John Piper and the Pope: Some Observations

John Piper and the Pope: Some Observations March 19, 2013

John Piper recently upgraded a rather narrowed comment he made during the papacy of Benedict XVI, and here are his words:

A few years ago, I was asked on camera what I would say to the Pope if I had two minutes with him. I said I would ask him what he believed about justification. The video ended with me putting the question to the Pope and then responding as follows:

“Do you teach that we should rely entirely on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith alone as the ground of God being 100% for us, after which necessary sanctification comes? Do you teach that?”

And if he said, “No, we don’t,” then I’d say, “I think that right at the core of Roman Catholic theology is a heresy,” or something like that.

“Heresy” is a strong word. The problem with it is that its meaning and implications are not clear. Dictionary.com defines heresy, for example, as:

  1. opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system.
  2. any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.

You can see how fluid such definitions are.

So what did I mean in the video?

I meant that the rejection of 1) the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as an essential part of the basis of our justification, and 2) the doctrine that good works necessarily follow justification but are not part of its ground — the rejection of those truths is a biblical error so close to the heart of the gospel that, when consistently worked out, will undermine saving faith in the gospel.

John Piper, of course, is on the Reformed side of theological conversations and his penchant for running stuff through justification by faith theology is both expected and relentless. Both the Lutheran and the Reformed side focused on justification for good reasons. A few observations, though:

1. The first thing to ask a Pope, if we think it is our responsibility to quiz him on theology, is if he believes in Jesus. [If personally given a chance to ask a Pope a question I’d ask if they would reconsider offering Eucharist to non-Catholics, but that’s no quiz question.]

2. The debate about double imputation (Christ’s righteousness to us and our sinfulness to Christ) vs. impartation or infusing, the Catholic articulation during the days of and after the Reformation, is a bit archaic in discussion. We can look to Trent to see what Catholics believe or we can read what Popes have said, and one can read this all in Benedict XVI’s statements in his book on Paul, which simply is not a 16th or 17th Century Catholic perception of justification.

3. Piper’s view is connected rather directly to double imputation, and there’s something here that needs to be emphasized, and I do so by referring you to one of Piper’s fellow Gospel Coalition leaders, D.A. Carson, who argued at the Wheaton Theology conference and then in his piece on imputation that there is no unambiguous text in the NT that teaches double imputation. Carson and Gundry went at it; I was in the audience. The book is called Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates. Gundry famously argued there is no text that says Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” or “reckoned” to us, and he’s right. Carson gave in a bit to say it’s not unambiguous but it’s important. And I would add this: if it is not unambiguously taught in the NT then on the grounds of Protestant method I would not want to make it as central as either Piper or Carson make it. That God has provided for us what we cannot provide is the core; how that happens is not as important since it is not revealed with clarity.

4. The Popes do not frame justification quite the way Protestants frame it, even after all these years — read the conversations that occurred in the last two decades between notable evangelical leaders and Catholic leaders, including conversations on justification, and then read the Lutheran dialogues, and one observes this debate has changed dramatically. That the Pope would not quite say what Piper wants him to say is a way of saying “I’m Catholic, and you’re evangelical, Reformed Protestant and that’s why I don’t say it the way you do.”

5. In my book, A Community called Atonement, I state that double imputation is only part of the story: 1 Cor 1 says Christ is our righteousness and 2 Cor 5 says “he who knew no sin became sin” — those two texts combined (our combining, and that’s important) are the building blocks for double imputation but it clearly falls short of saying quite what the Reformers said. What we “have in Christ” by the grace of God is righteousness and a lot more, but locking down to one formulation has the capacity to tie us into knots.

6. A fact: there is tension in the NT on this whole justification by faith and judgment by works theme, and a forthcoming Zondervan book — yet another four views book (I want to edit a book on Five Views on Four Views books) — called Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (ed. Alan P. Stanley, with contributions from R.N. Wilkin, T.R. Schreiner, JDG Dunn, M.P. Barber [Catholic]) — will explore this theme. A read of that ms made me aware once again that folks can’t seem to get on the same page in this discussion, so maybe to be fair we can quote what the Catholic Catechism says: “The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace” (number 2011).

7. John Piper and N.T. Wright have gone to the mat on this one, and NT Wright’s use of the word “on the basis of works” vs. “in accordance with works” caused a bit of stir, Tom clarified, many were a bit relieved that Tom had conceded, only to hear later that Tom has said he hadn’t backed down from anything but that the word “basis” is our theological framing and is not as important as framing things the way the Bible does. A good Protestant move.


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