Are Christians merely forgiven, or do they possess the righteousness of Christ? Recently the time-honored understanding of the doctrine of justification has come under attack. Many question how-or if-we receive the full righteousness of Christ.
Martin Luther said that if we understand justification "we are in the clearest light; if we do not know it, we dwell in the densest darkness." And now, in this new and important book, John Piper accepts Luther's challenge. He points out that we need to see ourselves as having been recipients of the imputation of Christ's righteousness and therefore enjoy full acceptance with God and the everlasting inheritance of life and joy.
Piper writes as both a pastor and a scholar. His pastor's heart is shown in his zeal for the welfare of the church. His careful scholarship is evident in each explanation and undergirds each conclusion.
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About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College&Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God; Don’t Waste Your Life; This Momentary Marriage; A Peculiar Glory; and Reading the Bible Supernaturally.
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THE SETTING IN FAMILY, CHURCH, CULTURE, AND NATIONS
Why would a pressured pastor with a family to care for, a flock to shepherd, weekly messages to prepare, a personal concern for wayward children, a love for biblical counseling, a burden for racial justice, a commitment to see abortion become unthinkable, a zeal for world evangelization, a focus on local church planting, and a life-goal of spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ devote so much time and energy to the controversy over the imputation of Christ's righteousness? And why should schoolteachers, engineers, accountants, firemen, computer programmers, and homemakers take the time to work through a book like this?
I will try to answer that question in this chapter. My answer moves from the general to the specific. That is, from reasons for caring about doctrine to reasons for caring about justification by faith to reasons for caring about the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. Implicit in my question is a disclaimer. I do not have the time or the heart to read as widely as scholars in academia do and should. So my focus is limited — but, I hope, not shallow or exegetically flimsy. A fuller treatment of the breadth and variety of issues surrounding the doctrine of justification today can be found in many places. With that said, I ask again, Why does a pastor — or why should you — take up a complex doctrinal controversy on the imputation of Christ's righteousness?
GROWING A CHURCH WITHOUT A HEART FOR DOCTRINE
To begin with, the older I get, the less impressed I am with flashy successes and enthusiasms that are not truth-based. Everybody knows that with the right personality, the right music, the right location, and the right schedule you can grow a church without anybody really knowing what doctrinal commitments sustain it, if any. Church-planting specialists generally downplay biblical doctrine in the core values of what makes a church "successful." The long-term effect of this ethos is a weakening of the church that is concealed as long as the crowds are large, the band is loud, the tragedies are few, and persecution is still at the level of preferences.
But more and more this doctrinally-diluted brew of music, drama, life-tips, and marketing seems out of touch with real life in this world — not to mention the next. It tastes like watered-down gruel, not a nourishing meal. It simply isn't serious enough. It's too playful and chatty and casual. Its joy just doesn't feel deep enough or heartbroken or well-rooted. The injustice and persecution and suffering and hellish realities in the world today are so many and so large and so close that I can't help but think that, deep inside, people are longing for something weighty and massive and rooted and stable and eternal. So it seems to me that the trifling with silly little sketches and breezy welcome-to-the-den styles on Sunday morning are just out of touch with what matters in life.
Of course, it works. Sort of. Because, in the name of felt needs, it resonates with people's impulse to run from what is most serious and weighty and what makes them most human and what might open the depths of God to their souls. The design is noble. Silliness is a stepping-stone to substance. But it's an odd path. And evidence is not ample that many are willing to move beyond fun and simplicity. So the price of minimizing truth-based joy and maximizing atmosphere-based comfort is high. More and more, it seems to me, the end might be in view. I doubt that a religious ethos with such a feel of entertainment can really survive as Christian for too many more decades. Crises reveal the cracks.
WHAT SEPTEMBER 11 REVEALED
The terrorism of September 11, 2001, released a brief tidal wave of compassion and cowardice in the Christian Church. It brought out the tender love of thousands and the terrible loss of theological nerve. "Ground Zero" became a place of agonizing comfort as Christians wept with those who wept, while radio talk shows and Muslim-Christian ecumenical gatherings became places of compromise as leaders minimized Christ and clouded the nature of Islam with vague words about "one God."
The tension between strong Christian love and weak Christological cowardice will not survive indefinitely. If the root is cut, the fruit will die — sooner or later. The reluctance to pray publicly in the majestic name of Jesus Christ; the disinclination to make clear distinctions between Allah and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; the fear of drawing attention to the fact that Islam consciously rejects the entire foundation of Christian salvation, namely, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus — this loss of conviction and courage will in the end undermine the very love and joy it aims to advance.
A DIAGNOSIS FROM WILLIAM WILBERFORCE
What we saw more clearly in the brief moment of realism following September 11 was the hidden habit of doctrinal indifference and the sad exposure of triumphant pragmatism. Surprisingly a British, evangelical politician from two hundred years ago analyzed our situation well and has helped me get my bearings in this new century. William Wilberforce is famous for his lifelong, and finally successful, battle against the African slave trade. It stunned me, when I recently read his one major book, APractical View of Christianity, that his diagnosis of the moral weakness of Britain was doctrinal.
The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.
Even more stunning was the fact that Wilberforce made the doctrine of justification the linchpin in his plea for moral reform in the nation. He said that all the spiritual and practical errors of the nominal Christians of his age ...
... RESULT FROM THE MISTAKEN CONCEPTION ENTERTAINED OF THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF CHRISTIANITY. They consider not that Christianity is a scheme "for justifying the ungodly" [Romans 4:5], by Christ's dying for them "when yet sinners" [Romans 5:6-8], a scheme "for reconciling us to God — whenenemies" [Romans 5:10]; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled. It is a remarkable thing that a politician, and a man with no formal theological education, should not only know the workings of God in justification and sanctification, but consider them utterly essential for Christian piety and public virtue. Many public people say that changing society requires changing people, but few show the depth of understanding Wilberforce does concerning how that comes about. For him the right grasp of the central doctrine of justification and its relation to sanctification — an emerging Christlikeness in private and public — were essential for the reformation of the morals of England.
WITHOUT PASTORAL STUDY, WE LIVE ON BORROWED FAITH
If Wilberforce is right — I think he is profoundly right — it will be less of a mystery why a pastor with a burden for racial justice and the sanctity of life and the moral transformation of our cultural landscape would be gripped by the doctrine of justification by faith. There are deeper and more connections than most of us realize between the grasp of doctrine and the good of people and churches and societies. The book of Romans is not prominent in the Bible for nothing. Its massive arguments are to be labored over until understood. And not just by scholars. What a tragedy that that this labor is regarded as wasted effort by so many who are giving trusted counsel in the church today.
Thousands are living on borrowed faith. We are living off the dividends, as it were, of intellectual and doctrinal investments made by pastors and church leaders from centuries ago. But the "central bank" of the Bible was not meant to fund future generations merely on the investments of the past. They are precious, and I draw on them daily. Everyone does, even those who don't know it. But without our own investments of energy in the task of understanding, the Bank will close — as it has in many churches. I had lunch with a pastor not long ago — of one of the most liberal churches in Minnesota (as he described it) — who remarked that his people would be happy if he took his text from Emily Dickinson.
ANSWERING THE DETAILS OF THE FIRST QUESTION: WHY DEFEND JUSTIFICATION?
So what about all those other burdens and longings I expressed in the first sentence of this chapter? Why would a pastor with all those devote so much attention to the doctrine of justification?
FOR THE SAKE OF MY FAMILY: MARRIAGE
I have a family to care for. The marriage must survive and thrive for the good of the children and the glory of Christ. God designed marriage to display the holy mercy of Christ and the happy submission of his church (Ephesians 5:21-25). My own experience has been that the doctrine of justification by faith, and the imputed righteousness of Christ, is a great marriage saver and sweetener.
What makes marriage almost impossible at times is that both partners feel so self-justified in their expectations that are not being fulfilled. There is a horrible emotional dead-end street in the words, "But it's just plain wrong for you to act that way," followed by, "That's your perfectionistic perspective," or "Do you think you do everything right?," or hopeless, resigned silence. The cycle of self-justified self-pity and anger seems unbreakable.
But what if one or both of the partners becomes overwhelmed with the truth of justification by faith alone, and with the particular truth that in Christ Jesus God credits me, for Christ's sake, as fulfilling all his expectations? What would happen if this doctrine so mastered our souls that we began to bend it from the vertical to the horizontal? What if we applied it to our marriages?
In our own imperfect efforts in this regard, there have been breakthroughs that seemed at times impossible. It is possible, for Christ's sake, to simply say, "I will no longer think merely in terms of whether my expectations are met in practice. I will, for Christ's sake, regard my wife (or husband) the way God regards me — complete and accepted in Christ — and to be helped and blessed and nurtured and cherished, even if in practice there are shortcomings." I know my wife treats me this way. And surely this is part of what Paul was calling for when he said that we should forgive "one another ... as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32, ESV). I believe there is more healing for marriage in the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness than many of us have even begun to discover.
FOR THE SAKE OF MY FAMILY: CHILDREN
Then there are the children. Four sons are grown and out of the house. But they are not out of our lives. In person and on the phone every week there are major personal, relational, vocational, theological issues to deal with. In every case the root issue comes back to: What are the great truths revealed in Scripture that can give stability and guidance here? Listening and affection are crucial. But if my words lack biblical substance, my counsel is hollow. Touchy-feely affirmation won't cut it. Too much is at stake. These young men want rock under their feet.
My daughter, Talitha, is six years old. Recently she and my wife and I were reading through Romans together. This was her choice after we finished Acts. She is just learning to read, and I was putting my finger on each word. She stopped me in mid-sentence at the beginning of chapter 5 and asked, "What does 'justified' mean?" What do you say to a six-year-old? Do you say, "There are more important things to think about, so just trust Jesus and be a good girl"? Or do you say that it is very complex and even adults are not able to understand it fully, so you can wait and deal with it when you are older? Or do we say that it simply means that Jesus died in our place so that all our sins might be forgiven?
Or do we tell a story (which is what I did), made up on the spot, about two accused criminals, one guilty and one not guilty (one did the bad thing, and one did not do it)? The one who did not do the bad thing is shown, by all those who saw the crime, to be innocent. So the judge "justifies" him; that is, he tells him he is a law-abiding person and did not do the crime and can go free. But the other accused criminal, who really did the bad thing, is shown to be guilty, because all the people who saw the crime saw him do it. But then, guess what! The judge "justifies" him too and says, "I regard you as a law-abiding citizen with full rights in our country" (not just a forgiven criminal who may not be trusted or fully free in the country). At this point Talitha looks at me puzzled.
She does not know how to put her finger on the problem but senses that something is wrong here. So I say, "That's a problem, isn't it? How can a person who really did break the law and did the bad thing be told by the judge that he is a law-keeper, a righteous person, with full rights to the freedoms of the country, and doesn't have to go to jail or be punished?" She shakes her head. Then I go back to Romans 4:5 and show her that God "justifies the ungodly." Her brow is furrowed. I show her that she has sinned and I have sinned and we are all like this second criminal. And when God "justifies" us he knows we are sinners and "ungodly" and "lawbreakers." And I ask her, "What did God do so that it's right for him say to us sinners: you are not guilty, you are law-keepers in my eyes, you are righteous, and you are free to enjoy all that this country has to offer?"
She knows it has something to do with Jesus and his coming and dying in our place. That much she has learned. But what more do I tell her now? The answer to this question will depend on whether Mom and Dad have been faithfully taught about the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Will they tell her that Jesus was the perfect law-keeper and never sinned, but did everything the judge and his country expected of him? And will they tell her that when he lived and died, he not only took her place as a punishment-bearer but also stood in her place as a law-keeper? Will they say that he was punished for her and he obeyed the law for her? And if she will trust Jesus, God the Judge will let Jesus' punishment and Jesus' righteousness count for hers. So when God "justifies" her — says that she is forgiven and righteous (even though she was not punished and did not keep the law) — he does it because of Jesus. Jesus is her righteousness, and Jesus is her punishment. Trusting Jesus makes Jesus so much her Lord and Savior that he is her perfect goodness and her perfect punishment.
There are thousands of Christian families in the world who never have conversations like this. Not at six or sixteen. I don't think we have to look far then for the weakness of the church and the fun-oriented superficiality of many youth ministries and the stunning fall-out rate after high school. But how shall parents teach their children if the message they get week in and week out from the pulpit is that doctrine is unimportant? So, yes, I have a family to care for. And therefore I must understand the central doctrines of my faith — understand them so well that they can be translated for all the different ages of my children. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, "It ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people."
AND THERE ARE WEEKLY MESSAGES TO PREPARE
Which also answers why this issue matters to me when I have weekly messages to prepare and a flock to shepherd. The messages need to be saturated with biblical truth — brimming with radical relevance for the hard things in life — and helping my people be able to preach the Gospel to themselves and their children day and night. The full, rich, biblical Gospel, as it is unfolded in the New Testament and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, not as it is quickly and simply summed up in a pamphlet. My people need to grow in grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus. In this way they will have strong roots for radical living, sweet comfort in times of trouble, and serious answers for their children.
JUSTIFICATION AND PRODIGALS
Then I mentioned in the first sentence of this chapter, "a personal concern for wayward children." I do not believe that even perfect parenting could prevent all wilderness wanderings of our children. Mainly because of what God said in Isaiah 1:2: "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: 'Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me'" (ESV). But how do you survive and press on when a child has left the fold of God? What truth keeps you on your face in hope-full prayers and on your way to minister to others with needs as great as your own? No truth other than "the justification of the ungodly" gives as much hope for parents of a prodigal. Not only because our son or daughter may yet awaken to the hope that Christ is willing to be his or her righteousness — no matter what he or she has done — but also because the viperous guilt of failed parenting is defanged by the justification of the ungodly. Dad and Mom find a way to press on because their perfection is Christ.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Counted Righteous in Christ"
Copyright © 2002 Desiring God Foundation.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
FULL OUTLINE OF THE ARGUMENT,
CHAPTER ONE THE SETTING IN FAMILY, CHURCH, CULTURE, AND NATIONS,
CHAPTER TWO THE CONTEMPORARY CHALLENGE,
CHAPTER THREE AN EXEGETICAL RESPONSE TO THE CHALLENGE,
CHAPTER FOUR CONCLUSION,
NOTE ON RESOURCES: DESIRING GOD MINISTRIES,