The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest June 4, 2015

Can someone, anyone, explain why John Piper is so popular among evangelicals? The reason for asking is his tendency to overreach on the way to reinforcing his doctrinal brand — an earnest Calvinism that seems to resonate with the young and restless fans of Jonathan Edwards. Consider the following where he argues a believer can have assurance of faith and not be saved (for anyone who’s a Calvinist, as Piper pretends to be, this is scary):

It is possible to believe the promises of God, and have the assurance of salvation, and yet be lost forever.

This possibility is implied in Matthew 7:22, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” These folks believed that they were secure in relation to Christ. They called him “Lord,” and they tapped into supernatural power in his name.

Perhaps they had even more “assurance of salvation” than many strugglers today (who are genuinely saved) because supernatural power was flowing through their hands. So when they read the promise, “I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5), they believed it was true of them. But it wasn’t.

That is why they will be shocked when Jesus says to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). They are lost. But they thought they were saved.

The way to tell if you have genuine faith — and here comes Piper’s brand (more scary stuff), Christian hedonism — is to have a taste for spiritual sweetness:

In other words, saving faith in the promises of God includes spiritual enjoyment of the God of the promises. I don’t want to overstate it. I only say that saving faith must include this enjoyment. Enjoyment of the glory of God is not the whole of what faith is. But without it, faith is dead. . . .

This satisfaction is missing from the hearts of the professing Christians of Matthew 7:22. If the enjoyment of God himself were there, they would have delighted on earth in the very divine excellencies that such enjoyment anticipates. But instead they were “workers of lawlessness.”

This reality has a huge implication. It means that it is not just the security of the promises that frees us from motives to sin; it is also the heart’s enjoyment of the sweetness of God in the promises. When we perceive and enjoy the spiritual beauty of what is promised, not only are we freed from the insecurity of greed and fear that motivate so much sin, but we are also shaped in our values by what we cherish in the promise (1 John 3:3).

The Bible might say that faith the size of a mustard seed moves mountains (Matt 17:20), or Jesus might have recognized the genuineness of the faith of the man who said, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). But Piper ignores the slight amount of faith that might save the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43) and adds an extra helping of feeling or experience or sense of sweetness to faith in order to insure it is genuine. (For those keeping doctrinal score, this is an example of a Calvinist seeking a Wesleyan second blessing.)

Why complicate Matt 7:22 that way? Why tart it up with intensity, sweetness, introspection? Why can’t the text be simply about hypocrites who are proud of their piety — hint, being proud of one’s spiritual earnestness is not a good thing? And why can’t Piper simply do with the text what a real Calvinist like John Calvin does?

Christ again summons hypocrites to his judgment-seat, as we showed a little ago from Luke. So long as they hold a place in his Church, they both flatter themselves and deceive others. He therefore declares, that a day is coming, when he will cleanse his barn, and separate the chaff and straw from the pure wheat. . . . Christ appears to allude to the vain boasting, by which hypocrites now vaunt themselves. “They indeed have confessed me with the tongue, and imagine that they have fully discharged their duty. The confession of my name is now heard aloud from their tongue. But I too will confess on the opposite side, that their profession is deceitful and false.” And what is contained in Christ’s confession? That he never reckoned them among his own people, even at the time when they boasted that they were the pillars of the church.

If I had to choose, I’d take Calvin over Piper. With Calvin I get a strong warning against pride and hypocrisy and I have enough trouble resisting those. But with Piper, I may get rid of vanity and outward conformity and still need to go deep, really deep, and worry that I haven’t believed hard enough.

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