In a post dated March 2, 2018 one of the principal leaders of the self-described “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement, John Piper, restates his view that there are two-stages of salvation, that our initial justification is by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ but that there is yet another stage, a final stage of salvation and to reach that stage faith is not enough. He argues that salvation and justification are distinct, that they should not be confused because salvation refers to a process but justification does not. Further, he reminds us that the Westminster Confession 11.2 says,
2. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.
He quite rightly notes that the Confession alludes here to Galatians 5:6 and further that James 2:17 requires good works of believers, that such good works are necessary and that “without holiness” no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). He says that “[o]bedience and love are the necessary confirmations” of true faith and union with Christ. He concludes his summary by saying, “We are not justified through sanctification….But we are finally saved through sanctification.”
He rejects the inference that his formulation has made salvation contingent upon our obedience and thus destroyed assurance of faith. For Piper, because God is sovereignly working sanctification in us, because he is the “decisive worker,” we should speak of it as the instrument of final salvation. Our assurance, he concludes rests “on God’s past work by Christ” and “his future work by the Spirit in us.”
This is better than some things that he has written on this topic but his formulations remain problematic. I have addressed this topic at length and repeatedly and thus will not repeat all that material in this response but here is a resource page.
The first remaining problem is the tw0-stage structure of his soteriology (doctrine of salvation). He is right to say that salvation is a process but his doctrine of “future grace” or future salvation “through sanctification” is mistaken. One notes that he does not engage Ephesians 2:8–10. On this see the resource page. His doctrine of future salvation through sanctification cannot be squared with Ephesians 2. Further, it is at odds with the paradigmatic biblical image of salvation: the salvation of God’s helpless and hopeless people from Egypt. There were not two stages of salvation at the Red Sea—in Belgic Confession art. 34 the Reformed confess that the “Son of God is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan.”
The Scriptures simply do not support the inference that there are two stages of salvation and that our putative “future salvation” is contingent upon sanctification. Saying that our future sanctification is “decisively” wrought by God does not alleviate the problem. The whole construct rests on the premise that so long as we assert divine sovereignty we may say, more or less, whatever we please. This is the theological corollary of the “God-of-the-gaps” science or occasionalism. We explain what we can and what we cannot we attribute to God. In his reliance on a “two-stage” construct we see the lingering influence of Daniel Fuller and in this sort of appeal to divine sovereignty we may see the influence of Jonathan Edwards. In any event, it remains unhelpful.
Any doctrine of a “two-stage” salvation necessarily negates his affirmation of justification (in this life) sola gratia, Sola fide. It means that we only initially justified by grace alone, through faith alone, but ultimately, finally, saved “through sanctification.” This approach makes Christ, in the words of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, but half a Savior. It reduces him to a facilitator of salvation. He has not actually accomplished and applied it. We know this to be the case from the Piper’s own language:
God’s verdict of not guilty and his imputing of his own righteousness to us at the beginning of the Christian life is by faith alone… that’s how we get started. James is answering the question ‘does the ongoing and final reckoning of Abraham’s righteousness depend on works as the necessary evidence of true and living faith?’ James’ answer to that question is ‘Yes.’ And Paul’s answer is also ‘Yes.’ Gen 15:6. If you ask them, ‘Does justification as an ongoing and final right standing with God depend on the works of love?’ …So when Paul renounces ‘justification by works’ he renounces the view that anything we do along with faith is credited to us as righteousness. Only faith obtains the verdict, ‘not guilty,’ when we become Christians. Works are not acceptable in the moment of initial justification. But when James affirms ‘justification by works’ he means that works are absolutely necessary in the ongoing life of a Christian to confirm and prove the reality of the faith which justifies..…For James, ‘justification by works’ means “maintaining a right standing with God by faith along with the necessary evidence of faith, namely the works of love.
This was his language in 1999.
His latest relies on his earlier tw0-stage doctrine of justification, it makes the same use of James. It is, with slightly modified rhetoric, the same doctrine.
Second, we should agree that justification and salvation are distinct. Salvation is broader. It includes justification and sanctification. Justification is accomplished for us us and sanctification is wrought in us and this distinction is vital to understanding the Scripture. It was at the heart of the Reformation. Nevertheless, salvation and justification are inseparable and the difference between them is not as great as his argument suggests. See the resource page for the essay addressing this point but suffice it to say here that our sanctification is the fruit of our justification and it too is the “work of God’s free grace” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 35).
Third, the confusion engendered by his doctrine of future salvation through sanctification—one notes that he did not use the phrase “through good works” in this latest post as he has in the past—would be reduced if he also adopted the historic Protestant way of speaking about good works as the necessary fruit and evidence of salvation. As R. C. Sproul asked of Norman Shepherd, “What’s the matter with the traditional view that good works are necessary for sanctification or are necessary as evidence of authentic faith?” This latest post seems to be moving in this direction but the language of final salvation “through sanctification” is too close to the medieval doctrine of “faith formed by love.” Because we have been saved, the love of God has been “poured forth” into our hearts (Rom 5:5) and therefore we love one another because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). It is not love or sanctification or good works that makes faith powerful. It is Christ, the object of true faith. The same sovereign Holy Spirit who gave us new life and true faith, and who through that faith has united us to the risen Christ, is at work in us. He is sanctifying us. It is also true, however, that he has already saved us and justified us. He is saving us—Piper is right about that—and he shall save us. We serve because we are saved we do not serve, we do not obey, in order to be saved.
This last point gets at a fundamental problem in Piper’s revisions of Reformed theology. As Daniel Fuller’s student, he categorically rejects the covenant of works. Historically, what has happened in such cases is that the works principle (the covenant of works) sneaks back in. The notion that we must be sufficiently sanctified to be saved in future turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. The turn to divine sovereignty as “decisive” is an attempt to mitigate the problem but it does not eliminate the problem. It does not seem that there is a clear distinction between sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace” with good works being the fruit thereof and good works themselves as the product of human cooperation with grace. In other words, in Piper’s soteriology, we must still do our part to be saved. The medievals taught the same thing. Aquinas taught prevenient divine grace and divine sovereignty just as strongly as Piper. Divine sovereignty is not enough.
Finally, any doctrine of initial and final justification and initial and final salvation is a smoldering cigarette on the couch of Protestant theology. He seeks to ease the burdened conscience and to encourage assurance not by pointing to Christ’s accomplished of salvation but to the future completion of it in us but this is not the Reformed approach to assurance. According to the Reformed, our only comfort in life and in death is not that I shall be finally saved through sanctification but rather:
That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, 10 and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
We confess that we belong to Jesus now. We belong to Jesus utterly because he has purchased us. There is nothing provisional about it. The Heidelberg Catechism knows nothing of two stages in justification or salvation because there is only one stage. We shall be preserved because we have already been redeemed. The ground of my assurance is not a “future salvation” but its past accomplishment and present promise that the same God who has begun a good work in me will bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). Yes, Piper affirms Philippians 1:6 too, but in the context of a “two-stage” doctrine of justification and salvation it takes on a different sense.
Piper’s view is not far from the ne0-Augustinianism one finds in various late-medieval theologians but as much as the Reformers appreciated and learned from the neo-Augustinians, they were not satisfied with that approach. Piper’s use of divine sovereignty combined with his doctrine of final justification and salvation through sanctification is good evidence for re-naming the YR&R movement, the Young, Restless, and Augustinian. In the February 26, 2018 essay, “No Love Lost: How Catholics (And Some Protestants) Go Wrong On Good Works” he makes clear his discomfort with the confessional Reformed doctrine of guilt, grace, and gratitude. His substitute is the neo-Edwardsean doctrine of “Christian Hedonism,” which proposed substitution is fraught with too many problems to address here.