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The Intersection of Eschatology and Soteriology in John Piper's Theology

The Intersection of Eschatology and Soteriology in John Piper’s Theology

Introduction

No matter what one’s view is of the teaching ministry of John Piper, we can affirm that Dr. Piper is consistent in his teaching. This writer finds many positive contributions in his books to help a Christian deal with a range of common struggles and sins (e.g., bitterness, impatience, pride, etc.), and especially insightful in the book Future Grace is the discussion of how Jesus fought despondency throughout His hours of difficulty. With all of these positive contributions, it is unfortunate Dr. Piper adopts the position that there is no heaven without an ambiguously defined practical holiness:

I will try to show from Scripture that saving faith means, in its essence, prizing the superior worth of all that God is for us in Jesus. And I will try to show that this faith is not just the key to heaven, but also the key to holiness. Which is why the Bible can teach that there is no heaven without practical holiness (Hebrews 12:14), and yet heaven is reached “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).[1]

Intersection

John Piper’s theology emphasizes that obedient works are the necessary condition of final salvation. Piper writes, “Faith alone is necessary for justification, but the purity that confirms faith’s reality is also necessary for final salvation.”[2]

Piper’s theology that obedient works are the necessary condition of final salvation is also seen in two related aspects: (1) the use of the eschatological judgment passages to present an event where works are used as corroborating evidence to validate the possession of eternal life vs. the judgment according to works as a means for God’s evaluating response to the life lived, for believers at the Judgment Seat of Christ and for unbelievers at the Great White Throne Judgment; (2) the use of conditional eternal life passages as a means to evaluate the possession of eternal life vs. instruction for a deeper experience of eternal life in this present life through intimacy with God.

In the article “How can eternal life be a free gift and yet ‘According to Works’?”[3], Piper writes the following:

How Can Eternal Life Be a Free Gift and Yet “According to Works”?

Meditation on Romans 2:6–8

God will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (rsv)

One of the questions raised about death is whether Christians face a divine judgment and, if so, why and what kind. It is a good question because, on the one hand, we believe that our acceptance with God is based on free grace purchased by the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ and that this acceptance is attained though faith not earned through meritorious works. But, on the other hand, the New Testament frequently teaches that believers will be judged by God along with all men and that both our eternal life and our varied rewards will be “according to works.”

For example, Romans 2:6–8 says, “God will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (rsv).

This passage teaches that eternal life will be “according to works.” To those who seek glory by patience in well-doing, God will render eternal life. The same thing is taught clearly to believers in Galatians 6:8–9, “The one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap [eternal life] if we do not grow weary” (emphasis added). So in both Romans 2 and Galatians 6, eternal life is rendered in accord with patience in well-doing.

But this does not mean that it will be earned by works instead of obtained by faith. In Romans 6:23 Paul says, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Eternal life is not earned. It is free. “By grace are you saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9, emphasis added). Faith receives eternal life freely as a gift. There is no way it can be earned as a wage through works.

But eternal life is rendered according to our works. This is made plain not only in Romans 2:6–8 and Galatians 6:8–9, but also in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11; Galatians 5:6, 21; Ephesians 5:5; James 2:14–26; Hebrews 12:14; Matthew 7:24–27; Luke 10:25–28; and many other places that teach the necessity of obedience (which is the fruit of faith) in the inheritance of eternal life.

So we must learn to make the biblical distinction between earning eternal life on the basis of works (which the Bible does not teach!) and receiving eternal life according to works (which the Bible does teach!). Believers in Christ will stand before the judgment seat of God and will be accepted into eternal life on the basis of the shed blood of Jesus covering our sin (Ephesians 1:7) and the righteousness of God reckoned to our account through faith (Romans 3:22; 4:5; Philippians 3:9). But our free acceptance by grace through faith will be according to works.

“According to works” means that God will take the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and the “good deeds” by which the light of our faith shines (Matthew 5:16), and he will accept them as corroborating evidence of our faith. His sentence of acquittal will not be because we are not guilty. It will be because Christ bore our guilt. The place of our works at the judgment is to serve as corroborating public evidence that we did indeed put our trust in Christ. “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14). “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments” (1 John 2:3). Therefore when we are acquitted and welcomed into the kingdom, it will not be earned by works but it will be according to works. There will be an “accord” or an agreement between our salvation and our works. (See A Godward Life, Book One, reading #90.)

If these things are so, two practical effects emerge. One is a sense of peace with God that Christ has died for us and lives again to intercede for us with an all-sufficient sacrifice and a perfect obedience. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). This is precious beyond words in the times of assailing doubt. The other effect is a sense of urgency and seriousness about the demand that we be real and not phony in our faith. If a changed life of love (the sum of good works) is the evidence of our faith, then oh, how vigilant and earnest and passionate we should be about the things of God and the fight of faith. Lord, let us heed 1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”

Some observations regarding this article:

  1. The word for “render” in Romans 2:6 is apodidōmi which means to “repay” or “pay back.” This word is also used in many other places as translated by the NASB as “reward” or “repay” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18; 16:27; Romans 12:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 2 Timothy 4:14; Hebrews 12:11; 1 Peter 3:9; Revelation 18:6; 22:12). Revelation 22:12 states, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” In essence, the Lord is bringing his wages or reward (Greek misthos) to pay back (Greek apodidōmi) every person according to their works. The passage is a judgment passage that teaches that God will repay every man according to their deeds, for there is no partiality with God (Romans 2:11).
  2. As one sows to the Spirit, he will expand his own capacity to experience eternal life in this present life (Galatians 6:8-9). This is similar to the passage that Piper uses for “Fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12) where it is best understood that one takes hold more fully of the eternal life that they already possess rather than fighting to possess eternal life in the future inheritance. This concept is further amplified in 1 Timothy 6:19 with, “storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (ESV) One receives the free gift of eternal life by faith and as one sows to the Spirit they will spiritually grow and increase in experiencing eternal life in this present life.
  3. For sanctification salvation, obedience is critical for continued growth, but it appears as though Piper also uses the necessity of obedience for the inheritance of eternal life. After quoting verses with varied contexts, he writes that “many other places that teach the necessity of obedience (which is the fruit of faith) in the inheritance of eternal life.” There are varied contexts for the word “inheritance” as some passages discuss the inheritance of the saints (Ephesians 1:18; Colossians 1:12) and partnership in the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:5), while others discuss the reward of the inheritance (Colossians 3:24; Hebrews 6:12). The way that Piper uses these passages is not within a set of categories related to the context of the inheritance but to make the blanket point that continued obedience is a necessary condition of receiving eternal life. I would recommend the book from Dr. Charles Bing entitled Grace, Salvation, and Discipleship: How to Understand Some Difficult Bible Passages as a resource to study each of the passages to determine if the passage actually teaches the necessary of obedience to inherit eternal life. Chapter 3 concerning the principles of Bible Study gives an outstanding foundation for studying any text.
  4. In the final judgment courtroom scene that Piper constructs, the individual’s faith is validated by the evidence of our works and “our free acceptance by grace through faith will be according to works.” Or as further described, “There will be an ‘accord’ or an agreement between our salvation and our works.” Piper is writing that one takes the first step by faith and necessary obedience is required as a condition for the transfer of eternal life at the judgment.
  5. There are significant implications to counter Piper’s teachings. The assurance of salvation is found by focusing on the faithfulness of God and looking toward Christ rather than confirming inward evidences of regeneration. It is possible for Christians to struggle with perseverance in faith, even to the point where there are lapses into carnality with the risk of temporal discipline. The danger presented by the warning passages is not a loss of salvation nor to confirm the lack of salvation, but to present the risk of temporal discipline and loss of reward at the judgment seat of Christ. There would also be a tendency toward a surface view of sin as the very nature of sin is deceptive, especially relational sin.

Conclusion

In reviewing John MacArthur’s book The Gospel According to Jesus in 1989, which similarly adopts a soteriology that requires a continued obedience to inherit eternal life, Darrell Bock writes,

“[MacArthur’s] overemphases tend to underestimate sin in the believer, erode assurance, and challenge the walk of some who are saved as if they are not saved. There are potential dangers in his approach, for it can produce psychologically crippled believers.” [4]

I see the same imbalances and risks advocated by John Piper’s eschatology and soteriology.

Todd Mathis, M.Div.
Phoenix, Arizona

[1] John Piper, The Purifying Power of Living by Faith in Future Grace, [Multnomah Publishers: Sisters, OR, 1995], 14.

[2] Ibid., 333.

[3] John Piper, Taste and See: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2005), 169–171.

[4] Darrell L. Bock, “A Review of The Gospel according to Jesus,” Bibliotheca Sacra 146 (1989): 37.