The problem with John Piper’s view of justification

It seems to me that certain American preachers like John Piper have recently been eliciting a strangely disproportionate fascination and emotional commitment amongst Aussie evangelicals. So I thought I’d reiterate my previously published misgivings about Piper’s view of justification.

Please don’t read this and assume I’m pitching my tent in some kind of “anti-Piper” camp against some kind of “pro-Piper” camp. That would be an infantile and foolish way to think (1 Cor 3:1-4). Rather, I’m just saying that Piper isn’t the bees knees on the doctrine of justification. He’s worth listening to for his passion, his graciousness, his pastor’s heart, his deep piety, his commitment to God’s glory, and his desire to defend the biblical gospel. However, at this (very significant) point, I think he’s confused. So you need to be careful about his theological discussions of righteousness and justification. Often he’s spot-on, but sometimes he can be very confusing.

Here’s what I said in my post:

John Piper, for example, in his otherwise excellent and very insightful book The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, when speaking about forensic passages in Romans, says, “the deepest meaning of God’s righteousness is his unwavering commitment to act for the sake of his glory” (p. 68).

I can see why John Piper might say this. God’s righteousness is inextricably caught up with God’s glory; God’s glory demands that he act righteously; indeed, God’s righteousness is a (if not the) key means by which God acts for the sake of his own glory. But it’s not actually what the word “righteousness” means. God’s righteousness—particularly in the forensic context—is his commitment to setting the world to rights—primarily by judging individuals perfectly according to his created standards of righteousness.

In the discussion on this post, I also commented:

Indeed, it’s pretty hard to take issue with a man who is seeking to ascribe as much glory to God as possible, and who sees God’s glory as the centre, purpose and ground of righteousness!In fact, Piper makes a more detailed and thorough case for his view of God’s righteousness in his earlier book on Romans 9. The great insight and strength of Piper’s work in both of these books (the one on Romans 9 and the response to Tom Wright) is that he highlights that God’s glory is a profoundly central but often neglected topic in discussions of Romans.

Nevertheless, I still think he has been imprecise, and that this imprecision is very unfortunate. Piper has highlighted for us the deep and inseparable connection between God’s righteousness and his commitment to his own glory. But he has mistakenly identified the two.

To put it another way, Piper has failed to distinguish between what God’s righteousness is and what it is for. Yes, God is righteous because he is committed to his own glory – he makes a good argument that this is the chief end of God’s righteousness. Nevertheless the standard to which God’s righteousness refers in the Old Testament is not merely “whatever will lead to the glory of God” (which in fact isn’t a standard but a means to an end), but good old plain “justice”, particularly in vindicating the righteous person and punishing the ungodly person. This justice does indeed lead to the glory of God – in fact, you could argue convincingly that the glory of God is the ground and cause for God’s righteousness. But the two are not the same.

And in a further comment:

Piper doesn’t merely say that righteousness always glorifies God because it is consistent with his character (I agree with that 100%). Piper goes too far by saying that righteousness means being committed to glorifying God. That is taking two connected yet distinct concepts (i.e. righteousness and commitment to God’s glory), and making them equal. The two are inseparable, granted. But we still need to distinguish them, not to collapse them into a flat equivalence.

Of course, this definition isn’t my own. I’m just trying to reflect and summarise what any decent Biblical lexicon could tell you. Piper’s definition of righteousness, while exhilarating and interesting, won’t be found in a lexicon. That’s because, while he has seen the profound theological connection between righteousness and God’s glory (yay for Piper!), he has made the mistake of turning this connection into a lexical equivalence.

Nobody could every seriously accuse John Piper of lacking a passionate commitment to God’s glory. The church should be deeply grateful to him for this aspect of his preaching. However, John Piper is not the person to turn to when trying to come to grips with key soteriological doctrines like justification.

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