Piper’s Rejection Of The Gratitude Ethic Is A Rejection Of The Reformation

The magisterial Protestant Churches, i.e., the Lutherans and the Reformed, agreed that salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification) is by divine favor alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. These convictions were essential to the Reformation but those convictions have been undermined and under assault in contemporary evangelical and Reformed circles for more than 40 years. In the Presbyterian and Reformed world, from 1974–81, Norman Shepherd publicly and unequivocally rejected justification sola fide while teaching at a confessional Presbyterian seminary. Remarkably, it took the school about 7 years to decide that rejection was beyond the boundary of the Westminster Standards. In the same period a post-Dispensationalist Daniel Fuller was rejecting Reformation basics in his seminary.

The Reformation Romans Road

By contrast, the Reformation churches agreed that good works are the necessary fruit and evidence of true faith, by which Christians demonstrate their new life and true faith out of gratitude to God for his free favor to us sinners in Christ. This was the Protestant consensus on  James 2, that he was saying that one’s claim to faith is demonstrated, and in that sense justified, by good works. The Protestants read the Book of Romans to be in three parts: Guilt (1:18–3:20), Grace (3:21–11:36), and Gratitude (12:1–16:27). This was the product of their shared commitment to the theological and hermeneutical distinction between two kinds of words in Scripture: law and gospel.

In the first part of Romans the Apostle Paul preached the law, thereby convicting us all of our sin and desperate need for a righteous substitute and Savior because it is from the law (in its pedagogical use) we learn the greatness of our sin and misery.

The middle core of the book is the proclamation of the good news that God the Son became incarnate to obey in place of his people, to die as their substitute, that sinners are right with God not on the basis of their performance but on the basis of Christ’s obedience for them, which is imputed to them and received through faith (knowledge, assent, and heartfelt trust) alone. In the gospel we hear the glorious message of free salvation (justification, sanctification, glorification) of the elect through faith alone. That gospel, of course, has consequences for believers and we see that in Romans chapters 6 and 8. As soon has Paul has announced in chapters 3–5 all that Christ has done for us he announces what Christ is doing in us by his Holy Spirit, by virtue of our union with him. Definitive, once-for-all justification produces progressive, gracious sanctification in the believer. In between (chapter 7) Paul addressed the struggle of the Christian life, the mortification of sin, which drives him back to the gospel in 8:1 and the blessed promises attached to the gospel for the Christian and the church in chapters 8–11. Our salvation is certain (chapter 9). The salvation of all the elect, both Jewish and Gentile Christians is certain (chapters 10–11).

In the last third of the book Paul picks up on themes that he had begun in chapters 6 and 8 and works them out in his doctrine of the Christian life, how we live in light of what is true of us, in union with Christ, in light of the gospel, according to the revealed moral will of God.

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) imitates this pattern. In it the Reformed Churches confess that the Christian must know three things in order to live and die blessedly:

…the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) was the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism and its authorized expositor. On gratitude he explained, “[g]ratitude is…the principal end, and design of our deliverance.” 1 We study the doctrine of gratitude “[o]n account of the glory of God, inasmuch as the chief end of our redemption is thankfulness, which comprehends acknowledgement and praise for the benefits of Christ.2 Given Piper’s characterization of gratitude (see below) it is important for us to understand what the Reformed understand by gratitude:

True Christian thankfulness, therefore, which is here taught, is an acknowledgement and profession of our gracious deliverance, through Christ, from sin and death, and a sincere desire to avoid sin, and every thing that might offend God, and to conform the life according to his will; to desire, expect, and receive all good things from God alone, by a true faith, and to render thanks for the benefits received.3

The Lutherans, who were highly critical of the Reformed theology and piety on several fronts said the same thing. The Epitome of the Lutheran Formula of Concord (1577) says:

For especially in these last times it is no less needful to admonish men to Christian discipline [to the way of living aright and godly] and good works, and remind them how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as a declaration of their faith and gratitude to God, than that the works be not mingled in the article of justification; because men may be damned by an Epicurean delusion concerning faith, as well as by papistic and Pharisaic confidence in their own works and merits.4

Evangelicals like Piper and Fuller, however, are not particularly connected or indebted to the Reformation. They borrow eclectically but are not shaped by it nor do they share the concerns of the Reformation.

Piper’s Program

John Piper was deeply influenced by Fuller’s reconstruction of Protestant theology and that influence is evident throughout Future Grace (1995). Both are  sincerely convinced that the Reformation was fundamentally misguided. In place of the Reformation understanding of the Christian life and obedience flowing from gratitude, in conformity to the revealed will of God, Piper posits “future grace” (i.e., final salvation through Spirit-wrought works) and his so-called “Christian Hedonism” instead.

He began to make his dissatisfaction with the Reformation program clear in 1983 when he defined gratitude thus:

Definition: gratitude is a species of joy which arises in our heart in response to the good will of someone who does (or tries to do) us a favor. We do not respond with gratitude to a person if they accidentally do us a favor. Nor do we respond with gratitude if they do us a favor with mercenary ulterior motives. On the other hand, we do respond with gratitude to a person who tries to do us a favor but is hindered by circumstances beyond his control—say, he sacrifices his life to bring us medicine in the jungle but it turns out not to heal. We still feel gratitude toward him. Therefore gratitude is not merely the response of joy to a benefit received. It has special reference to the good will of another person. A person whose joy centers only on a gift received with no sense of joy in the good will of the giver, we call an ingrate. So gratitude is a species of joy which arises in response to the good will of someone who does (or tries to do) us a favor.

What he says here is not entirely wrong but it is confused by his neo-Edwardsean turn to affections by making gratitude a sub-species of joy. Here we see the beginnings of his “Christian Hedonism” project peeking through. This project says “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” In Reformed terms, Piper has redefined Christianity as an essentially conditional relationship, i.e., a covenant of works and called it grace.

That same year he criticized “the error of the gratitude ethic,” which he construes as, again, a sort of covenant of works in which the Christian says to himself, as Piper has it: “God has done so much for me that I will devote my life to paying back my debt, even though I know I will never be able to completely.” He complains that such turns God’s grace into “a loan to be repaid or as advance wages to be earned.” It puts the Christian into the “position of a debtor instead of a son,” which, he says, “is slavery.” He acknowledges that “true gratitude is, indeed, a sense of joyful indebtedness” but [g]enuine gratitude is not the feeling of having to pay back.” He objects that it diminishes the cross of Christ and that “it tends to think of God’s work for us as only in the past,” which “overlooks the fact that God’s work for us is past, present, and future, and it is not only work for us but in us.”

By 2007, however, his criticism of the “gratitude ethic” became more pointed. In a seminar explaining Future Grace (and a more recent book elaborating on the same themes) he argued, “[n]owhere in the Bible is gratitude connected explicitly with obedience as a motivation. We do not find the phrase “out of gratitude” or “in gratitude” for acts toward God.” Christian obedience, he argues, “is called the “work of faith,” never of the”work of gratitude” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11).” He contrasts “live by faith” (Gal 2:20) and “walk by faith” (2 Cor 5:7) with the “live by gratitude” or “walk by gratitude,” which he says do not occur in Scripture. He makes the same contrast with Galatians 5:6, “faith working through love” not “gratitude working through love” and James 2:26 which says “faith without  works is dead” not that “gratitude without works is dead.” He repeats the objections he had made to the “debtor’s ethic” in the early 80s and re-stated his “future grace” agenda: “Thinking of obedience as empowered by gratitude directs our attention backward to bygone grace rather than forward to future grace. In this way the debtor’s ethic tends to divert us from the wealth of grace yet to be known and distracts us from the very power of obedience we need — future grace. You can’t run your car on gratitude for yesterday’s gas.”

A Reformation Response

Had the Protestants ever taught the caricature of gratitude that Piper draws his objections would have some merit but they did not.

His strongest argument is his contrast between gratitude and faith but that objection fails when we consider the Scriptures in context. Is it true that “nowhere in the Bible is gratitude connected explicitly with obedience as a motivation”? Is it true that, in Scripture, faith is one thing and thankfulness another? Did the Protestant Churches simply make up an ethic out of whole cloth and completely misunderstand the Bible on the motive for the Christian life? In a word: no.

The prologue to the Ten Commandments is paradigmatic for the way Christians are to think about their lives as redeemed people: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2). On Piper’s scheme, that was a backward looking ethic. Believers are to reckon who they are and how they are to live in light of what God has sovereignly, graciously, and freely done for them. The prologue to the Decalogue is a gospel word, a reminder of their magnificent deliverance. Of course the prologue was merely re-stating what the Lord had been saying right along. The Israelites were saved out of Egypt that they might worship him (4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3 et passim).

Worship is the chief act of gratitude. This is what the Reformed Churches say in Heidelberg Catechism 116:

116. Why is prayer necessary for Christians?

Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them.

Remember, Paul connects gratitude (εὐχαριστίᾳ and εὐχαριστεῖς) with public worship so as to make them interchangeable in 1 Corinthians 14:16–17 (and makes a pun of them in v. 18 with εὐχαριστῶ. In Ephesians 5:4 Paul contrasts sin with gratitude and implicitly grounds our obedience explicitly in it: “and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather gratitude” (εὐχαριστία). He ground our obedience specifically in gratitude in Colossians 2:6–7:

Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude (ἐν εὐχαριστίᾳ; NASB 1995).

The writer to the Hebrews was just as plain:

Therefore let us be grateful (ἔχωμεν χάριν) for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

More fundamentally, however, Piper has misunderstood what gratitude is: the thankful response of the heart of the sinner saved (justified, sanctified, and expecting glorification) by grace alone, through faith alone. This is how Paul teaches us to think in Ephesians 2:8–10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves. It is the gift of God—not from works!—so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works which God foreordained for us that we might walk in them.

This is the structure of Paul’s ethic. This is nothing if not a gratitude ethic. We are a people saved by grace. We do not seek to repay God as debtors—as though we were trying to put ourselves on a works footing; it is by grace!—but we seek to respond to God appropriately, has he as ordained, with hearts overflowing with thanks and praise. This is a backward looking ethic just as it was for the church under Moses.

We “have been saved.” We are not out on bail, on a provisional, initial justification awaiting a final salvation through works. We have been declared righteous. We have been justified by faith. Therefore we have peace with God (Rom 5:1). There is now, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). There is nothing provisional about those words.

What the Reformation Churches anticipate is not a final justification or salvation through works (even those done in us by the Spirit) but a gracious reception by God solely on the basis of Christ’s work for us and a vindication. As we say in the Heidelberg Catechism:

52. What comfort is it to you, that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, I look for the very same one, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven, who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.

The one who is coming is the one who already came, who already accomplished my salvation, who receives me sola gratia, sola fide now and will receive me the same way then.

Dear Reader, you have a choice to make: you can either follow Piper’s novel, neo-Edwardsean rejection of the Reformation (guilt, grace, and gratitude) or you can be a Reformation Christian but you cannot be both. Piper’s scheme will not let you.5




1. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard  (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 22.

2. Ursinus, Commentary, 464.

3. Ursinus, Commentary, 464.

4. Epitome of the Formula of Concord (1580), 4.18

5. HT to Nick Visel, whose tweets gave me the idea for this post.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Thank you for this article. It amazes me how many people follow personalities today without truly evaluating their doctrine.

  2. I like John Piper, and am thankful (no pun intended) for the many good things he has taught through the years, many of which I have been a direct beneficiary—living to glorify God and enjoy him forever (as WSC puts it), confessing the hard but God-glorifying doctrines of grace (including double predestination), and seeing the importance of missions for the church today. Did I need John Piper for any of this—no, of course not. These are simply things the Church has taught throughout the centuries; Piper just helped repopularize it among the younger generation outside confessionally Reformed churches back in the early 2000’s and continues to in the present day. That is all good.

    However, as indebted and grateful (again no pun intended) as I am to John Piper for all the good teaching he has taught so well and passionately, I’m getting increasingly concerned with some of the accusations made against him by some within the P&R community, concerned because the accusations seem to have merit. I don’t quite understand Piper’s motivation to promote a future justification by Spirit-wrought works, but it concerns because it tinkers with justification by faith alone. Likewise, Piper’s downplaying of gratitude as fuel for obedience is also head-scratching, as it tinkers with sanctification. I looked through the 2007 seminar referenced in the post, and, in context, it reads as if Piper is scared to look back to the cross and the blessing of our salvation and all it encompasses (justification, sanctification, and future glorification (Rom 8:30)) for gratitude-fueled obedience to God—all because it supposedly undermines God’s future grace in the believer’s life which he is to lay hold of by faith. If I’m reading Piper right, past grace plays almost no role in the Christian life other than in conversion, after that, it takes a backseat to the future grace God promises for the believer in his day-by-day battle against sin, which will one day culminate in glorification (which Piper ties with a so-called future justification by Spirit-wrought works). I say “backseat” because Piper does mention Ephesians 4:32 as a “crucial consideration of bygone grace.” Nevertheless, if I’m reading Piper right, then this too is bad.

    So while I’m deeply thankful to God for the good teaching that Piper has taught me over the years, I’m also discouraged by what is coming to light about his views on justification and its relationship to sanctification. I hope and pray that Piper’s views on this, if as off base as it appears, fall more in line with the historic teaching of Church on these two vital doctrines—especially as he continues to have such a broad appeal among evangelicals.

    Thank you for shedding some more light on this, Dr. Clark.

  3. To live by faith is to live by gratitude:

    20 “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:20 NKJ)

    Paul constantly looks back to the Cross to live in the present evil age:
    4 who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, (Gal 1:4 NKJ)

    And we are to give our bodies as a living sacrifice in light of the mercies (Justification and sacntification and promise of glorification) which God has bestowed on us

    NKJ Romans 12:1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. (Rom 12:1 NKJ)

    It seems to me that Piper makes much of his idiosyncratic interpretation with little regard to the way the church has read the scriptures.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Absolutely agree this has always been a puzzling, idiosyncratic, and unnecessary part of Piper’s theology, and he holds it to with a strange amount of zeal. I have even had a Piper-following parishioner tell me that I preached too much about gratitude. Weird.

    What is the recent Piper book you reference in the final paragraph of the “Piper’s Program” section?

    Thanks, Chris H.

  5. Qui fingit nova verba, nova gignit dogmata, “he that coins new words, coins new doctrines.”

    Piper in attempting to fix what he sees as problem, seems to be shifting definitions and coining new words that are unsystematic and untested and creating newish doctrines.

    • Shane,

      I think that’s right. Like Fuller, he’s identified antinomian versions of Dispensationalism with the Reformation, misconstrued the Reformation, and, in this case, rejected its ethic.

  6. As someone who is almost entirely surrounded by Baptists who believe they are reformed, this obfuscation of the truth is very frustrating. Those close to me have quickly recognized that Piper’s points on this should be rejected, but his popularity makes it difficult for others to see this flaw. His insistence on calling himself reformed while rejected significant portions of Reformed theology is VERY confusing, especially when someone already views scripture with dispensational presumptions.

  7. Though I don’t see any historical connection between the two, I was struck to see similar language used by Bishop George Henry Law in his Charge Delivered to the Clergy in the Diocese of Chester in 1820: “Every hope, therefore, should be built on faith in Christ Jesus, and him crucified. No other foundation can any man lay save that which is laid, namely, Jesus Christ our Saviour. We are brought into a salvable state solely through his redeeming love; though we must afterwards work out that salvation with fear and trembling. The atoning sacrifice, offered up for the sins of the world, was independent of every thing which man has done, or could do. Our justification is of grace alone, through faith: our final salvation will be of faith and works.” (p. 4). (https://books.google.com/books?id=lFqLXbNC-u8C&pg=PP1&lpg=PP1&dq=Charge+delivered+to+the+diocese+of+Chester+in+1820&source=bl&ots=rz6ziPWg5U&sig=ACfU3U3_wUCepn2gjqb_aGzNpf_3UTVKgQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwil0qGPv9HpAhXhUd8KHV5kDakQ6AEwAHoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=Charge%20delivered%20to%20the%20diocese%20of%20Chester%20in%201820&f=false)

  8. Dr. Clark, thanks for commenting on this. Years ago I started to read “Future Grace,” and was shocked by his definition of gratitude as a ‘debtor’s ethic.’ I realized that he was repudiating the Heidelberg Catechism, if not confessional Reformed Theology as a whole, in some sense. As I recall, he hammered that point so much that I didn’t care to finish the book – and I often read books by people whom I disagree with, but I was so confused because Piper was ‘supposed’ to be ‘Reformed’ in some broad sense. So few people talk about this – thank you for shedding light on it!

Comments are closed.