John Piper’s Hopelessly Subjective View of Faith

An article by John Piper was brought to my attention by a reader of a previous post on the subject of assurance.  I think it is another illustration of the same kind of thinking that I took issue with there, presented even more boldly this time.

The title of the article is, “You Can Believe the Promises of God and Still Be Lost.”  It’s obviously provocative, and designed to startle you and make you think.  And I’m all in favor of provocation, of course.  But not by saying things that aren’t true.  The title of that article is manifestly not true.

The promise of the gospel is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”  If I believe in that promise, then I am saved.  It really is that simple.  Now if Piper is meaning that if I believe that I am forgiven and going to heaven, but I do not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then I am deluded and not going to heaven, like the falsely assured in Matthew 7:22.  But the people in Matthew 7:22 did not believe the promises of the God.  They made up a promise in their own head and believed that.  They believed something God never said, that if you work miracles that proves you are saved.  Nobody ever said that; that was just a comforting lie that they chose to believe.  Their lack of faith is proven by their lack of repentance.  But there is not a word said there about them believing in Jesus.

Yes, we also know that it is necessary to believe the truth about Jesus. There are many in the gospels who believe their own made-up lies about Jesus.  They may even believe He is the Messiah, in the sense that the Messiah is the One who will come and solve all our problems.  But they didn’t like the solutions He proposed, or even agree with the existence of the problems He actually came to fix.  He came to free them from their sin, not to free them from the Romans, and so they rejected Him.  Again, these are not examples of people who believed the promises of God.  They believed lies made up in their own heads or told to them by Satan.

Satan himself cannot be used as an example of one who “believes the promises of God” as Piper tries to claim.  Satan does not trust Jesus as his savior.  Satan doesn’t even want to be saved.  And the oft-cited passage in James, “The devils believe, and tremble” (James 2:19) says nothing about the demons believing in Christ, or in the gospel, or that Christ is the Savior, or anything like that.  It says that they believe there is one God.  That’s all.  James’ point is merely that having certain correct doctrinal propositions does not make you saved.  Being a monotheist in the first century was a pretty big commitment.  But it did not indicate saving faith.  James is nowhere making the point that I need to add some other element to believing in the promises of God in order to be saved.  When he says that faith without works is dead, he makes very clear what he means.  He does not say that faith without works is insufficient; he says it’s dead, not alive, not real faith.  Real faith will produce repentance.

Even resting in Christ, says Piper, is not enough, since he claims the false professors in Matthew 7:22 are resting in Christ.  But they’re not at all!  They’re resting in their own works.  When they are confronted, they do not say, “But we believed the promises of God!” (To which Piper would have Jesus respond, “It’s not enough! You did not apprehend properly the full spiritual beauty of the gospel promises!”)  No, they say, “Did we not do all these wonderful works?”  They never express any faith in Christ.  They express confidence in their own working of miracles.

There is a similar passage in Luke 13:25-26, where Jesus is similarly attacking the false confidence of many of the Jews:

“When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying,`Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you,`I do not know you, where you are from,’  then you will begin to say,`We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ “But He will say,`I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ (Luk 13:25-27 NKJ)

Once again, there is no protest on the basis of belief, to which Jesus responds, Piper-like, that their faith lacks some vague subjective quality of apprehending beauty.  No, they thought they were in the kingdom just because they were around Jesus, because they were present when His ministry was happening.  This rings very true to this pastor’s experience.  Many seem to think just because they show up from time to time when Christianity is going on, that they are in the kingdom.  But we should not put words in Jesus’ mouth and make Him say more than He says.

What does Piper say is actually necessary for saving faith?

Another way to say it would be that in all the acts of saving faith the Holy Spirit enables us not only to perceive and affirm factual truth, but also to apprehend and embrace spiritual beauty. It is the “embracing of spiritual beauty” that is the essential core of saving faith. And this embrace is what will shape our lives most deeply and receive the “well done” at the Last Day.

“Embracing of spiritual beauty” is the core of saving faith.  He’s even going farther than Owens in the article I quoted before.  Owens was just talking about assurance.  Piper is talking about what constitutes real faith.  And into real faith he inserts the idea that embracing of spiritual beauty is necessary to be justified.

What does this even mean?  How can I know whether I have embraced enough spiritual beauty?  What particular definition of beauty does Piper endorse?  And what Scripture would Piper use to defend this idea?

This idea destroys assurance, which one suspects may be the real goal here.  The Puritan-minded (and Piper is a big fan of the Puritans) seem to view assurance as dangerous, as Lee Johnson says.  They are so concerned about false professors and nominal believers that they seem to be willing to all but destroy the possibility of assurance in order to guard against that error.  But in doing so they risk changing the definition of faith, and by doing so, overthrowing the Gospel, that very thing they are trying to preserve.  It is the confidence in salvation worked by the Spirit which is the engine of spiritual growth.  Spiritual growth essentially comes out of thankfulness, but to be thankful I have to be confident that I have a thing.  It is impossible to be thankful for something which one is not sure one has.

Otherwise, sanctification becomes a means of achieving justification, the hallmark of legalism.  And that is what Piper (perhaps unwittingly) is advocating for here, that the Christian be required to do a lot of work before that Christian has any right to view himself as saved.  He says this is something revealed by the Spirit to the believer, but when I suspend my salvation on something subjective like this, the inevitable result is the necessity of doing a lot of work in order to assure that I have achieved that subjective standard.  “Embracing spiritual beauty” is not something the believer automatically has when they come to faith.  And how can we be certain we have enough of it?  If I believe in the promises of God, but am uncertain that I “embrace the spiritual beauty” sufficiently, how do I go about getting it?

Here’s what I prefer:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (Joh 11:25-27 NKJ)

Believing in Christ, here, is said to be the guaranteed ticket to eternal life.  And what is believing in Christ?  It’s believing that He is the Messiah, the Son of God.  It’s trusting Him completely.  It’s resting in Him.  If I believe the promises of God, then I will believe in Christ.  There is really no air between those two things.

Or as Paul and Silas said,

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Act 16:31 NKJ)

Isn’t that enough?  What are we afraid of?  Are we afraid that people are going to be confident and joyful in their salvation when they have not shed as many tears as I think they need to, or have been raised to the same ecstatic heights that I believe to be necessary?  Is it the fear that there are people who are going to believe the gospel, rest in Christ, repent of their sins, trust in their salvation, but will actually have been deluded and will go to hell because they didn’t “embrace the spiritual beauty” of the gospel enough?  Does Piper actually think God would do that?

Well, boo on that.  Trust Christ.  And of course there is the need to unpack everything that means, and understand the implications of that.  The idea of repentance, of rethinking our lives and committing to a different way is implicit in what it means to trust Christ as my Lord and Savior.  But many a new Christian won’t have any kind of clear idea of the real nature of their sin, of its true horror, or of the full spiritual beauty of the gospel of Christ.  Those things come in time.  But they grow out of trust and thankfulness, that is to say, out of assurance.  If you deny assurance until someone has reached some subjective level of apprehension, then you have destroyed the very spiritual principle that will produce that growth.  Sanctification grows out of trust, not out of doubt.

The Heidelberg Catechism in Question 2 teaches us that three things are necessary to live and die in the comfort of belonging to Christ- the greatness of my sin and misery, how Christ has redeemed me from my sin and misery, and how I am to be thankful for that redemption.  That’s simple.  And more important, it’s not subjective.  These are simply Biblical facts to be learned and embraced and applied to our lives.  These are the promises of God.  Believing them will certainly preserve your soul from hell.