Background On The Current Salvation Controversy

In 1980, Daniel P. Fuller published Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum seeking to lay siege to both the Dispensational tradition in which he had been raised and covenant theology as he understood it. This work provoked strong responses from some within the orthodox Presbyterian and Reformed world. Two of those responses appeared in 1982 and 1983. O. Palmer Robertson replied to Fuller in 1982, in “Daniel P. Fuller’s Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum: A Review Article W. Robert Godfrey replied the next year with “Back to Basics: A Response to the Robertson-Fuller Dialogue.” These essays appeared in the wake of what turned out to be the first phase (1974–1981) the long controversy over the soteriology of Norman Shepherd. The second phase would become known as the so-called “Federal Vision” controversy after the name the young proponents of Shepherd’s soteriology gave to their theology and movement. Both Godfrey and Robertson were directly involved in the Shepherd controversy and opposed him. More recently Denny Burk has critiqued Fuller’s soteriology as incompatible with that of the Reformation.

These articles are of interest in the current controversy because Daniel Fuller played a formative role in the theology of John Piper. This is not to say that there are no differences. In 1983 Fuller himself critiqued Piper for moving in more Protestant direction on justification. Nevertheless, despite Piper’s adoption of imputation and justification sola fide in the first-stage of salvation, he remains wedded to Fuller for his two-stage soteriology and for his doctrine that final salvation (as if there is such a thing) through faith and works.

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  1. B. Covenant of Works
    A principle of works – do this and live – governed the attainment of the consummation-kingdom proferred in the blessing sanction of the creational covenant. Heaven must be earned. According to the terms stipulated by the Creator it would be on the ground of man’s faithful completion of the work of probation that he would be entitled to enter the Sabbath rest. If Adam obediently performed the assignment signified by the probation tree, he would receive, as a matter of pure and simple justice, the reward symbolized by the tree of life. That is, successful probation would be meritorious. With good reason then covenant theology has identified this probation arrangement as a covenant of works, thereby setting it in sharp contrast to the Covenant of Grace.

    The standard Reformed analysis of the covenants with its sharp law-gospel contrast has come under attack from various theological quarters, including of late the broadly Reformed community. Indeed, it has been contended that in bestowing the blessings of his kingdom God has never dealt with man on the basis of law (i.e., the principle of works as the opposite of grace). Paternal love informs all such translation and, so the argument runs, that fatherly beneficence is not compatible with the legal-commercial notion of reward for meritorious works, of benefits granted as a matter of justice. Appeal is made to the fact that man as a creature is an unprofitable servant even when he has done all that has been required of him in the stewardship of God’s gifts. Or, stating it from the reverse side, man cannot possibly add to the rites of his Lord’s glory for God is eternally all glorious; everything belongs to the Creator. Hence the conclusion is drawn that in the covenant relationship we must reckon everywhere with the presence of a principle of “grace” and, therefore, we may never speak of meritorious works. The rhetoric of this argument has gone to the extreme of asserting that to entertain the idea that the obedience of man (even sinless man) might serve as the meritorious ground for receiving the promised kingdom blessings is to be guilty of devilish pride, of sin at its diabolical worst. With respect to the over-all structuring of covenant theology, once grace is attributed to the original covenant with Adam, preredemptive and redemptive covenants cease to be characterized by contrasting governmental principles in the bestowal of the kingdom on mankind. Instead, some sort of continuum obtains. A combined demand-and-promise (which is thought somehow to qualify as grace but not as works) is seen as the common denominator in this alleged new unity of all covenants. (The following discussion of this radical departure from the classic law-gospel contrast reflect my studies “Of Works and Grace,” Presbterion 9 (1983) 85-92 and “Covenant Theology Under Attack,” New Horizons 15/2 (1994) 3-5, critiques of the teachings of Daniel P. Fuller-John Piper-Norman Shepherd school). – Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue pgs. 107-108

  2. Thank you Dr. Clark. Very helpful. It is also very illuminating to see how Fuller understands Edwards’ doctrine of justification.

  3. It’s astounding to see how far off folks can go when a thorough understanding of the great Reformed confessions is bypassed! “Guilt, grace and gratitude” is a simple summary of biblical theology and couldn’t be clearer, yet teachers calling themselves Reformed can somehow demonstrate that they still don’t get it!

  4. The practical nub of Piper’s and others’ position seems to be a strange unwillingness to apply the many “works tied to salvation” passages in the Bible in the sense of coming to perhaps question the genuineness of a professing believer’s regeneration (ever) if they exhibit continual slavery to and maintain a practice of sin, and/or there is an absence of biblically defined good works in their life. Rather, they seem more willing to question the sovereign, complete and final nature of salvation itself, which the Bible so clearly teaches and everywhere emphasizes. Perplexing, but in some ways it really does seem that simple.

  5. If I’m reading things correctly, it looks like Fuller’s critique of Piper was in 2003.

  6. What becomes very clear is that covenant moralists like Fuller, his protégée Piper, Norman Shepherd, Douglas Wilson and the F V have a completely different soteriology than the Reformers, despite their claim that they are Reformed. Tragically this confuses and misleads many people into the fatal error of trusting in a combination of faith plus works as necessary for salvation.

  7. In his book “The Future of Justification” (2007), John Piper critically interacts with NT Wright’s theology on justification. On NT Wright’s formulation of 2-stage justification, John Piper says the Reformers “clearly distinguish works, on the one hand, as a necessary evidence of the faith that alone unites to Christ for justification from works [Reformers and Piper], on the other hand, as the basis of justification [Rome and Wright]. (p115).” Regarding this important distinction, Piper himself grounds justification in the active obedience of Christ, imputed to believers by faith (in “Counted Righteous in Christ”, 2002). In spite of recent tweets and unfortunate confusion of salvation and justification language, Piper is not a heterodox or Federal Vision proponent, as his previous books have clearly demonstrated.

    • Fred,

      He can defend justification sola fide and teach a two-stage salvation, which is what he and his several apologists are doing. He is arguing that we are finally saved (delivered from sin and its consequences) through faith and works.

      The effect of a two-stage salvation is to render his doctrine of justification merely provisional or temporary.

      We have to keep all the puzzle pieces before us.

  8. Fred, you are right, Piper is perfectly orthodox on justification. I think that is one of the reasons why so many people are quick to defend him. The same is true of the FV. They will say quite orthodox things and then they will qualify them so that they end up saying something quite different. That is what Piper is doing also. He is saying all the right things about justification, BUT final salvation is through faith and works of sanctification. See his book, Future Grace: p. 332 ” the deeds of this life will be the public criteria of judgment at the resurrection….our deeds will reveal who enters the age to come.” p.332 ” the deeds of this life will be the public criteria of judgment at the resurrection because our works are the evidence of the reality of our faith.” That last statement is a masterful equivocation. Yes, our works are evidence of the reality of our faith, but our works are not the ground or condition of our salvation. The only ground or condition of our right standing before God is faith alone, in Christ alone. Like the FV he gets you agreeing with him by saying something that is true, but then he qualifies it to change the meaning to actually deny the orthodox thing he said in the first place. p. 248 “Both the old covenant and the new covenant are CONDITIONAL covenants of grace. They offer all sufficient future grace for those who keep the covenant…future blessings of the Christian life are conditioned on our covenant keeping.” pp. 251-259 He lists all the conditions of the conditional covenant of grace, together with a stern warning: “the future grace of inheriting the kingdom is contingent on not practicing the works of the flesh(p. 253).” Check out his answers in Ask Pastor John #825. There he explains Romans 2:13 exactly the same way as Norman Shepherd does, for which Shepherd, the grandfather of the FV, was fired from Westminster Seminary. He adds “Paul is essentially teaching that we must be so transformed by our faith in Jesus Christ and his atonement and blood that we persevere in DOING GOOD and THAT BECOMES THE NARROW WAY THAT LEADS TO LIFE and THAT WILL BE BROUGHT IN AT THE LAST DAY not as the ground of being in God’s favor, but as evidence that we trusted God.” Although Piper tries to soften the impact of his statement, in a trial the “evidence” is exactly what is used to decide the fate of the person being judged! Yes, good works are evidence, in this life for ourselves and as a witness to others, that our faith is real, but Christians will be vindicated by being resurrected in glory, not judged on the last day. And the reason for our right standing before God is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Always!

  9. Piper’s errors are serious and could imperil the doctrine of justification and salvation. I wonder if Naparc church(es) should corporately reject the positions that Piper espouses in a more explicit way. Otherwise I’m afraid that this debate will simply die down only to be revived later by another controversial post, leaving the flock of God (especially Reformed flock) even more confused.

  10. Thank you so much. This has been an incredibly helpful posts. My following of Piper’s teaching nearly led me to despair when I realized my faith in Christ was not resulting in the kind of life that would leave me justified at the final judgement. His book “Future Grace” was instrumental as well as his sermon series on Galatians. Basically I came to believe I was justified by faith in – in the grace of all that God has been for me in the past and will be for me in future. To put it another way – I was saved by a kind of believing in Jesus to both forgive AND also transform me.

    I might have read him wrong or misunderstood his teaching, but these are the conclusions I came away with. The Gospel was not just that Jesus forgives us and credits his righteousness to us. The full scope of the Gospel is that a God who loves us so much to do this for us, to die, be buried, and rise again can also be trusted to change my life, transform me, and produce fruit in my life. This is the life of faith that justifies ultimately. It’s a life that clings to him for both forgiveness and transformation. As I believe with him with the same kind of belief that I believed in him for initial justification, I will be sanctified through faith in grace (as opposed to striving and self-reliance). Continuing along this continuum and persevering in this life of faith in Christ’s grace (according to my reading of Piper) would also ultimately mean I would one day be glorified.

    I’m not a trained theologian, so I realize where I might have gone beyond Piper or come to some of these bad conclusions, to the degree that I did, on my own. Your posts helped me to come to terms with why I felt such despair, and what is in Piper’s teaching that would at least send a person like myself on this trajectory. I truly despaired over why couldn’t I believe in Christ in such a way that would truly result in a transformed life, where even my affections would become worshipful and I would cast off idols and be “truly satisfied” in Jesus. It played out in my head sort of like this.

    “My ‘passion’ for God is so weak and wanting, I must not be trusting in Him enough. It sure doesn’t seem like I’m trusting in him with a saving kind of faith. My works on the final judgement will surely demonstrate this reality too. They will show I’m not really His elect. If I were I would have produced the kind of fruit worthy of the Gospel. The person who is really saved believes in Jesus to forgive and credit us with His righteousness. But he also looks to Him to produce fruit that only the Vine-dresser can bring about. I haven’t embraced Jesus in all that He wants to be for me. My life is full of idolatry and sin. It’s evidence of my unbelief in Jesus. I must have never truly believed in him in the first place. If I had, I would have continued to believe in Him to bring about my sanctification. I am not His. I am heading for Hell.”

    • John,

      I’ve read through your comment a couple of times. I’m not sure how to respond because I’m not sure how to interpret it. A few responses:

      1. The Christian faith is not that complicated. Christ accomplished our salvation. He earned our righteousness for us and has delivered us from sin and the wrath to come and we receive those benefits (salvation) through faith alone (sola fide).

      2. God the Spirit is sovereignly, graciously, gradually working sanctification in us. When we are brought new life and given true faith we are trusting that God is working salvation (justification, sanctification) for us and in us.

      3. There are two questions in this controversy: 1) Whether there are two stages of salvation (initial justification and final justification/salvation); 2) Whether the good works that the Spirit produces in us become the instrument of a “final salvation.” I am arguing that there is no such thing as a “two-stage” justification or salvation and that works are never any part of the instrument of our salvation at the judgment.

      We do trust him to change our lives. We were justified that we might be sanctified. The gospel does have a narrower and a broader aspect but the good news is never that I shall have good works of sufficient quality and quantity to serve as the instrument of my salvation nor is it that my justification now is merely provisional nor is it that I must “maintain” my justification through good works, even if those good works are said to be produced by the Spirit or grace.

  11. Congratulations, John! The law has done its work on you, it has brought you to the realization of your sin and misery, and your complete inability to please God. The sad thing is that many others are deluded into thinking that they actually can please God through their faith AND good works for final salvation. The only way we can please God is by faith in Christ alone as our ONLY righteousness! How liberating to know that it is not about anything in me, or what I can do, but in Christ alone. That is our motive to love and demonstrate our thankfulness to God. Perfect love castes out fear…We love Him because He first loved us. I John 4:18-19 as J. Gresham Machen wrote in his last telegram: I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it!

    • Thanks Angela. It was a difficult and confusing time for me for sure. I was a terrible “Christian hedonist”. But I’m grateful to God for showing me my total ineptitude to please God and obey His law through all of that. I learned I can’t even hope in the possibility of what I could become through “faith in future grace”.

      Now, I hope in the one who is alone righteous. I have confidence and gladness because I know my righteousness is not based on works whatsoever. My righteousness is in Christ alone, like you said. It’s outside of me! And that’s a very good thing.

      The law is back in it’s rightful place again. It’s there to guide me (and of course remind me of my continual need for a Savior). It doesn’t fill my horizon with it’s full blown list of requirements I could never fulfill perfectly or it’s threats of condemnation.

      Knowing the Father loves me so much He sent the Son for me, and that by believing in the Son, I HAVE eternal life does indeed give wonderful motivation. It also has helped me to take my focus off of myself so much. I don’t have to constantly look at how I am performing for God and wondering if it is enough to satisfy Him (in the end). Now, I can frankly rest and enjoy the “It is Finished” of the Cross. I am also free to love “my neighbor” and focus on them. I even have a true Hope to tell others about!

      I loved the Machen quote. Thank you.

  12. Thank you for your thoughtful response Dr Clark. Sorry if my post was confusing at all. I was basically trying to portray the dark and terrifying place I was in when I was confused over the role of faith and works in my salvation and struggled over assurance. I’m grateful I’m not in that place anymore and am indebted to precious folks like yourself who contend for the Gospel and don’t mind repeating again and again what has been handed down once and for all. I had despaired, but thank God the Gospel was still out there on the internet to comfort me, and it now comforts me in my local church too.

    I think you have done a great service in putting in plain terms what Piper (who is not so easy to understand) teaches. There are some good things in Piper for sure, but I appreciate how we can all use this opportunity to help clarify, as you did in your response for me, what the Gospel is and is not. Amen to what you said too! It made me grateful for Christ , whose justification is final and whose righteousness alone is my only hope at the Resurrection.

    Please keep up the good work, for the sake of folks like me!

  13. Assurance and peace is found in the fact that sanctification is firstly objective and positional, in that it consists in God’s sovereign decision to set us apart for His exclusive use, such as were the inanimate utensils in the Tabernacle were so said to have been ‘sanctified’.
    And so Paul can say we also were objectively sanctified by a sovereign act of God in His setting us apart to Himself in His redeeming purpose. This setting apart for exclusive use, means that just as the tabernacle utensils were dedicated to and used for God’s purposes only, as Christ’s life perfectly was , so will our lives be also, although with yet present sin principle still within, this exclusivity will be partial until the Great Change of 1 Cor. 15. Sanctification is God’s act, not ours, and thus our daily assurance is not how dedicated we are, but what God’s redeeming purpose for us was when He sanctified us in Christ.

  14. Allan, you are right, God has set aside so that we are positionally holy. That happened when He chose us before the foundation of the world. He chose us so that we might be holy, like Him. The problem is that our reprentative head, Adam sinned and became incapable of keeping God’s law, and by his sin, he brought down the curse of death on himself and all mankind. Christ covenanted, with the Father to become our new representative. He fulfills all righteousness in our place, and suffers the death curse in our place! That is why we are considered righteous, ONLY in him. Our sanctification has nothing to do with our right standing before God, but it does follow, because we cannot believe savingly unless the Holy Spirit indwells us, Our sanctification , albeit imperfect until the resurrection, is simply the fruit of the indwelling Spirit. Fruit does not make the tree a fruit tree, it only shows what is true of the tree, that it is a fruit tree. Similarly, sanctification shows what is true of us, that we are Christians. The only thing that makes us right with God is that Christ lived the life we could not live, and died the death we cannot die, for us, in our place, as our representative head.

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