Pastor John Piper is well-known for his role in sparking the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement, mainly through his emphases on God’s sovereignty and serious expository preaching. There are no doubt numerous present members of Reformed churches who ended up there because of initial investigations of Reformed theology that began with hearing or reading John Piper. Personally, Piper was my first exposure to a thorough and biblical explanation of predestination in some of the appendices of the 2003 edition of Desiring God, which I was told to read shortly after becoming serious about my faith.1 I am still self-conscious that, in my own preaching, when I lean on an explanatory γαρ or milk an inferential οὖν, it is at least in part a lingering finger print of listening to many of Piper’s sermon early in my serious investigation of theology.
Piper is known for his teaching that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him,” which is spelled out across his many books, but concentrated in his “big three:” Desiring God, The Pleasures of God, and Future Grace. This review reflects upon Future Grace, which is Piper’s most extensive explanation of his understanding of sanctification. The argument here is that the book provides a helpful premise to encourage believers but several confused definitions make it inconsistently useful.
A Positive Construction
The primary argument in Future Grace is the best way to grow in holiness is by faith in future grace. Piper believes that a deficient understanding of the motivations for sanctification will not facilitate godly development in believers’ lives. His case is that faith must be the primary engine for sanctification, namely as he repeated throughout this work faith in future grace. He emphasizes that the faith that justifies also sanctifies (pg. xii, 17). So, his emphasis is on the priority of faith in the Christian life.
This section outlines how I think readers should best receive and use this main premise of the book. The idea that faith fuels the Christian life should not in itself be surprising, unique, or controversial. Although Piper adds some additional points and qualifications that change some of the shape of this key notion, the central role of faith should be unquestionable. It seems then important at the outset to establish how the premise itself is thoroughly useful, if understood a certain way.
The key refrain is that “faith in future grace” is the key to sanctification. This claim is supremely useful when understood to mean that we are best enabled to press forward in the Christian life, even in trial, by trusting that God will be good to his people despite our moments of hardest struggle. This understanding sets our focus on God as the source of all our good and the provider of protection and blessings for his people. I remember during my time in seminary, Professor Clark somewhat passingly prayed, “Lord, you have earned our trust in Jesus…” and it was a remark that changed the way I think about pressing forward in the Christian life. God has earned our trust in the Lord Christ, he has provided our greatest need, and so as we look ahead we can be bold and courageous as we face our darkest seasons because we trust that God is for us and not against us.
So, of course we have faith that God will be good to his people in the future. As Piper well exposits Romans 8:32, 28 (pg. 99-125), since God has given his Son for us, there is nothing he will withhold that his people need. Throughout the book, Piper applies his premise to various struggles Christians face. Indeed, when we trust God to be good to us in our future hardships, it is easier to put aside anxiety about them. If we trust God to be good to us even in our struggles but are aware that we need that grace, it defeats our pride. If we believe that God will give abundant grace to us, trusting that he will give it at the right time, it helps us overcome impatience. Still, all this usefulness centers on faith as trust, namely trust in Christ as our Savior who will continue to be good to his people.
The point is that there is one way to construct Piper’s main argument so that it is immensely useful and provides great comfort. We best live the Christian life and grow in our sanctification as we believe that God has decisively acted in Jesus Christ on our behalf, demonstrating his commitment to his people. We are truly enabled to die to sin and live unto righteousness, not by thinking our sanctification is not by our own strength if we can just be strong enough spiritually to push through any challenge, but when we trust that God has rescued us in Christ Jesus and so will continue to be good to us as we endeavor after all the works that he has prepared in advance for us to do.
The Doctrine of Justification
Piper’s understanding of justification has been the center of much recent discussion, especially since, in his foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s Faith Alone (Zondervan, 2015) (pg.11-12), he argued that although justification itself is by faith alone, “attaining heaven” is not by faith alone. There are many resources dealing with the various places where Piper has discussed this issue. This section, however, necessarily focuses on how Piper explained justification in Future Grace. In this work, Piper maintained a fairly clear explanation of the traditional view of justification, when he articulates the issue of justification proper.
It should be noted that this review concerns the revised edition of Future Grace. Piper was explicit that he had clarified his own thinking on “the nature, ground, and instrument of justification” since the first edition, specifically in light of his debate with N. T. Wright. He defines his position: “Justification is the gracious act of God in which, by uniting us to Christ through faith alone, God counts us perfectly righteous solely by imputing to us his own righteousness accomplished by Christ, thus satisfying all the law’s demands for our punishment and perfection through Christ’s own suffering and obedience on our behalf.” (pg. xi) Elsewhere he states, “Moreover justification is an event that happens at a point in time, and is not an ongoing act of God as sanctification is. Not only that, justification is not an act that comes in varying degrees but one that is a once-for-all and total reckoning of righteousness to us for Christ’s sake.” (pg. 17)
In this book, Piper also affirms the traditional elements of the ordo salutis. He explains, “From this point of justification, and on the basis of it, the process of sanctification begins.” (pg. 23) In relation to final salvation, in seeming tension with his preface to Schreiner’s book, he argues,
Justification by faith secures final glorification. God has ordained it. God accomplishes it. The future grace of glorification is guaranteed by the past grace of justification. “[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). If we have been justified by grace, we will be glorified. God has forged the link and it cannot be broken. (pg. 120-21; italics and brackets original)
Piper’s definition of justification proper is then sound and consistent with the Reformed confessions, which he cited and with which he stated agreement.
In this respect, Piper in several places clearly stated the proper role of works as being evidence of faith. “There is a second thing we need to remember when the Bible mentions loving others as a condition of future grace. We must keep in mind that love relates to faith as evidence to origin. Love is the necessary evidence of faith.” (pg. 257) Again, “Faith alone is the instrument that unites us to Christ who is our righteousness and the ground of our justification. But the purity of life that confirms faith’s reality is also essential for final salvation, not as the ground of our right standing, but are the fruit and evidence that we are vitally united by faith to Christ who is alone the ground of our acceptance with God.” (pg. 333; emphasis added) Perhaps some of Piper’s phrasing here is not exactly how we would all want to put matters, but a charitable reading takes him at face value when he affirms that he means it when the necessity he is asserting is that of evidence. He even connected this explicitly to that last judgment:
The answer is that our deeds will be the public evidence brought forth in Christ’s courtroom to demonstrate that our faith is real. And our deeds will be the public evidence brought forth to demonstrate the varying measures of our obedience of faith. In other words, salvation is by grace alone though faith, and rewards are by grace through faith, but the evidence of invisible faith in the judgment hall of Christ will be a transformed life. (pg. 364; italics original)
There will always be disagreement about how best to state these issues when it comes to the final judgment, but nonetheless Piper clearly emphasized that works function as evidence.
So then, why is there debate about Piper’s view of final salvation? Do these straightforward affirmations of the Protestant view of justification and works as evidence of faith somehow square with his more recent assertion that we do not attain heaven by faith alone? There are places where Piper causes some tensions with the two sound premises noted above. First, he makes perseverance in faith a condition for justification. After quoting Jonathan Edwards to this effect, he stated in his own words “Thus it is proper to speak of the moral effectiveness of justifying faith not merely because it brings us into a right standing with God at the first moment of its exercise, but also because it is a persevering sort of faith, whose effectiveness resides in its daily embrace of all that God is for us in Jesus.” (pg. 25; emphasis added) We should all affirm that true faith is persevering faith, so Piper is correct on that point. On the other hand, to say that “justifying faith” – which I take to refer to faith’s role in respect to justification – has “effectiveness” – which I take to mean truly bringing about its corresponding result of justification – in a daily renewal seems obviously to shift justification from one definitive and punctiliar act of God in permanently declaring a sinner righteous upon their taking hold of Christ for salvation to a grant that is always in question. Some might object that it is obvious that if we hypothetically were to lose faith, we would no longer be justified. Apart from the only hypothetical nature of that thought experiment, which I suppose has a valid conclusion from an unreal premise, Piper’s definition of faith fosters an understanding that true faith can ebb and flow, perhaps suggesting it might ebb so low as not to be effective anymore. I will treat the issue of Piper’s understanding of faith in the next section, but it is worth flagging here. Piper does seemingly have a construction that undermines the sure permanency of justification and makes it contingent upon our perseverance in good works. In this sense, works are no longer simply evidence as he stated elsewhere in Future Grace.
Piper does explicitly explain justification as “conditional,” but this is a very mixed discussion, since he argues for numerous conditions that vary in kind. For example, expositing Romans 8:28, he named two conditions as having love for God and being called according to his purpose, which he noted are both given in regeneration (pg.231-33, 236-37). So, in this sense, regeneration is a condition – something that must be in place – for justification. This particular condition should not be controversial, even if the language might be unusual to some, since traditional Reformed theology affirms that we are justified by faith, which is given in effectual calling. Elsewhere Piper wrote, “The condition of final glorification is persevering in this same faith and hope.” (pg. 234; italics original) Even this instance as it stands is not controversial since of course someone who lost their faith, if that were possible, would not enter everlasting life. Apart from other aspects of Piper’s understanding of the nature of faith, discussed below, the statement simply affirms that Christians remain Christians to the end, which Piper says that God’s grants.
Piper listed several conditions for receiving future grace that are arguably similar to the kind given in regeneration, but it will be most helpful to consider his discussion of “those who keep his covenant” as a condition (pg. 247-49). He states, “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.” (pg. 248) Depending on this statement’s meaning determines its usefulness, since it is rather vague as it stands. What are these conditions, if they are different from the ones Piper has already named that are given in regeneration? What does it mean to keep the covenant? “It meant a life of habitual devotion and trust and love to the Lord, one that turned from evil and followed him in his ways.” (pg.247) In this respect, “almost all future blessings of the Christian life are conditional on our covenant-keeping.” (pg. 248) If future grace is, as Piper defined it, “All that God promises to be for us in Jesus” (pg. 1), then it seems clear that the blessings of what God will be for us in Christ are contingent upon your continuation in good deeds. And as always, the question is, how much is enough? What amount of works reveal that I am truly satisfied with God? Piper affirmed that God sovereignly works this continuation in covenant keeping in those who are justified by faith. Fine, but it still seems to make final salvation contingent upon even our Spirit-enabled, God-ordained works, leaving works no longer as simply evidence.
Some readers might protest that this reading is too hard on Piper since he clearly affirmed some traditional formulations as his doctrinal starting points. Charity could possibly demand that we take those firm premises as his true belief and these outworkings as aberrations that are merely inconsistent. That may be the case, but I would simply restate now that my main thesis about this book is that it provides a helpful premise to encourage believers but several confused definitions make it inconsistently useful. This is an examples where confused categories have made it inconsistently useful, which does not seem too much to claim.
To avoid leaving this as an abstract discussion, as important as those are sometimes, there is a side of Piper’s views on these matters that also raises questions about pastoral approach. He recounts an encounter during a small group Bible study during his seminary days.
One of the young wives said that she could not and would not forgive her mother for something she had done to her as a young girl. We talked about some of the biblical commands and warnings concerning an unforgiving spirit…But she would not budge. I warned her that her very soul was in danger if she kept on with such an attitude of unforgiving bitterness. (pg. 265)
This story, in some ways because of a perhaps fitting lack of detail, fails to do justice to the complexity of a believer’s struggle with sin and how to address that pastorally. If the woman was angry that her mother did not give her candy when she demanded it and would hold that against her forever, perhaps that is an instance to probe to see if someone is truly intransigent in an unforgiving heart. If that is blatantly true, perhaps there is need for serious spiritual care to assess someone’s profession of faith. But what if there is more to it than that?
When I pastored in Northern Ireland, there was a dear man in my church who was godly, kind, eager to learn about his faith, involved as could be, and had a great heart for service. He once told me the story of how his brother had been ambushed and brutally murdered during The Troubles. He also confessed that he had no idea how he would ever forgive the men who committed this crime. I could never bring myself to threaten this man with hell or to question his faith in any capacity although I think this issue is still with him. If someone suggests otherwise, I believe we must have very different models of what pastoral care is and how to provide it. This man had significant levels of evidence of a sincere faith. He even knew that a lack of forgiveness was wrong. Yet, this man, like the woman in Piper’s story, struggled to be forgiving in regard to a terrible, horrific, and personally devastating crime. It fails to reckon with the reality of horrendous pain and with the tensions that can wrack a believing heart in instances like this if we simply respond to those who struggle to measure up to our spiritual expectations with the threats of damnation, despite a continually credible profession of faith. We are not yet glorified. Piper should know better how to incorporate that reality into his pastoral responses.
The Baptist Angle
In this regard, I think that there is a ready explanation for why Piper affirms traditional views of justification when he defines the topic properly speaking and yet articulates several hard tensions with it. The explanation is his Baptist ecclesiology. Note well that I have not said “because he is a Baptist” as some ad hominem, which is emphatically not my point. Rather, the point is to take seriously Piper’s own theological context as a reason that may produce his formulations. From a Reformed perspective, Baptist ecclesiology often struggles with the category of a credible profession of faith, as it relates both to participation in the outward administration of the covenant and to truly receiving the substance of the covenant. Please note that Piper, as far as I know, does not subscribe to the 1689 London Baptist Confession, so he is part of the more general Baptist tradition than those holding that particular confessional line.
Concerning the issue itself, Baptists often do not have room in their ecclesiology for someone making a credible profession of faith but not truly having received the substance of the covenant of grace. From the Reformed view, we can judge only the credibility of someone’s claim to believe but cannot truly see their hearts to know with certainty if they are regenerate. We readily admit that there are times that we misjudge this credibility, and the person proves never to have had true faith, even though they took part in all the benefits and activities of the church community. On the other hand, because of the Baptist understanding of baptism as requiring one to have truly received the substance of the covenant already, the idea that someone may have professed faith that was not truly saved can easily strain their ecclesiological categories.
The Reformed accept, even though these instances are heartbreaking, that there will be instances for some in which “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19) Piper would of course affirm this verse too but lacks space for it in his actual ecclesiology in connection to how professions of faith work. Future Grace seems to need that category of invalidating a profession of faith, from which someone could repent and come back to the church without having to be so-called “re-baptized.” Piper’s lack of this category presses him to explain this issue of falling into sin as someone essentially losing their salvation. Perhaps the appearance is the same for the Reformed and Baptists, but Piper’s address to believers in this way is, in my opinion, not the most helpful way to explain the issue.
Far from speculating, there is material in Future Grace that confirms the hunch that this ecclesiological issue is a factor. Piper recounts a story of confronting an adulterous man, noting “Then I said, ‘You know, Jesus says that if you don’t fight this sin with the kind of seriousness that is willing to gouge our your own eye, you will go to hell and suffer there forever.’ As a professing Christian, he looked at me in utter disbelief, as though he had never heard anything like this in his life, and said, ‘You mean you think a person can lose his salvation?’” (pg. 331) Piper did not record his answer to the question but concluded, “So I have learned again and again from firsthand experience that there are many professing Christians who have a view of salvation that disconnects it from real life, and that nullifies the threats of the Bible, and puts the sinning person who claims to be a Christian beyond the read of biblical warnings.” (pg.331) The suggestion seems indeed to be that this man could lose his salvation.
The point is that Piper does not appeal to someone making null their profession of belief. He does not use the language of making shipwreck of our faith, particularly the church’s ability to accept our profession as credible. Rather, his first appeal seems to be to threaten the loss of salvation. He described that same approach in his interaction with the woman in his Bible study during seminary, confirming that this instance is not an over-direct slip of the pen. Although Piper affirms the traditional formulations of justification by faith alone ad works as evidence, his approach to making sense of works and backsliding within the Christian life and in pastoral situations causes tensions with that affirmation.
Faith as Emotion
Perhaps the clearest instance of Piper using a confused definition that leaves this work inconsistently useful is his understanding of faith. There are many occurrences in Future Grace where if one assumed a more traditional definition of faith as receiving and resting on Christ alone for salvation, then Piper’s arguments make great sense and can be immensely helpful. My guess is that many who have found this book so holistically useful have read it, defaulting to their own understandings of “faith” and “future grace” rather than consistently maintaining Piper’s own explanations.
The main issue concerning faith is that Piper redefines faith as an emotion that is not clearly related to trusting Christ for the work he has definitively performed for his people. Piper does describe that past work of Christ and would certainly affirm trust in that. I am not sure that Piper intentionally construes faith in a new way. Rather, I think that his emphasis on affections and emotive rhetoric,2 which is (non-pejoratively) characteristic of his teaching, got the better of him in this case. So, how does Future Grace define faith?
It is easy to catalog passages in Future Grace where Piper emphasizes faith’s primary nature as emotional. Neither is this accidental since his foremost definition is: “Being satisfied with that [prospect of the glory of future grace] is what I call faith.” (pg. 1) In other words, the feeling of satisfaction is faith’s defining feature in Piper’s understanding. At first, I thought that this first definition was likely Piper’s characteristic heightened and affective rhetoric, but his continual emphasis throughout the book is on faith in emotional terms. Here is a sampling of instances confirming the point:
A third assumption is that the essence (though not the sum total) of justifying faith is being satisfied with all that God is (and promises to be) for us in Jesus…And this embracing [Christ in all his offices] is not a mere intellectual assent to a teaching, but is also a vital heartfelt satisfaction with God. (pg. 25; italics original)
What’s wrong is that she was apparently missing the essence of true saving faith – I say it with trembling. Saving faith is not merely believing that you are forgiven. Saving faith means tasting this forgiveness as part of the way God is and experiencing it (and him!) as precious and magnificent…It means savoring the truth that a forgiving God is the most precious reality in the universe. That’s why I used the word cherish. Saving faith cherishes being forgiven by God, and from there rises to cherishing the God who forgives – and all that he is for us in Jesus. (pg. 270)
Why should we not assume that the powerful affection of faith is future grace promotes even physical means of mental health? (pg. 303; emphasis added)
If the nature of faith is to be satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus, then the universal biblical mandate to believe is a radical and pervasive call to pursue our own happiness in God. To say that you are indifferent to your own happiness would amount to saying that you are indifferent to the nature of faith. (pg. 386; italics original)
Piper’s understanding of faith is then fundamentally emotional.
I feel awkward in the critique that has to come because some many of the things Piper has written about emotions are things that I hope are true of God’s people. I have no desire to criticize an attempt to deepen believers’ satisfaction in God. I have every desire to see believers’ delight in Christ fanned into an unquenchable flame. I want them to be captivated with God’s beauty. I certainly do not want to come across in such a way as to further the stereotype of Reformed people that we are intellectual but opposed to emotion.
The question in regard to Piper’s argument is whether these emotional elements are our faith. He is right that faith is not simply intellectual belief. Nor is it merely assent to a truth. I wholeheartedly agree. In contrast, I think faith should be described in more traditional terms. The Westminster Shorter Catechism 86, says, “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.” Perhaps more directly related to Piper’s concern, the Heidelberg Catechism 21 outlines that faith is more than intellectual knowledge but does not conclude it is primarily emotional:
True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all the God has revealed to us in His Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
In sum, Reformed theology has characterized saving faith as trust in Christ. Piper, on the other hand, paints it in fundamentally emotional terms.
Even within Piper’s paradigm, his definition of faith struggles to provide a coherent understanding of the Christian life. For example, he wrote, “When faith has the upper hand in my heart, I am satisfied with Christ and his promises.” (pg. 335) But Piper has defined faith as satisfaction. This statement amounts to: “When satisfaction has the upper hand in my heart, I am satisfied with Christ and his promises.” Although I suppose true, it is a tautology and makes no argument. He claims again: “As I pray for my faith to be satisfied with God’s life and peace, the sword of the Spirit carves the sugar coating off the poison of lust.” (pg. 336) It is difficult to understand praying for the satisfaction we already have to be satisfied. It is difficult to understand “satisfaction” as a subject needing itself. Still, that is the force of Piper’s point if we maintain his understanding of faith consistently.
Piper’s view of faith as emotional does impact its role in salvation. He explained, “What turns believing into saving faith? He [Charles Hodge] says that when we see spiritual excellence for ourselves, we believe ‘in a different way.’ This ‘different way’ is what makes believing into saving faith.” (pg. 198) Whether Piper has appropriated what Hodge meant by “a different way of believing” is beside the point here because Piper argues that a certain emotional aspect is this different way of believing that makes it into saving faith. He wrote, “Therefore two things are necessary for saving faith to emerge…The other is that we must apprehend and embrace the spiritual beauty and worth of Christ through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.” (pg. 200-1) Then he culminates his case: “But if we do not taste the beauty of Christ in his promises as delightful, or as satisfying, we do not yet believe in a saving, transforming way.” (pg. 204; italics original) In Piper’s view, it is faith’s properly emotional dimension that makes it saving.
The question again remains, what happens if and when I am not in the proper emotional condition, namely the saving one. Faith as trust can endure even when it is hard and things are hard and I feel low. Emotions by nature fluctuate. What if that saving aspect of our emotional state fluctuates? This question is not extrinsic to the material in Future Grace. Piper argues that the ease of faith – in contrast to the difficulty of earning–“assumes a heart that is spiritual enough to taste and delight in the beauty and worth of God.” (pg. 313) Again, faith relieves us from personal striving only as it is joined with the right emotions. Further, “They need to seek the Lord’s beauty and look to him for the refreshing beauty and power that he offers to those who cherish him and rely on his future grace. In short, they need to find in God himself the all-satisfying treasure of their lives and turn away from the futile striving of the unsatisfied flesh.” (pg. 315) The capstone statement of this point is perhaps: “The heart of saving faith is a delight in who God is and a satisfaction in all that God is for us in Jesus…[The fight of faith is] a fight to maintain satisfaction in God against all the enticements of the world and all the deceptions of the devil. The fight for faith in future grace is a fight for joy.” (pg. 316) Faith dies as satisfaction wanes.
This problem does carry into Piper’s explanation of faith’s role in justification. He outlined – with some very legitimate points – how faith does not work in exactly the same fashion in justification and sanctification:
Thus the function of faith in regard to each is different. In regard to justification, faith is not the channel through which a power or a transformation flows to the soul of the believer, but rather faith is the occasion of God’s forgiving and acquitting and reckoning as righteous by virtue of faith’s uniting us to Christ…However, in regard to sanctification, faith is indeed the channel through which divine power and transformation flow to the soul; and the work of God through faith does indeed touch the soul, and change it.” (pg. 24)
There is merit in Piper’s basic premise to distinguish faith’s role in justification and sanctification. Concerning sanctification, he rightly recognized its role of bringing power into the soul, or as Westminster Larger Catechism 77 says “infusing grace.” The issue is really with how he frames faith as “the occasion” of justification. Traditionally, faith is the instrument of justification because it receives and rests upon Christ. In Piper’s paradigm, feeling properly satisfied is merely God’s opportunity to justify.3
The Problem Of Perseverance
This issue connects to that problem in Piper’s understanding of justification as requiring perseverance. Again, true faith is persevering faith. The trouble is that Piper’s view seemingly allows for a faith that does not persevere, since it is primarily emotional, which would dissolve justification. He wrote, “The only thing that will condemn us at the judgment day is unforgiven sin – not sickness or afflictions or persecutions or intimidations or apparitions or nightmares.” (pg. 321) Fair enough that unforgiven sin condemns at the last judgment. But is this a genuine possibility for believers? It seems believers are in view since persecutions, biblically speaking, tends to be the experience of Christians under their opposers. How is it that Christians could have unforgiven sin and so be condemned? Piper may say it is not possible. Yet, the structure of his argument in Future Grace facilitates such a possibility. Perhaps it states it too: “It is this Spirit-given superior satisfaction in future grace that breaks the power of lust. With all eternity hanging in the balance, we fight the fight of faith.” (pg. 336; emphasis added) Note that your everlasting life depends on your success in sustaining the right emotional levels. If you do not maintain your feeling of proper satisfaction, your faith has died, removing the occasion of justification. The once believer, struggling emotionally, has lost justification and everlasting life. I believe Piper would recoil at this statement. I also believe it grows out of tensions in his faith-as-emotion paradigm.
In this respect, Future Grace seems to confuse the relationship of faith and obedience, namely by conflating them. Piper argued: “My conclusion is that already in the Old Testament, according to God’s larger, long-term plan, God meant for the law to be fulfilled by faith in future grace.” (pg. 152) The problem with this statement is that it is very vague, and the immediate context does not clarify, leaving us to fill in the blanks of its precise meaning from what Piper has said throughout the book. I do not think that Piper has the law’s use to drive sinners to Christ in mind here, since his whole point is to motivate obedience. If he were using the traditional understanding of faith as receiving and resting upon Christ, then we might take Piper to mean that believers are empowered by faith in Christ to perform good works. That would be true. But again, Piper does not use the traditional meaning of faith. This statement seems to mean that God’s people have always been obligated to fulfill the law by being satisfied. In this respect, I think Piper means that satisfaction is obedience, which turns faith into faithfulness, which explains why our justification can be in flux dependent on our perseverance. As already discussed, but now seen with new inflection, Piper argued, “The battle for obedience is absolutely necessary for our final salvation, because the battle for obedience is the fight of faith. The battle against lust is absolutely necessary for our final salvation, because that battle is the battle against unbelief.” (pg. 333) There are certainly ways to explain each statement in this passage so that they are entirely orthodox. My point is simply that the web of Piper’s confusing definitions and the way he links those categories makes statements like this at best convoluted and discouraging for believing but attentive readers.
Some might think that I have read too much into admittedly unclear statements and imposed an uncharitable meaning upon it. That is not my intention, as I have earlier worked hard to identify the best ideas in Piper’s work and only subsequently note how some aspects of this book conflict with those sound premises. There are instances that confirm my reading that Piper has conflated faith and obedience, which explains why justification in some sense seems to be conditional upon our works. He writes,
It is obvious then that covetousness is exactly the opposite of faith. It’s the loss of contentment in Christ so that we start to crave other things to satisfy the longings of our hearts. And there’s no mistaking that the battle against covetousness is a battle against unbelief and a battle for faith in future grace. (pg. 224)
Note that this sin of covetousness, which Piper rightly tries to help us combat, is another emotion, one that finds contentment in other things than future grace. Piper’s words seemingly specify that to give into covetousness is to give up our faith. To have an inclination of satisfaction in something else is to diminish our satisfaction in what we have (or better will have in the future) from God – but that satisfaction is faith. So, Piper’s paradigm for faith entails that even momentary lapses wherein a believer might succumb to covetousness removes “the occasion of God’s forgiving and reckoning as righteous” since our satisfaction is elsewhere on this occasion (pg. 24). Remember that Piper does not explain faith as the instrument of receiving Christ but as satisfaction and this satisfaction, as just quoted, is the occasion – not a cause even in the instrumental sense – for justification. This is consistent even with his explanation of justification and faith. He explains, “the aim is to examine how faith, which is alone the means through which pardoning grace justifies, is also the faith through which empowering grace sanctifies.” (pg. 17) On a traditional understanding of faith, this is a brilliant statement, but Piper views faith as satisfaction. So, your feeling satisfied is alone the means to receive pardoning grace. The problem is feelings change and flux. Lacking that God-focused satisfaction removes the occasion for God to justify, possibly breaking that perseverance.
In sum, Piper’s idiosyncratic definition of faith as satisfaction at best creates lots of confusion. If Piper means traditional ideas in this book, they are at tension with what he writes if we fill in his definition of faith each time the word “faith” appears. The rhetoric and emotional appeal are often stirring and inspiring. The problem arises if we pause to ask what the rhetoric means. The formulations are frequently convoluted and ultimately unhelpful if we press them by consistently using Piper’s own definitions of the terms under consideration.
The Issue of Gratitude
One of Piper’s main arguments in Future Grace is that faith rather than gratitude is the primary motivation for sanctification. He does give a place for gratitude, but it is subordinate. There are two issues concerning this argument: 1) Is his case overstated? 2) Is his case coherent?
In regard to his overstated case, I have no desire to refute Piper’s emphasis on faith – properly understood however – as the fundamental motivator of the Christian life. That refutation is unnecessary because the Reformed structure of guilt, grace, and gratitude – as the characteristic of the Christian life – never meant to be set over and against faith. Piper argued that gratitude fosters a “debtor’s ethic” in which we who have received the sure gift of grace try to live the Christian life in attempt to repay God for what he has done for us. In all honesty, the only time I have ever heard this explanation of how gratitude works is from Piper. I am very glad that he wants to refute such a paradigm.
The point of the Reformed use of gratitude, however, is that the Christian life should be lived out of what you have surely and permanently already received from God. Piper’s criticism could be flipped. Perhaps his view is misused (or more pointedly used exactly as he uses it at times) to suggest that we must live as though our everlasting life is not secure and we must obtain it by works. That is precisely what the Reformed view aims to short circuit. I hope that Piper had in mind some sort of issue within wider Baptist or evangelical circles when he wrote about the debtor’s ethic. Because the Reformed paradigm has nothing to do with what he described. In this sense, his case is overstated. There is no need to argue faith rather than gratitude.
In regard to the coherency of his case, this issue again concerns his definition of faith. He understands faith primarily as satisfaction. I personally have no categories to understand gratitude as something radically distinct from satisfaction. These are both emotional categories of appreciation. The best I can muster as a thought experiment is that gratitude would be the recognition that you are satisfied. Even this, however, is merely distinguishing gratitude as the self-aware aspect of satisfaction, which I suppose somehow could be had conceptually prior to recognizing it. I hope you see this thought experiment as an effort at being fair to Piper’s paradigm. At the same time, I hope you see how much effort it takes to arrive at a rather strained resolution to the problem of reconciling his definition of faith with his effort to contrast it with gratitude.
So, it is hard to see how gratitude is not in some way satisfaction, but Piper has tried to leverage one against the other. Again, this issue would not be the same if Piper argued a traditional understanding of faith. Fairness dictates that we understand him on his own terms though. As quoted above, Piper himself argued that saving faith is cherishing being forgiven by God (pg. 270). If cherishing what satisfies us is not gratitude, then I am lost as to what gratitude is. Piper has then conflated faith and gratitude through his idiosyncratic view of faith, then opposed gratitude. This point coheres with the earlier claim that Piper conflates faith and faithfulness. In traditional Reformed theology, our works characterize the category of gratitude. Piper has taken aspects of what usually belong to sanctification and loaded them into the essence of faith itself. The argument against gratitude is, therefore, convoluted and cannot hold.
A Wobbly Paradigm
Piper’s argument that faith in future grace should drive our sanctification contains a useful premise when rightly constructed, as I tried to do in the first section, but ultimately proves to be convoluted and very inconsistently helpful mainly because of his confusing definition of faith. A charitable read strives to pull the best uses from a work, which I have done. Still, the puzzling complexity of Future Grace makes it hard to distinguish sections that make good arguments from sections that make bad ones. The definitional issues are laced throughout the work and bound into its very arguments. The rhetoric is often inspiring and can provide help in that sense. On the other hand, those who are trying to follow Piper’s underlying meaning will have to work for it and put effort into extracting those useful principles.
I want to close by indicating examples of how, not merely scattered instances, but the paradigm itself it faulty. The main issue seems to be that Piper did not clearly and consistently emphasize faith as that which binds us to Christ. He certainly said that and believes that. It is still not the central thrust of his understanding of faith. Because faith in primarily emotional, not even necessarily in direct connection to Christ, the Christian life becomes a mystical roller coaster of experientialism.
There are two examples that highlight the point. First, Piper outlines how faith in future grace functioned for Old Testament believers:
“If looking back on past grace was the way the saints of the Old Testament fought the fight of faith in future grace, it is all the more necessary for us to fight this way today; because for us the greatest grace in world history is now past…In other words, Christ came to guarantee that the promises of the Old Testament would indeed come true. He came for the sake of future grace. From the time of Christ onward, faith embraces Christ crucified and risen as the unique, once-for-all foundation for all future grace.” (pg. 101-2)
There are positive ways to explain Piper’s words as they stand, which is the way I would normally wish to understand them. In the Future Grace paradigm, however, I think they are revealing. In both the Old and the New Testaments, the same principle of looking back to past grace is what enables us to have faith in future grace. The good way to understand this would be that looking back to regeneration and justification enable us to press ahead trusting God to be good to us in sanctification until we are glorified.
I am not convinced that is what Piper meant though. For the Old Testament saints, Christ’s work was “future grace.” If Piper is drawing upon the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of grace, then perhaps he has a cogent argument. I doubt that is his point though. I think that the point here is that when people look back at feeling satisfied by things God did for them in the past, they should feel satisfied in the future. That principle applies to Old and New Testaments but has no direct connection to the grace found in Jesus Christ.
That understanding is confirmed if we consider Piper’s application of his paradigm to Adam before the Fall. He wrote,
Thus when I refer to future grace before the Fall, I am not referring to the same kind of grace we receive after the Fall, which is not only unmerited but demerited. God’s will for Adam and Eve was that they live by faith in this kind of future grace–God’s daily fatherly care and provision. (pg. 74)
Piper’s initial qualification is crucial and, even if I think it is still inadequate, steers this particular formulation away from radical departures from the full Christian tradition. Still, applying the premise faith in future grace to Adam and Eve proves that Piper’s paradigm has not really located its central concept in close enough connection to Christ, but truly has prioritized the emotional. How? The issue here is actually not with the definition of grace, however I may want to revise it, but again with his definition of faith. Remember Piper has argued, “Being satisfied with that is what I call faith.” (pg. 1; italics original) What is the “that” which satisfies in this sentence though? “All that God promises to be for us in Jesus stands over against what sin promises to be for us without him.” (pg. 1) Piper seems to have suggested that Adam needed to find satisfaction in God’s promises in Christ, which is an odd way to formulate the pre-Fall situation.
Perhaps I have not quite put the pieces together in adding up Piper’s definitions as they apply to Adam and Eve before the Fall. Perhaps the recalibration of pre- and post-Fall grace removes the tension of Adam needing to feel satisfied with grace received in Christ. I would even affirm that it is likely the case that my effort to untangle this particular issue, just outlined, falls short in understanding the best way this recalibration properly applied. I have left that discussion in this review simply to show some of the mental gymnastics it takes to keep up with Piper’s points.
That shortcoming in this section of my discussion, however, still does not fix the problem. The issue remains that Adam lived by faith in future grace as do we after the Fall, which shows that the paradigm itself is not really fit to apply squarely to our doctrine of sanctification as sinners who have received salvation. The premise of sanctification must be grounded in the new life that we receive in Christ. Piper’s premise is grounded in an experientialism that can equally apply before and after the Fall.
1. John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2003), 308–21, 335–51. These appendices do not appear to be in the 2011 edition.
2. Traditionally, in Western theology, the noun affection and the adjective affective denote a change within the believer. In Medieval and Romanist theology, faith is said to justify because it is affective, because it sanctifies. Thomas said, faith is formed, i.e., made a reality by love, i.e., by sanctification and good works. It was against this background that the magisterial Protestants affirmed sola fide. Faith, they said, justifies solely because it trusts in, looks to, and rests in Christ and his finished work for us. Piper, however, has put a different spin on faith as affection but it is also problematic. When he speaks of faith as affection, he characterizes it as an emotion.
3. It might be interesting to explore the connections to the medieval debate about causality of grace in which Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas disagreed specifically concerning the occasional and instrumental causes of grace in the sacraments; Richard Cross, Duns Scotus (Great Medieval Thinkers; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 136–38.
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