A Rigid Mind Is Not the Friend of Good Theology

Truth Is Nuanced
(This Is Not about John Piper)

When my boys were little, one of them favored simplicity. One day two of them were with me as I drove through the campus where I served as a campus minister. The younger of the two asked, "Dad, who made this road?" The older replied something like, "God did, dummy." He also early grasped the truth of predestination, and this became his stock answer to any "why" question. Why do the leaves change color in the fall? "Predestination." 

There is a virtue in rigidity and simplicity of mind. These two characteristics can get you to ultimate answers quickly and clearly and result in your standing firm. They are particularly useful for children whose minds are not yet mature enough to grasp nuance. "Who made you?" "God." That's a truth important for Christian children to grasp. But it does not address other truths that will be important for them to grasp when they are older: ovaries, testes, ovulation, intercourse, gestation, birth. "Why did Uncle Harry die when he was just 49 years old?" "Predestination" is a right but an un-nuanced answer. It says nothing about such things as family history, genetic predisposition, cholesterol, plaque formation, clotting factors, heart attacks, damaged heart muscle, and heart rhythm. 

A similar thing seems to be happening regarding the the teaching of John Piper on the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. All Evangelical Protestants owe John Piper a debt of gratitude for the work he has done of reading, analyzing, and showing the problems with the work of N.T. Wright and for defending against Wright the Biblical doctrine of justification and the Reformational exposition of Paul. But Rachel Miller has a problem with Piper. She questions if Piper really believes in salvation by faith apart from the works of the law:
Piper is saying that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone but that there is also a final salvation separate from justification that includes our works. In this way, he says, we are saved through faith AND works. This is not simply sloppiness or poor wording. This is what he is teaching, and it is clear from the context of the article. And it is contrary to Scripture, to the Reformation, and to the Reformed confessions and catechisms.
Though I think he would answer, "Yes," if asked if present justification determines final salvation, in one sense I do not not care what John Piper believes. Of course, I care about his beliefs and teaching, but my purpose is not to examine his views. I do not know for certain what John Piper in his heart of hearts believes and teaches about whether present justification guarantees the future vindication of the believer on the Day of Judgment. Nor do I know whether, as Scott Clark says, Daniel Fuller has strongly influenced the views of John Piper on salvation. 

I want to say again what I said in my previous blog: I am not a fan, reader, or follower of John Piper. The fact that he is a follower of Jonathan Edwards and a proponent of experimental Calvinism is sufficient for me as an Old Side Presbyterian (if I were still a Presbyterian) and as a Prayer Book Episcopalian (which I presently am) to say, "I am not of Piper." 

But the issue at hand is the need for an flexible mind and nuanced thought when "doing theology." I am thinking of my friend and colleague, Rachel Miller's Blog post, BACK TO THE REFORMED CONFESSIONS AND CATECHISMS in which she pushes back against the criticisms that she has received for her criticism of John Piper. What I want to demonstrate is that Biblical and confessional theology is a multi-faceted diamond and that, if one does not turn the diamond and note and study all the facets, it is possible to miss "full truth" of the diamond. 


Let's begin with a quotation from the Westminster Confession of Faith to which Rachel has added emphasis:
By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands,  trembling at the threatenings,  and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. (WCF XIV.2 on Saving Faith, emphasis added)
Suppose we omit Rachel's emphasis and instead emphasize other things is the same paragraph:
By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands,  trembling at the threatenings,  and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. (WCF XIV.2 on Saving Faith, emphasis added)
The paragraph should be taken as a whole in order to grasp the fullness of the truth it expounds, but, if one chooses to emphasize one part of the truth over another, indicating such by bold print, then it is obvious that nuance makes a difference. The principal acts of faith do not exclude the other acts of faith, else the writers of the Westminster Confession would not have included them. What the writers did in this paragraph was to begin with the source of theology, the Word of God, emphasize that the whole of Biblical truth is to be received with faith, give examples the proper responses of faith to the various types of teaching in the Bible, and bring the paragraph to its climax by calling attention to the the principal acts of saving faith - trusting in Christ for the whole of one's salvation.

Consider Rachel's quote of the chapter on Good Works, where I accept Rachel's emphases but would also embolden the phrase "done in obedience to God's commandments":
These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life. 
My friend continues to quote the Confession to prove that the  the best of our good works are "mixed" with sin and weakness and are not meritorious in obtaining salvation. The truth both Rachel and I accept is that our best good works do not contribute at all to the righteousness that God will accept and is absolutely necessary for our final salvation. But that is not to say that good works have nothing to do with our salvation. We do "good works in obedience" to God, and they are "the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith" by which we obtain the righteousness of Christ. These good works in turn produce the fruit of holiness which leads to our obtaining the ultimate goal of our salvation, eternal life. 

But, before we leave the Westminster Standards, let's call attention to another chapter of the Confession - the chapter on repentance, which Rachel does not quote: 
I. Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ. 
II. By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments. 
III. Although repentance is not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God's free grace in Christ, yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it. 

 Rachel also quotes from the Canons of Dordt: 
FIRST HEAD: ARTICLE 4. The wrath of God abides upon those who believe not this gospel. But such as receive it and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith are by Him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them. (Canons of Dordt, 1.4, emphasis added)
It is important to remember that the Synod of Dordt was called to address the errors associated with Arminius that had caused confusion among the Belgic churches concerning the doctrine of salvation. The main purpose was to vindicate the doctrine of election and its associated doctrines (depravity, efficacy of grace, extent of the atonement, and perseverance) as the teaching of Scripture. It is not a document that specifically addresses the relation between faith and good works. Nevertheless, in defending the doctrine of election, the Canons clearly show that the faith God gives to the elect is not a faith that is alone:
FIRST HEAD: ARTICLE 9. ... men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: "For he chose us (not because we were, but) in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight." (Eph 1:4).
FIRST HEAD: ARTICLE 13. ... The consideration of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness in the observance of the divine commands or from sinking men in carnal security, that these, in the just judgment of God, are the usual effects of rash presumption or of idle and wanton trifling with the grace of election, in those who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect.
The question is not whether we are saved by faith alone but, rather, what is a true and lively faith that will inherit eternal life? This inevitably requires discussion of repentance, good works, holiness, perseverance, final judgment, etc. 


Rachel quotes from the Belgic Confession, but I am not sure why she does not notice the the whole of the teaching of the Confession on the nature of saving faith:
We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man...regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word. (Emphasis mine.)

Rachel goes on to note the Reformation era document of my tradition, The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, but I wonder what she does with with the whole paragraph she quotes:
XII. Of Good Works. Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justificationcannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.
Good works spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by the fruit

The Articles, setting forth the doctrine of election, also touch on the nature of true faith:
Furthermore, we must receive God's promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in Holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God. 

Then there is the reality that the Scriptures seem to indicate that there is both a present and future justifying of justifying faith. There is St. James' challenge of the present reality of justifying faith:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works (James 2:15-18).
There is St. Paul's teaching of a future examination of the deeds of believers. While confident he will be the Lord after death, the Apostle also acknowledges that there is a future accounting of what has been done in this life and that this is motivation for him to persuade others (the commentators are divided on whether he means here believers or unbelievers) to be reconciled to God:
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others (2 Corinthians 5:6-11).
Then there are the words of our Lord:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.' Matthew 7:21-23).
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear  the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.  And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:25-29).
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Then the righteous will answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,you did it to me." Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." Then they also will answer, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?" Then he will answer them, saying, "Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matthew 5:31-46).
These are difficult and searching words which must be handled both carefully and forthrightly. And, frankly, one of the reasons we must introduce into our understanding of ourselves as "those who have done good" that we are good because of our being "in Christ" who is our righteousness is because we can point to many unbelievers who have done far more good in this world than have we as believers. Further we must introduce "the righteousness of faith" into our interpretation of the righteous who have done good works in this life is because we know there are many unbelievers who have done far more than we for the strangers, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

What these passages do show is that the Day of Judgment will not mean the saved all have "justified" stamped on their hands so that the angels pass those so stamped immediately into the fullness of glory while the unsaved will remain to face the judgment. There will be some kind of serious examination and accountability of what we have done in this life, and, only after that, will we be vindicated as the sons and daughters of God. 

Perhaps the most disturbing part of Rachel's post is this paragraph:
No matter how much we may like Calvin, Twisse, Edwards, Horton, or Piper,  ultimately we don’t confess them. We confess the standards of our denominations. It really is that simple.
This statement seems to say: "I am disturbed by a John Piper article which seems to say that our works will have something to say about our salvation on the Day of Judgment. I have found statements in the Confessions that say we are saved by faith apart from our works, so whatever Calvin might have said that has some affinity with Piper, should be dismissed. So must any like thing said by older theologians such as Twisse and Edwards. Of contemporary theologians we must dismiss not only Piper but even Michael Horton." It's something like: "The Confessions have statements that good works have nothing to do with final salvation. I believe it. That settles it. End of discussion."

To quote Lee Corso, "Not so fast." The Confessions were not written in nor may they be interpreted in a vacuum. In the background of all Reformed Confessions is the writing of the magisterial Reformer, Calvin. Behind Calvin is his knowledge not only of the Old and New Testaments in the original languages, but the Church Fathers, the catholic creeds, and the writings of contemporary Reformers. The writers of the Confessions, too, are men who wrote other things, and their other writings can help us to understand what they meant in the Confessions they helped to produce. And, since the days of Reformed Confession writing, there have been a great many exegetes and theologians who have studied, interacted with, and even written commentaries on those Confessions. None of these men would have taken their stand on certain phrases on the Confessions and said, "This is settled and clear; there is no need for anything else to be said." They were too humble theologians for that. All this is to say that making sense of the place of good works in the final vindication of believers requires a flexible mind and an appreciation of nuance. 

Are we or will we be saved by good works? No. But that's not all we must say. Evangelicals run into problems sometimes because, when they ask, "Brother, are you saved?" they mean, "Have you accepted Jesus into your heart?" which they understand to be the way one is justified and so saved. Even for more Biblically and theologically understanding Christians can use  "grace," "saved," and "justified" as though they are  synonymous. Sometimes they are  very close to synonymous; they are always closely related but they are not each explanative of the other.  We were saved - justified by a faith graciously given that always bears the fruit of good works. We are being saved - sanctified and preserved by grace that produces good works in us. We will be saved - by grace ushering us into eternal life, glorified in body and soul, after the judgment of our good works which will vindicate our faith. 

Salvation is a comprehensive term that includes everything God does to save sinners from election to glorification. Grace explains and guarantees salvation, always meaning God's initiative toward condemned and unable sinners, sometimes meaning God's doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves (we are passive), and sometimes meaning God's doing in us and through us what we cannot unaided do (we are active). The whole of our salvation is by grace through faith, but the emphasis on faith is particularly at the point of justification - receiving and resting upon Christ alone as he is offered in the Gospel. Sanctification and good works are by faith, but they are not apart from our active striving against sin and for righteousness by the grace which God supplies.

John Murray wrote in Principles of Conduct, "At the point of divergence, the difference between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood, is not a chasm but a razor's edge." What is true in ethics is also true in theology.

1 comment:

  1. In The Future of Justification: A response to N.T. Wright, John Piper made a distinction between hard and soft legalisms.

    “The essence of legalism is the belief that our right standing with God is based on, comes by means of, or is sustained by our works — regardless of whether these works are self-produced (hard legalism) or whether they are completely produced by God’s grace in us (soft legalism). (p. 152, Footnote 14)
    …while legalism involves the view that ‘salvation consists of the observance of precepts,’ boasting and self-righteousness may BUT DO NOT ALWAYS accompany this motion. When they do not, we may speak of a ‘soft’ or ‘torah-centric’ form of legalism; when they do, we have a ‘hard’ or ‘anthropocentric’legalism. To this, we may add that ‘soft’ legalists may not believe that they are thereby ‘earning’ their salvation, still less that they are ‘establishing a claim’ on God based on their own ‘merit’.
    Unfortunately, in most definitions of legalism by New Testament scholars, the possibility of ‘soft’ legalism is not even considered. The ‘legalist’, for Cranfield, is the one who tries to use the law ‘as a means to the establishment of a claim upon God, and so to the defense of his self-centeredness and the assertion of a measure of independence over against God. He imagines that he can put God under an obligation to himself, that he will be able so adequately to fulfill the law’s demands that he will earn for himself a righteous status before God.’ For Moule, legalism is ‘the intention to claim God’s favour by establishing one’s own rightness.’ For Hübner, those who see righteousness as based on works define their existence in terms of their own activities, leave God out of consideration, and, in effect, ‘see themselves as their own creator.’ For [Daniel] Fuller, legalism ‘presumes that the Lord, who is not ‘served by human hands, as though he needed anything’ (Acts 17:25), can nevertheless be bribed and obligated to bestow blessing by the way men distinguish themselves.’
    Such definitions would be innocent enough if they were accompanied by an awareness that ‘legalists’ of this kind represent only some of those who interpreted Deut. 30:16 as saying that obedience to God’s law was the way to life. But all too frequently there is no such awareness. The alternative to faith is not (as it is in Paul) simply ‘works’, — a statement which embraces both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ legalism — but rather the sinful, self-seeking, merit-claiming works of the (necessarily ‘hard’) legalist.


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