Faith, Love, and Piper: Distinguishing Reformed Categories

What’s love got to do with it? According to John Piper’s recent book What is Saving Faith?, affectional elements, including one’s love, satisfaction in and treasuring of God, are included in the definition of justifying faith itself. Though, this may not come as a surprise to those familiar with Piper’s Edwards-influenced affectional emphasis showcased throughout his career. In a sense, the new book is just explicitly crystalizing a foundational building block towards his final salvation through works schema.

Harrison Perkins, who already noted concerns on Piper’s definition of faith in his thorough review of Future Grace, has provided an excellent review of the new volume. The goal of the present article is not to engage with the book or its exegesis directly as Perkins has taken up, but to help readers continue thinking through the topic using some distinct systematic categories confessed by the Reformed churches and the tradition’s theologians. Think of this as an annotated Heidelbibliography; a resource page filled with links exploring the topic with additional commentary to help one connect the dots, as it were, using none other than *insert cowbell* The Heidelblog.

So, What is Saving Faith?

First, some grounding: the Reformed churches and systematic theologians have historically defined saving faith has consisting in three aspects: knowledge (notitia), assent (assensus), and trust (fiducia). This conception was, in substance, present in Luther, but later expounded upon and codified by Philip Melanchthon in his Loci communes. Though with slightly different emphases, Calvin carried on this tradition, and the threefold elements of saving faith eventually made its way to the primary Reformed confessions and catechisms of the 16th and 17th century. Perhaps chiefly and most clearly, one finds this definition explicated in Heidelberg Catechism Question 21, which states,

21. What is true faith?

True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.”

However, we particularly note what is not present in the Reformed definition of saving faith: one’s own love for God. This was not accidentally left out or presupposed; rather, love was intentionally and thoughtfully removed from the definition of true faith contra the Roman Catholic conception. The Roman church taught that, in order for faith to be justifying, it must be joined with love. In other words, love was inherently included in the definition of saving faith itself. Playing with the definition of faith in this way adds further support towards their faith + works formulation of justification. Sound familiar? A nearly identical pattern was seen in the Federal Vision controversy, and one can’t help but find the silhouette strikingly similar to John Piper’s proposition.

So, theologically, why has the Reformed tradition historically kept affectional elements out of the definition of true faith? As an overview, I don’t think I could put it any better than a couple of Old Princeton’s greats, Geerhardus Vos and J. Gresham Machen:

“There is evidently a difference in principle between believing and loving… The difference is this: that love is an act by which I devote myself to the beloved object, while faith, conversely, resides in an appropriation of the object of my faith for myself… love naturally develops as a fruit of faith. In the same way, all the other Christian virtues are resident in faith as in a root. But they do not contribute to the formal perfecting of faith, although in retrospect they can serve as grounds for recognizing the genuineness of faith.” 1

The reason why faith is given such an exclusive place by the New Testament, so far as the attainment of salvation is concerned, over against love and over against anything else in man except things that can be regarded as mere aspects of faith, is that faith means receiving something, not doing something or even being something. To say, therefore, that our faith saves us means that we do not save ourselves even in the slightest measure, but that God saves us. Very different would be the case if our salvation were said to be through love; for then salvation would depend upon a high quality of our own. And that is what the New Testament, above all else, is concerned to deny.” 2

Interestingly, Piper at least acknowledges Machen’s opposition in his book, but proceeds to fly by his yield and stop signs. To briefly summarize the primary points quoted above: faith is a passive receiving and resting upon the person and completed work of Christ alone. Love, and one’s obedience therein, is a necessary fruit of genuine faith, but confusing the categories of fruit and root undermines that we are saved Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Soli Deo Gloria. More specifically, the Reformed doctrines of the law/gospel distinction, covenant theology, and justification (including final salvation) by faith alone in Christ alone, for example, help to provide a framework with guardrails to better understand why an affectional conception of saving faith is problematic.

The Law Gospel Distinction

The churches birthed out of the Reformation distinguished between two types of God’s speaking in Scripture: law and gospel. Law says, “Do this;” gospel says, “It has been done for you.” As it relates to our standing with God (or, as it comes to us as a covenant), the law says, “Do this and you will have life. Fail to do this and you will surely die.” Whereas the gospel, the good news announcement of the objectively completed work of Christ, says, “Christ has accomplished all that is required of right standing with God.

As it relates to the present topic, note that loving God, treasuring Him or the like, is simply a summary of the first table of the moral law: love the Lord your God with all your faculties. It, quite literally, is “law” speech. This devotion of oneself to God is categorically different than simply receiving the good news of the gospel. True faith is receiving and resting in the person and accomplished work of Christ for salvation; it is decidedly not mixed with our doing of the law. See this article specifically for how the “doing” involved in believing, is distinct from the action of obedience to God’s moral law.

Covenant Theology

Central to the Reformed understanding of Scripture is the doctrine of the covenant. From the beginning and throughout history, God has related to man by way of covenant. The covenant of works was that covenant made with Adam, wherein eternal life was held out to him and all humanity he represented, on the condition of perfect obedience. As we very well know, Adam failed to keep the conditions of this covenant and thus brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.

It is important to note that, while our ability to keep the covenant of works was entirely lost in our inherited corruption, the requirement of the covenant and the consequences thereof remained. It is only through Christ’s fulfillment of all requirements of this law-covenant in His perfect obedience, and wrath-satisfying, penalty-paying death on the cross that one can be made right with God and enjoy eternal fellowship with Him. In other words, Jesus Christ, the last Adam, fulfilled the positive and penal requirements of the covenant of works where the original Adam failed.

The offer to be counted with Christ and His accomplished work unto everlasting, glorified life with God is offered through a second covenant, the covenant of grace. As indicated in the name, the “conditions” of this covenant are unlike the covenant of works. The covenant of works requires perfect and personal obedience. However, in the covenant of grace, the benefits of Christ’s work are freely given by grace and received through faith alone.

Though this is far from a full treatment of Reformed covenant theology, understanding the basic contours can help us apply its relevance to the topic at hand. In understanding that Christ has completely fulfilled the conditions of the covenant of works, including that one would love and cherish God with all the heart, helps to prevent us from putting believers back under this covenant of works. There is nothing that one can do to add to or improve upon Christ’s perfect obedience. To include love in the definition of faith is to take a condition of the covenant of works and insert it in as a condition of the covenant of grace.

Affectional elements, rightly understood, are consequent conditions of the covenant of grace—which is to say that, having received this good news of the gospel by faith, we “consequently” go on to obey God’s law (love God and love neighbors) out of gratitude. However, to make loving God an antecedent condition of the covenant of grace, or, in other words, to make it a stipulation of entering in to the covenant of grace and being a partaker of all of its benefits, is inherently turning the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. This confusion of covenants is the case when one attempts to alter the definition of faith from simply receiving to any other sort of one’s own doing or being. Lack in clarity on the covenant of works, often results in a compromising view of Christ’s fulfillment of that covenant, snowballing into a covenant of grace that is mixed with works.

Justification and Final Salvation by Faith Alone, in Christ Alone

John Piper’s view of final salvation by faith and works has been well documented. In short, Piper proposes that one is initially justified by faith, but that one is finally saved by faith and works. Put differently, in this system, one’s works are evaluated at final judgement as a stipulation of authentic right standing with God, as opposed to solely on the basis of being united to Christ by faith alone.

In putting it so briefly and bluntly, I am sure advocates of John Piper’s view, or maybe even Piper himself, may respond with many “well, actually” clarifications. It is not within the scope of the present article to outline the intricacies of this final salvation including works view (see the linked resources for further reference), but this view as a whole does have implications for the narrowed topic of the definition of saving faith.

If one defines true faith consistent with the Reformed confessions, assuming it is not accompanied with an errant, overt assent to justification by faith and works altogether, there is simply no room for this doctrine of initial justification by faith and final salvation by works. Either a person has received and rested upon the person and finished work of Christ or one has not. In this Reformed definition, the amount of faith has no bearing on one’s salvation; the instrument of genuine faith unites us to Christ, who is the all-sufficient ground of justification. Either one is united to Christ by faith and thus justified, or one is not. As has been noted elsewhere, there is nothing further to “judge” about the person at a later date; rather, that person will simply be vindicated as counted with Christ’s perfect righteousness through the instrument of faith.

If, however, the definition of faith is tweaked to include our subjective doing (albeit inward), that opens the door for there to be further evaluation of one’s doing or being as a case for salvation. It raises the question: how much affection is considered genuine affection unto true faith and justification? These considerations are vital for the purity of the doctrine of Sola Fide and immensely practical even for one’s assurance. At the heart level, it will inevitably be the difference between resting in Christ alone, and, on the other hand, believing in Christ, while hoping (most likely on a pendulum of despair and pride) in one’s own affections towards God. On a personal note, I have seen this time and time again with those that are avid Desiring God consumers, even in myself as I was transitioning away from the Internet-influence of Baptistic TULIP-types that share Piper’s perspective on final salvation. Shifting from trust in the external and objective work of Christ to an internal and subjective, emotional addition to faith itself not only undermines core doctrines such as justification Sola Fide, but it will also likely cause detriment to one’s assurance of salvation.


Again, the purpose of this article is not to engage directly with the specific arguments put forth in the book, but to provide food for thought on the topic that it brings up, using a few key distinctions and categories historically confessed by the Reformed churches and its systematic theologians. This is far from all that could be said, but perhaps it may be an introduction for some into a few core distinctives of Reformed theology.

Let it be said that we are far from opposing deep, heartfelt love, satisfaction in and treasuring of God. These are important, necessary— even impossible to be vacant from the experience of genuine believers. At the same time, it is crucial to keep these affections in the category of fruit and evidence, rather than a part of the substance of faith itself, to avoid serious doctrinal error and unwanted soteriological implications.

In closing, while there is clear truth one way or another on the Biblical battleground, as it were, it must be acknowledged that there is a sense in which we should not expect John Piper to operate within these categories in the first place. Piper does not confess the Bible’s teaching as summarized in the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th century. In other words, despite holding to the doctrines of grace, John Piper is not Reformed; so, to a degree, we should not be surprised when he deviates from historical Reformed doctrines. That is not to dismiss the book as inconsequential, but to simply recognize reality as such, with understanding.

Now if we could just get the Young, Restless folks to reciprocate the understanding that there is more to Reformed theology than an acronym—but I digress.

©William Edison. All Rights Reserved.


1. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics. Translated and Edited by Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Volume 4: Soteriology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 130–131

2. J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 173


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  1. This was a great follow-on to your recent post by Herman Witsius wherein he discusses faith and love.

    Two-stage justification is not good news! It took me years to unravel myself from the haunting “how can I know I’ve done enough to be saved?” It has been the persistent Reformed preaching on the distinction between law and grace by my pastor that has allowed me to truly rest in Christ and to know the peace and joy that leads to increasing love and gratitude.

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