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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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9 Comments

  1. I’ve been honoured with a musical response to the post. Click if you want a funky accompaniment while reading.

    Thanks Pete.

    • Hi Luke – I tried a little digging based on your URL but still couldn’t find it. Do you have a direct link to the critique?

      • Luke Isham

        So if you follow that link above which is a list of all his NT Wright related posts and then go to page 3 and start with the post entitled: “The Hinge Upon Which All Turns” – then he goes chapter by chapter for the next 10 or so, best with a copy of NT Wright alongside.

        (Blog layout isn’t Doug Wilson’s strong suite.)

        The reason I’ve suggested it is that I think Doug Wilson understands both what’s good and bad about Wright’s view in a way that I haven’t got exactly from Piper.

  2. John Smuts

    Hi Lionel,

    I agree with your assessment of Piper on righteousness/justification but I think you need to dig a little deeper as to why Piper is so popular here (in Oz).

    I think the popularity of Driscoll and Piper comes from the fact that they speak as Pastors, not academics. This sometimes has the problem (which you put your finger on) of slightly simplistic thinking which lacks the academic rigour of a ‘professional’ theologian. In his desire to be clear (a good thing ISTM) Piper can sometimes be rather reductionistic.

    However, I don’t think we are as good at spotting the reverse problem. That is that our western approach to academic study often becomes atomistic. Theologian X may win the debate over the exact use of Paul’s aorist tense in one verse but Pastor Y will (should?) never lose sight of the pastoral and systematic theology that he applies to all of human life week by week.

    For sake of argument, it would be interesting to apply the tests Paul uses in his letters to those we should listen to – when it comes to elders (and elsewhere) Paul is far more keen on character traits than academic qualifications. To be clear (!?) I’m not downplaying the important of rigorous study (hence your original post) just saying that I think the balance is actually the other way. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Well, I’m more inclined to X’s view of justification because he loves his wife, manages his family well, is disciplined and hospitable…” ?

    • Hi John – I think you’ve made some helpful observations. I’m a little confused, though, about the point you’re making about the current mood in Australia (since I’m not currently in Australia I can’t really gauge it for myself). On the one hand, you’re saying Piper is popular because he speaks like a pastor and people in Oz love to listen to people who speak like a pastor? On the other hand, you’re saying the balance is the other way – we hardly ever hear people saying they’re listening to the doctrinal views of people who act like pastors?? This seems like two opposite points? I’d love to hear your further thoughts / clarification.

    • I’d also want to qualify your statement, “when it comes to elders (and elsewhere) Paul is far more keen on character traits than academic qualifications”. This is of course true as it stands, since Paul never mentions “academic qualifications” as such. Nevertheless, as I’m sure you’ll agree, he is quite keen on doctrinal accuracy and the ability to spot and deal with errors:

      For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:7-9).

  3. John Smuts

    Yes, you’re right Lionel, I wasn’t very clear.

    I was trying to say that, for example on the question of what Paul means by justification, all debate in papers, lectures and blogs uses the discourse of academia. When was the last time you read a blog post where anybody said, “I’m more inclined to go with X on this one because alongside questions of doctrinal accuracy I also consider his godliness…” ?

    So, I’m not at all suggesting that we remove doctrinal accuracy as a criteria, simply pointing out that (even in Titus 1) it is just one out of many.

    As far as Oz is concerned I’m making a distinction between how people are taught at theological college and what goes on at a popular level. Lecturers might wish that their students were wrestling with the aorist passive but in reality they are probably more influenced by podcasts and blogs. My point is that this is both a good and a bad thing. Negatively I think it reflects our celebrity culture and our somewhat flabby thinking, positively it recognises that truth is communicated by people and hence it is wrong to divorce academic rigour from spiritual maturity and character.

    • Thanks – very good points!

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