Defending Piper (Again) from "The West Coast Offense"

Never say "never", and never say "always" when making a claim about the Reformed tradition. That's rule number one, and it can save you from a lot of embarrassment. I plan to post on this in the future and bring into light some Reformed voices who have made bold claims in an attempt to cast aspersions on the theology of other people whom they disagree with. But for today, I give you one example.

Lee Irons, in critiquing John Piper, made the following point:

The second confusing terminology is his use of the word "conditions." He wants to say that faith is the sole condition of entering into a right relationship with God. But if we replace "entering into a right relationship with God" with "being justified," then it is not true that faith is the sole condition, since faith is related to justification not as a condition but as a means. Faith has never been viewed as a condition of justification in Reformed theology or in the Reformed confessions. Paul himself never uses the prepositional phrase dia + accusative, "justified because of faith." Instead he uses dia + genitive or ek + genitive, "justified by faith." Faith is not the ground of justification, but the means by which we are justified, by which we rest upon Christ and receive the gift of his imputed righteousness. Faith is a purely passive and receptive instrument. It is an open hand that receives the gift. In this it is the exclusive means or instrument by which we are justified, since we do not receive the righteousness of Christ by works of obedience, even by Spirit-wrought works of obedience.

Now, there's a lot to interact with in his post, including his comments (which only exacerbate the problems in the post*). Also, I tend to think that theology by prepositions is, well, not all that helpful. The Greek sounds sophisticated to the neophyte, but it hardly helps his point against Piper. 

Nonetheless, I am flabbergasted at the cocksure way by which Irons makes these claims. He castigates Piper for several errors, but ends up making a few blunders himself. One in particular stands out.

He says: "Faith has never been viewed as a condition of justification in Reformed theology..." (emphasis mine).

This is simply false. 

This was a dispute among the Reformed orthodox and the antinomians in the seventeenth century. If you asked a Reformed theologian (e.g., Owen & Witsius) whether faith is a condition for justification he would likely have said, "yes and no", and then explained how faith is a condition for justification and how it isn't. They had to say "no" against the Arminians and "yes" against the Antinomians. But they didn't get rid of the term because of "pastoral reasons". They just explained what they meant by "condition". Irons, regrettably, doesn't do that. 

Ironically, in critiquing Piper for not being Reformed, Irons actually makes arguments that would have been well received in the antinomian camp, but firmly rejected by most of the Reformed.

John Owen allowed one to argue that faith is the condition of justification only if "no more be intended thereby, but that it is the duty on our part which God requires, that we may be justified" (5:113).  Stephen Charnock notes, "Faith is the condition God requires to justification; but not a dead, but an active faith." Thomas Manton says that faith is the "only condition required" for justification. The list goes on, and the evidence is overwhelmingly against Irons.

This all coheres with WLC, Q. 32, where the question is asked: "How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?"

A. The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him..."

Note also WCF 7.3, "requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved" (Rom. 10:6 as proof text).

Faith is the (antecedent) condition for receiving the benefits of Christ. No faith, no benefits ("interest them in him"). But how do we keep in balance both the "freeness" ("freely provides") and the "conditionality" ("requiring faith as the condition") of the covenant?

Reformed theologians were not stupid; nor were they moralists, Papists, or Arminians. They carefully highlighted what they meant (and what they did not mean) by faith as a condition for justification. 

In the first place, they distinguished between certain types of conditions, namely, antecedent and consequent conditions. This important distinction sheds light on the various theological debates that took place in seventeenth-century England, particularly with reference to the Antinomians, who taught that faith followed justification. 

According to views expressed in the sermons of Tobias Crisp on John 2:1-2, the elect are justified and reconciled to God before they believe, so that faith is neither the instrumental cause of justification nor a condition of being justified.

In his response to Crisp and the Antinomians, John Flavel claims that the controversy is not about consequent conditions (i.e., things required after the believer is instated into covenant with God), but rather about whether we may speak of antecedent conditions in order to be justified or enter into the blessings of the covenant of grace.

Flavel considers this discussion from two distinct vantage points: 

1) The covenant made with Christ; and
2) The application of the benefits of the covenant to sinners. 

With regard to the former, Flavel admits that no condition is required on man's part, "but depends purely and only upon the Grace of God, and Merit of Christ." 

But Flavel asks whether the condition of faith may be understood as antecedent in the application of salvation. Thus he distinguishes between meritorious acts and non-meritorious acts:

1. Such Antecedent Conditions which have the force of a meritorious and impulsive Cause, which being performed by the proper strength of Nature, or at most by the help of common assisting Grace, do give a Man a right to the reward or blessings of the Covenant. And in this sense we utterly disclaim antecedent Conditions.

2. An Antecedent Condition signifying no more than an Act of ours, which though it be neither perfect in every degree, nor in the least meritorious of the benefit conferred; nor performed in our own natural strength; yet according to the constitution of the Covenant, is required of us in order to the blessings consequent thereupon by virtue of the Promise: and consequently the benefits and mercies granted in the Promise in this order are, and must be suspended by the donor or disposer of them, until it be performed, such a Condition we affirm Faith to be.

Based upon this distinction, Flavel affirms faith to be an antecedent condition in terms of a non-meritorious act required of us in order to receive the application of the benefits of the covenant of grace, including justification. But given the controversy that surrounds this subject, he makes a further (important) distinction between faith "essentially" considered and faith considered "organically and instrumentally." 

Faith essentially (i.e., in terms of the essence of faith) considered refers to obedience, "and in that respect we exclude it from justifying our persons, or entitling us to the saving-mercies of the New Covenant." 

However, faith "organically" considered refers to its instrumentality, "as it receives Christ...and so gives us power to become the sons of God; it being impossible for any Man to partake of the saving benefits of the Covenant, but as he is united to Christ." 

Thus faith, as an antecedent condition, "organically" considered, is required for sinners to receive the blessings of the covenant of grace. There were very good theological and polemical reasons why Reformed theologians spoke of faith as a condition for receiving justification. But while they did that, they also explained what they did and did not mean by "condition." In addition, Rutherford speaks well for Reformed theologians when he says: "conditions wrought in us by grace, such as we assert, take not one jot or title of the freedom of grace away."

Before critiquing Piper, I think Irons needs to read more carefully on the different senses of "condition" in the Reformed tradition, especially if he is going to make sweeping claims that cannot be justified at all. Is Piper saying anything different than Owen, Charnock, Manton or Flavel? I highly doubt it. Would Irons go after Owen, Charnock, Manton or Flavel? I wonder.

Personally, I just don't understand the obsession that some have for wanting to find fault in a writer where there doesn't need to be. Piper's language and theology on this issue fits perfectly within the Reformed tradition, and I wish certain people would stop trying to suggest otherwise. It is divisive and unnecessary. It does not build up the church, but divides it. And it makes some Reformed Presbyterians look petty (nasty?), as if we have nothing better to do than go after a man who actually took on Tom Wright, but evidently still should not to be trusted on justification.

If I were Irons, I would erase the post and offer a public apology to Piper for intimating that he is teaching error. I doubt it will happen, but it would be a good example for others who have previously gotten a little carried away in their zeal. 


* In the comment section, Irons basically says that the covenant of grace, in which we live by faith, partakes of conditions but justification in no way does, not even in terms of faith; yet justification is a benefit of that selfsame covenant of grace. Do you see how a wrong-headed paradigm can lead to absurd statements?