The Essence of Saving Faith . . . According to John Piper

About a week or so ago, I posted an article on Facebook by the ever-meddlesome church historian D. G. Hart. As is usually the case, he was taking issue with something John Piper had written. In this instance, he didn’t appreciate Piper’s words regarding the essence of saving faith. He cited this article in particular. (You may need to stop and read the article first.)

In the article, Piper argues that it is possible for a person to believe the promises of God and still be lost eternally. As evidence of this Piper cited Matt. 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?’” This leads Piper to ask the question: “What is the true experience of faith and what is the false experience of faith?”

To be sure, Piper agrees with the Apostle James that the true experience of faith—true saving faith—leads to works (“faith apart from works is dead,” Jas. 2:26). Piper isn’t done, however. In classic Edwardsean fashion, he insists, “[S]aving faith in the promises of God includes spiritual enjoyment of the God of the promises.” He even goes so far as to say that it’s not enough to simply rest in God and his help, one must experience “a sense of satisfaction in the beauties of God” (emphasis Piper’s). (As an aside, I say this is “classic Edwardsean” because this is very similar to what Jonathan Edwards argues for in his work Religious Affections.)

At this point, one can see why Hart would take issue with Piper’s words here. As a confessionally Reformed Christian, Hart subscribes to the Westminster Standards. And the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines faith in Christ as “a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel” (Q/A 86, emphasis mine). This might not seem like a big deal to the average person, but since Piper is considered to be broadly Reformed in his theology, he opens himself up to criticism from those who want to remind the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement that the adjective “Reformed” has an objective referent. (For more on this see Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice.)

Back to Piper’s definition of saving faith: In order to be fair to him, we must highlight a qualification he makes: “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.” Although it may seem tedious at this point, I think it’s only right to quote Piper one more time: “Another way to say it would be that in all the acts of saving faith the Holy Spirit enables us not only to perceive and affirm actual truth, but also to apprehend and embrace spiritual beauty. It is the ‘embracing of spiritual beauty’ that is the essential core of saving faith.”

Now, so what, right? What’s the big deal? Why does Hart have to be a grumpy Calvinist? Well, I can’t speak for Hart, but I happen to see where he’s coming from. He wants to know why saving faith must include intensity, sweetness, introspection, and spiritual earnestness. This is tough to answer. I agree with Piper when he says that Christianity isn’t just about decisions but also about affections.[1] The Bible does tell us to feel certain things. Piper rightly draws our attention to the following passages: Matt. 18:35: “Forgive [your] brother from your heart.” 1 Peter 1:22 exhorts us to “Love one other earnestly from the heart.” Similarly, Rom. 12:10 calls us to “Love one another with brotherly affection.” I get this. But I do think that Piper may be overplaying his hand here. Again, he’s correct: We should delight in God. We should enjoy him. Every time we read the Bible we should be in awe of God’s amazing grace, love, and power. But as Piper admits in The Dangerous Duty of Delight, “We do not feel the depth or intensity of affections that are appropriate for God or His cause.”[2] Exactly. So what do we do about this?

I don’t think we should seek to find our assurance of salvation in a feeling. Feelings come and go, so ultimately this would lead to hopelessness. Instead, I think the Westminster Shorter Catechism (and the 1689 London Baptist Confession) is correct: We are to receive and rest in Christ alone for salvation (in the Baptist Catechism this is Q/A 91). Yes, we are to examine ourselves (2 Cor. 13:5), but we must also resist becoming morbidly introspective. Let’s face it: We don’t always feel very holy. And quite honestly, we don’t always act very holy! This is why God’s love is so amazing: He continues to love us and hold us near even though we constantly fall short.

Why do we sometimes feel weak and helpless in our faith? Why do we not always sense the Lord’s nearness? While I can’t give you a “Thus says the Lord,” I think John Newton provides us with valuable insight: “[It] is needful we should know that we have no sufficiency in ourselves, and in order to know it we must feel it; and therefore the Lord sometimes withdraws his sensible influence.”[3]

God does not want us to trust in ourselves. Yes, I think one of our constant prayers should be that God would not allow our familiarity with Scripture to cause us to lose our sense of awe. But I for one would not want to seek to find assurance of salvation in some nebulous feeling. If growth in the Christian life involves anything, I think it involves an ever-growing realization of just how much we need the gospel.

[1]See his book The Dangerous Duty of Delight: The Glorified God and the Satisfied Soul (Sisters: Multnomah, 2001), 28.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] The Letters of John Newton, ed. Josiah Bull (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 210.

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