Doctrine of Assurance1
by Phil Congdon2
Piper Identifies Assurance as Major
Spiritual Problem in His Church
Piper has identified the issue of assurance as a major spiritual problem among his parishioners. He stated in his presentation at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in 2007:
I deal with this as much as anything, probably, in the people that I'm preaching to. Fears, and doubts, doubts not about objective 'Did He rise from the dead'–very few people are wrestling with that–but 'Am I in? Am I saved?' That's very common for people to wrestle with.3
Piper's Solution to the Problem of Doubt
Piper's solution to this epidemic of a lack of assurance of salvation within his congregation is to point to the imputation of Christ's righteousness—the practical outworking of the righteousness of Christ in our daily lives. He states that
...there are deficiencies—defects—in the sinful human soul that were meant to be remedied by the achievement of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to believers. Christ did not perform this great work for nothing. There was a need for it. When that achievement is denied, that need languishes without remedy, and the assumption is made that it can be remedied by Christ's other achievements, like the forgiveness of all our sins.4
This is a startling statement. Piper suggests that a believer who bases his assurance on the fact that all his sins have been forgiven will "languish" in a lack of assurance, while a person who understands the imputation of Christ's righteousness to mean that they will exhibit his "perfect righteousness" in their lives will overcome the "deficiency in the human soul" which undermines our assurance. Piper offers no Biblical or logical explanation why this would be so. Instead, he simply admonishes us, "Don't try to be wiser than God."
Since Piper views this as a major spiritual problem within his church, we may assume that he views lack of assurance of salvation as a bad thing. Grace in Focus readers certainly concur with this concern. But if the aim is that Christians will have assurance, it is difficult to understand how basing it on our progressive works of righteousness will produce such a goal. Indeed, Piper's own statement would suggest that his theology does not lead to a solution for the problem of a lack of assurance of salvation. Among those who listen to his teaching each week, who are in his congregation and most likely to embrace and embody his theology, it is "very common" for them to wrestle with a lack of assurance.
Piper Admits to Personally
Struggling with Lack of Assurance
Beyond this, Piper himself evidently also wrestles with a lack of assurance of salvation. In response to a question in the 2008 Crossway Lecture at ETS, he said, "…why I sin against my wife the same at age sixty-two that I did at age forty-two causes me sometimes to doubt my salvation."5 Unless this was a case of hyperbole, in which Piper overstated his meaning for effect, we cannot but conclude that he himself is, because of his own moral failings, occasionally uncertain of his eternal salvation! While such comments may seem to exhibit a godly humility which reflects well on one's spiritual destiny, many will struggle to find comfort in the notion that a pastor and Christian leader of Piper's status is unsure of his eternal destiny.
Conclusion: Looking to Our Works
Undermines Real Assurance
The fact is, dependence on our works for assurance of salvation ultimately and inevitably undermines any real assurance. Even the best of us falls far short of "Christ's perfect obedience"! Therefore, if we look to our works as Piper suggests, we are all left with ever-varying levels of eternal insecurity. This kind of teaching has spread throughout evangelicalism, resulting in a pandemic of lack of assurance.6 This cannot help but "diminish" the doctrine of assurance, that "by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone" a person is justified, possesses eternal life, and with it, assurance of salvation.
1This article was section III of the author's Spring 2010 Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society article entitled, "John Piper's Diminished Doctrine of Justification and Assurance."
2Phil is the Pastor of New Braunsfels (TX) Bible Church. He and his wife Jenny have eight children, ages 6-23.
5See John Piper, "Why God is Not a Megalomaniac in Demanding to be Worshipped," 60th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Recording available through ACTS Conference Products, # EV08487.
6Gary M. Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: The Letters of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 155, writes: "I am frankly astonished at the number of times I have explained to classes of Christian college students about the unmerited love God has for us…and how in the course of my explanation students from strong evangelical churches literally will cry…they point to the insecurity they have learned at their home churches. 'If I don't feel like God's child, maybe I'm not.' 'If I can't always act like God's child, perhaps I never was.' My office has witnessed such statements from the children of our evangelical households every semester for years."