Recently while reading a book by pastor, author, and famed conference speaker John Piper, I came across a super quote by him. Regular readers of this newsletter know that Piper is not a Free Grace proponent. He is a committed Calvinist. He jokingly calls himself “a seven-point Calvinist.” He holds to Lordship Salvation, though you wouldn’t know it from the quote I came across.
It’s Vital We Believe Jesus for Something
In his 2007 book The Future of Justification, John Piper is responding to the writings of noted British scholar N.T. Wright on the subject of justification by faith alone. At one point Piper critiques this statement made by Wright:
We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing the gospel itself—in other words, [by believing] that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (quoted by Piper on p. 85).
Piper then makes this comment:
But there is a misleading ambiguity in Wright’s statement that we are saved not by believing in justification by faith but by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ambiguity is that it leaves undefined what we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for. It is not saving faith to believe in Jesus merely for prosperity or health or a better marriage…The summons ‘Believe the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection’ has no content that is clearly good news. Not until the gospel preacher tells the listener what Jesus offers him personally and freely does the proclamation have the quality of good news (pp. 85-86, emphasis his).
That is a fantastic statement.
It’s Vital We Believe Him for the Right Thing
Piper believes that we must tell people that all who truly believe in the Lord Jesus for justification are indeed justified, or declared righteous, by God. He says it this way:
My point here has simply been that from Acts 13:39 it is evident that one way Paul preached the gospel was by saying, ‘By him [namely, Jesus] everyone who believes is justified from everything from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” Of course, it is Jesus who saves, not the doctrine. And so our faith rests decisively on Jesus (p. 86, emphasis his).
Since Piper believes in secret election, unknowable faith, and the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, he does not know if he has faith in Jesus or not. He doesn’t believe that anyone can be sure of that, since none of us can be sure we will persevere, or even can be sure that Jesus died for us.
Indeed, Piper agrees with Wright that there will be a coming judgment of everyone, unbeliever and believer (contra John 5:24 where the Lord says there will be no such future judgment of believers), to determine who will be justified by works and who will not. Both believe that there is such a thing as final justification by works. Of course, Piper rejects Wright’s idea that our works in some way produce future justification, but instead that our works confirm our justification by faith:
Thus according to Wright, justification in that day will not be an act of public confirmation of a past, once-for-all, imputed righteousness received in this life at the first act of faith (as I will mention below). Rather, the final justification will be something more than confirmation. ‘Justification in the present…anticipates the future verdict’ (Piper citing Wright, p. 101, emphasis in Piper).
Precisely what Piper means is fuzzy. If our works are mere confirmation of our justification by faith, then in what sense will anyone be justified by his works? Piper goes on to say, “Justification in the future is God’s great showdown with evil and a great act of salvation. It does determine who, finally, is in” (p. 101, italics his). How could judgment of our imperfect works “determine who is in”? How could there be some future judgment to determine the eternal destiny of believers (cf. John 5:24)?
Thus the rub with Piper is that not only must we believe in Jesus for the right thing, but we must also believe in Him with the right faith, which is not mere intellectual assent, but is faith that includes a change of heart and a transformed life resulting in perseverance to the end and final justification/confirmation by works. Piper’s Calvinism gets in the way here big time.
But my point is this: Piper is right that in order to be justified one must believe in Jesus for something and that something must not be some temporal deliverance like deliverance from financial, health, or marital problems. One must believe in Jesus for eternal deliverance, that is, deliverance from eternal condemnation. On that point we heartily agree.
If someone believes that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose bodily from the dead, but doesn’t believe in Jesus for his eternal destiny, he has taken the good out of the good news. The cross and empty tomb make it so that all who simply believe in Jesus for everlasting life have everlasting life.
Put Life in Your Evangelism, Life Everlasting
I would clarify Piper’s comments on believing in Jesus for the right thing in two ways. First, believing is simply being convinced. It is not a change of heart and a change of lifestyle. Second, what we believe Jesus for, that is, what we are convinced of, is that Jesus gives everlasting life to all who simply believe in Him. We can’t believe in Jesus for justification unless we believe that on the basis of our faith in Him He has justified us once and for all. If we are convinced that he justifies all who believe in Him, but we are also convinced that it is impossible to know if we believe in Him or not, then we don’t believe in the Biblical meaning of the word believe.
When we evangelize, we should tell people about everlasting life that can never be lost. That is what our Lord did repeatedly (e.g., John 3:14-16; 4:10-14; 5:24; 6:35, 37, 39, 47; 11:25-27). Like our Lord we should tell people that all who simply believe in Him have everlasting life that is ever-lasting.
Of course this will often lead to objections about works. Some will say, “But you don’t know how bad I am.” Clearly such a person doesn’t grasp the point of Jesus’ finished work on the cross. We can go back over John 1:29 and 1 John 2:2.
Others will say, “But if that were true, then why wouldn’t someone go out and just live like the devil?” This person doesn’t grasp the truth that the wages of sin is death. If we “live like the devil,” then we repeat pain, suffering, and ultimately premature death. Why would anyone want to hurt themselves? Yes, a person who is sure he is eternally secure could take a hammer and break his leg in four places. He would still be eternally secure. But why would anyone want to do that? In reality becoming an alcoholic or other drug addict is actually worse than that. So is becoming an immoral person who loses his spouse and kids and gets lots of STDs and goes through untold pain and suffering. Does anyone think that the now well-known womanizing of John Edwards, Charlie Sheen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Tiger Woods was really in their best interests?
But whether people we evangelize accept our answers or not, if we stress the gift of everlasting life to all who simply believe in Jesus, then they understand the promise that Jesus makes. The Holy Spirit can use that over the next hours and days and months. But if we fail to stress the eternality of the life Jesus promises, we leave the person in the dark. As Piper says, we must clearly define what a person believes in Jesus for.
If you have assurance of your eternal destiny, then you know that you are believing in Jesus for everlasting life that can never be lost. At some point in the past you understood that you had to believe in Jesus for the promise of life everlasting. Oh, you may have first thought of that as a guaranteed home in heaven, or once-for-all justification, or a secure relationship with God. But you knew that you were believing in Jesus for that which is everlasting.
Keep the what for in your evangelism. Make the issue clear. It is a matter of life and death.