The Just Shall Live By Faith

Okay. Faith and works. We will have to roll up our sleeves on this one.

In this chapter Piper interacts with Wright’s assertion that our final justification is on the basis of the “complete life lived.” Wright says, and Piper agrees, that “the attempt to shore up justification by faith by saying that the life we now live will be irrelevant at the final judgment is unPauline, unpastoral and ultimately dishonouring to God himself” (p. 116). The difference is that Wright wants to use the word basis – final justification is on the basis of the complete life lived, while Piper (together with Richard Gaffin) wants to say that our final justification, dealing with “the function of works in the final judgment” (p. 116), is in accordance with the complete life lived.

There are several things to note right at the outset. The first is the Piper appears to agree that there actually is a final justification (pp. 115-116). This puts him at odds with some of the more strident disputants in the Federal Vision uproar. And remember that Richard Gaffin provided an encouraging blurb for Norman Shepherd’s book The Call of Grace, and while you remember that, keep what Shepherd calls obedient faith in our discussion of this next point.

Second, Piper goes out of his way to assert the absolute necessity of good works in salvation. “Let me declare myself clearly here; I believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved” (p. 110). He believes it is actually true, and not just hypothetically true, that God will render to each one in accordance with his works. He cites the Augsburg Confession as showing that good works do not just exist alongside saving faith, but arise from it (p. 112). He cites the First Helvetic Confession as showing that “faith does not simply exist alongside the fruit of obedience, but iself ‘performs innumerable good works'” (p. 113). Piper emphasizes what The Thirty-Nine Articles teach, which is that good works are “the fruits of Faith,” and that they spring out of “a true and lively Faith” (p. 113). In other words, saving faith is a lively faith. He cites the Westminster Confession as follows: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is not dead faith, but worketh by love” (p. 114, emphasis from Piper). He goes on to say, “The Confession makes explicit (by its footnotes) that the words ‘work[s] by love’ are a reference to Galatians 5:6 . . . It thus establishes a necessary connection between the faith that justifies and the obedient life of love” (p. 114).

In short, this is not a discussion between Scott Clark and N.T. Wright, but between John Piper and N.T. Wright. And without trying to paint Piper into a corner, I can say that what Piper affirms here about the necessary relationship of faith and works, I have no trouble affirming as an FV guy. And Richard Gaffin provided a blurb for this book, just as he did for Norman Shepherd. I am not taking shots at Gaffin here; I believe that this close tie between faith and obedience is the historic Reformed position.

Piper is trying to work out exactly what Wright means by “basis,” and that is the subject of his next chapter. But before we get there, let me just throw out a few observations on this convoluted subject.

A great deal of difficulty, in my view, has been created by the desire of every sinful heart to separate deed from motive. The sinner always wants to keep his thoughts and motives to himself, and to present the outside shell, suitably shined up, for God to look at. This separation of the deed and the motive for the deed is what the schizophrenia of sin always seeks to do.

Whenever Paul is attacking works-righteousness, he does so by granting the split (for the sake of the argument), and he then attacks the capacity of that polished shell to do or accomplish anything. Judged in that setting, autonomous works will always be inadequate, insuffient, and ultimately impudent. So it is always false to say that works can somehow meet a standard of perfection that will somehow impress God. God will always be unimpressed.

We are justified by faith alone. But as Westminster puts it, it is by a faith that is never alone. But why is this faith never alone? The reason is found in The Thirty Nine Articles. It is a lively faith, a fertile faith. It cannot be a raw faith, an “alone faith,” because saving faith is always necessarily pregnant with good deeds. To postulate an alone faith is to think like a schizophrenic sinner who wants motives over here (and irrelevant in the judgment) and deeds over there.

This chapter had a great deal of discussion of what Paul means in Romans 2, when he says that “the doers of the law” are those “who will be justified.” This is an important discussion, but I would like to see it connected to Romans 1 — “the just shall live by faith.” Who lives by faith? The just. What does he do? He lives. How does he do that? By faith. Put those three together, and I believe we have the solution to our conundrum. In other words, justifying faith, lively faith, is the animating principle of the whole life lived, and not just the animating principle of one second during a man’s conversion. This does not mean that God separates the deeds from the motives (why would He do that?) in order to make our works the basis of His judgment. That would be appalling, and disastrous for us.

This is where I agree with Piper (and perhaps with Wright, depending). In the final justification, God’s determination is in accordance with the whole life lived. He looks at our faith alone, and He also see whatever it was that this kind of faith did. What does that kind of faith do? It always looks to Christ and His righteousness alone, and consequently does good works out of natural and lively gratitude.

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