (and I admitted all along that mine was a necessarily broad brush treatment) - there is some amusement in the fact that John Piper has suggested so much of the same substance with similarly and necessarily broad strokes.

What is of more interest in this comparison is that, despite the similarity of substance, there is a real difference of emphasis and appreciation. This is significant at times. For example, to choose a stark instance, there is agreement that the new Calvinism includes charismatics and non-charismatics. To Mr Piper and to many new Calvinists, that is evidently a neutral feature; to me and to others, that would be a matter of genuine concern. I do not know that that is a matter decided by one's allegiance to what is called old or new Calvinism.

For the record, I do not think of myself as an old Calvinist. Neither do I think of myself as a new Calvinist, and was somewhat interested that a number of those who have interacted with the book suggested that I was a de facto new Calvinist. That said, as a reasonably young Calvinist, I am an interested party, with a vested and sincere interest in the glory of God and the good of my fellow believers. If these two assessments, from different perspectives (and very different levels of prominence, opportunity and gift, lest anyone should think that I am suggesting parity), show anything, it is that there is at least a measure of agreement on what is prominent within the new Calvinism.

What remains, of course, is the disagreement about how much has been carried over, and what has been added, and how healthy or otherwise these features will prove to be. I have my own hopes and fears. I think that history suggests that many of these questions will be answered, one way or the other, not in the next thirty months, but in the next thirty years.

Reformed ghetto blasters

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I've just been reading Collin Hansen's Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists. It's a fascinating exploration of the growing influence of names with which we are familiar: John Piper, Mark Dever, Al Mohler. I don't get Christianity Today, but I gather that this book arises out of material which appeared in CT some time ago.

 

I was a bit disturbed, however, with the following paragraph (p34), in connection with the author's interview of John Piper:

 

'I think the criticism of Reformed theology is being silenced by the mission and justice and evangelism and worship and counselling - the whole range of pastoral life', Piper said, 'We're not the kind who are off in a Grand Rapids ghetto crossing our t's and dotting our i's and telling the world to get our act together. We're in the New Orleans slums with groups like Desire Street Ministries, raising up black elders through Reformed theology from nine-year old boys who had no chance'.

 

I'm not sure if Piper is aiming at some particular group here? I've never been to Grand Rapids, so I don't know about its Calvinistic ghettoes, but the comment seemed to me to be uncharacteristically harsh. I'm glad for the time Piper takes to cross his own t's and dot his own i's - his contribution to the debates on imputation for example have been greatly appreciated.

 

On the other hand, I'm sure that there are Grand Rapids Calvinists who are every bit as practical in the outworking of their theology. As someone who lives on an island, perhaps I'm over-sensitive to the ease with which we can caricature others and be caricatured ourselves, but let's not rush into judgement on God's people just because of where God in his Providence has called them to serve!