In Defense of Piper
September 24, 2015
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.