Assessing Piper’s Critics: Love Hopes All Things

by Mark Jones & D. Patrick Ramsey

Where is the love?

CHARITY

The Aquila Report and Professor R. Scott Clark continue their onslaught against a foe that doesn’t actually exist.

The most depressing thing about the various articles that are supposedly defending the doctrine of justification is the apparent lack of love/charity towards men like John Piper. Love “believes all things, hopes all things.” In other words, if we can read Piper in a charitable way and understand that he is saying the same thing as those in the Reformed tradition, then why don’t we try to do that? Why do we try to make him say things that sound as bad as possible?

Answer: Because he is saying something different.

Sure. But is he saying something different to the critics and the Reformed tradition or just something different to the critics? We have argued it is the latter. To our knowledge, no one has actually proven that the Reformed authors quoted and Piper are saying different things. If someone wants to carefully examine, in Latin, the language of Twisse, and then argue he’s saying something totally different to Piper, we’re willing to listen. If someone can read through the works of Owen, Goodwin, Twisse, Zanchius, etc., and prove the difference between Piper and those illustrious divines, please show us. It simply has not happened yet, as far as we know.

In our own reading of Piper it is clear to us that he:

  1. Believes justification is a once-for-all act.
  2. It can never be revoked.
  3. God will justify us on the final day publicly based upon the same grounds he justified us when we first believed, namely, the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Nevertheless, he is also saying, along with Reformed theologians:

  1. The path we walk on towards glorification includes good works.
  2. This path is not optional (i.e., it is necessary).
  3. Those who are truly justified by a supernatural faith will certainly walk on the path God has laid out for them to eternal life.
  4. God will vindicate us publicly by showing that our faith was genuine, proved by good works. But these good works, as noted above, are not the ground for entering heaven.

This comes back to the right vs possession distinction found in our tradition.

Piper believes that the “right” to life (not that he uses this word, but he means the same thing) is secured entirely by Christ’s work alone.

Piper believes that the “possession” of life is a path we walk, but the possession of life is not the ground for our entrance into heaven. It is the necessary path we walk, but the works we do cannot justify us before the tribunal of God. And we believe that his understanding of how this works is actually more faithful to the Reformed tradition than his Reformed critics. If we were to summarize Piper’s teaching, we’d say: “that by the new birth, and faith, God becomes at that instant 100% for us. The ground of this acceptance is Christ’s blood and righteousness. His being 100% for us is why we may enter into everlasting perfection and joy. The role of our works is to confirm that we do in fact have a faith union with Christ that is authentic, as 2 Peter 1:10 says.” This, we have on very good authority, is Piper’s view!

And in his comments on the future judgment, why are his critics not drawing attention to these fully orthodox words of Piper’s concerning the final judgment?

How then can I say that the judgment of believers will not only be the public declaration of the measure of our reward in the kingdom of God according to our deeds, but will also be the public declaration of our salvation — our entering the kingdom — according to our deeds?

The answer in a couple sentences 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 (cf. Romans 12:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11). In other words, salvation is by faith, and rewards are by faith, but the evidence of invisible faith in the judgment hall of Christ will be a transformed life. Our deeds are not the basis of our salvation, they are the evidence of our salvation. They are not foundation, they are demonstration.

Not the basis, but the evidence! Not the foundation, but the demonstration! Orthodox, Reformed, and theology worthy of praise, not critique.

SCOTT CLARK: A FAIR & ACCURATE CRITIC?

In conjunction with the current debate surrounding John Piper’s recent comments on the relationship between good works and salvation, R. Scott Clark has written a post on the Heidelblog wherein he discusses the Reformed view on this subject. In one section, he addresses the distinction between title and possession, which has been used to defend Piper’s position. He also refers the reader to previous articles that discuss this distinction.

Clark rightly acknowledges that the mainstream of the Reformed tradition did teach this distinction. The question, however, is what did they mean by it. Clark says that there are three ways you can look at the role of good works: is (to be); through (instrument) and because (ground). He then argues that “is” is the proper way to interpret the Reformed understanding of good works as the means and way to possessing salvation. After surveying the writings of Turretin and Witsius, Clark says, “For Witsius, as for Turretin, It is the case that believers will do good works.”

In line with this, Clark says that good works are merely the fruit and evidence of salvation. He then cites The Council of Trent, which he says faithfully represented the Protestant and Reformed position by its rejection of the mere fruit position.

Unfortunately, Clark willingly embraces the Roman Catholic caricature of the Protestant/Reformed view of good works.

John Davenant lashes out at Bellarmine for holding to this caricature and he vigorously argues against the notion that good works are only necessary to attest or evidence true faith. Similarly, Witsius strongly rebuked the so-called antinomian position among the English Dissenters who taught that good works in relation to salvation merely testify to the life we have in Christ. Many Reformed theologians did not accept Bellarmine’s caricatures, but Clark seems to think Bellarmine was correct!

In this regard, we need to point out that Clark misinterprets the Reformed distinction of title and possession. For example, Witsius argued contrary to the mere fruit position that believers are to do good works because they live and so that they may live. Doing good works because they live is equivalent to Clark’s “it is the case believers will do good works.” However, Witsius is saying more than that by noting that believers obey that they may live. This is clear by the analogy he uses. He likens the role of good works to eating food. No man eats but he lives, but he also eats that he may live. A man may not eat if he chooses. But if he wants to keep on living, he must eat. Clearly, gospel obedience is more than an “is” in salvation, at least for Witsius (and, we would argue, almost everyone else among the Reformed orthodox).

The same is true for Turretin. He talks about good works being the means and way to possessing salvation. But “means” cannot be reduced to “it is the case.” The biblical analogies that Turretin uses make this clear: way to goal, sowing to harvest, labor to the reward, a contest to the crown.

Since good works are more than “it is the case,” what language should we use to articulate that? Clark only has three categories: “is,” “through,” and “because.” Good works clearly are not the ground of salvation or of the possession of salvation and so we can’t use “because.” Clark doesn’t like the word “through” or “instrument.”  And so that only leaves “is,” which we have seen is insufficient.

CONCLUSION 

Now you don’t have to use the word “through” (2 Thess. 2:13) or “instrument” (Zanchius: good works are the instrumental cause of the possession of eternal life) to articulate the Reformed position, even though stellar Reformed theologians did, in fact, use such language. But then you need a fourth category such as “means” and “way” in distinction from “is.” At the same time, you need to be willing to accept those who do use the word “through” or “instrument” when it is properly defined. Some used the word “efficiency” with respect to good works. Anthony Burgess, for example, didn’t care for that language, but he admitted that it might be true if used in the broad sense, which is of course how some Reformed theologians used it (Mastricht: good works have a sort of efficacy in leading us to salvation; Twisse: Good works are the dispositive [Lat: dispositiva] cause of salvation”).

Rachel Green Miller doesn’t seem to be able to understand this. That’s fine, in one sense. Our problem with her is that she has called into question the orthodoxy of a minister of the gospel, but she seems totally unaware of the Reformed tradition (relying on Clark to assure her). She seems to be unwilling to carefully examine the language of certain Westminster divines who would also come under her “anathemas” if they changed their name to “Piper” (or “Jones”).

All of this brings us back to our initial comment: why are some in the Reformed church today so apparently insistent on misreading others and making a mountain out of a molehill when they simply do not need to? That’s what concerns us. It is a lack of charity and ultimately threatens not only the good name of faithful ministers, but also threatens the peace of the church.

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