Your Works Are Not Your Holiness – a response to John Piper’s problems with faith

The problem with John Piper not leaving well enough alone

In an article published last month, John Piper states:

The only kind of faith that counts for justification is the kind that produces love — the kind that bears the fruit of love. The faith which alone justifies is never alone, but always bearing transforming fruit. So, when James says these controversial words, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24), I take him to mean not by faith which is alone, but which shows itself by works. (John Piper, Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?)

There’s nothing controversial about that paragraph (except for that odd and undefined phrase “transforming fruit”) and if he left off with that there would be nothing remarkable about his article. But the next paragraph is extremely problematic.

Paul calls this effect or fruit or evidence of faith the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11) and the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven (Hebrews 12:14). So, we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone. (Id., emphasis added.)

Rachel Miller ably answers Mr. Piper’s odd assertion that works are necessary for salvation in her article Salvation by Grace Alone through Faith Alone in Christ Alone where she details the history of the theology of salvation from Paul through the Reformation and up to present understanding on works and holiness. If you want the comprehensive analysis of why Mr. Piper’s teaching constitutes grave error, read her post.

I write here merely on the portion of Mr. Piper’s article where he says, “So, we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone.”

Does he really mean that our justification through faith in Jesus is insufficient for “getting to heaven”? It is in that very justification that we are made fit for eternal life with God.

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7.)

Our salvation means we are heirs with Jesus, washed clean and reborn by the Holy Spirit, all because of the mercy and kindness of God and “not because of the righteous things we have done.”

Mr. Piper has undoubtedly read this passage from Titus more than once, so why would he write an article that appears to say we are justified to a state of being that is less than we need to have for “getting to heaven”? The problematic nature of the post has been brought to the attention of Desiring God Ministries, Mr. Piper’s ministry organization which published the article, but there have been no corrections in the weeks since the article appeared. It is up to writers such as Ms. Miller to provide the corrections for him, then.

The rightness of acting rightly

And lest anyone think my own brief post here is an argument for not bothering to follow the way of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, I point to the words of Jesus’ brother James:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. (James 2:14-18.)

Some people might wonder what deeds are evidence of faith in Jesus. That is a hard question to answer if you want to compare one person’s works to another person’s works. There are so many ways to serve God and the people he’s put in your life that quantifying actions and results is impossible.

Happily this is not the way the Bible measures works. Rather, the way to know whether your actions are in step with the Spirit is by the fruit of those actions:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23.)

Mailoica Basket of Fruit, Fede Galizia

If your actions are kind, peaceful, patient, loving, etc., then you are engaging in the work James said will be evidence of your faith. This is fruit which rather than being transforming, as Mr. Piper puts it, is evidence of your transformation.

The fruit of these works are also evidence of the fact that you are “getting into heaven,” to use Mr. Piper’s phrase. But there is no difference between your justification and your holiness when it comes to faith. They both rely on Jesus, the power of the Spirit, and the kindness of your heavenly Father who loves you more than you can imagine.

The present reality of your heavenly presence

Contrary to Mr. Piper’s misunderstanding, “getting to heaven” is by faith alone whether you are speaking of justification or holiness. In fact, your place in heaven is not merely some future event to look forward to but is a present reality:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7.)

Justification, holiness and eternity with God: it’s all because of the faith you have in Jesus by the grace of God.


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20 Responses to Your Works Are Not Your Holiness – a response to John Piper’s problems with faith

  1. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    I did read Rachel Miller’s article and found it excellent. It’s unfortunate that what seems to have been an attempt on Piper’s part to clarify just makes things muddier — and dangerously misleading in the bargain. To be honest I often find that his writings have that effect.

    • Tim says:

      People point to his body of work in an attempt to clarify these odd statements, but these mistakes keep cropping up so perhaps the problem is in the body of work itself.

    • zechariahzavid says:

      Piper thrives off muddying the waters and making mealy mouthed apologetics. In his book on Christian Hedonism he just makes a point that is unsupported by the Scripture and then spends 300+ pages trying to rationalise it. On one page he even says “this will take some explaining and defending!” There is a reason why he says that- because it is unexplainable and indefensible and he knows it!

      • Piper often employs a preemptive strike to pull the wool over people’s eyes.
        Step 1. He tells you he’s going to say something to you and it will seem odd at first but have no fear, he will explain it to you well enough that when he’s done it will no longer seems odd to you.
        Step 2. He tells you something that is unscriptural. It uses scriptural language but he makes the words mean different things from what orthdox Christianity understands them to mean. Or he adds a flowery adjective or adverb to what was an otherwise orthodox sentence.
        Step 3. He gives you pages of pages of explanation to ‘validate’ what he said in Step 2. You have been primed by Step 1 to be ready for the oddity and to prepare your mind for the (Pied) Piper explanation… so you wade through it. And in the end you might come out believing what he said.

        This is wickedness. It is the art of the word-magician weaving you down a labyrinthine path that ends up in a bog.

        Ps Jeff Crippen wrote a fantastic series on Piper’s technique a while ago. Here is part 1:

        • Tim says:

          That is so excellent insight into the false teaching, Barbara, thanks.

        • zechariahzavid says:

          I agree with Tim – good analysis. Peter Masters of the Metropolitan Tabernacle has also wrote a critique of Piper’s Hedonism. Whilst I don’t agree with Peter Masters on several issues as I do not subscribe to Reformed Theology, he made this excellent comment: “This reviewer must own that he finds Dr. Piper too keen on producing startlingly original ways of looking at everything, and seldom are these to be found in the Bible. He is a master of the oblique approach, but at times his rather contrived reasoning leaves one grateful that Scripture, by contrast, is so straightforward and free from philosophical gymnastics.”. The source of that quote is

        • purple kitti says:

          “and to prepare your mind for the (Pied) Piper explanation… ”

          that… might just be the best description/ comparison of the man i’ve heard yet. wow.

  2. Thanks for this article–love this: “Y place in heaven is not merely some future event to look forward to but is a present reality.”

    Actually, the Piper paragraph you said was fine was one I stumbled over. It was when he used the term “transforming fruit.” I thought, “Wait, what? Fruit doesn’t transform. It comes from a life that’s been transformed already.”

    I certainly already knew about the old argument about justification by faith alone vs sanctification by faith alone (and whether or not the latter is heresy). But this was the first time I had heard a distinction made about our “final salvation.” Our “final salvation”?

    Wait, what??

  3. zechariahzavid says:

    Great article Tim. We do good works because we are already saved (Ephesians 2:10), not in order to get saved.

    I have been reading a lot about this recently because I was unsettled when I heard John MacArthur teaching the very same nonsense as Piper. This is called the “Lordship Salvation” doctrine. MacArthur made a lot of critical references to Charles Ryrie’s volume “So Great Salvation” so I went and read that volume myself. It actually made a lot more sense that MacArthur’s books which was essentially defence of tradition, not Scripture. I believe that Jesus died for my sins, rose from the dead and that my salvation is eternally secure and sure. As for disobedient or unfruitful believers, God disciplines them pretty hard until they repent and he never lets go. I know from experience as well as Scripture. Consider David when he kept silent about his sin and God’s hand was heavy upon (Psalm 32). There is the case of Hymaneus and Alexander who completely shipwrecked the faith and were “delivered to Satan in order that they may learn not to blaspheme”. This is why I can believe in the doctrine of eternal security whilst not giving people a licence to sin and get away with it.

  4. Tina Seward says:

    I really think at times that the underlying message of much preaching is, you don’t have to work to BE saved, but by golly, you sure do have to work awfully hard to STAY saved!

  5. purple kitti says:

    “are necessary for our final salvation”

    ………how many do we get? >_>;

    • Tim says:

      Right, as if just because you’ve received one (justification) doesn’t mean you are guaranteed the next (sanctification and then glorification). And who really thinks salvation is divided into three neat steps anyway? These are terms of convenience, not doctrinal imperatives.

    • Tim says:

      The way the Calvinist International puts it is different from Piper and THC, though. The article by Rachel Miller I link in the post eplains the traditional Reformed view much better than I could.

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