I would like to begin on a personal note since I owe my readers an explanation and an apology for the long hiatus since my last essay. I have been working for the past couple of months on my upcoming book, The High Tory: Essays on Classical Conservatism by a Patriotic Canadian. The book is a compilation of essays, some of which have been self-published here, others of which have appeared in the journal Anglican Tradition, and some of which will be making their first public appearance in the book itself. This project has been consuming most of my writing and researching time and is likely to continue to do so for several months yet to come.
The Pied Piper of Minneapolis
On June 26th, 1284, 130 children from the town of Hamelin in Germany, were led away into the hills near the town and never returned. We are all familiar with the version of this story that appears in the Brothers Grimm, in which the children were spirited away in revenge after the town reneged on their promised payment to the man who rid them of a rat plague with hypnotic music. Less embellished versions go back much further, almost to the very date of the incident. With or without the rats and magic music, all accounts attribute the loss of the children to a man who played a pipe and wore a coat of many colours as if he thought he were the Biblical Joseph – or Dolly Parton. Due to this description this figure is universally known as the Pied Piper.
Within the evangelical world another Pied Piper has arisen to lure the children of God away into the hills of heresy. His name is John and he was, until fairly recently, the pastor of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
This year, the eve of All Saints marked the five hundredth anniversary of the posting of Dr. Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, the event that launched the Reformation. To celebrate this important anniversary, Piper, who is well-known as a “Reformed” or “Calvinist” theologian, posted an article in which he denied the Pauline truth that lay at the heart of the Reformation – that man, who is a sinner, can be justified in the eyes of God, whether in this life or at the final assize, only through the completed, atoning, sacrifice of Jesus Christ, given to the world by God in His grace, and received through faith and not by works. In an article published on his ministry’s website, dated September 25, 2017, and entitled “Does God Really Save Us By Faith Alone?” Piper answered the question in his title with a resounding “no.”
In the article Piper distinguished between justification in which “faith receives a finished work of Christ performed outside of us and counted as ours — imputed to us”, sanctification in which “faith receives an ongoing power of Christ that works inside us for practical holiness” and final salvation in which, according to him, “at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith.”
Piper disingenuously attempted to pretend that he had not handed the orthodox the stake upon which to burn him (figuratively speaking, of course) by saying that Sola Fide only ever applied to justification, not final salvation, as if, when St. Paul wrote “διότι ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται πᾶσα σὰρξ ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ” (1) he had only the believer’s entrance into the Christian life and not his standing before God throughout that life and at the Final Judgement in mind. The plain truth of what the Apostle wrote simply cannot be explained away. Some have attempted to do so by pointing to the fact that ἔργων is qualified by the word νόμου, but the very distinction between “works of the law” and “works of love” is lost entirely if we make the latter into something upon which our final standing in the eyes of God depends. Piper turns, as all who wish to avoid the truth of Romans do, to the epistle of James which declares that justification is “οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως μόνον.” Note that the last word does not match the word which precedes it in case. This means that it is not modifying faith adjectively, but is rather the adverbial form of the word and applies back to justification itself. This means that what St. James has in mind when he says “ἐξ ἔργων δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος” (2) is not that at the final judgement we will be saved “through that fruit and that faith” together, as Piper suggests, but that two different sense of justification are in view. Contrast the first word in the verse, ὁρᾶτε (ye see), with ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ (in His sight) from the verse in Romans and the distinction between the two justifications becomes clear. In the sight of God, justification is never by works, but our faith can only be justified in the sight of men by our works.
For a fuller examination of Piper’s article and its errors I refer you to “John Piper on Final Justification by Works” by Timothy Kauffman and Tim Shaughnessy in the Trinity Review.
This is not the first time that Piper has expressed his view that final salvation depends upon works as well as faith. He said very much the same thing two years ago, ironically in his introduction to Thomas Schreiner’s Faith Alone---The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters, part of the Five Solas Series edited by Matthew Barrett for Zondervan. Indeed, he has been associated with various forms of works-righteousness for the duration of his ministry.
I first encountered Piper’s name during my formal theological education at what is now Providence University College (at the time it was Providence Bible College) in the 1990s. He was one of several evangelical celebrities, mostly from the Reformed/Calvinist tradition, who had placed their imprimatur upon the book The Gospel According to Jesus, which had been published by Zondervan in 1988 with forewords from the late Presbyterian theologian and pastor James Montgomery Boice and from J. I. Packer, a Puritan who thinks he’s an Anglican. Its author, John F. MacArthur Jr., is the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, as well as a seminary president and radio Bible teacher. This book, which recycles the ideas found in the The Cost of Discipleship, the most well-known book of German liberal God-is-dead theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, foolishly celebrated as a “martyr” by today’s evangelicals (he does not qualify as he was put to death for his political activities, however laudable they may or may not have been, rather than his faith), was an attempt to smuggle works into the Gospel by making them part of the definition of faith. MacArthur’s interpretive methodology was to take all of the demanding challenges that Jesus presented His followers with and treat these as if they were identical to His promises of everlasting life to those who believe in Him and explanations of what it means to “believe.” To get the meaning he required from his texts, he tortured them beyond recognition. To give but one example, of John 3:14-15 he wrote “In order to look at the bronze snake on the pole, they had to drag themselves to where they could see it. They were in no position to glance flippantly at the pole and then proceed with lives of rebellion.” (p. 46)
The paperback edition of this book, which was still being widely discussed and debated when I entered Providence, carried an endorsement by Piper. His review of the book for the February 1989 issue of the Baptist magazine The Standard could hardly have been more gushing. Piper wrote:
As for my own personal response to the book, I could scarcely put it down for joy. Its exegesis is almost always compelling. Its analysis of the contemporary scene is shockingly accurate. Its description of conversion is wonderfully radical. Its exposure of rampant nominalism is life saving. Its grief over the impurity of the church is moving. Its zeal for the glory of God’s holiness is contagious. Its vision of God’s sovereign grace is large and fully biblical. My prayer is that the BGC Commission on Evangelism will make it second to the Bible in their deliberations, and that our Conference will have about it the radical Christlike flavor of this book.
Quod onus stercoris!
Quite apart from the book’s own demerits, at the time it was published its author could not have affirmed the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which was composed in the first two ecumenical councils of the church in the fourth century in response to Arianism, Sabellianism, and other Christological heresies and has remained the most important statement of basic Apostolic orthodoxy since. The Creed affirms of Christ that He is:
τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων
which Thomas Cranmer rendered in English as “the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all worlds.” This is the doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son, also known as the Eternal Sonship of Christ, and it is an essential element of the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is not just that God is One in Being and Three in Person – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – but also defines the eternal relationships between these Persons. The eternal relationship between the Father and the Son is defined by the word γεννηθέντα (begotten) which is distinguished from ποιηθέντα (made) to show that while the relationship between the Second Person of the Trinity and the First has eternally been that of a Son to His Father, this does not mean, as the Arians maintained, that He had a beginning. That the relationships within the Trinity are an essential part of the doctrine is not well understood by the average evangelical today – which is a good reason for conservative Protestants to reconsider the quite recent equation of the terms “evangelical” and “orthodox” – but Piper cannot hide behind this excuse. At the time that he endorsed MacArthur’s book, MacArthur taught Incarnational Sonship, that Jesus’s relationship to the Father did not become one of Sonship until the Incarnation, a doctrine that logically leads to Sabellianism the heresy of confusing the Persons as the agent in the Incarnation is clearly said in the Scriptures to be the Holy Spirit. MacArthur had begun teaching this heresy in 1972 and did not recant of it until the fall of 1999. It is still present in the doctrinal statement of his Seminary (sixth paragraph under the heading “God the Son”).
By giving MacArthur’s book his glowing endorsement, Piper demonstrated that he thought so highly of its teachings that he was willing to overlook the author’s defection from Nicene orthodoxy. Furthermore this is not a comparison of two unrelated matters. MacArthur, by reading every demanding challenge Jesus ever gave into His invitations to faith, produced a meaning for the word “believe” that has little to do with what that word means in ordinary usage. Nor does it bear any closer resemblance to the ordinary meaning of either the Latin credere or the Greek πιστεύειν. To get MacArthur’s Piper-endorsed meaning out of the word believe, and its Latin and Greek cognates, one would have to have some kind of special knowledge reserved for a select few. The kind of special knowledge that the oldest defectors from Apostolic orthodoxy, the sectarians described as “antiChrists” by St. John in the Scriptures, claimed for themselves under the term γνῶσις,
The early Reformers taught the Augustinian doctrine of predestination but by the time the Synod of Dort was convened in 1618-1619 by the Dutch Reformed Churches the doctrine of election had come to resemble the Gnostic doctrine of salvation reserved for the select few who possess the γνῶσις more than anything found in the teachings of the orthodox, fifth century, Bishop of Hippo. Theodore Beza had gone much further in subordinating the doctrine of justification to that of election than Calvin had and this produced a reaction, on the part of one of his own students, Jacob Arminius, whose followers produced the five-point statement known as the Remonstrance, to which the Synod of Dort was a response. Although Beza had died thirteen years before the Synod met, his influence can be found all over it. The canons it produced are known today as the “Five Points of Calvinism”, usually arranged in the order Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints in order to produce the mnemonic acronym TULIP. (3) The difference between this version of predestination and that taught by the early Reformers can be seen in the L.
Limited Atonement is the doctrine that Christ died only for the elect rather than for the entire world. Those who hold to this doctrine explain it as a limitation in design or intent, rather than in value. Christ’s death is sufficient, they say, for the entire world, but is limited in its efficiency, those it actually saves. To be fair anyone who is not a universalist believes this in some form or another. There is a world of difference, however, between saying that the Atonement was designed to save those who believe in Jesus and saying that it was designed to save only the elect, even though the two groups be coterminous. The former, preserves the sincerity of the Gospel as a message of universal “good news.” The latter does not. The Bezan-Dortian doctrine seriously distorts the nature of the Gospel message. The orthodox Gospel is Christianity’s message of good news to the world, that God has given to the world a Saviour in the Person of His Son Jesus Christ, Who made a full atonement for the sins of the world through His death on the cross and in Whom, having been raised from the dead, all are invited to believe and by believing receive pardon for sins, justification and everlasting life. Limited Atonement transforms this into a Gnostic message about what God has done, not for the world, but for His select few.
Reformed theologians refer to the doctrines of Dort as the “doctrines of grace” but in reality the Limited Atonement ensures that this view of predestination is actually a form of salvation by works hiding behind the mask of salvation by grace. If Christ died only for the elect then one cannot know that Christ died for him merely by believing the Gospel but can only know that Christ died for him by first knowing that he is one of the elect. The way to know this, in this theology, is by seeing the fruit of one’s election in one’s good works. Since, in this theology, only final perseverance in good works counts, one can never be fully sure of one’s election prior to the Judgement. This was stated explicitly in the Canons of Dort in which “a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works” is listed among the grounds of assurance in Article 10 under the heading “Final Perseverance of the Saints.” To say that “a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works” is part of the grounds of assurance, however, is the same thing as saying that we must trust partly in our own good works.
This is not what John Calvin himself taught, and undoubtedly if he had lived to hear this doctrine taught in his name, those so teaching would have faced a fate worse than Servetus. Calvin wrote:
Quodsi in eo sumus electi, non in nobis ipsis reperiemus electionis nostrae certitudinem: ac ne in Deo quidem Patre, si nudum illum absque Filio imaginamur. Christus ergo speculum est, in quo electionem nostram contemplari convenit, et sine fraude licet. (4)
“But if we are elected in him, we shall not discover the certainty of our election in us ourselves, and not, indeed, in God the Father, if we picture Him to ourselves naked, apart from the Son. Christ therefore is the mirror, in which it is suitable and permitted, without delusion, to contemplate our election.” (5)
Calvin, in other words, was a Lutheran not a Calvinist. In Luther’s teachings, from which the Lutheran tradition never departed in the way the Calvinist tradition did from Calvin’s, our salvation was accomplished for us by Christ, is announced to us through the Gospel, and received by us through faith, which looks outward away from ourselves and rests in Christ, and our assurance of our salvation is found in the same place in exactly the same way. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile this teaching with the idea that Christ died only for a select few, an idea that was completely absent from the teachings of the Lutheran John Calvin. (6)
“ἕκαστον γὰρ δένδρον ἐκ τοῦ ἰδίου καρποῦ γινώσκεται”, (7) the Lord said, and fruit of the Calvinism that bears the Reformer’s name but not his doctrine, shows the tree to be corrupt indeed. In England, the Calvinism of Dort developed Puritanism, a fanatical movement that sought to purify the established church and impose a rigid and Pharisaical code of morality upon the nation, bred sedition, revolution, and regicide, becoming the template and inspiration for the rebellion of the Yankee traitors and the bloody revolution of the French Jacobins in the eighteenth century, and of the Communist and Nazi movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For a theology that proclaims itself to be about grace, it proved remarkably addicted to law. This is the theology that in England sought to ban Christmas, Easter, and any and all harmless amusements on Sundays and that in North America put people on trial for kissing their own spouses in public and spawned the notorious witchcraft trials of the late seventeenth century.
More relevant though, to our immediate subject, was the fruit it bore in the hearts and minds of those it first taught to ask the question “am I one of the elect?” and then taught to seek the answer through introspection. Ignoring Calvin’s “non in nobis ipsis”, the Puritans misapplied passages in which St. Paul told his Corinthian readers to examine the manner in which they partook of the Eucharist and to look to their own faith as evidence of the validity of his calling, Apostleship, and ministry, turning them into general commandments to look to their good works for evidence of the validity of their election and faith. This doctrine could produce but two possible results – arrogance, hubris, pride and self-deception among the spiritually dead and doubt, misery, and despair among those awake to their own sinfulness. The poet and hymnist William Cowper, driven mad by the thought of his own reprobation, is but one example of the casualties of this doctrine of which, John MacArthur’s efforts to revive, were loudly applauded by the same John Piper who now says openly that at the Last Judgement, our Final Salvation will depend on works as well as upon faith.
Against this new Pied Piper, seeking to lure the children of God away to their doom, let the words St. Paul first pronounced against those who taught that the salvation begun by grace and entered into by faith is to be completed by works, be the final word:
ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐὰν ἡμεῖς ἢ ἄγγελος ἐξ οὐρανοῦ εὐαγγελίζηται ὑμῖν παρ' ὃ εὐηγγελισάμεθα ὑμῖν, ἀνάθεμα ἔστω:
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed (8)
(1) Romans 3:20 (Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight - KJV)
(2) James 2:24 (by works a man is justified, and not by faith only - KJV)
(3) In the canons of Dort the order was ULTIP.
(4) Institutio Christianae Religionis, III, xxiv. 5.
(5) If you want a better English rendition than my own Henry Beveridge’s reads “But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election.”
(6) I came to this conclusion myself when I first read Calvin over twenty years ago. Not only is the concept that “Christ died only for the elect” not formulated as such in his writings it is impossible to reconcile with passages like this, from Calvin’s Commentary on John 3:16 “And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.” R. T. Kendall, who succeeded D. Martin Lloyd-Jones as pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, argued in his published doctoral dissertation that Calvin had taught an unlimited atonement and later Calvinists, especially the Puritans, had taken a step towards salvation by works by departing from his views of the Atonement and assurance. Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
(7) Luke 6:44. (For every tree is known by his own fruit – KJV)
(8) Galatians 1:8
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