After his Introduction, but before his first chapter, John Piper includes a short chapter on the necessity of — given the state of the world — controversy and polemics. He writes this as a pastor. “I am a pastor first. Polemics are secondary and serve that” (p. 27). In short, shepherds are to fight because they love the sheep, not because they love fighting.
At the same time, Piper contextualizes his controversy with Wright — he treats him as a brother in Christ, one who “loves the apostle Paul and reverences the Christian Scriptures” (p. 27). But if Wright is a brother, then why have a controversy at all? Piper points out that the apostle Paul does not limit himself in controversy to “first-order doctrines.” Everything is connected, and a genuine Christian brother may be advancing certain doctrines which will cause enormous trouble for the Church down the road. There is no obligation to wait until the error is all grown up, and is only held by the damned. In fact, there is an obligation not to do this. “But for all his love of harmony and unity and peace, it is remarkable how many of Paul’s letters were written to correct fellow Christians” (p. 30).
Piper quotes Machen to the effect that the New Testament is a “polemical book almost from beginning to end.” And it is. But he also warns us through the wise words of John Owen — because there is a real propensity among sinners to merely “contend for notions” (p. 28) — that every polemicist should take care to “have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for” (p. 28).
A few days ago, Justin Taylor remarked on his blog that I was going to be working through Piper’s book like this, and an anonymous commenter on his blog said this:
But secondly, this illustrates the point exactly. In the Introduction, Piper demonstrated that he (and Jonathan Edwards and John Owen) understood this point. To make any kind of work a precondition for personal salvation, even if it is a tiny cerebral work, is to introduce semi-Pelagianism into the gospel. And well-intentioned brothers in Christ can do this, and do it all the time actually. It is a good thing we are saved by grace, apart from works of the law.
We are saved by the grace of God in Christ, plus nothing. The more clearly that grace is preached in its purity, the more potent it is — how shall they hear without a preacher? — but to make a certain accomplishment in the sinner a precondition for his justification is the work of Old Slewfoot.
Think of this way. Which work must a man do before he can be truly justified?
1. Walk to the Vatican on his knees;
2. Obey the Ten Commandments for a year;
3. Stay faithful to his wife;
4. Deny semi-Pelagianism;
5. None of the above.
The answer is obviously the last one. A man must believe in Jesus, but his faith — provided it is a genuine and God-given faith, a living faith, the only kind God gives — can have all kinds of screwed up features. A man must believe in Jesus, which is not the same thing as affirming what believing in Jesus means, with the right level of doctrinal precision. To quote Piper, quoting Edwards and Owen respectively . . .
“Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny, and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed.”
Piper believes that Wright is a Christian brother who is engaged in confusing things that ought not be confused. He challenges this, as he rightly should. He has taken care not to engage with a straw man. He has taken care to represent Wright’s positions accurately, and to warn of confusions ahead if we don’t clarify certain things. I agree with Piper that this is necessary, and this book is a welcome step in that process of clarification.
At the same time, one of Wright’s great points, listed by Piper in the Introduction, is that justification is not brought about by believing in justification. To maintain that it is really a functional denial of the Protestant doctrine of sola fide. The anonymous comment on Justin Taylor’s blog illustrates that Wright is not engaging with a straw man when he makes this point either. There are numerous “solafideists” out there who are maintaining, with great sincerity of heart, that they are defenders of a gospel of free grace. Why? Because they insist on tiny doctrinal works before a man can go to heaven.
Because confusions on this subject are apparent — in both directions — we need the right kind of controversy to clear the air. So far as it depends on him, Piper’s basic approach to this is just what we need.