Piper Is Wrong. Luther Is Right.

I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. John 6:47
One could preach a hundred thousand years about these words and emphasize them again and again. Yes, one can’t speak enough about these words. Here Christ explicitly promises eternal life to the believer. He doesn’t say that if we believe in him we will have eternal life. Rather, he says that as soon as we believe in him, we already have eternal life. He is speaking, not of future gifts, but of present ones. He is saying, “If you believe in me, you are saved. You already have eternal life.” This passage is the cornerstone of our justification. With it, we can settle the disputes we’re having about how we receive God’s approval. Good works don’t lead us to heaven or help us in the sight of God. Only faith can do this. Of course, we should do good works and live holy lives in obedience to God. But these efforts won’t help us earn salvation. We already have eternal life. If we don’t receive it while here on earth, we’ll never receive it after we leave. Eternal life must be attained and received in this body. Yet how do we acquire eternal life? God becomes our teacher, for he tells us about eternal life through those who preach his Word. He convinces us that we should accept his Word and believe in him. That is how it begins. Those same words that we hear and believe will lead us to none other than the person of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. God will take us nowhere else. If we believe in Christ and cling to him, we are redeemed from both physical and spiritual death. We already have eternal life.

Martin Luther | Faith Alone,  Zondervan. Kindle Edition, 192.


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10 comments

    • Robin,

      The short version is that he now holds that we are initially justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. We are, he says, finally saved through good works.

      That’s his language, “through good works.”

      Here is a resource page with detailed explanation, history, and critique.

    • It’s similar but not quite the same. The FV has us “getting in,” as it were, by baptism and by “in” I mean, we get a temporary election, vocation, justification, union with Christ, and adoption through baptism. We keep by by cooperating with grace.

      Piper was much influenced by Daniel Fuller, who reacted to Dispensational antinomianism (Zane Hodges et al.) by adding works to faith for justification. A few years ago Piper rejected Fuller’s definition of faith and embraced the Reformation doctrine of justification but he still has a version of Fuller’s works principle for “final” salvation.

  1. What about James 1:12?
    Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.
    It seems to me to imply the opposite, he who does not resist temptation will not receive the crown of life.
    If this isn’t written to Christians, what is the point of putting it in his letter at all?

    • Hi Sheila,

      Let’s look at the verse in context:

      Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness (ὑπομονήν). And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing…Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:2–4, 12–15; ESV).

      James is exhorting Christians to steadfastness or endurance under trials. How are they able to endure? Because they have been given the gift or grace of faith: “Because it is by grace you have been saved through faith and this not of yourselves it is the gift of God—not of works in order that no one may boast. Because we are his craftsmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works, to which God prepared us, in order that we might walk in them” (Eph 2:8–10) By the analogy of Scripture, we know that faith itself is a divine gift. Even the good works we do are a divine gift and they are the fruit of his grace. Salvation itself, Paul says, is through his unconditional favor. So, bearing that in mind, when we read James 1 & 2, both inspired by the same Holy Spirit, we understand that it is the testing of the grace of faith the produces endurance or perseverance. It was painfully difficult to be a Christian in Jerusalem. The same forces that had crucified Jesus were still present. James himself would be martyred. The perseverance, produced by faith under persecution leads to sanctification (perfection; τέλειον). That gives us the broader and immediate context for vv. 12ff.

      What does James actually say? He says “blessed” (Μακάριος). In fact, he says “blessed is…”. He does not say “blessed through (δια). Paul says we are saved through (δια) faith. From whom did James learn to say “blessed is…”? From our Lord (his brother) Jesus:

      Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt 5:11–12; ESV).

      Blessedness is a state graciously, freely, unconditionally endowed by God. It is not something we earn by or through works. James is borrowing from Jesus and applying the Sermon on the Mount. We’re not to think of difficulties encountered for Christ’s sake as punishment but as indicators of divine favor and blessing. It is a blessing to be identified with Jesus and treated, even in a small way, as he was, for his sake.

      James does not say that we receive the crown of life “through” our our perseverance. He says that it is the case that those who are blessed by God with the privilege of trial will receive the crown of life. We have no reason or warrant to turn our perseverance into the instrument of salvation.

      Further, there is no ground here or anywhere else in Scripture to presuppose two stages of initial justification and final salvation. That is a Roman Catholic way of doing business. The Protestant Reformers all rejected that very way of thinking and reading Scripture. Piper has resurrected an old Roman error under the influence of Daniel Fuller, who hated the Reformation and did his best to kill it.

      Eternal blessedness is a promise not a contract due to or through our obedience. That’s why the end of passage is important. The contrast here is between our sin and disobedience and God’s purity and goodness. He is gracious, good, and holy. We are corrupted by sin. We are to resist actively, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, through faith but perseverance is always and only a grace of God and never the ground or instrument of our salvation, which is only and always by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide).

      Again, I urge everyone to read carefully the Fifth Head of Doctrine of the Synod of Dort, where Synod did a marvelous job of responding to the Remonstrants on this very topic. See also the rejection of errors under this head.

      E.g., RE 1:

      Synod rejects the errors of those

      Who teach that the perseverance of true believers is not an effect of election or a gift of God produced by Christ’s death, but a condition of the new covenant which man, before what they call his “peremptory” election and justification, must fulfill by his free will.

      For Holy Scripture testifies that perseverance follows from election and is granted to the chosen by virtue of Christ’s death, resurrection, and intercession: “The chosen obtained it; the others were hardened” (Rom 11:7); likewise, “He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not, along with him, grant us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? It is Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised—who also sits at the right hand of God, and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8:32–35).

      Here we should take a lesson from Synod. They already answered this objection.

  2. Dr. Clark may have noted this already, but I think the presence of “when” and not “if” is a key to this passage:

    “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for WHEN (not IF) he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”

    Am I able to make that distinction properly?

  3. Excellent observation! The “if” would make the statement conditional on your performance. The “when” makes it a promise, in keeping with the many promises God makes to preserve His people. “We are his workmanship”..,Ephesians 2:10

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