Sometimes blogging is idyllic, like drifting down a river on a raft, and sometimes it’s consuming, like the burden to prophecy that the Old Testament saints were faced with (Amos 3:8), and woe to me, Piper’s latest comments about the necessity of good works in salvation has taken me out of the former state of mind and put me into the latter. Fortunately there’s already been a great deal said about the topic, (much of it here at H&M), but seeing as there still seems to be something missing, I intend to supply the deficiency in this post.
In saying that however I want to make it clear that I have no interest echoing what some others have said when they’ve gone on record with, “Piper isn’t saying things which aren’t Reformed!” because Piper isn’t Reformed. He holds to no confession and therefore it shouldn’t surprise us when he says something Roman Catholic. So I won’t say anything like that. Instead, my point comes from the alarmingly stout defense I’ve been seeing the Reformed Baptists putting up on behalf of the following statement:
But what about being saved by faith alone? You’re not. You’re justified through faith alone. Final salvation comes through justification and salvation – both initiated and sustained by God’s grace.
When I asked my Reformed Baptist friends what final salvation meant they told me that because union with Christ brings with it every saving blessing, including final perseverance, there’s a difference between salvation which is begun by monergistic regeneration and a salvation involving personal effort. Hence the distinction between initial and final salvation.
Now I may not have the sharpest intellect, out there but that hasn’t stopped me from figuring out over the course of my life that certain follow-on words can, by their proximity to the initial words, cancel out their meaning entirely. If you apologize to your spouse and use the word but then the apology no longer counts—everything before the but gets erased. “I’m sorry, but this is your fault” is equivalent to “this is your fault” not “I’m sorry.” The Scriptures even use this principle to glorious effect when they say things like “With man it is impossible to be saved” or “you were dead in your sins and trespasses,” and then turn around and negate the whole thing with a “but God.”
Salvation operates on that same cancellation principle. If you believe you’re saved by the work of Christ alone plus anything else then you’re no longer saved by Christ alone. If you believe in worshiping Jesus plus Baal then eventually Elijah is going to show up on Mt. Carmel and rebuke you for not worshiping Jesus at all. The Apostle Paul once viewed salvation as God’s work plus his own work, but after coming face to face with the living God he realized that those things of his didn’t add to the sum total, they subtracted from it. Whatever he thought was credit he found to be debit. We can’t be saved by faith plus works because works is a negative quantity, and whenever you add it to faith the result is something less than faith. The only way to make the equation balance is to reduce the human works to zero. Mix chocolate ice cream with dog poop and you get something less than chocolate ice cream. Grace plus works is simply works sans grace.
You can see where this is going. Adding the phrase final salvation to the equation doesn’t actually add anything to salvation, it only cancels out initial part of it—and this by definition. Because either initial salvation was the real, indestructible, once-for-all eternal life Jesus promised or it wasn’t. Either we really have passed from death to life when God declared us to be righteous now and forever or we didn’t receive the declaration and the jury is still out. To take a human example, either your marriage vows made at the altar were valid or they weren’t. Either you’re pregnant or you’re not. If you defend the idea of a final salvation then you have necessarily abandoned the idea of an initial salvation altogether. Only one of those words can be attached to salvation and you have to decide which one it is.
Therefore the Desiring God press release is inane on the face of it. It’s not merely unhelpful, it’s incoherent.
Now having said that I do praise Piper for making it clear just how offensive and stupid the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone really is. Putting it this way really does help to show that the thing is frankly ludicrous. Or perhaps the correct word is ridiculous in that it’s worthy of ridicule. It’s clearly a doctrine for children and the incompetent, for helpless beggars who can’t seem to manage the first tenant of holiness for themselves.
“You mean to tell me I’m given eternal life as soon as I believe, and will pass from condemnation into son-ship with only a hearty trust in God?”
Yes, that’s what I’m saying. As it is written, “Then said they unto Him, ‘what shall we do, that we might work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom he hath sent.’” (John 6:28-29) and “the just shall live by faith.” (Incidentally that one got said four times in Scripture, and I’m big believer that if God said it even once we should be paying attention, if He said it four times then there’s no excuse for not believing it.)
Salvation is by faith alone because only by faith alone can the wretched, helpless tax collector who has nothing to offer be saved. That man goes down to his house justified, and as the Scripture says, justified means “peace with God” (Rom 5:1), not “potential peace.”
“Well I don’t like that,” says the Pharisee. “I like the idea of a final salvation better than an initial one. I think the idea of initial salvation is stupid given that if we don’t kill our sin we won’t get into heaven.”
Yes, justification by faith alone is a stupid doctrine. It’s exactly as humiliating and stupid as the idea of the perfect God coming to trade places with sinful man. But beyond that, “by grace” necessarily means that the laborers who worked the heat of the day will grumble and complain about how unfair it is that everyone gets the same wages.
Post Script: I considered myself a Reformed Baptist (LBCF 1689) for about a decade and loved the label before converting to simply Reformed, but now I’m thinking it’s better to just say Baptist and leave it at that. Unless by final salvation they mean glorification, they’ve drifted way, way off course from both their own confession and the Reformation itself. But if they did mean that, it would be prudent to simply stick with the old word, since like wine, the old is better.
[Update 10-19-2017 – I’ve been told by a few people that it’s unclear of which LBCF baptists I’m speaking of in this post, and that it’s unfair to paint with too broad a brush. Very true. Suffice it to say I was speaking of my Reformed Baptist friends whom I know personally, who live in this area with me, and whom I’ve talked to about this, and was not speaking about every Reformed Baptist generally. If you’re reading this and you stand by your confession (and takes seriously its implications) then you should know all this wasn’t about or against you.
And while I’m being open minded and charitable, you should also probably be aware that the Reformed Baptist community where I live feels a debt of gratitude to Piper for converting a number of Russian Christians to the doctrines of grace thanks to a big conference he did here a number of years back. The impact of his winsome sermons have had a number of positive benefits, which the region is still feeling, and it’s likely made the community here want to defend Piper more here than in, say, Utica. Saul was loved by the men of Gibeah and they judged him less for the great good he did them.]