Hold up! Someone on the internet is wrong. I think. Maybe. Perhaps. At least that’s what I was told. She says it’s him. He says it’s her. He says its him. Him says its he. They say it’s them. And…them say it’s they. Confusing, right? I have to admit that’s a bit how I’ve been feeling in this last week as I’ve tried to follow a dust-up caused by some comments that John Piper made in an article entitled “Does God Really Save Us By Faith Alone?” Many are thinking through justification, sanctification, good works, and final judgment. Those are important topics and the way Piper has interwoven them has caused some push back.
What do we make of this dust-up? Well, in one way I’m hesitant to draw unnecessary attention to it. In at least a couple of the rejoinders that have been made the authors – neither of whom are unintelligent or poorly read, and both who have been immensely helpful to me personally – have entered into a rather complex and nuanced disagreement with a lot of prepositions that is, to be honest, a little confusing if not a little discouraging. I’m not opposed to complex or nuanced theological conversations even if I find I need to tread a little harder (okay, a lot harder) to stay above the water. But I’m also sympathetic to what Herman Witsius once wrote: “In my apprehension it was never better with the Christian people, than when sincerely attentive to believe the gospel, to live in a holy manner, and to banish far the quirks of curious questions, they delighted themselves in the pure love of God and Christ, and in the certain expectation of eternal life.”
What is the hinge of the disagreement? In his article Piper says that the five solas – grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, and to the glory of God alone – should be used only in relation to “God’s work of justification.” If we apply it to sanctification or what Piper calls final salvation we will have problems especially with “faith alone.” Now, if I were to pause here I’d say this isn’t carefully worded. Biblically, I find no problem in saying that we are sanctified by faith alone. That’s because Romans 6 (for instance) grounds our sanctification in union with Jesus in his death and resurrection. Faith is, as Witsius said, “the bond of our union with Christ” and is the “source of all subsequent vital operations.” Yes, to put it simply, the role of faith is different in justification and sanctification. In the former it’s passive and rests on Jesus Christ and in the latter it works by love. But it’s not wrong, in my mind, to apply the solas, and even faith alone, to the work of sanctification.
But, the disagreement goes beyond that. Piper continued by writing: “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. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, ‘God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.'” In the mind of some, this statement “through that fruit and that faith” has compromised – like Roman Catholicism, the New Perspective, and what is commonly called Federal Vision – the doctrine of justification by faith alone because it gives wiggle room to our works. Others have defended the statement with well-placed quotes from some of the best Reformed thinkers.
How can we digest this? I admit (and not as a false show of humility) that I don’t have the wherewithal to busy myself with responses and answers to the more erudite. With thankfulness and great appreciation for the various gifts the Spirit has given to the church I leave that to more gifted men and women. But as a preacher of the gospel, clarity – an often neglected and overlooked necessity of the ministry – is my responsibility as I seek to promote the glory of Jesus Christ. And so this whole disagreement strikes a pastoral nerve because it centers on four very important things: justification, sanctification, good works, and final judgment. Each of those needs to be clearly understood and clearly explained.
So if I think like a pastor – not as an armchair theologian, internet critic, discernment blogger, or ivory tower bookworm – what would I say?
- Justification: The universal problem of all people is that we don’t have the necessary righteousness to stand before God. The penalty of that is the wrath of God which is being revealed against all unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). But God has provided a perfect righteousness for us through Jesus Christ who lived the life the law commands and died the death the law demands. By faith alone – believing, trusting, resting in Jesus – his perfect righteousness becomes our righteousness without adding any of our works (Romans 3:21-31) so that we can stand before God and the penalty of sin – condemnation – is removed once and for all. We don’t wait for a moment in the future when we’ll be justified but it’s a present reality of God’s eternal verdict breaking into the now: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
- Sanctification: But the gospel doesn’t only deal with the penalty of sin it also deals with the power of sin. Like a cruel king sin has enslaved all of us. But God works against the power of our sin. By faith we’re united to Jesus in his death and resurrection so that we, in him, have died to sin that we might live to the glory of God being freed from its enslavement (Romans 6:6, 10). It still exerts power, influence, and force, but through the Spirit we can be obedient from the heart (Romans 6:17). This work is no less necessary for eternal life than justification for Paul says: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:22).
- Good Works: The obedience that comes from the heart (Romans 6:17) is the fruit of faith. These fruits aren’t at all from ourselves but from the Spirit (Galatians 5:22 and Ephesians 2:10). But the Spirit does not produce them apart from us for he works in us that we might work and will what is pleasing to God (Philippians 2:13). So while we’re not justified by good works – not even those worked in us by God (see Luke 18:11) – this holiness is still necessary. As weak and feeble as it is, it’s a necessary evidence of our faith (James 2:18), it’s necessary to see God (Hebrews 12:14), and it’s necessary to having eternal life (Romans 6:22). No, it doesn’t give us a right to eternal life, but it is the road we walk upon whose end is life eternal.
- Final Judgment: Putting aside any preferential quibbles I may have with the term “final salvation,” we are told that the day is coming when everyone will be judged in righteousness by Jesus Christ (see Acts 17:31). The fruit of our faith has an important place in that judgment; for we will give an account of our thoughts, words, and deeds (see 2 Corinthians 5:10, Romans 2:16, and Matthew 12:37). And, as the Westminster Confession of Faith parrots the Bible, “[all will] receive according to what we have done in the body, whether good or evil” (WCF 33.1). Those good works will be mentioned as evidence of the faith of believers, their union to Christ, and their adoption; and they will be evidence of God’s effectual and saving grace. Though stained and blemished by sin they will, according to the manifestation of the mercy of God, be commended by the Judge and he will crown his own gifts of grace, openly acquit his children of sin, and the righteous will go into eternal life fully delivered from sin – its penalty by justification, its power by sanctification, and its presence by glorification.
Nothing in all of this compromises that great gospel declaration: “For by grace you have been saved through faith And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Rather, it expresses that profound truth and upholds it in all its breadth and depth. And it is, to the best of my understanding, exactly what the Westminster Confession of Faith so clearly says (see Chapters 11, 13, 16, and 33). I suppose the theologians will continue to theologize and I will read with rapt attention. But let’s not let the complex steal away from clarity the gospel demands. Once more Witsius:
It will be our best, if leaving the dangerous precipices of opinions, we walk on the easy, the plain, and safe way of scripture, the simplicity of which is vastly preferable to all the sublimity of high-swollen science […] If we so assert the free grace of God, that no pretext be given to the licentiousness of the flesh; so extol free justification, that nothing be derogated from sanctification; so inculcate the one righteousness of Christ, which only can stand before the Divine tribunal, that neither the utility nor the reward, which scripture assigns it, be denied to our piety […] If on both sides, we sincerely do these things, by the goodness of God, it shall follow, that instead of the quibbles of obscure controversy, the clear day shall begin to shine, and the day star arise in our hearts […] and banishing the contentions of unhappy differences, we shall all, as with one voice, celebrate the glorious grace of God, in Christ.