“We distinguish”: Conditions of Salvation

There’s been some back-and-forth over a forward that John Piper wrote for a book by Thomas Schreiner about the doctrine of justification.  In that foreword, Piper wrote that there are conditions to salvation beyond just faith, that we are justified by faith alone but that entrance into heaven is about more than faith.  Scott Clark took issue with him; Mark Jones took issue back.  Jones correctly asserts that the Reformed have long spoken of good works as necessary for salvation.  Clark correctly asserts that good works are in no sense instrumental to our salvation.

One of the things that I really appreciate about reading older Reformed authors like Francis Turretin is that he labors to be extremely precise in his use of words.  He will say, “We distinguish,” an will then launch into exhaustive distinctions about what he does and does not mean by particular statements.  This can make for long tedious books, but if you put in the effort, there can be no real question about what he means.  He is very precise as are many of the Reformed scholastics, and that is a virtue we could use more of these days.  Take the word “condition”, for example.  That word has a great many meanings, some of them shades of difference apart, and some of them completely separate.  “Condition” might mean an instrumental condition, meaning that my entrance into heaven is dependent on me passing some requirement that has to be there as the means by which I attain the thing.  Or “condition” could mean a state of being that will always be there when something else is there, or what we would call a “consequent condition” or concomitant condition.  So when John Piper says there are “conditions” to salvation, and then Mark Jones can draw up lots of Reformed authors saying the same thing, that doesn’t really help us very much, because it doesn’t tell us in what sense good works are a condition of salvation.  That may not make for a nice elegant forward, but it avoids misunderstandings.  The sloppy use of words is the bane of every good theologian.

When I read Piper’s forward, this, it seems to me, is the troublesome paragraph:

The stunning Christian answer is: sola fide—faith alone. But be sure you hear this carefully and precisely: He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God. In fact, one must already be in a right relationship with God by faith alone in order to meet the other conditions.

Now that sounds to me a lot like he’s saying that good works are an instrumental condition for entering heaven- because he’s saying it’s a condition “for attaining heaven.”  That is to say, that Jesus is going to look at my life, and decide whether or not to admit me to the kingdom based on some subjective level of righteousness in my life.  If this is true, then the Reformation is overthrown and we never should have left Rome.  If this is not what Piper is saying, then he should be more careful with his words.

I think that we have a problem on the other side of the road with people denying that good works have anything at all to do with our salvation, that is, denying essentially that good works are a consequent condition.  The truth is that good works are the purpose and goal of our salvation- we are saved from sin in order to make us holy, to make us fit members of the eternal kingdom, worthy of sharing fellowship with God forever.

To use the Biblical analogy, you grow fruit trees in order to have fruit.  If you get no fruit from a branch, you cut the branch off and burn it up.  If you get fruit, you keep the branch on the tree (John 15), and further, you prune the branch to get even more fruit.  If someone abides in Christ, then they produce fruit, and they stay in the vineyard.  If they do not abide in Christ, then they are removed.  In this analogy, it is abiding in Christ which is the instrumental condition, and it is fruit which is the consequent condition.  “Abiding in Christ” guarantees that one will stay a part of the vine.  “Bearing fruit” is the consequent condition- it’s a condition that must be there if the “abiding” is there.  “Bearing fruit” is what “abiding” looks like.  And how to we abide?  We do so by faith, by believing Jesus’ words, and by believing in such a way that we do them.  Therefore, what Jesus says here is perfectly consistent with what he says to so many others, that believing in Jesus grants one eternal life.

Faith alone therefore is the instrumental condition of salvation.  Not just of entering into a right relationship with God, but of the attainment of the eternal kingdom.  This is necessarily true, for the one contains the other.  If one has entered into a right relationship with God by faith in the Messiah, then the state of attaining the eternal kingdom in principle is already there.  We believe in the perseverance of the saints, remember.  And this is where I think John Piper’s foreword is guilty of at least equivocation, of using words in different senses.  For if faith is a condition of entering into a right relationship with God and works are a condition of entering into heaven, and the word “condition” there is being used in the same sense, then Piper is guilty of teaching the Roman Catholic (and the Federal Vision) doctrine of salvation, of progressive justification that begins with faith and concludes with works.  We should reject that.  If he’s teaching the necessity of good works in the sense that the Reformed always have, then he’s equivocating, using “condition” in different senses within the same argument.  He has failed to distinguish between these different senses.

Mark Jones uses a quote from Michael Horton at the end of the article to try to prove how unobjectionable Piper’s statement is:

“The New Testament lays before us a vast array of conditions for final salvation. Not only initial repentance and faith, but perseverance in both, demonstrated in love toward God and neighbor…Holiness, which is defined by love of God and neighbor…is the indispensable condition of our glorification: no one will be seated at the heavenly banquet who has not begun, however imperfectly, in new obedience.”

But again, Horton is clearly speaking of all the conditions for final salvation, of which faith and repentance is one.  These are consequent conditions.  These are all things that will be there in the one who is to be saved.  But this is not the same as saying that these conditions are ways by which we earn a place there, or gain a right to them, or maintain the right we had previously attained by faith to that place.  Horton constantly asserts that justification is achieved by faith alone, and that all of the benefits of Christ are attained through justification.  Jones doesn’t provide the source of his Horton quote so I can’t look at the context.  But I’m plenty familiar with Horton.

So I think I cautiously side with Clark on this one.  I’m not absolutely sure that Piper is saying what Clark thinks he’s saying, but if he’s not, then he is at least being careless.  But I think Jones either lets Piper off the hook far too easily and with Reformed teaching that doesn’t really support his point, or else Jones has some questionable beliefs himself.  Faith is the instrumental condition of justification- faith is the way we enter into that right relationship with God, and once we are in that relationship, all the blessings of heaven are ours.  The result of that, the “concomitants” of that, are going to be good works, perseverance, love, etc- but none of those things are the way we earn, achieve, maintain or improve upon the total attainment of blessedness we already have in principle when we enter into a right relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  They are the way we experience and enjoy all the blessings that Christ has for us, nothing more.

3 thoughts on ““We distinguish”: Conditions of Salvation

  1. Richard Chelvan says:

    This is exactly correct and my position is that of Clark the writer of this article. That is why I read Turretin and pay particular attention to those times when he says “I distinguish.” In this postmodern world you would think that this would be essential for all theology students!

  2. Robert Mettler says:

    These arguments seem to stem from and be a spill-over from Arminian thinking; too much loose talk today in popular Christianity about who individually is “saved”, as they put it, and who isn’t saved. Who indeed is justified? Who is to judge?

    11 Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?
    The New King James Version. (1982). (Jas 4:11–12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

    Scott Clark’s follow-up:

  3. Matt,

    You know of my struggles with this very doctrine. But I’ve found it very helpful to meditate on the experience of the thief on the cross next to Jesus. There’s just no way to view that as anything other then salvation by grace and faith alone. And Jesus himself assures the man that he will be in paradise; merely as a consequence of the man’s sincere confession of faith + nothing else. I’m not sure what the RC view of that passage is, but I would think it would be troublesome to their position, if nothing else.

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