Introduction

We have dealt with various defenses of John Piper’s rejection of Salvation Sola Fide over the last several posts. We first dealt with the claim that he was really just pointing out that Justification and Sanctification are inseparable (HERE). I agree entirely. But both are benefits of union with Christ, faith alone being the instrumental cause of this union. We next looked at the claim the Piper is really just pointing out that “salvation” is a broader term than justification (HERE). I grant this as well, but justification simply is the present declaration of the future verdict, and both are based on the merits of Christ, received by faith alone. And last we responded to Dr. Mark Jones’ rejoinder that Piper is really just infelicitously employing the Reformed Scholastic distinction between Right to Salvation and Possession of Salvation (HERE). We concluded from Thomas Goodwin that the Right to Salvation includes the “whole lump,” not only justification but also final salvation. Justification does not equal Right and final salvation does not equal Possession. There is a right to the whole and a possession of the whole. And the right to the whole lump is had by faith alone.

We come now to another defense that seems to be popping up here and there, particularly via The Calvinist International. The rub seems to be that the best lights of the Reformed tradition have always acknowledged a “Double Justification,” one by faith and the other by works. The implied argument is that Piper is really just talking about these two historically allowable justifications, but modern evangelical and Reformed readers can’t see this, being unaware of the tradition and frightened by words and phrases that don’t fit the modern gloss. But this is absurd. Simply pointing out that there are different senses and uses of the concept “to justify” covers no ground toward solving this dispute. Remember, what is at issue is Piper’s claim that only justification is through faith alone whereas Final Salvation is through faith and fruits, good works being proper conditions and requirements for attaining Heaven (see HERE). So simply pointing out that we can use the word “justify” when speaking of works is irrelevant to the question of whether we are saved now and on the last day by the merits of Christ alone, received by faith alone, or by faith plus “sufficient” fruit.

Also, given the multiple senses of “to justify,” I wonder why only a double justification is offered in defense of Piper’s claims. Is it to throw shade on Piper’s progressive salvation error; one justification for the beginning by faith, and another at the end by works?  Is it to throw shade on Piper’s progressive salvation error; one justification for the beginning by faith, and another at the end by works? This is the same mistake that was made by assuming Right to Salvation could stand for Justification in Piper’s scheme, while Possession of Salvation stands for Final Salvation. In reality, “justification” is a general term in the Scripture; to “justify” is simply to declare or account righteous, and is Biblically applicable to the actions and states of men, and that in different ways in different circumstances. In fact, I would argue that there are at least four important Biblical senses and uses of “to justify” that relate to the salvation of man. And none of them, I intend to show, make a path for Piper’s error.

Herman WItsius gives us the first three senses in his Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, and a fourth may be added from Thomas Goodwin’s work on the Epistle of James. I hope here to take a brief look at each, and compare throughout with Piper’s rejection of Salvation Sola Fide.

(1) The declaration of God concerning the actions of men: “Then Phinehas stood up and intervened. […] And that was accounted to him for righteousness, to all generations forevermore” (Ps. 106:30-31).

Witsius begins,

The declaration of God concerning men, either regards some of their particular actions, or their whole state. The actions of men are considered, either in relation to the rule of the divine will, or in comparison with the actions of others, whether more or less evil. God pronounces absolutely on actions, when he declares them either evil, condemning man in them; as Nathan said to David in the name of God, 2 Sam. 12:9. “Thou hast despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in his sight,” or good, justifying a man in them; in which sense David, having his eyes intent on the justice of his cause against his enemies, prays, Ps. 7:8: “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to mine integrity that is within me.” (Bk. 2.VIII.XVI)

This “justification” is not a justification unto life, but rather a declaration by God that a particular work was indeed righteous. True, none of fallen man’s deeds are perfect and untainted with sin; but God justifies them by His grace in the same way that he justifies the whole man by faith; that is, he receives them as righteous, having been purified by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  As John Calvin has written,

After he has received them, he justifies them in their persons, that is to say, he considers them pleasing as his children, and next he justifies their works.” (CO 23, p. 719, via HERE)

Witsius next considers at length the example of Phinehas’ execution of the fornicators in the Temple, found in Numbers ch. 25. We read of this event in Psalm 106:

They joined themselves also to Baal of Peor,
And ate sacrifices made to the dead.
Thus they provoked Him to anger with their deeds,
And the plague broke out among them.
Then Phinehas stood up and intervened,
And the plague was stopped.
And that was accounted to him for righteousness
To all generations forevermore. (vv. 28-31)

With all of its attendant flaws, this deed was nevertheless “accounted to him for righteousness.” Calvin also writes of Phinehas, explaining how an imperfect deed can be accepted as righteous begore God:

How then was this judgment which he inflicted imputed to him for righteousness? He must no doubt have been previously justified by the grace of God: for they who are already clothed in the righteousness of Christ, have God not only propitious to them, but also to their works, the spots and blemishes of which are covered by the purity of Christ, lest they should come to judgment. As works, infected with no defilements, are alone counted just, it is quite evident that no human work whatever can please God, except through a favor of this kind. But if the righteousness of faith is the only reason why our works are counted just, you see how absurd is the argument, — “That as righteousness is ascribed to works, righteousness is not by faith only.” But I set against them this invincible argument, that all works are to be condemned as those of unrighteousness, except a man be justified solely by faith. (Commentary on Romans 4:6-8)

The justification of individual works is certainly an appropriate and Biblical use of the concept “to justify.” But it must be clearly distinguished form the justification of men by the merits of Christ through faith, and even the justification of the whole man by works, the latter of which leads to Witsius’ next sense.

(2) The declaration of God concerning the state of men: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (Jas. 2:24).

Witsius continues:

Thus much for the declaration of God concerning the actions of men. On the other hand, his declaration as to their state, is of several kinds. For either God considers them as they are in themselves, according to inherent qualities, either vicious through corrupt nature, or holy and laudable through reforming grace; or as they are reputed in Christ the surety.

God can neither consider nor declare men to be otherwise than as they really are. For “his judgment is according to truth,” Rom. 2:2, and therefore they, who are still under the dominion of sin, and walk with delight, according to their depraved lusts, are judged and declared by God to be unregenerate, wicked, and slaves of the devil, as they really are; for “by no means does he clear the guilty,” Exod. 34:7; but they who are regenerated by his grace, created anew after his image, and heartily give themselves up to the practice of sincere holiness, are by him absolved from the sin of profaneness, impiety, and hypocrisy; and are no longer looked upon as dead in sins, slaves to the devil, children of the world; but as true believers, his own children, restored to his image and endowed with his life. It was thus he justified his servant Job, declaring, “That there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil,” Job 1:8. (Bk. 2.VIII.XXII)

So here we have the justification of a believer as to his character and state. Every believer, having been justified in Christ, with Christ’s merits imputed, has also his works justified by God’s grace. And every justified believer also has his character and state adjudged righteous by God, not on account of the inherent quality of his deeds, but according to the incomplete righteousness begun in him by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it is not a justification that only some believers receive while others do not. Nor is it a justification according to the totality of a man’s habits, virtues, and deeds, but only according to that wherein he is not actually guilty. Witsius explains this below:

And this is still the case of all believers. The devil indeed, who is the accuser of the brethren, frequently charges them with hypocrisy before God, as if they did not serve him in sincerity; and he not only thus accuses them before God, but he also disquiets their conscience, as if all their faith and piety were only a mask and outward show, by which they have hitherto imposed, not only on others, but also on themselves. In order to calm the consciences of believers, when thus shaken by the false accuser, they have need to be absolved from this accusation, and justified from this false testimony before God; which God also daily does, assuring the elect of the sincerity of their conversion, by the testimony of his Spirit, and thereby showing, that the praise of a true Jew is of him, Rom. 2:29. This justification is, indeed, very different from that other, of which we shall presently treat, wherein the person is absolved from sins whereof he is really guilty, and which are forgiven him on Christ’s account. In this we are speaking of, he is acquitted of sins, which he is not chargeable with, and is declared not to have committed. (Bk. 2.VIII.XXIII)

Just as God justifies the good works of the faithful, so even now He clears their person of the accusations of men and devils, inasmuch as their lives demonstrate the goodness and regenerating presence of God in them. This is not a justification at the end wherein God reviews the works of believers to see if the conditions for salvation have been met; it is rather a public justification of the Saved at the beginning, middle, and end.

Further, this is not a justification before God, properly so called. Those who are justified in this sense have already been justified and deemed righteous forever by the merits of Christ, appropriated by faith, before the judgement seat of God. Thomas Goodwin is helpful here, commenting on James 2:

There is a double justification by God: the one authoritative, the other declarative or demonstrative. Though this is also before God, yet it is that which is to be made before all the world by God; and in order thereunto, the one is the justification of men’s persons coram Deo, before God, as they appear before him nakedly, and have to do with him alone for the right to salvation; and so they are justified by faith without works, either as looked at by God or by themselves. God therein passeth an act of Christ’s righteousness, out of his pure prerogative; as a king, when he pardons, or creates a nobleman, and the like. And this part of the distinction Paul himself puts, in stating it under the example of Abraham; that coram Deo, before God, nor Abraham, nor any flesh shall be justified by works: Rom. iv. 2-5, ‘For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God. For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.’ Observe it, he saith, ‘not before God;’ that is, not in that justification, which is an act passed between God and a man’s own soul, and in respect of the private transactions between both. (Works, Vol. 7, p. 181)

This justification is a demonstration to the world—men, angels, and devils, not a declaration of righteousness in the sight of God per se.

Further, Goodwin goes on to argue that this justification of the state of men according to works does not add one whit to the perfect righteousness imputed to every believer, but rather “fulfills” (Jas. 2:23) the previous declaration of righteousness had by faith alone:

Now then, that justification, which in reality, and for the thing itself, was as complete upon a bare act of believing as ever it shall be to all eternity (and the very words import it, in that thirty years before Abraham s offering up his son, righteousness was imputed to him by believing), yet is said to be fulfilled, when demonstratively and signally held forth. And as the resurrection of the Son of God added nothing to his Sonship that was essential thereunto, so neither did this justification of Abraham by works, James ii. 21, add anything to God’s real imputing of Christ’s righteousness, but was the signal of it.

So then, let us conceive aright of God’s proceedings herein. Says God of a man that now but begins to put forth a naked act of faith, I do here justify this man, and I do justify him for ever, and I will never recall it. (p. 185)

Nothing can be added to Christ’s merits imputed to the believer before the face of God. The justification by true faith—faith that grasps and unites to Christ—accounts one forever righteous before God, coram Deo, before the face of God, now and for eternity. Which brings us to the next sense in WItsius.

(3) The Gospel justification of a sinner: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

Having considered the justification of individual acts of men and the public justification of man as to his newly regenerate state, Witsius next moves on to Gospel justification, “the justification of man as a sinner, but considered as in Christ the surety.” This is that justification we all know and love, as it is, according to Witsius, “the foundation of all solid comfort.” Witsius defines:

We thus define the Gospel justification of a sinner: it is a judicial but gracious act of God, whereby the elect and believing sinner is absolved from the guilt of his sins, and hath a right to eternal life adjudged to him, on account of the obedience of Christ received by faith. (Bk. 2.VIII.XXVII)

Though I much prefer the Heidelberg Catechism on this score:

Q/60. How are you righteous before God?

Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and that I am still prone always to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me, if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.

This justification alone is unto life, and is had by faith alone. This is justification coram Deo, before the face of God, a declaration of righteousness now and on the Last Day. As can be seen from the sections above, all other senses of justification are dependent on this Gospel Justification.

Next, we move to one final sense.

(4) The justification of God by the works of man: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7).

Given the above Gospel Justification, granted freely by grace through faith, an objection may arise. How can God be just in giving a declaration of “not guilty” and “perfectly righteous” at the very beginning without first verifying the quality of the faith? Goodwin raises this objection, and answers admirably.

But a carnal heart might object, Will God beforehand thus rashly give forth an eternal justification of man? Will he not stay until he sees works to spring from it? No, says God, I will adventure to do it now; for when I mean to justify according to my decree of election, I give him faith, the faith of my elect; and I see (for he sees all our thoughts and wants afar off) this faith I justify this man now upon, this sole act of believing for justification, to be so genuine, so true and unfeigned faith, and of the true and right breed, that I will adventure it, or rather undertake for it, that in the future course of this man’s life it shall bring forth in his heart and life acts and dispositions suitable, which shall justify this my justifying of this man; which when it shall do, then is God’s sentence of justifying him said to be fulfilled. (p. 185)

God, who grants living faith to His elect, uniting them to Christ with all his merits and benefits, will now and at the judgement publicly justify His justification, to men, angels, and devils alike. Goodwin writes of this fourth sense that the justified man will necessarily bring forth “acts and dispositions suitable, which shall justify this my justifying of this man” and God “will justify his own acts of justification, of this man and not of that,” by a public declaration of the righteous deeds of those he has justified. But again, this is not a justification coram deo. It is a public justification, before men, angels, and devils. I believe this sense of “to justify” captures the sense of the following types of passages:

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. (Gal. 6:7)

And,

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:13-16)

God will not be mocked, He will publicly demonstrate the change He has wrought in the life of those He has freely justified by faith. And God will not be ashamed to be called their God, for He will work in them the fruits of those who walk by true faith.

Though this truly is a Biblical sense of justification by works, I would argue there is an even clearer and more profound justification of God’s justification of men: the message of the Gospel itself.

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-26)

Thus, God ultimately declares His own righteousness by declaring sinners righteous in Christ, the full demands of His justice having been met in the life and passion of the God-man Jesus Christ.

Conclusion: Quadruple Justification and John Piper

Though each of the following have been amply demonstrated above, I will nevertheless conclude with a reiteration of three points of departure between Piper’s system and the various senses of “to justify” we have here discussed.

First, Piper’s system contains a temporal element that these four senses of justification do not. Piper’s scheme makes a distinction between the beginning of our salvation and the end, each with different terms and proper conditions. Faith alone is the proper condition of receiving justification at the beginning, whereas “faith and fruits” are the proper conditions at the end (please see HERE for more). But the various senses of justification we have discussed do not support this differentiation of terms at the beginning and the end. Whether it be the justification of individual acts of men, their state as regenerate friends of God, their justification by the apprehension of Christ’s perfect righteousness, or the justification of God in His justification of them, none of these break down into beginning justifications and ending justifications. All are declarations by God with respect to the beginning of righteousness, the middle, and on the Last Day. As we read before from Witsius,

In order to calm the consciences of believers, when thus shaken by the false accuser, they have need to be absolved from this accusation, and justified from this false testimony before God; which God also daily does, assuring the elect of the sincerity of their conversion, by the testimony of his Spirit, and thereby showing, that the praise of a true Jew is of him, Rom. 2:29.

Second, only one of these justifications, viz. Gospel Justification, is properly coram Deo, before the face of God. The other three are before the world—all men, angels, and devils. This, I believe, has been amply displayed above. Gospel justification alone constitutes a man perfectly righteous before God, Christ’s merits having been imputed, now an on the Last Day. And this justification, coram Deo, grants the whole of salvation by faith alone. As Goodwin writes elsewhere on Ephesians 2:8:

[H]ere is whole salvation in the very lump, it is all given at once, given at first; the whole of it as it lay in the womb of God’s decree and free grace, it is completely, according to the right and title of it, bestowed upon us at once, and it is received through faith. “By grace ye are saved through faith,” saith he[…]. They are, I say, all bestowed upon us at once; all that are, or as they are, acts of God upon us; that great salvation, “so great salvation,” as the Apostle calls it, is given all at once: and by grace ye are thus saved, completely and fully, and this as soon as you believe, eodem die, as Jerome speaks. Here is the greatest gift that ever was given; “not of yourselves,” saith he, “it is the gift of God.” The Apostle hath penned the words so that they will refer as well to salvation as to faith. It is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, the whole lump of salvation is. And by grace ye are thus saved; salvation in the lump of it, it is given to you by grace, and received by faith. (Works, Vol. 2, p. 316)

And last, all good works and all other justifications follow upon the one Gospel Justification before God, had by faith alone. God grants the faith that alone justifies coram Deo to His elect; but He also grants the works resulting, justifying before the whole world His declaration of righteousness. Goodwin explains with the example of Abraham,

[A]bout thirty years before Abraham offered up his son, God had (as the Scripture records it) imputed righteousness to him upon believing, Gen. xv. 6. Yea, and upon a bare and naked act of believing was it that God did impute righteousness to him. But then, as hath been said, God that justified Abraham as his elect gave him such a faith; and such an act of faith was then put forth by Abraham, as God, to use the words said of Christ, knowing by intuition and foresight the kind of it (he also out of election having given him such a faith) to be true and genuine, justified him upon it; it being such a faith as he meant to follow with all these good works, that which Abraham afterward out of faith wrought; and indeed Abraham’s faith after so many years brought forth those many acts of obedience, Heb. xi. 17. (Works, Vol. 7, pp. 183-184)

God, who gives true faith to His elect, thereby justifying them by the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness, will also in time and on the Last Day display the transformative work He has wrought in His elect by both justifying their works, justifying their persons before the world, and justifying His own declaration of “not guilty” and “perfectly righteous” in Christ. This salvation, “the whole lump,” is granted by faith alone.

7 Responses

  1. Bob

    Hi Brad: After reading all of your previous excellent articles on this subject and this one, I am left with a question that maybe you can answer to give some perspective. Why should we be concerned about parsing John Piper’s error when there is much more blatant error being propagated within the Charismatic and Word Faith communities with many more propagating those errors to a much larger audience than Piper’s? Could it be that there are bigger fish for us to fry?

    Reply
    • Barbara Roberts

      Bob I know your question was addressed to Brad, but I’ll give you my response to it.

      The errors within the charismatic community and Word of Faith have been amply addressed by many many people, for years. Piper has been accepted and lauded within conservative christian communities for years, and apart from a few early critics of Piper’s theology

      For example Peter Masters critiqued Christian Hedonism years ago. Jeff Crippen and myself at A Cry For Justice critiqued Piper’s pietistic works righteousness and his views on divorce and domestic abuse over the last few five years. Watchbloggers have been critiquing Piper and other for several years re their ongoing support of CJ Mahaney and the New Calvinism movement Piper has been highly influential in.

      But only very recently, since Rachel Miller blew the whistle, have more people – including higher profile Reformed folks like R Scott Clark been critiquing Piper’s doctrine of Salvation. I say it’s about time, and well overdue.

      And the damage Piper has done in conservative and Reformed circles is incalculable. I get the impression that most Reformed ministers still think Piper’s doctrine of salvation is okay and they have passed on their view that Piper is okay to their congregations.

      Reply
  2. Barbara Roberts

    Brad, I’ve tried reading your post but got too tired to go on. I find it hard reading all those quotes from old theologians. I find it much easier reading your own words.

    Reply
    • Bob

      Hi Barbara: If those who are Reformed are Sola Piper rather than Sola Scriptura then the death of the Reformed faith will be well deserved. Then it will be recovered someday like it was in the 16th century. Those who promote heresy are but hammers who will ultimately be broken on the anvil of the Word of God.

      Reply
  3. Angela Werner

    Bob, I just found Mouthandheart through the Heidelblog. I so much appreciate what you are doing and all the research you do and share with us. These historic sources do not always make for an easy read, but it is well worth the effort, I find.

    Reply
    • Bob

      Angela: I think there is confusion. The articles were written by Brad. I am Bob and I’m just a commenter here.

      Reply
  4. Angela Werner

    Sorry for the confusion! Yes I confused the names in my first time reading the blog. Brad, I very much appreciate your hard work in researching and providing historical sources. I look foreward to all your future articles in Heartandmouth.

    Reply

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