The Justification That Doesn’t Justify

thirsting

There was a time when perhaps John Piper could be given the benefit of the doubt when it came to how sinners can stand justified before a righteous and holy God. I recall in 2002, long before the Piper/Wright debates, when John Robbins’ scathing review of Piper’s book Future Grace came out there were howls across the internet decrying Robbins for attacking such a prominent, respected and faithful Christian pastor and teacher. After all, in his review, Pied Piper, Robbins wrote:

Piper proclaims: “I am hard pressed to imagine something more important for our lives than fulfilling the covenant that God has made with us for our final salvation” (249). Consider his words carefully. Piper does not mean that the work of Christ in perfectly fulfilling the covenant on behalf of his people is the most important thing he can think of for our final salvation; he says that we personally, or as he says, “experientially,” fulfill the covenant on our own behalf, and that our fulfillment of the covenant is the most important thing for our final salvation. We ourselves “fulfill the covenant that God has made with us for our final salvation.” Furthermore, keep in mind his description of “future grace”: “the heartstrengthening power that comes from the Holy Spirit…is virtually the same as what I mean by future grace.” Therefore, if we fulfill the conditions required of us, if we obey the covenant, then God will give us “the heart-strengthening power that comes from the Holy Spirit,” and we will be saved. This is not the Gospel. It is a pious fraud.

While others have been very slow in identifying the false gospel of John Piper, Robbins was more than a decade ahead of the game (he often was) and was grossly reviled and dismissed at the time and since because of it.

I mean, people will sometimes ask wasn’t Piper the man who confronted and successfully challenged N.T. Wright over the doctrine of justification? Wasn’t Piper the champion of the historic Reformed doctrine of justification over against the New Perspectives novelties of Wright? Well, was he? I’ll admit I may have read one or two pieces by Piper and Wright at the time of their public debate and controversy, but as I’ve mentioned elsewhere I have never cared very much for Piper or paid him that much attention. I’ve always found his writings obscurant, flowery and overly effeminate. Not my cup of tea.

However, according to a short summary of their debate published in Christianity Today, while there are differences between Piper and Wright to be sure, when it comes to the question of how one gets into heaven, what CT categorize as”Future Justification,” the two men are eerily similar and are even in agreement.

Piper:

Present justification is based on the substitutionary work of Christ alone, enjoyed in union with him through faith alone. Future justification is the open confirmation and declaration that in Christ Jesus we are perfectly blameless before God. This final judgment accords with our works. That is, the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives will be brought forward as the evidence and confirmation of true faith and union with Christ. Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation.

Wright:

Present justification is the announcement issued on the basis of faith and faith alone of who is part of the covenant family of God. The present verdict gives the assurance that the verdict announced on the Last Day will match it; the Holy Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.

Given the above Piper is hardly the champion and hero of the historic Christian faith even in his conflict with N.T. Wright. When it comes to the question of how can a sinner get into heaven Piper and Wright are basically on the same page which makes their other differences merely cosmetic. Let’s face it, if justification by faith alone is not what gets you into heaven and only makes “final justification” possible, then Luther and the entire Reformation were wrong and Rome was right.

Today, and particularly after the sermon Piper preached in 2017 entitled, “Faith Alone How (Not) to Use a Reformed Slogan ,” only the willfully blind Piper fan-boy (or someone who similarly believes in justification by faith and works) can defend Piper much less identify him as a faithful Christian pastor and teacher. Not that Piper has said anything new it’s just that he has rarely been quite so clear and unambiguous. Piper has left no more cover for his defenders to hide behind. As previously discussed on this blog (and by others like Tim Kaufman, Tim Shaughnessy, Carlos Montijo, Patrick Hines who have all extensively documented, discussed, and unpacked Piper’s false gospel and the implications of Piper’s use of the unbiblical and false theological category, “final salvation”), Piper does not believe all who are justified go to heaven. The justification which occurs when a person first believes only changes a person’s “position” relative to God from where final salvation/justification is merely possible. To survive God’s judgment on the last day and attain “final salvation,” works must be accompanied by this faith if one can ever hope to enter into heaven. A man will be called to point to his works done in Christ’s name and not to Christ alone in order to enter heaven.

Piper proclaims:

Essential to the Christian life and necessary for final salvation is the killing of sin (Romans 8:13) and the pursuit of holiness (Hebrews 12:14). Mortification of sin, sanctification in holiness. But what makes that possible and pleasing to God? We put sin to death and we pursue holiness from a justified position where God is one hundred percent for us — already — by faith alone.

It’s on the basis of faith plus works by which a believer will attain “final salvation.” We don’t enter into eternal rest and perfect fellowship with God on the basis of Christ’s work alone accomplished outside of ourselves on a cross almost 2000 years ago. It’s the fruit of sanctification that God works in us by faith that is the basis for our admittance into heaven. Piper is crystal clear and emphatic; “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.” So much for salvation by faith alone.

According to Piper justification which occurs by faith alone is a completely different theological category from how one gets into heaven. Piper insists, “we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone.” Well, of course, we should speak of getting to heaven in the same way we are justified because to be justified is what gets you into heaven. That’s exactly what the word justification encompasses. Jesus said; “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:254)” And, again in John 3:36a He says; “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life ….” There is no future judgment of the believer. According to Jesus justification is a present as well as a future reality for all believers. Eternal life is something the believer already possesses. The problem with Piper is that he doesn’t believe it. Piper is proclaiming to all who will listen that Jesus Christ’s perfect life and sacrificial and atoning death is not enough to get anyone into heaven. Tragically, we already know how that turns out for people like Piper and those who follow him (see Matthew 7:22,23)

Piper provides a justification that doesn’t justify.

With all that said, I recently came across a piece by Richard Phillips, “Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works” (part1, part2). Interestingly, Phillips is writing in response to N.T. Wright and any number of the five arguments apply equally to Piper (I know, how ironic). However, I was really struck by his third argument since it is an argument I haven’t seen raised in response to Piper “future salvation” but one I also think is devastating to his false gospel.

Argument #3: Believers will not stand for judgment on the basis of their own works. Even while acknowledging that our sins have already been judged at the cross, some will argue that we must still be justified by our good works. Their key passage is Romans 2:6-13, where Paul speaks of “the doers of the law” being justified (2:13). Reformed theology has classically regarded this passage as describing how religious people hope to be justified apart from Christ. In chapter 1, Paul wrote of the condemnation of pagan idolaters, but in chapter 2 he addresses the religious Jew. Paul warns them against the idea that the law – the Torah – saves them, because one is saved not merely by possessing the law but by keeping it. If you are trying to be justified by the law, Paul says, then you have to do it, not merely possess it. John Calvin explains of Romans 2:13: “The sense of this verse, therefore, is that if righteousness is sought by the law, the law must be fulfilled, for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works.” [7] This is why Paul proceeds to make the point that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), and “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The point of Romans 2:6-13 is to show those who seek to be justified by their works that they will have to keep the law perfectly, which Paul then shows they cannot hope to do. Given its clear context, Calvin comments on Romans 2:13, “Those who misinterpret this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works deserve universal contempt.” [8]

According to the vision of final judgment in Revelation 20:11-15, it is only those outside of Christ who will be judged according to their works. John says, “I saw the dead, great and small standing before the throne, and books were opened” (Rev. 20:12). The question is, “To whom does John refer when speaking of ‘the dead’?” On a simple reading, we might assume that he means everyone who had previously been dead prior to their resurrection, that is, all persons who ever lived. But on more careful consideration, we should realize that those who are resurrected to death are only those who are resurrected for eternal condemnation. Jesus noted two categories of persons resurrected in the future: some will be raised “to the resurrection of life,” whereas the wicked will rise “to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:29). Now, John says in the Revelation, “the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:12). Here is the final judgment according to works, by which every man and woman outside of Christ will give an account before his holy judgment seat. But John mentions another book, by which those who are raised to life are justified: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15). By necessary inference, some are judged by their works and thrown into the lake of fire, and others are not condemned because their name is in the book of life.

Future judgment according to works thus involves only those whose names are not written in the book of life. Elsewhere in Revelation, this book is described as “the book of the life of the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 13:8). It is not just the book of life, but the book of the life of Christ: the life granted to those named in the book comes from Christ through his death. Moreover, as Revelation 17:8 says, those names were written in the book of life “from the foundation of the world.” Thus we err in thinking that believers as justified on the basis of their own works, when the Bible insists that eternal life is grounded on Christ’s atoning death (contrary to N. T. Wright’s denial of solus Christus, see above), and that its recipients are determined according to God’s eternal predestination. Thus, those named for eternal life are those whose justification is based not on their own works but on the works of Christ. Those raised to death are judged according to their works; those whose names are written in the book of Christ’s life are not judged: as Jesus taught, whoever believes “does not come into judgment” (Jn. 5:24). Revelation 20:10-15 therefore shows two different categories of persons who are judged by two different standards (book of their own works vs. the book of the life of Christ), which results in two different eternal destinies. Thus judgment according to works is a future that only those outside of Christ must face.

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5 Comments on “The Justification That Doesn’t Justify”

  1. Denson Dube Says:

    John Piper over the cliff. Thanks Sean for this piece. There are many anti-Calvinists on the internet. Their opposition to Calvin is based on their dislike for a sovereign God who predestinates all according to His pleasure. They are free willers. Free will, is at the root of justification by fath and works. These religious zeslots are anti Christs, denying the free sovereign grace of God.

  2. John Bradshaw Says:

    Excellent stuff! Never read these verses like that before, but the explanation given is as clear as day. Thx Sean!

  3. Sean Gerety Says:

    Thanks, John. I hadn’t either. It’s actually very reassuring … and just more ammo when fighting these “initial vs final justification” guys.
    .

  4. Sean Gerety Says:

    Also, I should point out that Phillips defended Piper in 2014 saying that his criticism of Wright didn’t apply to Piper but obviously they do. I think there was a time when people like Phillips could be forgiven for giving Piper a pass on justification because Piper has a history of saying confusing and contradictory things while wrapping them in flowery pious prose (as Tim Kauffman and Tim Shaughnessy point out in their TR review).

    Those days are over. No more free passes.

  5. John Bradshaw Says:

    “Also, I should point out that Phillips defended Piper in 2014 saying that his criticism of Wright didn’t apply to Piper but obviously they do”.
    Yes, interesting. I was saddened to see after such a good essay, that Phillips has an extensive, approving quote from C. S. Lewis towards the end. I am amazed at how inconsistent teachers can be. I listened to Phillips on another sermon, and he goes off the rails half way through about J.I. Packer and stained glass windows! The rest of the sermon was quite good to that point. It was out of the blue. I can’t figure out what makes these guys tick, but they don’t inspire confidence in their teaching. It’s like listening to discordant music.


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