John Piper has spoken often on justification, and often left listeners confused: Does Piper believe in justification by faith alone, or are our good works, as evidence of our justification, required for us to be ‘truly’ justified? In a Desiring God video dated July 15, 2010, Piper addressed this issue. The following is a transcript of his short presentation (5:41; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Neb0gEwu54w):
One of the concerns that I have about justification in particular, the biblical understanding of imputation, being counted as righteous, as distinct from actually becoming behavioral in our righteousness, which are both crucial – one of the things that concerns me is that those who are jealous, as I want to be, for our holiness, our love, our justice, our mercy in the world, can begin to build that in to the instrument of justification, to make sure that it’s not separated in such a way that it undermines the very goal that we are both after. Here’s what I mean: I’m arguing, as I think historic Protestant Christianity has argued and the Bible argues, that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to me is through union with Christ where He is for me all that He is and I am attached to Him in that union through faith alone. The only instrument by which I am made a participant in Christ’s righteousness is God’s acting through my faith. I am born into that relationship through faith alone, not through any of its fruits, which come as mercy, and justice, and love, and patience, and kindness, and meekness, and so on, and turn me into a useful person in the world.
Now, what some people feel, I think, is that if you conceive of justification that way – you are imputed with Christ’s righteousness, so that you stand righteous, perfect before God, by faith alone – you have disconnected it from love and mercy and goodness and justice and kindness, such that you can begin to become indifferent to these things and just think of yourself as holy and let the world go to hell. And so to solve that problem, to make sure that justice and love and mercy are all kept closely connected, as they should be as the fruit of justification, they begin to bring it into the instrument by which we are attached to Christ, and they don’t make faith as the sole instrument clearly distinct. Now, the reason I say that undermines what we’re both after is I don’t think we can make any progress in holiness if we don’t have a profound, deep, powerful assurance that we are accepted by God, by faith alone. If you try to make the fruit of justification part of the root of justification, the fruit itself is destroyed, because I think God has ordained that it’s out of a sense of wonder and marveling that God is patient with me, through faith alone, that I’m able to be patient with another person. If I try to make becoming patient with my wife part of the instrument by which I’m attached to Jesus, who then becomes my righteousness and acceptance with God – so a little bit of me and a lot of Him – then my whole sense of assurance by which I make progress in that patience begins to go down the tubes.
So what I’m giving this little video clip for is just to say, I really believe that Christians have to be loving, they have to be just, they have to be caring, in other words, the fruits of the Spirit really matter. We are not born again if we are not living differently than we would if we weren’t born again. And I just want to say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone, or imputation, through union with Christ, along the instrument of faith alone, is the best way forward in that. And William Wilberforce perhaps is the best historical example, because he built his whole anti-slave trade life on the doctrine of justification, and when he wrote his one book…he said, ‘My main goal is to help England understand that transformation in life and in slave trade is the fruit of justification, not the root.’ He wanted to distinguish very clearly how you became justified with God, and how you became holy in the world. And so, as far as his example goes, that’s where I’m heading. I want to produce lots of Wilberforce’s in my church and in the world, and I think trying to bring the commitment to justice into the instrument of justification, instead of the fruit of it, undermines what we’re both after.
Unfortunately for Piper, his attempt to clarify his view on justification, as reflected in comments of listeners, was anything but successful! Some expressed affirmation:
Amen my brother, peace be with you.
Wow this definitely hits home!
Very good and clear point. Faith alone is unbiblical and wrong. Faith Alone does not exist in the Bible.
Others expressed confusion or raised questions:
Piper: “NT Wright is too confusing when he talks about justification.” Then he makes this video.
You [are] confused and confusing. [You’re] saying that the fruit I [have] has a bearing on justification. Good job on saying a whole bunch of foolishness. Just admit you no longer hold to the Reformed understanding of justification and sanctification.
OK, but does this same justification get you into heaven?
Piper undermines his own convoluted effort to declare ‘justification by faith,’ and motivate good works and holiness, when he says, We are not born again if we are not living differently than we would if we weren’t born again. With this statement, one of two things must be true about Piper’s idea of ‘justification by faith’: Either the ‘justification’ he is referring to is not the same as being ‘born again’ (since justification is by faith, and being ‘born again’ is dependent on us ‘living differently than we would if we weren’t born again’ – i.e., doing good works), or the ‘faith’ by which we are justified actually includes good works (or requires good works to ‘validate’ or ‘prove’ that it exists), thus making any clear distinction between faith and works impossible. To borrow from Piper’s own terms, the ‘fruit’ of justification must exist, or there is no ‘root.’ Notably, the last affirming response to Piper noted above understood Piper as saying this – that justification by faith alone is wrong. It is ironic to the extreme that in a talk designed to emphasize justification by “faith alone,” an affirming listener would say that Piper has got it right – that ‘faith alone is unbiblical and wrong’!
Piper’s hidden ‘theological matrix’ which results in his baffling statement is his separation of ‘justification’ from ‘going to heaven’ (perhaps this is what he means by being ‘born again;’ see the last response quoted above). In other words, we may be ‘justified,’ but this doesn’t mean we’re going to heaven when we die! He affirms justification by faith (the sola fide of the Reformation), that it is the ‘sole instrument’ of justification, the ‘root,’ and that we must have a profound, deep, powerful assurance that we are accepted by God, by faith alone, then inexplicably (and oxymoronically) makes being ‘born again’ dependent on our works. Allowing his concern for Christians to live holy lives to compromise his own effort to affirm justification by faith alone, he ends up effectively denying it! As a result, he undermines any assurance that we are eternally saved (and loved by God), and thus our greatest motivation – gratitude and reciprocated love – for living holy lives.
Let that sink in: Piper’s theology – in which he is at pains to affirm both ‘justification by faith alone’ and the need for us to become ‘behavioral in our righteousness’ (living holy, godly lives), ends up undermining both things. Justification is not by faith alone, and our greatest motivation to live a godly life is gone, too.