Piper’s Sea Shell Sermon Illustrates How Far The YRR Movement Was From The Reformation

So I am listening to the latest episode in the Christianity Today podcast series, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Like the others it is illuminating, compelling, and frustrating simultaneously. For one thing, the ad for CT urges me to support CT as a “global movement to lift up the story tellers and sages of the church” is symbolic of the hubris of the neo-evangelical movement inaugurated by Carl Henry et al. Who anointed a magazine as a “movement” or as the arbiters of who are the “story tellers and sages of the church”? To what church do they refer? The Presbyterian Church? The Baptist Church? The Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church? To be sure I do not think that Carl Henry thought of Christianity Today as a movement and I doubt that he thought of it as a way to “lift up the story tellers and sages of the church.” I know about apostles, prophets, pastors, elders, deacons, evangelists and teachers as church offices mentioned in the New Testament but I do not remember reading anything about story tellers and sages.

Just past the halfway mark the episode plays clips from John Piper’s famous “Sea Shell” sermon. Evangelicals flocked to Driscoll and Piper, in part, because those preachers told them exactly what God wanted them to do with every moment of their lives. The control that people ceded to Piper, Driscoll, MacDonald et al. over their lives was an abdication of the Reformation doctrine of Christian liberty.

Piper is entitled to his opinion about when you should retire and what you should do with those years. He is not entitled to bind your conscience and say, “Thus says the Lord” about what you should do with your retirement. The preacher does not have that authority. Should we be critical of American materialism? Certainly but when I stand before God I will not be presenting to him the last thing I did with my life. I will be presenting to him the last thing Jesus did with his life for me. If you think that Piper’s doctrine of final salvation through works does not have practical implications you are not listening carefully enough. His doctrine of final salvation through works gives him the leverage he needs to tell you what you must do with your retirement. Driscoll was going to take back and transform Seattle so he got to tell the Gen-Xers who followed him when to marry and who could work and not work and how many children to have.

Piper’s doctrine of final salvation through works is not the gospel and it is most certainly not a Reformation doctrine and it underpins the sort of control that he, MacDonald, Driscoll, et al. in the YRR movement sought (and seek) to exercise over Christian laity. If the Reformation doctrine of Christian liberty is new to you, welcome. It was a great deliverance from the tyrannical control exercised by the clergy over the daily lives of medieval Christians. It went hand in glove with the Reformation recovery of the salvation by grace alone, through faith alone and the Scripture as the alone final standard for the Christian faith and the Christian life.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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24 comments

  1. Something that always perturbs me about Piper is his habit of simply parroting well worn axioms of evangelicalism as if they were his own. The seashell thing is one of these. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Seminary spoke and wrote much on using the retirement years in some kind of Christian service. Not a bad idea but not Pipers. He did the same with the “you’re a sender or you are sent.” How many messages did I hear on this subject growing up? In college this was a huge theme among the southern Baptists. Then the final coup: his book Let The Nations Rejoice. It’s there that he tells the church that overseas missions can only be based on ethnic groups as per Matthew 28:19 and the Greek word “ethnoi.” I can’t tell you how many groups and churches completely changed their policies on the basis of this alone. They are welcomed to do that but this is an inflexible understanding of the church’s mandate to make disciples. Piper presents this as a new insight. Every message I’ve ever heard on the Great Commission makes the same point.

    • Thank you for your ministry and for this article. This is the first critique I’ve heard of Pipers shell story. As I’m moving away from the YRR group and growing in my understanding of reformed theology, I’ve been wondering about this – I know Piper would say that it’s a wasted life, but is it actually possible for a husband and wife to retire and gather shells and glorify God in that? Could God be glorified in their appreciation for His creation, in their love and sacrifice for one another, in their example of a sacrificial servant hearted marriage, etc? Or is retirement and gathering shells necessarily a wasted life?

      • Danielle,

        Yes, it is possible. The great blessing of the doctrine of Christian liberty is that it is for a husband and wife to live their lives before the face of God (coram Deo) and not before the face of any preacher. We ought all our lives to seek to glorify God in all that we do. I doubt that anyone spends all their time in retirement picking up sea shells but sometimes we do need to rest, to get away, and to unwind. I’m fairly certain that, in his retirement, Dr Piper has done some relaxing. Is it possible to waste one’s retirement? Probably but it’s not for any preacher to say that one’s choices are sinful so long as they are not contrary to the moral law. Opening a brothel is right out! Becoming burglars is right out. Within the confines of God’s moral law there is freedom.

        He’s also neglecting a very important category: wisdom. It might not be wise for a couple to spend all their time in retirement in recreation (again, I doubt that happens. It’s not as if, in retirement, one is suddenly blessed with boundless energy). Wisdom tells us that there are yet fruitful things to be done with one’s time and resources. Most evangelicals, Piper being one, lack the category of “wisdom” because, in part, they don’t have a category for “nature.” For them grace more or less wipes out nature. So everything becomes a matter of sin.

        Further, Piper is a particularly vigorous exponent of Jonathan Edwards’ theology, piety, and practice which some of us think was probably deficient on a number of levels. Luther set us free from the sort of bondage to which a lot of American evangelicals would like to subject us.

        For my part, I look forward to retirement. I enjoy teaching but I’ve been working since I was 14. It’s been a long haul. I have a lot of writing and publishing I hope to do, if the Lord permits. I hope to travel some. I expect to continue to serve the Lord but, by the time I retire, I shall have been in ministry for 39 years. My service will change. I may even pick up some sea shells.

  2. Today’s Christianity Today is a far cry from the magazine founded by Carl Henry. At least into the 1960s CT was a serious theological publication. I think the last 20 years or longer have seen a major change in the magazine.

  3. What would you say captures “Piper’s doctrine of final salvation through works” the best? Recommend a particular article above the rest?

  4. Now that the personalities, practices, and theologies of the YRR have been exposed, can we say that it has run its course? After 20+ years, are there new leaders of the movement being formed?

  5. Dr. Clark, thanks for sharing this. . . it feels good to know that I’m not the only one who has had the same reaction to this podcast!

  6. A few years back when attention started being brought to the unorthodox doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS), it made waves and brought about lively debate among some of the well-known figures in both P&R and Calvinistic (you may think of a better term, perhaps, “predestinarian”) circles within evangelicalism.

    Why has this not occurred with Piper’s final salvation through works teaching? Why isn’t this making waves? Why isn’t Piper being pressed to give a biblical defense for what appears to undercut the biblical (and Reformed) teaching on justification by faith alone? Am I missing something here?

    This is a serious blunder from a pastor/teacher that I really like and have tremendous respect for; but teaching well on some things like God’s sovereignty, providence, glory, and the Christian’s joy in God shouldn’t give you a free pass when you start tinkering with justification.

    • I’ve seen Piper’s surrogates try to defend what they *think* he means but he seems very reluctant to enter the messy business of defending one’s position point by point. Part of that stems from being a Baptist who does not have ecclesiastical accountability.

  7. For a few years Piper was my primary influence. I’m thankful for the good things I learned but I never came to an assurance of my salvation. His teaching caused me to examine myself too much (“do I treasure God enough?”) instead of resting in Christ and what He has done perfectly for me. I’m grateful to have gotten out from under Piper’s umbrella.

  8. I don’t quote Norman Geisler often, but when I do, here is what I say, “If Christianity Today doesn’t get its act together, they’ll be called Christianity Yesterday, cancel my subscription.”

  9. Driscoll went for shelter under Piper’s wings when Driscoll was being rightly rebuked in wider evangelicalism. When he emerged from under Piper’s tutelage he was twice the son of Hell as before.

  10. If Piper believes, “In justification, faith receives a finished work of Christ performed outside of us and counted as ours — imputed to us,” how can those same people then suffer condemenation because their works were not good enough, when they have had the perfect work of Christ imputed to them?

    But, the statement that makes me shudder is this: “In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith.” Fruit and faith, or as some would say, faith and works. It is a statement, I fear, that would have found hearty acceptance at Trent.

    The great error, it seems to me, is creating a two-stage salvation, separating justification from “final salvation,” when Paul sees no such separation, but says that “whom He justified, these He also glorified.” (Rom 8:30).

    • You can clearly see what Piper has said in black and white. However, his apologists insist that what you are reading is not what he is saying. Who are you going to trust, John Piper or your lying eyes?

      • Some of it is misunderstanding. Some just don’t know the issue. Remember, Piper himself is relatively new even to an orthodox doctrine of justification in STAGE 1 (as if there are 2 stages). Prior to his adoption of imputation and sola fide in Stage 1 (as if there are two stages) he was more heterodox on justification than he is now.

        People don’t know what the orthodox doctrine is. They don’t know the Reformed confessions. That take Piper’s word for it because he has been personally helpful to and influential in their lives.

        There’s a Rorschach effect here: People hear/see in Piper what they want/need to see. I assumed that, once he adopted sola fide and imputation c. 2006 that he was orthodox. It wasn’t until someone mailed me handwritten notes & quotations from Piper’s work that I began to see that he held this two-stage doctrine and final salvation through works. He then proceeded to make it very clear what he was saying but many apparently don’t read what he has written or aren’t able to interpret it.

        Others re-state his views in more orthodox terms.

        Others concede what he’s saying but argue that his is the historic view. Hence the large number of articles/resources on the Final Salvation resource page.

  11. The YRR movement was a bunch of technologically literate youngsters, who felt betrayed when they found out there was an abandoned goldmine of Christian history covered up the woods behind their church.

    They were young, old people didn’t even learn about the internet until 2015. They were restless because the churches they grew up in was giving away cotton candy when there was a rich abandoned mine on church property. They were reformed because it turns out that it was a full gold mine of reformed theology with working equipment and even some people who had been working away for years oblivious that history had forgotten them. This mine included institutions such as WTSCAL, and SBTS, Ligonier, Desiring God, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Westminster Standards, and some guys named Knox, and Calvin, Luther, all the puritans, Edwards, Newton, Spurgeon, Warfield, Vos, Murray, Lloyd-Jones, Carl FH Henry, Gerstner, Duncan, Piper, and Clark. Just because some youngster preacher (Driscoll) abandoned the mine does not mean that the gold is bad.

    Generic criticism of the YRR by Pres. and Continental Reformed folks sounds a lot like angsty boomers complaining that millennials don’t know which color pen works best for a fax machine. You can use “YRR” pejoratively, but It is simply Christ building his church. Everyone who visits your website is somehow related to the YRR movement and prior to YRR, no one had ever heard of the Heidelberg Catechism. There are plenty of things in history we can lament, YRR should never be one of them.

    Criticisms of Piper haven’t stuck because of how voraciously Piper is for Justification by faith alone all while working out the mandatory “holiness without which no one will see the Lord”, and that Christians “must depart from iniquity.” An oak tree must necessarily be an oak tree or else it won’t produce acorns, acorns themselves do not make it an oak tree. I think the Elder Affirmation of Faith clearly opposes a final justification in the Romans and standard theological sense, while at the same time acknowledging the challenge of the different uses of the word “justification” in Romans and James. Can you just give him a call or something and work this out?

    • Nathan,

      You’re partly right and mostly wrong.

      The YRR movement was a bunch of technologically literate youngsters, who felt betrayed when they found out there was an abandoned goldmine of Christian history covered up the woods behind their church.

      This seems right.

      They were young, old people didn’t even learn about the internet until 2015. They were restless because the churches they grew up in was giving away cotton candy when there was a rich abandoned mine on church property. They were reformed because it turns out that it was a full gold mine of reformed theology with working equipment and even some people who had been working away for years oblivious that history had forgotten them. This mine included institutions such as WTSCAL, and SBTS, Ligonier, Desiring God, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Westminster Standards, and some guys named Knox, and Calvin, Luther, all the puritans, Edwards, Newton, Spurgeon, Warfield, Vos, Murray, Lloyd-Jones, Carl FH Henry, Gerstner, Duncan, Piper, and Clark. Just because some youngster preacher (Driscoll) abandoned the mine does not mean that the gold is bad.

      This is partly right and partly wrong. Some of us have been using the internet since it became available to the public. I started in 1993. Some of us tried to help Driscoll et al but they refused to listen.

      Generic criticism of the YRR by Pres. and Continental Reformed folks sounds a lot like angsty boomers complaining that millennials don’t know which color pen works best for a fax machine. You can use “YRR” pejoratively, but It is simply Christ building his church. Everyone who visits your website is somehow related to the YRR movement and prior to YRR, no one had ever heard of the Heidelberg Catechism. There are plenty of things in history we can lament, YRR should never be one of them.

      I don’t know what you mean by “generic criticism.” Speaking for myself I’ve been making pointed, detailed criticism of the YRR for a long time (since at least 2008, when Recovering the Reformed Confession appeared).

      Take a look at this library:

      Take Resources On The Young, Restless, And Reformed and New Calvinism Movements

      Sometimes I use YRR pejoratively and sometimes descriptively (mostly the latter).

      My great point is that the YRR was NEVER Reformed. It was a mash up of predestinarianism and, in Driscoll’s case, charismatic piety and an Amyraldian soteriology.

      My even greater concern is the spiritual wreckage left in the wake of Driscoll, MacDonald, Harris, etc abuses and/or apostasy. The movement is a mess and a wreck. It has a bad ecclesiology, a celebrity culture, and a confused and sometimes (see below) seriously errant soteriology. These are not generic criticisms. Just because you might not have seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

      Criticisms of Piper haven’t stuck because of how voraciously Piper is for Justification by faith alone all while working out the mandatory “holiness without which no one will see the Lord”, and that Christians “must depart from iniquity.” An oak tree must necessarily be an oak tree or else it won’t produce acorns, acorns themselves do not make it an oak tree. I think the Elder Affirmation of Faith clearly opposes a final justification in the Romans and standard theological sense, while at the same time acknowledging the challenge of the different uses of the word “justification” in Romans and James. Can you just give him a call or something and work this out?

      You’re doing what the Piper apologists frequently do: ignoring half the story. He did finally become orthodox in the early 2000s regarding sola fide & imputation but he combined that move with his previous doctrine, which he learned from Dan Fuller, of final salvation through good works.

      If Piper would acknowledge that “justify” in James means “evidence” and in Paul means “declaration of righteousness” we could make some progress but he and his defenders regularly conflate the two as in the 2017 DGM article.

      I’ve documented it repeatedly. It’s in Future Grace. It’s been published by DGM. “You’re not saved through faith alone. Be killing sin.” That is not just fruit and evidence. Were he only teaching the necessity of fruit and evidence, I would be affirming his doctrine but he’s not satisfied with good works as fruit and evidence. He wants more. He needs them to be instrumental in final salvation. He’s openly attacked the Heidelberg Catechism/Reformed doctrine of good works as gratitude. He calls that a “debtor’s ethic.”

      Piper’s theology is a combination of Jonathan Edwards’ and Dan Fuller’s with a little Protestant window dressing (in so called the first stage of justification).

      The Elder Affirmation clearly teaches final salvation through works. It’s right here:

      …that final salvation in the age to come depends on the transformation of life

      See:

      Why We Remember The Reformation (Part 3)

      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.’

      This is not Protestant theology. It’s much closer to Trent than to Luther or Calvin.

      Here are the receipts for the rest.

      Resources On The Controversy Over “Final Salvation Through Works”

    • Nathan you wrote this: “Everyone who visits your website is somehow related to the YRR movement and prior to YRR, no one had ever heard of the Heidelberg Catechism.”

      Surely you do not believe that. The Heidelberg Catechism predates the YRR by centuries. Quite literally hundreds of years passed during which nobody had ever heard of YRR, but most young Reformed people in places like the Netherlands, Hungary, and parts of Germany were memorizing the Heidelberg.

      On a more important point, however, Nathan — and take this from a guy who learned to program in COBOL and FORTRAN using punch cards to input data into mainframe computers via card readers, and who owned one of the first Radio Shack TRS-80s, and who remembers dialup modems, and who was using the internet in the days of CompuServe and AOL — I know what it’s like to be a young man who came to the Reformed faith outside the institutional church by reading Calvin’s Institutes in a college class because I was assigned the book by a college professor who thought having his students read Calvin “in the raw” would show them how bad the historic Christian faith is, and why we need to be liberals and reject historic Christianity. I may be the only man in all his years of teaching who that professor turned into a Calvinist; most of his students were horrified by Calvin’s “hardness” on doctrines like sin and depravity and went on to become virulent liberals, or at best, Barthians.

      So yes, Nathan, I have a lot of sympathies for the YRR movement. I became Reformed about the same age as many of the current YRR people, and saw how the churches I was attending had abandoned what you correctly call the “gold mine” of their historic faith for a mess of outright heresy — classical liberalism and neo-orthodox Barthianism — that is far worse than modern evangelicalism.

      I have a lot of appreciation for the goals and intents of the YRR movement. But you just can’t act as if there are no problems among the YRR people and leaders. Being connected to the institutional church counts. Being connected to a church which is part of the historic confessionally Reformed tradition counts.

      Some of the YRR people and leaders understand that and are moving in the right direction. Others, like Driscoll, became or are becoming a YRR version of the evangelical leader-driven megachurches with many of their problems, the chiefmost of which are lack of confessional integrity and recognition of the biblical basis of elder rule.

      The YRR has done a lot of good and I do not deny that. But to act as if the problems are nonexistent or minor is a major mistake.

      And if you’re going to accuse me of minimizing or denying the problems of the older Reformed confessional denominations (which, to be fair, I don’t see you doing, but others in the YRR who don’t know my name have done) — well, let’s just say I earned my spurs in the Christian Reformed fights. I spent more time and more years of my life in the trenches fighting for confessional orthodoxy than the number of years most of the YRR people have been Reformed. I am very aware, on a very deep level, how badly corrupted many of the older Reformed denominations had become before the modern revival of the Reformed faith.

      I’m grateful for the way the YRR has made it possible to be openly and unabashedly Reformed without being viewed as a relic who belongs in a history museum of the 1500s and 1600s. I know what it was like back in the 1980s to be one of the few people in the room at many meetings of confessionally Reformed people who didn’t have white hair. It’s great today to be in Reformed churches where most of the people are young families with children, not grandparents whose children have long since left the Reformed faith.

      But let’s not act like the problems aren’t present in the YRR movement.

  12. Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline (1922-2007) warned of Piper awhile ago:

    “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,” Presbyterion 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 Kline, Kingdom Prologue.

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