John Piper’s book What Jesus Demands from the World contains a controversial sentence. On page 160, he writes:
“There is no doubt that Jesus saw some measure of real, lived-out obedience to the will of God as necessary for final salvation.”
What is so controversial about these words, is that Piper suggests that a Christian needs to have meritorious works on the Day of judgment. Based on these works, Christ will declare: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
I must admit there is a lot of “theological tension” in Piper’s words. This tension has resulted in many online debates. Search for “John Piper” + “final salvation” and you know what I’m talking about.
There was a time when I counted myself among those for whom the much debated sentence written by Piper was problematic. That has changed now.
So I want to make clear that I expressly disclaim my criticism of Piper in this regard. When I was critiquing Piper, I was unstable theologically. I was considering different point of views and I wanted to be fair with them. So when someone is criticizing a theologian and the things he says or writes, it is worth considering. I want to take that seriously. But we need to be fair with a theologian, too. We need to give him an opportunity to explain what he means when he says or writes something that seems obscure.
So, let’s give John Piper a chance – what was he trying to say? Did people understand him correct? Or didn't they? What was his motivation for writing these words? What did he want to clarify? Because, obviously, this sentence did not show up by accident.
The striking thing to me is this – when people take issue with Piper’s words “final salvation”, most of the time they will attack him because of this one sentence. That’s not fair. We cannot take issue with someone’s statements because of one sentence taken out of a chapter that contains seven pages. That is ridiculous. If I were asked to give a lecture on “final salvation” and I would make my conclusion wholly dependant on this one sentence, then it shouldn’t be any surprise when someone kindly responses: “Please, don’t show up here until you have done your homework better.”
I suspect that people, at least partly, are criticizing Piper because his words don’t fit their theology. This could be possible. It is possible you don’t have a clue what somebody is saying, just because it doesn’t fit your theology. But it certainly is wrong to make an assumption without taking the context in view.
“Final salvation” and its context
What is the context of Piper’s words “final salvation” on page 160 of his book What Jesus Demands from the World? Obviously, it is the entire book.
In this book, he discusses fifty commandments given by the Lord Jesus to His Church. He has studied the New Testament – and specifically the four Gospels – to discover what Christ demands from His disciples and the Church and the world. Sometimes, Piper has clustered different commands because they can be put in the same category – for example, commands about dealing with money or the way Christians have to treat their enemies.
What is really significant here, however, is the fact that Piper in chapter 20 explains and defends the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For example, on page 155 he writes:
“The crucial question is: How is Jesus the path to perfection? One historic answer is that Jesus himself is our perfection. That is, when we are connected with him by faith, God counts us to be perfect because of Jesus, even though in ourselves we are not.”
(What Jesus Demands from the World, page 155)
This is crystal clear! According to Piper, God counts us to be perfect because of Jesus – only because of Jesus – even though in ourselves we are not. This is a sweet affirmation of the protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Piper continues:
“Another historic answer is that Jesus, by his presence and power within us, transforms us so that we really begin to love like he does and move toward perfection, which we finally obtain in heaven.”
(What Jesus Demands from the World, page 155)
In the next chapter, Piper works out this second historic answer – that is, how moves Christ by his presence and power within us? Because on page 160 we read:
“There is no doubt that Jesus saw some measure of real, lived-out obedience to the will of God as necessary for final salvation. “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). So the second historic answer to the question, how is Jesus the path to perfection? has been that he enables us to change. He transforms us so that we really begin to love like he does and thus move toward perfection that we finally obtain in heaven.”
In other words: Piper takes the second historic answer to the question how Jesus is our path to perfection and renders this answer in exactly the same words as he has done before. Piper concludes this paragraph by saying this:
“Therefore, trusting Jesus is necessary in order to be connected to Jesus who is the foundation of our justification. But new, transformed behavior is necessary as the fruit and evidence of this connection with Jesus.”
(What Jesus Demands from the World, page 161)
Why I no longer take offense to Piper’s words
Some people think they have “caught” Piper because of two words he has written – or because of one sentence. The reason why I no longer take offense by these words of John Piper is that Scripture supports his teaching. The Bible clearly teaches that the love by which Jesus has loved His Church must be seen by those who are savingly loved by their Savior. This is absolutely, and unquestionable Biblical teaching.
Some people might accuse Piper of teaching “justification by works” or by saying that he is laying a very high standard for full assurance of salvation. But does he?
There is something else that must be recognized here. And this has to do with regeneration. According to 1 John 2:26-29, there are three marks that gives us assurance of regeneration:
“I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.”
Notice what John is saying. In the previous verses, he has written about the “antichrists.” These are people who deny that Jesus is the Christ.
In verses 26-29, John says that a Christian…
• has been born of God – regeneration, verse 29
- by the anointing of the Anointed One, the Messiah – this is the convicting work of the Holy Spirit by which people come to faith in Christ (vs. 21-26)
- practicing righteousness is the fruit of this faith in Christ – practical righteousness, or in Piper’s words – “real, lived-out obedience to the will of God” (verse 29)
- this leads to confidence at the second coming of the Lord Jesus - assurance of salvation (verse 28)
So, I believe that Piper’s words on page 160 of his book What Jesus Demands from the World is sound Biblical teaching. It makes clear that he takes the Bible serious – at least texts that are related to justification, sanctification, glorification and salvation as a whole.
The apostle John teaches us that assurance of salvation can be strengthened or weakened over a certain period of time. The way we live under the lordship of Jesus Christ determines the experience of our assurance. When I’m messing up with sin, I cannot expect full assurance of salvation. I will have no or little confidence when I think of Christ’s return.
I get the impression that Piper is trying to challenge people in a certain way. He wants to make people think about these things.
Moreover, there is another reason why people aren’t right by claiming that Piper teaches justification by works. They claim that the controversial words about final salvation suggest that a Christian is “justified by works.”
But if they would have read the context in which Piper makes that statement, they would immediately acknowledge he is not saying that.
As we have already seen, Piper states that “real, lived-out obedience to the will of God” is made possible only by the work of Christ within us. The question that needs to be asked, then, is this: who or what is the decisive source of these works? It is the Lord Jesus Himself. We are not talking here about the works of the saints, as though they are done by themselves and in their own strength. We are talking about the works of Christ done in His saints.
Read the Bible to examine a theologian – not the other way around
For the last several years, I have learned to appreciate theologians because of their faithfulness and commitment to the Word of God. The books they write and the sermons they preach is the fruit of tremendous study and exegesis. Because of studying 1 John 2:26-29, I can take John Piper seriously, when he says that “real, lived-out obedience to the will of God is necessary for final salvation.” Why? Because what he says about final salvation is in line with that portion of Scripture.
Don’t read a book of a theologian in order to discover what the Bible says about a certain topic. I fear that many people are exactly doing this when they join theological discussions. They can tell you all kind of things because they have read them in theological books, written by people outside the canon of Scripture. But when you would ask them what the Bible says, it remains silent. Beware of this attitude. Give yourself to the study of the Word. Be in the Word. Read your Bible. Don’t lose the truths of it.