Mark Jones has come to the defense of John Piper, chiding me for taking issue with Piper for what I consider to be Piper’s imprecise and confusing language regarding justification. Piper wrote in the foreword to Schreiner’s new book Faith Alone, that faith is the sole “condition” for “entering a right relationship to God”—Piper’s non-standard phrase for justification. He goes on to say that there are other conditions, besides faith, for attaining heaven. My post was not a “nasty” attack on Piper, but an expression of brotherly concern about the importance of using precise language with respect to the heart of the gospel—justification by faith alone. Jones doesn’t see any problem with Piper’s language and thinks it’s “perfectly within the Reformed tradition.” I am not as cocksure as Jones on this point.
I wish that Jones had linked to my original post so that readers of his blog post could be directed to my post in order to read it in full (I note that he has belatedly added the link). It makes a difference to read the one paragraph he quotes in the larger context of my entire post. In my post, after quoting Piper, I explain that, in my view, Piper’s use of confusing and non-standard language is the culprit that leads him to make these confusing statements that can, at the very least, be taken the wrong way. While it is possible to put an orthodox construction on his language, it is also possible that it betrays a sloppiness of thought and articulation that is dangerous since it relates to the heart of the gospel and the foundation of our assurance. I conclude my post by writing, “I am confident that the intent of what Piper wrote is not far from the doctrine as the Westminster Confession articulates it, but I wish he had been more precise and clear in his terminology.”
I argued that the confusing terminology is in three areas, not just the word “condition”: (1) Piper’s unfortunate rewording of justification as “entering a right relationship to God,” (2) his explanation of the role of faith in justification as that of being “the sole condition,” and (3) his additional statement that, while faith is the sole condition of entering a right relationship to God, there are other conditions for attaining heaven—such as perseverance and evangelical obedience.
All three of these points that I made ought to be taken together. I see them as interconnected. The first terminological modification (changing “justification” to “entering a right relationship to God”) is the “original sin” that opens the door to the other two. If Piper had stuck to the traditional definition of justification as the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (per the Westminster Confession and Catechisms), then it would have helped him to see that faith is not best understood as a “condition” of justification but as the means or instrument of justification. Why is that? Because if justification is the pardoning of our sins and the “accounting and accepting” of our persons “as righteous ... for Christ’s sake alone” (WCF XI.1), then it is becomes instantly clear that faith’s role in justification is simply instrumental and receptive. Faith is simply accepting, receiving, and resting in Christ and his righteousness as the righteousness by which we are accounted as righteous in the sight of God. It is not a “condition” in the sense of being something in us that qualifies us for justification, as evangelical obedience (apparently) qualifies us for heaven.
This, then, throws a bright light on Piper’s the third linguistic mistake (I’m trying to be as charitable as I can here!) in which he implies that, although faith is the sole condition for entering a right relationship to God, it is not the sole condition for attaining heaven. If Piper had stuck to the traditional definition of justification, this third error could have been avoided as well. For if we are accounted and accepted as righteous for Christ’s sake alone, then we are righteous, and being righteous means we are legally entitled to the reward of righteousness, namely, eternal life. To say that we need to add other conditions or qualifications would be to deny the sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness. It is to imply that Christ’s righteousness is not sufficient to qualify us to attain heaven. I am confident that Piper would disavow that implication with vehemence. My point is that his language is unclear and that he would have been able to avoid that lack of clarity if he hadn’t gotten off on the wrong track by glossing justification as “entering a right relationship to God.” That bad gloss is what allowed him to separate justification from being qualified to attain heaven and to imply that it is not Christ’s righteousness but our evangelical obedience that is the condition for attaining heaven.
But all of this broader context is left out in the post by Jones. Jones ignores the broader context of my post and lifts out one sentence of mine, dealing with the second terminological point: “Faith has never been viewed as a condition of justification in Reformed theology or in the Reformed confessions.” Jones is “flabbergasted” at this claim, and says it is “simply false.” He goes on quote John Owen, Stephen Charnock, Thomas Manton, and John Flavel.
To begin with, it should be pointed out that I did not claim, “No Reformed author has ever called faith a condition of justification.” What I said is that faith is never “viewed,” i.e., treated, understood, and defined, as a condition of justification. I stand by that claim. If you look at the treatment of the doctrine of justification in all of the major Reformed confessional documents, they all address the question, “How does faith justify us in the sight of God?” And you will find that the uniform answer they give is that faith justifies, not because of any inherent value of faith, but only as it is a receptive means or instrument. We are accounted as righteous in God sight for Christ’s sake alone, and faith is the means by which we lay hold of Christ. Here are some quotes from the principal confessions and catechisms:
“Why do you say that you are righteous by faith alone? Not because I please God by virtue of the worthiness of my faith, but because the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ alone are my righteousness before God, and because I can accept it and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 61).
“We do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us—for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (Belgic Confession XXII).
“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification” (Westminster Confession XI.2).
“How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God? Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God ... only as it is an instrument, by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 73).
“Because faith receives Christ our righteousness and attributes everything to the grace of God in Christ, on that account justification is attributed to faith, chiefly because of Christ and not therefore because it is our work” (Second Helvetic Confession XV).
Conspicuously, in the above quotes, faith is never said to have efficacy to justify on the ground that it is a condition of justification. The term “condition” is not even used, at least not when the article of justification is being discussed. (Admittedly, the term “condition” is used when dealing with the topic of the covenant of grace [e.g., WLC #32], but that is a separate issue. If someone wishes to make the argument, “Faith is a condition of the covenant of grace; justification is one of the blessings of the covenant of grace; therefore, faith is a condition of justification,” they will need to explain to me why repentance, perseverance, and evangelical obedience are not also conditions of justification.)
Nor did I say that faith could never be called a “condition” of justification in an orthodox sense. I think it could be, as long as it simply means that one must believe in order to be justified (e.g., “we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ,” Gal 2:16). I am not surprised that Jones can pull out some quotes where orthodox Reformed theologians use the language of condition, but if they are orthodox, they explain it and make clear that what they mean by “condition” is nothing more than the necessity of faith in order to be justified.
I want to deal now with the Flavel quotes. Jones fails to mention this, but the treatise by Flavel that he cites was Vindiciarum Vindex, or, A Refutation of the Weak and Impertinent Rejoinder of Mr. Philip Cary. It wasn’t a treatise on justification but was part of a debate over paedobaptism. Philip Cary, the credobaptist, had argued that the new covenant or the gospel covenant is absolute or unconditional—a position that was even held by some paedobaptists, most notably John Owen. Flavel disagrees and argues that the gospel covenant is conditional upon faith. I happen to agree with the paedobaptist (Flavel) against the credobaptist (Cary) in this particular debate. Flavel’s entire discussion of the various meanings of the word “condition” has to do with paedo- vs. credo-baptist debates over covenant theology, e.g., questions like whether the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision was the same in substance with the new or gospel covenant, and whether the new or gospel covenant is conditional. The precise question of the role of faith (instrumental vs. conditional) in justification is not directly in view (although justification is mentioned several times and Flavel even attaches an appendix critiquing the hyper-Calvinist doctrine of eternal justification, but, again, only to argue that faith is a condition in the obvious sense that it is necessary for justification).
So much for Flavel. What about the other quotes? The Charnock quote is one isolated sentence in a sermon on the holiness of God; the topic of justification is not at hand. Charnock provides no elaboration, so one cannot be sure what he intended. I could not locate the Manton quote. That leaves the Owen quote. And guess what? In the context, Owen is not really endorsing the position that faith is best defined as the condition of justification. The sentence in bold in the block quote below is the one quoted by Jones. But Jones takes that sentence out of context against the drift of Owen’s whole argument, which is that faith is best viewed as the instrument rather than the condition of justification. We receive the righteousness of Christ by the instrumentality of faith. Faith is the merely that by which we receive, apprehend, lay hold of, and appropriate Christ’s imputed righteousness.
“Some do plead that faith is the condition of our justification, and that otherwise it is not to be conceived of. As I said before, so I say again, I shall not contend with any man about words, terms, or expressions, so long as what is intended by them, is agreed upon. And there is an obvious sense wherein faith may be called the condition of our justification. For no more may be intended thereby, but that it is the duty on our part which God requireth, that we may be justified. And this the whole scripture beareth witness unto. Yet this hindereth not, but that as unto its use, it may be the instrument whereby we apprehend or receive Christ and his righteousness. But to assert it the condition of our justification, or that we are justified by it as the condition of the new covenant, so as from a pre-conceived signification of that word, to give it another use in justification exclusive of that pleaded for, as the instrumental cause thereof, is not easily to be admitted; because it supposeth an alteration in the substance of the doctrine itself.
“The word is no where used in the scripture in this matter; which I argue no farther, but that we have no certain rule or standard to try and measure its signification by. Wherefore it cannot first be introduced in what sense men please, and then that sense turned into argument for other ends. For thus on a supposed concession, that it is the condition of our justification, some heighten it into a subordinate righteousness, imputed unto us, antecedently as I suppose, unto the imputation of the righteousness of Christ in any sense, whereof it is the condition. And some who pretend to lessen its efficiency or dignity in the use of it in our justification say, it is only causa sine qua non, which leaves us at as great an uncertainty as to the nature and efficacy of this condition as we were before. Nor is the true sense of things at all illustrated, but rather darkened by such notions” (The Works of John Owen, vol. 5, p. 113).
The terminology of “condition” is clearly problematic for Owen. He’s not comfortable with it. He’s squirming all over the place. He allows that it can be used in a harmless sense, but he points out that the word “condition” is nowhere used in Scripture in relation to justification. The term does not help but rather darkens understanding. Once you speak of faith as a condition of justification, faith can all too easily be heightened into a subordinate righteousness. Those who try to soften the term condition by saying it is only a causa sine qua non do not add clarity but only leave us with just as much uncertainty as to the nature and efficacy of this so-called condition. He’ll allow someone to say faith is the “condition” of justification, but only if “condition” is understood as synonymous with “instrument”!
All of that is to say, the best of the Reformed tradition generally thinks it is better and safer to define faith as the instrument of justification rather than as the condition of justification. The fact that faith is the instrument of justification follows from the reality of what justification is—not entering a right relationship to God, but receiving the gift of the imputed righteousness of Christ, as Owen argued:
“Whereas therefore the righteousness wherewith we are justified is the gift of God, which is tendered unto us in the promise of the gospel, the use and office of faith being to receive, apprehend, or lay hold of and appropriate this righteousness, I know not how it can be better expressed than by an instrument, nor by what notion of it more light of understanding may be conveyed unto our minds .... If we are justified through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, which faith alone apprehends and receives, it will not be denied but that it is rightly enough placed as the instrumental cause of our justification” (Ibid., p. 112).
I am willing to grant that Jones is right on the narrow point that some Reformed theologians did on occasion use the language of faith as a “condition” of justification. But that doesn’t contradict my claim in context. My claim in context was that Reformed theology never “viewed” (i.e., defined) faith as a condition in Piper’s sense, as one condition that can be numbered along with other conditions including evangelical obedience, with faith being the sole condition for entering a right relationship to God and evangelical obedience being the condition for attaining heaven. That is the larger context that I was dealing with in my original post.
I also grant that Jones is entirely correct that the term “condition” can be used in a variety of senses (antecedent, consequent, sine qua non, essential, organic, and I am sure the scholastics could come up with more!), and that, depending on which sense is in view, the statement “faith is the condition of justification” can be intended in an orthodox sense. But I would urge people, if they use it, to immediately clarify the sense in which they are using it. Preferably, we should not use it at all. It’s too ambiguous, as Owen said. We should use instrument instead—just as the Westminster Confession does. Besides, if faith is an instrument, then it is in some sense a condition. But not every condition is a mere instrument. So “instrument” is better because it is more precise.
I’d like to conclude with another quote from Owen on why it is dangerous to ascribe to faith the efficiency of a condition with respect to justification, if that conditionality is not clearly defined and circumscribed in purely instrumental terms:
“For we ascribe the efficiency of an instrument herein unto our own faith; when they say only that it is a condition, or causa sine qua non, of our justification. But I judge that grave and wise men ought not to give so much to the defense of the cause they have undertaken, seeing they cannot but know indeed the contrary. For after they have given the specious name of a condition, and a causa sine qua non, unto faith, they immediately take all other graces and works of obedience into the same state with it, and the same use in justification; and after this seeming gold hath been cast for a while into the fire of disputation, there comes out the calf of a personal inherent righteousness, whereby men are justified before God, virtute foederis evangelici, for as for the righteousness of Christ to be imputed unto us, it is gone into heaven, and they know not what is become of it” (Ibid., p. 106).
In no way am I claiming that Piper is guilty of denying the imputed righteousness of Christ, but it is worrisome that his faulty gloss of justification as “entering a right relationship to God” fails to mention it.