The root of John Piper's wrong theology

I may have got myself into trouble with some comments I made on Adrian Warnock’s blog, on his post 2 Corinthians 5 and Romans 5 – Two Critical Passages on Justification. This post is part of Adrian’s series on John Piper’s new book The Future of Justification. I was commenting mainly on these words which Adrian quoted from Piper:

Justification . . . happens to all who are connected to Christ the same way condemnation happened to those who were connected to Adam. How is that? Adam acted sinfully, and because we were connected to him, we were condemned in him. Christ acted righteously, and because we are connected to Christ we are justified in Christ. Adam’s sin is counted as ours. Christ’s “act of righteousness” is counted as ours.

In my first comment I argued that Piper is here basing his theology of justification on an analogy with Augustine’s understanding of original sin, an understanding which is faulty because, as widely recognised and as I explained in a previous post here, Augustine misunderstood Paul’s meaning in Romans 5:12 based on a poor Latin translation.

I went on to begin to sketch out some alternative views of my own. Now I have to accept that some of what I said was rather off the top of my head and does not represent a settled position. And, in response to a comment, I did realise that I had gone too far on one point and needed to take it back. There may be other ways in which what I wrote was not correct. So please take these comments more as thinking aloud than as my definite beliefs.

But this discussion is helping to clarify for me the fundamental inadequacy of “Reformed” theology of teachers like John Piper. They rely too much on a tradition of interpretation which is of very mixed value, giants (but flawed ones) like Calvin and Luther standing on the shoulders of theological pygmies – dare I call Augustine that? And when anyone questions Piper et al’s understandings or those of the teachers of past generations whom they admire, their response is not the “more noble” one of the Berean Jews who examined the new teaching to see if it is true (Acts 17:11), but more like that of the Thessalonian Jews with whom the Bereans are compared, who rather than listening carefully chased Paul and Silas out of town. This instinctive response is shown for example in the way that Adrian suggested in a recent post title that NT Wright is “preaching another gospel”. Now if Adrian and John Piper really understood Wright and his writings (something I don’t claim to do, by the way), they would probably recognise that he is in fact one of the best friends they have, because of his deeply theological defence of evangelical theology, including the doctrine of substitutional atonement. But they seem unable to look beyond Wright’s use of different terminology from theirs and his refusal to focus on controversies from the Reformation era rather than current ones, and are perhaps further prejudiced by Wright’s refusal to condemn Steve Chalke.

Meanwhile, the view that I am working towards is a rejection of the “Reformed” idea that Christians remain sinners in actual fact but are nevertheless, by a legal fiction, counted as righteous in Christ. Instead of this, the picture I have, based on various biblical passages such as Ephesians 4:22-24, is that the Christian consists of two separate persons or personalities: the “old self” (in some versions “old man”, but to be understood of course in a gender generic sense) born by natural birth who is a sinner, guilty, condemned to death and destined to die; and the “new self” born of the Spirit and into Christ, who is righteous, holy, free from condemnation, will not die, and indeed is already living eternal life in God’s kingdom. These two “selves” are in constant conflict in this world, but the “new self” is certain to prevail in the end. There is no legal fiction here: the guilty “self” will die, and the righteous one will not. On this understanding the work of Christ is not so much the reformation of the “old self” as the creation and preservation of the “new self”. But how this fits into atonement theology I am not yet sure.

PS: Here, for the record, is what I wrote in comments on Adrian’s blog, starting with my first comment:

Ah, now I see the root of Piper’s wrong theology. He depends on Augustine’s misreading of a poor Latin translation of Romans 5:12, which is the basis of the thoroughly unbiblical teaching (totally contradicted by Ezekiel 18:20 for example) that people are condemned for the sin of Adam rather than for their own sin. Piper takes this unbiblical picture as a model for how Jesus deals with human sin.

But, by God’s principles of justice, we cannot be condemned just because Adam was unrighteous, and similarly we cannot be justified just because Jesus was righteous. This idea of a “connection” between people through which condemnation or righteousness can be transmitted is completely non-Christian. Note that 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not say “we might receive the righteousness of God”, still less “we might be reckoned as the righteousness of God”. No, it says “we might BECOME the righteousness of God”, as this righteousness actually becomes evidenced in our lives – just as we became guilty of sin as the sinfulness of Adam became evidenced in our lives, as we sinned, not “in Adam” (Augustine’s misunderstanding) but in our own behaviour.

So, the glorious promise of the gospel is not that we shall be reckoned as righteous even though we are really sinners, but that we shall become righteous in our actual behaviour, being “changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another”, 2 Corinthians 3:18.

Pete, a student at Oak Hill, commented in reply to this. Here are two extracts from his comments:

I take it therefore that you disagree with Wright too, who would argue that we are righteous in Christ? …

Calvin reckons that properly distinguishing the renovative and the forensic benefits of union with Christ is key to understanding true religion.

In response I wrote:

Pete, thanks for your comments.

First, I should correct the last paragraph of my comment to “So, the glorious promise of the gospel is not so much that we shall be reckoned as righteous …”. Of course if we become righteous we will also be reckoned as righteous. But I understand the main point of the verse in question, 2 Corinthians 5:21, to be that we actually shall become, indeed are becoming, righteous, because Christ was made a sin offering (not the meaningless “was made sin”) for us.

What Calvin called “key to understanding true religion” is a distinction which I am not at all convinced about. I don’t have a fixed position on this, but it seems to me wrong to say that we are reckoned as righteous BEFORE we actually become righteous. There is certainly no trace of this teaching in 2 Corinthians 5:21. And I am not sure where else Paul teaches that we are righteous or have been justified now, as opposed to this being an ongoing process (as in Romans 3:24,26, present participles) or our future hope.

OK, Romans 5:1,9, these are aorist participles implying past justification. But I would see this justification as being incomplete. As Christians we are in a sense living in two parallel worlds. In the one into which we were originally born we are still sinners and subject to death. In the other in which we are in Christ by new birth, we are righteous, in reality and not by imputation, and alive eternally in God’s kingdom. This idea of course needs a lot more fleshing out.

I’m not sure if my position is the same as Wright’s. If his position is indeed that the righteousness we have is that of Jesus, not our own, then probably not. But I will agree with Wright in refusing to take sides on arcane 16th century disputes over the unbiblical distinction between “impute” and “impart”.

23 thoughts on “The root of John Piper's wrong theology

  1. Pingback: Threads from Henry’s Web » Blog Archive » Keeping up with the Justification Debate

  2. A point that I meant to include here is that my view of the “new self” and the “old self” ties in with, and is partly derived from, the insights I gained last year from the book Breakthrough, shared here and here. The fundamental point is that with the coming of Christ the kingdom of God is breaking through into this world, and as Christians we in our “new selves” are part of this breakthrough movement, even while our “old selves” remain in and of the world.

  3. I will remain mute on the issue of justification, but your description of the Christian as old self/new self and living in the Kingdom now resonates strongly with me. I’ll look forward to reading more about your comments regarding Breakthrough and perhaps order a copy.

  4. These two “selves” are in constant conflict in this world, but the “new self” is certain to prevail in the end.

    Peter, I think a proper understanding…and I think the one that I think you are coming to is one I call: “simultaneously saint and sinner” theology. Actually, in Martin Luther’s preface on the book of Romans, he said:

    In this way, then, you should understand chapter 7, where St. Paul portrays himself as still a sinner, while in chapter 8 he says that, because of the incomplete gifts and because of the Spirit, there is nothing damnable in those who are in Christ. Because our flesh has not been killed, we are still sinners, but because we believe in Christ and have the beginnings of the Spirit, God so shows us his favor and mercy, that he neither notices nor judges such sins. Rather he deals with us according to our belief in Christ until sin is killed.

    I cannot see how we are not totally a “saint” and not totally a “sinner.” We are simultaneously both. This helps to explain how we are still living in the body of our “old self” but yet we are clothed with the “new self.”

  5. Chris, perhaps I got a bit carried away by the image of giants standing on the shoulders of pygmies. It would have been more accurate to call Augustine, like Calvin and Luther, a flawed giant. He was flawed by not knowing Greek and Hebrew, and by not properly rejecting his Manichaean background from which he brought into Christianity too much of the idea of the flesh being evil, as well as determinism.

    For a more appropriate image, try Isaiah 36:6, with Augustine replacing Egypt. I prefer to depend on the Lord, as in verse 7.

    Kevin, thanks for the reminder of Luther’s “simultaneously saint and sinner”, which is very appropriate. But I am not so sure about “God … neither notices nor judges such sins”. Rather, he judges the sins of the “old self” by putting it to death, indeed it is already dying on the cross as a penalty for law-breaking, or at least for Christians it should be, Galatians 2:19-20.

  6. Thanks Peter for causing me to think about this verse once again. Having read Wright’s essay (“On Becoming the Righteousness of God”) a number of times over the last few years, and also observing how the traditional reformed explanation of this verse leaves much to be desired, I have come to accept Wright’s explanation as the best. However I find your thoughts interesting and worthy of reflection.

    I like your emphasis of the new creation — an element of the atonement which seems forgotten sometimes by our reformed friends. We are not just suffering in this broken world waiting for God to renew it at the end of time, but are surely co-labouring with God as the Kingdom breaks forth.

  7. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Some comment threads from Adrian’s blog

  8. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Piper has answered Adrian’s question: Wright is not preaching another gospel

  9. Comment on Romans 5:12, I thought this verse was talking about physical death because of Adams sin? In other words because Adam sinned he died so we must all die. I think Paul is showing a contrast between Adam and Christ in Romans 5 and the free gift of Christ (verse 15).

  10. I understand there is no longer a discourse going on here but i figured i would post my understandings. Regarding 2 Cor 5:21. Becoming the righteousness of God in Christ here in 2 Cor 5:21 is not in reference to any post belief process but is more to the point of the finished purpose of the necessity of Christ death. When Paul says that Christ who knew no sins, was made sin for us that we might become, he is highlighting the purpose and the necessity of an imputed transference, for with out it we can not be justified. We understand the dilemma: How is it God justly justify the unjust? Paul answers it: by the making of him who knew no sin to be sin for us. Therefore to have ‘become the righteousness of God’ is to have had Christ just work freely imputed to you the unjust. Therefore to be ‘in Christ’ is to freely have had bestowed to your account Christ satisfactory work. This transference or this imputation is what it is to become the righteousness of God. It is to stand justly on the merits of Christ as reckoned by the Father towards you by faith. So it is by the sovereign free grace of God towards us because of Christ we become the righteousness of God.

    I hoped I have helped if possible.

  11. David, thank you for reopening this discussion. I have fixed some broken links.

    What you say seems helpful. But I am a bit wary of the word “imputed” if separated from “imparted”. I don’t accept that our righteousness is some kind of legal fiction. It is real because the righteousness of God has become real in our lives. But it is of course all on the basis of the death of Christ, not because of our works of righteousness.

  12. After reading your comments about real righteousness vs. imputed righteousness, you appear to be resurrecting the ancient Pelegian theology. The Bible does indeed teach that Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us in Christ and not “infused” in us, which is actually Catholic. I suggest you go back and read the Apostle Paul again in Corinthians 1:30 and other related passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:17. Are we to understand “the old has passed away” to mean that it still exists? I think not. Calvin was right.

  13. Floyd, the verses you quote do not teach imputed righteousness. My position is significantly different from the Pelagian one, although it might be closer to some Roman Catholic theology than to traditional evangelical Protestant thinking. But I don’t care about old labels, I care about biblical truth.

  14. Peter,

    I thought I earlier posted a comment here, but it appears that perhaps it never took.

    I want to reply to your last comments to me concerning righteousness. I had earlier written that it really depends on how you define your terms, and the term “righteousness” is not excluded. Unless such terms are defined ahead of time, there cannot really be an intelligent discussion about the nature of it and how we obtain it.

    That being said, whether the word “imputed” or logizomai eis is used, a phrase can suggest it given the context of Paul’s mindset and subsequent application to salvation. I see that being the case in 1 Corinthians 1:30 where parallel construction exists with four components: righteousness, redemption, sanctification, and wisdom. It states that Christ “became for us…” these four characteristics. This suggest that they were alien to us and not of our nature. Rather they have their source in Christ and are imputed to us so that the Father sees us in these respects because of Christ. That is, we have standing before the Father because of Christ in spite of our sinful ways, and that by faith in Him as mediator.

    We have no righteousness of our own and remain sinners even after faith in Christ.

    In terms of labels, it seems that this is a good way of saying there is an escape valve.

  15. Floyd, I don’t have time to go into this in detail now as I am on holiday. I will just say that I agree that defining terms is important. The problem comes when people who quite reasonably render Greek words like logizomai as “impute” then unreasonably read into the Greek word the enitre “Reformed” teaching about imputed righteousness. So I can accept that righteousness is in some sense imputed without accepting all of that teaching.

  16. What do you think of John Piper’s comments on the earth is billions of years…”Whatever science says it is, it is…”?

    “In verse 1, “In the beginning he made the heavens and the earth,” he makes everything. And then you go day by day and he’s preparing the land. He’s not bringing new things into existence; he’s preparing the land and causing things to grow and separating out water and earth. And then, when it’s all set and prepared, he creates and puts man there.

    So that has the advantage of saying that the earth is billions of years old if it wants to be—whatever science says it is, it is—but man is young, and he was good and he sinned. He was a real historical person, because Romans 5 says so, and so does the rest of the Bible.”

    This is were you get into the problem that you would have to believe that death and dying occurred before original sin of man and that suffering, and dying in the world wasn’t caused by man. If you try to mix evolution with the Bible, it will blow your theology apart.

    Exo 20:9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,
    Exo 20:10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.
    Exo 20:11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.

    Jesus Christ said in Mark 10:6…”But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.” Here, Christ is saying that they were created at the beginning.

  17. Kevin, thank you for your comment.

    I would agree that the kind of mix of science with the Bible which Piper seems to be suggesting blows apart his theology, and his wider academic credibility. If he takes the line ”Whatever science says it is, it is…”, he needs to take it consistently, which implies that humanity evolved from common ancestors with apes in a continuously developing earth, and was not created separately and placed in an already complete earth.

    Now I agree with ”Whatever science says it is, it is…”, except that I would be a bit more tentative: just as in the past accepted scientific results have been overturned, the same might happen to future ones. But I don’t see any conflict there with my theology.

    Yes, that does include animal death before the fall of humanity. On that issue, see my more recent post Life and Death, Physical and Spiritual.

  18. I do believe a transference (in experience) of Christ righteousness by impartation does occur. This is what I believe the scripture refers to as the new birth, whereby a new heart which contains all virtues in direct opposition to the old heart is created. There are some who believe at the new birth the old heart is either done away with or by way of discipline and practice after the new birth the old heart (still remaining) begins transformation, and by way of practical outworking, one should begin to see less and less of an evil nature in oneself. The new heart should be putting into submission the old heart in greater quantity. Both of these positions I do not see in scripture. In light of the honest testimony of scripture about mens lives for whom God regards, I only see sinners. I believe it is folly to standardize true faith with quality and quantity measurements. What I did not say is we are not to call one to separation from the world, this is our calling. A calling that is pleasing to the Lord.I believe a man will work out his salvation with all fear and trembling IF he be Gods. As to a mans follies and there degrees the Lord is able to make a man stand.

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