John Piper Stirs Up the “Sanctification Debate”
John Piper is a well-known pastor (now retired) and widely thought of as a leader in Reformed circles. Thus, any subtle errors that he teaches are all the more dangerous and in need of exposure. This is even more so when his errors contradict justification by faith alone, one of the cardinal doctrines of Scripture. Those who seek to learn from Piper must be aware that Piper subtly denies the doctrine of justification by faith alone in a way that aligns him with the hardly mentioned but still dangerous heresy of the Federal Vision.
Piper recently created some controversy in a foreword to Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification authored by Thomas Schreiner. Piper wrote,
As Tom Schreiner says, the book “tackles one of the fundamental questions of our human condition: how can a person be right with God?”
The stunning Christian answer is: sola fide—faith alone. But be sure you hear this carefully and precisely: He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God. In fact, one must already be in a right relationship with God by faith alone in order to meet the other conditions.”1
We need to have a clear understanding of what Piper is talking about when he distinguishes being “right with God” from “attaining heaven.” It is important to remember that he is speaking about the doctrine of justification, even though he avoids using the term. Piper is speaking about what is sometimes referred to as a distinction between ‘initial’ and ‘final’ justification. If Piper used the term ‘justification,’ he would have to admit that he believes an initial justification (being right with God ) that is by faith alone but a final justification (attaining heaven) that is by faith and works. By speaking of a final justification that is by faith and works, Piper denies justification by faith alone. It really is that simple. Piper’s error is identical to the error of Richard Gaffin and others who have defended and taught the federal vision heresy now for several decades.
The basic error of Piper is that he denies that the ground for being “right with God” is the meritorious work of Jesus Christ alone. In final justification God’s declaration that the sinner is “not guilty” and “righteous” is announced only if he has fulfilled the condition of doing good works. So Piper clearly denies that Christ’s work alone is the ground for final justification.
But even in initial justification Piper’s teaching presents faith as a ground for God’s act of justifying a sinner. In Reformed orthodoxy (cf. HC, LD 23; BC, Art. 23), justification by faith alone does not mean that a sinner is declared right with God because he believes. Faith is not a condition upon which justification depends. Rather, faith is the only instrument by which a sinner appropriates the perfect righteousness of Christ. Therefore, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, properly understood, means that Jesus Christ’s work is the only ground for the justification of a sinner, and that faith is the instrument through which the sinner receives Christ’s righteousness.
But Piper speaks of faith as a “condition” for being right with God. He writes, “There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others [besides faith] for entering a right relationship to God.” If Piper would see that faith is never the ground for justification but only the way in which a sinner receives the righteousness of Jesus Christ, he would understand that there is no way that works could ever enter into either initial or final justification.2 Piper’s view that faith is the condition for being right with God (initial justification) opens the door for him to bring in works as a ground for attaining heaven (final justification).
Election: Calvinism’s Antidote to Arminianism
Although he does not mention John Piper, Christopher Gordon (pastor of a URC church in Escondido, CA) has written an article that is likely a response to the controversy caused by Piper’s foreword to Schreiner’s book. Gordon’s article is entitled, “How Arminian Has the Sanctification Debate Become?”3 With this title Gordon suggests that some theologians in Reformed circles have adopted an Arminian view of sanctification. He explains that this is probably a response to what some believe is “an over emphasis on justification and a narrow definition of the gospel” that leads to “antinomianism.” Gordon writes, “Many explicitly fear that the word gospel is being defined too narrowly. So when people communicate that all they need is the gospel, worry is expressed that maybe this does not include sanctification too.” This led some to re-emphasize sanctification and “the necessity of good works for salvation.” In today’s climate of tolerance Gordon’s response to the emphasis on “the necessity of good works for salvation” is refreshingly bold.
Gordon boldly suggests that some teachers within the Reformed camp are guilty of Arminianism! Arminianism is the heresy that was banned from the Reformed camp in 1618-1619 by the great Synod of Dordt. By raising the specter of Arminianism, Gordon is suggesting that there are people within the Reformed camp who need to repent or be excommunicated from the camp.
Gordon’s response is also bold because he responds to those who are worried that an “overemphasis on grace” will lead to antinomianism by appealing to the doctrine of election! Gordon quotes Canons I.9 in full and parts of I.7 and I.8. These articles in the Canons explain that God’s decree of election “was before any of the fruits we experience, including sanctification, both in order and in time.” So Gordon argues, it is not a question for Reformed people whether those who are justified by grace alone will also be sanctified. He writes,
The Lord remains Lord even over our sanctification, its degrees, measures, and our ‘good works’ that he prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (). The intended end was always determined before the means were given! We should be clear in this sanctification debate, Christ completes the work he began in us ( ).
Gordon knows that this appeal to the doctrine of election will likely lead some in the Reformed camp to cry those dreaded words, “hyper-Calvinism.” Twice he speaks of the fact that some fear that pointing to election as the fountain of all the benefits of salvation will lead to “hyper-Calvinism.” Gordon does not define what he means by hyper-Calvinism, but he seems to have in mind the view that salvation by grace alone means that justified sinners are free to live careless lives. In other words hyper-Calvinism is the same as antinomianism. To his credit, Gordon does not retreat in the face of the charge of hyper-Calvinism. He maintains that salvation is all God’s gift of grace that has its source in eternal election and is therefore not dependent on man in any way. (He even makes mention of the Canons teaching on reprobation in I.16, although he does not really explain the doctrine and its relevance to the “sanctification debate”).
Despite his explanation of how his view is not guilty of hyper-Calvinism, Gordon will inevitably face the charge. There is a sense in which he ought to welcome such a slanderous charge. Just as teaching that salvation is by God’s grace alone inevitably attracts the charge of antinomianism, so also teaching that election is the source of all the benefits of salvation inevitably will lead to the charge of hyper-Calvinism. There may have been a time in the history of Reformed churches when the charge of hyper-Calvinism was legitimately applied to those who abused the doctrines of grace—to those who abused the doctrine of election, for example, to teach that the gospel is to be preached only to the elect. But now the charge of hyper-Calvinism is made against those who merely teach the Reformed doctrine of election, not because they abuse it. Gordon may soon be charged by men within the Reformed camp with allowing election to govern/dominate sanctification. He may even face the absurd charge that because he has allowed election to govern sanctification that he has virtually made election and sanctification synonymous! In the face of such charges will Gordon maintain his position that election governs sanctification?
And if Gordon will maintain that election governs sanctification, here are some other important questions for him to answer. Does he recognize that the so-called “sanctification debate” is intimately connected to the current debate about the doctrine of the covenant of grace swirling in Reformed Churches? Does he recognize that Arminianism is not only being injected into the doctrines of justification and sanctification but also into the doctrine of the covenant? He writes, “Maybe what this sanctification debate needs to recover is a robust appreciation again for the Reformed doctrine of Predestination.” Would he agree that this statement would be equally true if the word “sanctification” were replaced with the word “covenant”? Would he agree that the Canons teach that the decree of election is also the source of the covenant of grace (if you connect I.9 to II.8)? Would he agree that just as it is wrong to charge those who teach that election governs sanctification with hyper-Calvinism, so it is equally wrong to make that charge against those who teach that election governs the covenant?
By these questions I do not mean to antagonize Rev. Gordon. I appreciate his article. My only criticism is that he should be less hesitant to identify and condemn the Arminianism that has spread as a leaven throughout the Reformed lump. But if Gordon wants to get at the source of the Arminian infection he will have to examine how Arminianism has latched on to the doctrine of the covenant within Reformed circles. And then he will have to consider how the Protestant Reformed Churches have rightly connected election and the covenant to counteract that Arminianism—without falling into the error of hyper-Calvinism.
1 John Piper in Faith Alone (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 11.
2 That Piper sees faith as a ground for justification is confirmed by a statement taken from his website desiringgod.org. “God justifies us on the first genuine act of saving faith, but in doing so he has a view to all subsequent acts of faith contained, as it were, like a seed in that first act…God does not wait to the end of our lives in order to declare us righteous. In fact, we would not be able to have the assurance and freedom in order to live out the radical demands of Christ unless we could be confident that because of our faith we already stand righteous before him (emphasis added). See more at: www.trinityfoundation.org/horror_show.php?id=35 (April 2005).
3 This article can be found online at: http://theaquilareport. com/how-arminian-has-the-sanctification-debate-become/