“Final Salvation” Through Faith AND Fruit Is Not Reformation Doctrine

John Piper,Does God Really Save Us By Faith Alone?” (September 25, 2017)

33 comments

  1. A text without a context is a pretext. John Piper seems to be dancing around the subject a little, but in fairness (after reading his article three times) I’m not sure he’s guilty of the accusation being levied here. He is trying to make the same very difficult distinction that James was attempting to make (and for which he is still persecuted by some today), that faith without works is dead, and if dead, then there’s no faith. We would say that works are a product of our God-given faith, and that our justification before God is wholly independent of any works we may or may not produce. But what of those with no works at all? Are they still justified by their “dead” faith?

    This is the point Piper is trying to make, that getting to Heaven is much different than praying an insincere prayer (after all, if the prayer is sincere then works will be a natural by-product of that prayer proving that justification has taken place). For those that have not read the full article it’s worth noting how it ends:

    “Justification before God is by grace alone, with no merited favor whatever; on the basis of Christ alone, with no other sacrifice or righteousness as the foundation; through the means of faith alone, not including any human works whatsoever; to the end that all things lead ultimately to the glory of God alone; as taught with final and decisive authority in the Scriptures alone.”

    I’ve read a lot of John Piper, and I thank God for all the fine teaching. I don’t disagree that we should sit up and pay attention any time someone claims that justification is by faith AND works, but that’s not what John is saying. Specifically, he says, “we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone.” We can split hairs if we choose, but using better-safe-than-sorry logic, I say (that for me), no works equals no faith equals no justification equals no Heaven. Faith without works is no faith at all……it’s moot to try to distinguish between them. Let’s not get so caught up in the theology that we miss the entire point. Lest there be any confusion, justification is absolutely by faith alone…..Piper would fully agree.

    • Jerry,

      We do have an obligation to put the best reading on a text. We also have an obligation to read a text in its larger context (thus I included a link to the original source), which your interpretation ignores.

      1. DG wrote: “You’re not saved through faith alone. Be killing sin.”

      2. Piper told me (in public) c. 2007 that his theology has never changed. He was a devoted student of Daniel Fuller.

      https://heidelblog.net/2017/10/background-on-the-current-salvation-controversy/

      https://heidelblog.net/2014/10/daniel-p-fullers-doctrine-of-justification-antithetical-to-the-reformation/

      What Piper has done (c. 2003) is to add imputation to “initial justification” but his doctrine of “final salvation” through faith and works is Fuller’s.

      3. BBC and Piper both confess and teach that there are two stages to salvation, “initial” justification sola gratia, sola fide and “final” salvation” “through that fruit and that faith.”

      https://heidelblog.net/2017/10/why-we-remember-the-reformation-part-3/

      4. Neither Scripture nor the Reformed churches teach or confess a two-stage soteriology. Believers are not merely out on bail.

      https://heidelblog.net/2017/11/believers-are-not-out-on-bail/

      5. This argument is most decidedly about the necessity of fruit and evidence. We are having this argument because Piper et al are dissatisfied with the Protestant doctrine and have attempted to fix it, thus leading us backwards toward Rome, which openly teaches a two-stage justification.

      6. James is not that difficult. 2:14 is the key. “You say you have faith….”. James was remonstrating with hypocrites for professing faith and living like the devil. He was not teaching a second way of justification through works but about the moral and logical necessity of good works. About that there has never been any question among the confessional Reformed (or Lutheran) churches.

      7. Piper’s use of instrumental language is not mere sloppiness. It is intentional. He has been saying this for years.

      8. Remember, Piper said that the FV is no big deal. See it for yourself:
      https://heidelblog.net/2013/11/see-it-for-yourself-piper-on-wilson/

  2. Dr. Clark,
    It seems to me that the verse above might serve as a proof-text for regeneration preceding faith, but hardly proof of the equality of faith and fruit in final judgment.
    Is not the fork in the road here a colossal failure to make the simple distinction between faith and fruit? That faith is an instrument and fruit (not an instrument) is evidence? It seems that some want to formulate faith, faithfulness, fruit as categorically the same though nuanced. Theologically, that blurring of distinctions is what sustains all the various meltdowns between the Reformed law-grace antithesis which takes our eyes off Christ. Then blurred vision easily slides to blinded vision. Thank God for the adage, “after darkness…light!”

  3. Dr. Clark,

    If you have the chance, could you briefly explain what the cites verse (2 Thessalonians 2:13) means when it says that we are chosen for salvation “through sanctification?” I noticed that the Greek word translated as “through” is “ἐν”. I’m not sure if that indicates the word doesn’t mean “through” as in “by means of” or instrumentally.

    I’m thinking it means sanctification is part of salvation and that Paul isn’t talking about how a person is saved. That he’s describing the process. But I’m having trouble finding an explanation of this verse.

    • Justin,

      If you understand sanctification (hagiasmos) as being “set apart” and that the word in the Greek actually means “set apart for a specific purpose” then you begin to get a sense of what Paul is saying in 2 Thessalonians 2:13. Often the word sanctification is deemed to mean “made or make holy” (depending on the tense of the verb) which adds clarity to the specific purpose, that we are set apart…..to be made holy. So paraphrasing Paul we see his meaning as: God has chosen us from the beginning for salvation by setting us apart and making us holy by the Spirit and belief in the truth. Being declared righteous (justification) is different than being made righteous (sanctification). I hope this helps.

    • Jerry, thanks, that’s very interesting. I wonder how we can tell when the word is talking about the inward process and when it’s talking about being set apart.

      I wonder if the whole of salvation is in view here and that we are saved “through” sanctification in that being sanctified is part of being saved.

      Dr. Clark wrote about the passage in 1 Peter 3 where Noah was “saved through water.” He described it as co-incident and and wrote: “…that they were in the water and it was in the midst of the water and from the water that the Lord saved them. He used the ark to save them. Christ is the ark.”

      In contexts he was talking about good works. But maybe with sanctification, which produces good works, it’s something similar.

    • Justin,

      I don’t think we can say that we are “saved through sanctification.” It would be more accurate to say that we are sanctified as a result of our justification. While the doctrines of justification and sanctification are distinct, they are not inseparable…..God never justifies without also sanctifying. That’s why we can say that our good works (which rise out of a sanctified spirit) are the proof of our salvation (justification), not the cause of it. This is where those holding to the FV err……they insist on making sanctification part of salvation rather than evidence of it. Whenever you see the words sanctified or consecrated ask yourself “from what, or to what, or for what?” It usually adds much understanding to the passage.

      Sanctification is both an inward and outward process……we are not so much separated from anything as we are separated TO Christ. Remember it’s not simply set apart, but rather set apart for a purpose. The purpose for which we are set apart is “to be made holy.” Our holiness naturally results in good works, or fruit.

      Finally Noah was brought safely through water, but don’t forget Hebrews 11:7, “by faith Noah…..” Salvation is always by faith, that marvelous God given gift provided completely out of His loving grace. To God be the glory!

  4. Justin, we are saved to do good works, so that God might be glorified and praised by those who see our good behaviour. Good works are fruit, an expression of thankfulness and love to God for this great, undeserved salvation. If they are instrumental for our salvation, and our final salvation depends on the evidence of our works, then we are ultimately saved by works and not grace. How many works are enough? How good do they need to be? The believer is regenerated by the indwelling Holy Spirit who is sanctifying him and gradually conforming him to the image of Christ. Good works are the fruit and evidence that this is happening, we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, but we only make a small beginning in this life and our works will never be perfect until we are resurrected in glory. All the glory to God is due for our salvation. He alone is our saviour and our sanctifier. When we add our good works as instrument in salvation, we make ourselves our ultimate saviour, if final judgment in based on the evidence of our works, and we rob God of His glory. The verse cannot mean, through as sanctification being instrumental in salvation. Scripture does not contradict scripture! The whole message of scripture is salvation be grace alone, through faith alone and in Christ alone. No room for works as instrumental for salvation!

    • Angela, I definitely agree. It’s the teaching of Scripture that works are the proof of faith and the path we walk along. I’m just wondering how this verse is to be interpreted.

      I’ve seen some say it’s talking about the Spirit regenerating us. To me it seems that it means salvation is through sanctification, not instrumentally, but insofar as it occurs. Saved people are sanctified. It’s part of being saved. And maybe what lends to this interpretation is that he’s not describing how to be saved, but what happens in salvation.

      The word “through” is throwing me off a bit though and it doesn’t seem to be the usual Greek word for through. The NASB says it’s “literally ‘in’” but sometimes when they say that, it doesn’t mean it should be translated that way.

  5. Justin, One of the cardinal principles of biblical interpretation is that scripture does not contradict scripture. If you are struggling with an interpretation that does not line up with the rest of scripture, that interpretation is most probably wrong.

    • It’s not that I believe in final justification, or that works are more than fruit or that they’re conditions. I take scripture as a whole and know that we are saved by faith alone. But I would like to understand this verse more fully.

      It’s like when someone presents a false doctrine and you know it’s false, they might have some verses that you know aren’t saying what the proponents are using them for, but you can’t quite answer them as well as you’d like. But when you hear an sound, biblical explanation, it settles with you and has that familiar ring of truth. And you’re equipped to handle other passages that come up, and can help others who’ve had similar questions because you’ve wrestled through it. It’s one thing to know a passage isn’t teaching something because of what other passages say elsewhere, it’s another thing to understand from the passage itself what it IS saying. It’s all taken as a whole though and shouldn’t be separated.

    • Thanks Dr. Clark. The resources have helped me over the past weeks to understand it more, and it’s been great to see what men like Turretin and Witsius said about it, and your explanations of what they said were helpful.

  6. Jerry, you are right, John Piper is perfectly orthodox on justification, it’s just when he gets to salvation that he goes off the rails. Check out an article on Desiring God called, Hope as a Motive For Love where he explains I Peter 3:9 “Do not return evil or reviling for reviling” Piper asks, “what does this refer to? The preceding behaviour of love? Or the following eschatological blessing? The answer one gives to this question significantly reflects how one conceives of the ‘motivation’ to love in I Peter. I will argue that ‘this’ refers to behaviour and that therefore the motivation is given here is that by so behaving one inherits the eschatalogical blessing of salvation. Loving behaviour is in some sense a condition of gaining salvation”. He can be both correct by an orthodox doctrine of justification only to deny that salvation is by grace, through faith alone, and so he makes our works a condition of eschatological or final salvation.

    • Except that when he says “justification” he means (and says sometimes) “initial justification.” That’s not perfectly orthodox.

      Any doctrine of two-stage justification should set off alarm bells.

  7. Justin, according to R. C. Sproul in the Reformation Bible, “God chose them ‘through’ sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth not ‘because of” these actions. Thus God’s pretemporal election to salvation is carried out by His Spirit setting apart (a literal rendering of ‘sanctification’) the hearts of people from the old world to the new world. This gracious act on God’s part results in their ‘belief in the truth’ and works itself out in their lives. According to Paul the elect will not continue to live in a godless fashion after they are converted.” I think this confirms what we have been taught in Dr. Clark’s articles, we do good works because we are being sanctified by the Spirit. We are being sanctified because God chose us, and regenerated us by the Spirit. He is gradually conforming us to the image of Christ. That will be evident in the behaviour of the believer. It is a process that will be complete when we are resurrected in glory. This is happening because God has set us aside for his glory. It is not something we do as a condition of acceptance with God at the final judgment. The whole process is the working out of God’s gracious election. God’s purpose is accomplished through His regenerating us and sanctifying us by His Spirit. If this is true of us we will do good works because we are right with God, not in order to pass final judgment. We are His workmanship and He uses the process of regeneration and sactification to conform us to the image of Christ. If this is true of us, our good works will demonstrate our love to God and our desire to please Him by obeying Him. That is the plan of God that is being accomplished in the believer’s life through the work of the Holy Spirit.

    • Thanks for looking that up and typing it out. I have that study bible too and looked it up, but it’s been a while since I looked. That note and John Gill’s commentary help me to see that it’s not describing what a person does to be saved, but describing the whole of salvation including election.

      I’ve been scouring commentaries to get insight. Calvin mentions that sanctification is mentioned because Paul is introducing the “nearer tokens which manifest to us what is in its own nature incomprehensible, and are conjoined with it by an indissoluble tie.”

      An interesting note is that R.C. Sproul served as the General Editor of the Reformation Study Bible, but didn’t write the commentary, although he did write the Theological Notes (if you’ve seen them, they’re like articles). He says he uses it and really benefits from it. I had the original version when it was called the New Geneva Study Bible.

  8. It has been the aim of Norman Shepherd and his followers in the Federal Vision to get Evangelicals to embrace a Reformed Doctrine of Justification by Works through the teaching of an initial justification by faith alone but a final justification through faith and works. There is no fuzz on this:

    ” [T]his double justification doctrine (initial justification by faith alone, followed by a second justification according to works in the eschatological judgment) is re-emerging as a “consensus position” among today’s leading evangelical and Reformed biblical theologians.” (P. Andrew Sandlin & John Barach, eds., Obedient Faith: A Festschrift for Norman Shepherd (Mount Hermon, California: Kerygma Press, 2012), Lusk, Rich, The Reformed Doctrine of Justification by Works: Historical Survey and Emerging Consensus (2))

    Let’s not tap dance around the issue: Piper is teaching Shepherd’s initial justification by faith alone, followed by a second justification according to works. 40 years ago Evangelicals knew it was heresy. Today, the Evangelical response is largely, “Meh. Piper means well.”

    There is a movement to embrace this. That movement ought to be resisted.

    Tim Kauffman

    • –“40 years ago Evangelicals knew it was heresy. Today, the Evangelical response is largely, “Meh. Piper means well.”

      Ding Ding Ding!!! This is indeed exactly right. I have been in and around this in every Reformed circle I have ever been in since coming to Reformed theology more than 20 years ago. I have respectfully contended with this among Reformed Elders and leaders who are on the wrong side of the issue over the years. I think it has gotten worse and I’m of the mind that functionally the majority of Reformed churches and leaders are “In by faith, stay in by works” in their theology and practice.

    • That being said (and I am pretty sure Dr. Clark would agree) while FV and lordship salvation are bunk—— Someone who lives a consistent and persistent life of deliberate unrepentance , deceit ,etc. Yet claim Christ, such have no credible profession of faith. No one is denying the need for fruit on this side of this debate.

      The problem with John Piper/ Neonomian types is they fancy themselves the “sanctification police” and the “fruit inspectors” and they’re going to let you know exactly what your fruit should look like so that you don’t …….”waste your life”…..

  9. Tim, thank you for this, it is deeply concerning that this is happening. It is nothing short of a denial of the precious truths that the Reformation recovered, and a return to the dark ages of medieval theology. I find it very sad that there are so many Reformed, and evangelical leaders who surely understand the errors that Piper and other nomists are teaching, but they lack the courage to speak out against them. They would rather ignore this attack on the gospel, than risk getting involved in controversy. I just don’t know what to think of so called pastors and leaders who can wink at error as long as they can continue to enjoy their positions of power in God’s church, without too much trouble.

    • Jacques,

      YES!

      1. Scripture does not teach a “two-stage” doctrine of justification.
      2. We do not confess a “two-stage” doctrine of justification.
      3. Any such doctrine necessarily marginalizes the once-for-all accomplishment of justification by Christ.
      4. Historically, the roots of the “two-stage” approach are Roman, not Protestant.
      5. We have ways of talking about justification and vindication.

  10. Jacques, if you have not already done so, see Dr. Clark’s post, One of the Root Causes of the Current Justification Controversy and the link provided under comments. The articles in the link explain, in very helpful detail, the difference between true Reformed teaching on justification and salvation, and that of Piper and the other neonomians. This current post is from Nov. 8th.

  11. Two warnings for all believers:

    1. Be very wary of those who do not subscribe to an historical confession of faith.

    2. Operate outside the bounds of ecclesiastical accountability.

    Without exception , all cults and heresies originate in this vacuum.

    • Not a bad two points of warning. Ultimately Recognizing that our Supreme rule of faith is scripture, be also wary of any leader who does not recognize themselves that their authority begins and ends with scripture. They are not allowed to excercise or bind conscience where God has made men free or where items are otherwise not clear exegetically from text of Scripture. Leaders error, councils error, synods error, yes even great confessions can error. I am always wary of leaders who beat their chest about “authority” and am more impressed with leaders who talk about the source of their authority, puting said focus there and on Christ.

      All the more reason why the 5 solas of the Reformation were indeed a very healthy correction and more than just slogans. Also why it is interesting, in fact very telling when folks downplay the 5 Solas. Which Piper types indeed do just that.

    • Michael, the problem here is that this debate extends into denominations in which office bearers have subscribed to a very fine historical confession of faith – which makes me, as an outsider, wonder what the benefit of that system of subscription might be. It’s a time for regret and remorse for all of us who have benefitted from these confessions of faith.

  12. Works salvationists are glory robbers. They are guilty of a very serious sin against the God who declares; “I will not give My glory to another.”

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