John Piper at T4G

I’ve been away from the blog for much of this week because I was attending the “Together for the Gospel” conference on Tuesday through Thursday. I had never been to T4G before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Albert Mohler closed the conference on Thursday saying that he had taken much more away from this conference than he expected. I have to say, happily, that I did too. The Lord spoke powerfully to me personally both through the speakers and through the fellowship with brothers there. It was a great week.

I found John Piper’s message from Thursday night to be particularly helpful. His text was Luke 18:9-14, and it was a model of biblical exposition soaked in meditative, prayerful preparation. I think everyone was astounded by one particular insight that Piper brought out from this text. I first heard John Piper preach on Luke 18:9-14 about four years ago, and it was the first message that Piper preached to his church after his sabbatical in which he wrote The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. I wrote about this particular insight then (read it here), and I want to highlight it again now.

In this sermon, Piper goes to war with certain New-Perspective-type understandings of justification by faith, and Piper has grasped what is the heart of the matter in this controversy. Many evangelical proponents of the New Perspective (NP) have argued that God produces righteousness (be it faith, faithfulness, obedience of faith, etc.) within a Christian which then becomes the “basis” for one’s justification. NP advocates claim that this is not a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian stance because the righteousness is God-produced.

In this sermon on Luke 18:9-14, Piper argues that looking to one’s God-produced righteousness as the basis of one’s acceptance before God is precisely what the Pharisee did in Luke 18. In the parable, the Pharisee “thanks” God for producing in him his righteousness, and yet the Pharisee does not go away justified, but condemned.

Piper says that any person who looks to their own God-produced righteousness as the basis of their acceptance before God will be condemned just like the Pharisee. N. T. Wright argues for justification on the basis of the whole life lived (see references here). If N. T. Wright convinces people to trust in their own God-wrought righteousness for justification, then those people will be condemned just like the Pharisee. That’s what’s at stake in this debate.

I am in full agreement with Dr. Piper on this one. I think that many proponents of the NP confuse an Augustinian view of grace with the Protestant (and biblical!) view of righteousness. As I have written elsewhere, one can be Augustinian and still be outside of the Reformation.

This is not the same sermon Piper preached four years ago, for there has been much added to it (in particular, his comments on Luke 17). In any case, Piper’s message was right on the money, and it’s a message that many need to hear.


  • John Holmberg


    Are you (and Piper) honestly suggesting that every evangelical who is a proponent of the NP will be condemned? Brother, this is strong and dare I say condemnatory. When you (or Piper) use rhetoric like this it doesn’t help the matter one bit. You’re condemning one of the greatest NT scholars alive along with thousands of others who think it’s the most honest and “biblical” position.

    The doctrine of justification is rich & multi-faceted. NP proponents don’t see their take as obliterating the Reformation’s, but extending it. You (and Piper) should know this.

    On top of that I struggle to see how Piper’s exegesis is faithful. Just b/c the Pharisee “thanks God” that he’s not like other people doesn’t mean he believes that God produced his righteousness. That’s jumping to conclusions the text does not take us to. I can “thank” God that I have a car, but I’m the one who worked and went out & bought it. He just allowed me to stay healthy and gave me the skills to make some money. I didn’t have to take advantage of it, so it’s not like he did everything for me and I could sit passively by while the car magically showed up on the basis of my intellectual assent to the proposition that “God gives people cars.” There are too many dimensions to it to make it so simplistic.

    p.s.-not everything Protestant is “biblical.” That word is used as a club far too often, as I’m afraid is the case here.

  • John Holmberg


    Then maybe you should re-word this statement:

    “Thus, any person who embraces the NP’s or N. T. Wright’s view of justification will be condemned just like the Pharisee.”

    I read that as you (or Piper) saying anybody who believes in the NP, including Wright, will be condemned on the basis of their view of justification. “Condemned” in the sense that they can’t be NP and still be a Christian, so they are not children of God and therefore won’t spend eternity in his kingdom.

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to say many readers would have the same reaction. A little clarification may be helpful, at least. Thanks for answering.

  • El Bryan Libre

    You said, “Thus, any person who embraces the NP’s or N. T. Wright’s view of justification will be condemned just like the Pharisee.”

    If you aren’t saying that “every evangelical who is a proponent of the NP will be condemned” then you might want to rephrase what you said because your own words sure sound like you are saying that.

  • Lucas Knisely


    I think the most common context for thanking someone for something is in response to it be given to you. Just because you may, in your own view, thank God for having a car but actually mean “thank you for allowing me to stay healthy and work to save money to buy the car“, doesn’t mean that is now an acceptable form of thankfulness. I think, in a very general sense, your example is precisely the problem with a theology that has God allowing rather than governing. It even distorts how we view thankfulness. So instead of thanking God for providing what you need (car, money, job), you back Him up in the line and designate Him as a health granter instead of a generous and sovereign giver. You are the one who worked the job, earned the money, and bought the car, God just allowed you to be healthy enough for all of that.

    And let me give you a parallel to your example. My current employer has allowed me to work for them for almost 6 years. Would it be logical for me to go to them and say, “Thank you for my groceries.“? I think not. They would simply reply, “We did not give you any groceries.” Just because they have allowed me access to a job that provides the means to purchase the groceries doesn’t mean it then follows that I should thank them for anything I purchase. So even if your view is correct and that God simply allows rather than governs, thanking Him for anything you’ve bought with money he allowed you to earn is illogical. You should thank yourself for the car and thank God for the allowed health to work the job. That is more logical.

    All that to say this. You’ve got far more work to do if you want to argue the Pharisee isn’t thanking God for something he thinks God gave him. Giving an example of how you would pray is circular. You are basically saying, “Thanking God doesn’t work that way because I don’t thank God that way.

  • David Vinzant

    Obviously, Piper wouldn’t preach a sermon on whether Paul and Jesus preached the same gospel unless this were a real area of controversy. I thought Piper might actually tackle the passages in the synoptic gospels where Jesus clearly teaches a works-based salvation (such as Matthew 25:31-46). Instead of approaching such passages that so obviously refute his whole point, he applies an odd exegesis to a parable in Luke 18.

    The point of this parable, unlike some others, is made explicit by Jesus. He told it “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” He was telling it to deal with the problems of pride and superiority. Why was the tax collector justified? No need to wonder or spin weird doctrines – “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” The man was justified because he practiced humility. He did a work – he humbled himself. Plain as day.

    At least Piper has the honesty up front to admit that he doesn’t start with an open mind and allowing the text to speak. He starts, as he says, with his own “assumptions and goals,” and then interprets the text to fit those. And, surprise, it works!

  • Donald Johnson

    I agree that Piper’s interpretation is simply wrong in this case. This is an inversion parable, similar to the Good Samaritan. The Pharisees were looked up to by many, the tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the Roman oppressors.

  • Lucas Knisely


    I agree that he was addressing people who thought they were superior, but that does not negate Piper’s message. I think if we look at the original language, we can see the wording is different than what you quoted.

    You quoted this: “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.

    The original language doesn’t support that. A more wooden translation would be: “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous

    The difference between the two is very significant. The first, makes it look as though they thought they had their own righteousness (something of them), achieved through works. The second looks like they think they were righteous (something done to them), achieved through God’s giving. A good way to think about this difference is this…

    The first way of wording it makes it look like they have righteousness, or have attained righteousness. This, of course, supports your view of the passage.

    But the second way (that agrees better with the original language), makes it look like they thought they were righteous, or had been made righteous. The first is something attained or worked for, the second speaks more to a status or standing (which better supports the wording that they treated others with contempt).

    Now, I’m not a Greek scholar, but the plain wording of the Greek is easy for even a novice like me: ὅτι εἰσὶν δίκαιοι

    Literally, “that they were righteous

    Now, in light of this, Jesus’ parable and the Pharisee giving thanks takes on a meaning that lands with Piper’s message. The Pharisee is thanking God that he is righteous, not that he has his own righteousness. Instead of thanking God that he has grasped and gained righteousness, he thanks God that he is righteous. Do you see the difference? I think this difference is enormous in getting this passage right. To thank God that he is righteous means he must view God as the source of him being righteous.

  • David Vinzant

    That’s irrelevant to what I am saying. The point is that they had contempt for others. They were proud. Whether they were proud of what they had achieved or what God had achieved for them is irrelevant. They did not practice humility. The tax collector wasn’t justified because God dd anything for him. He was justified because he was humble.

  • A Liberal Bulldog

    David, I think your dead on in the interpretation of Luke 18. I will add that he also had a strange interpretation of the rich man. It seems that Jesus is pointing out the man’s idolatry and the cost of following Jesus (i.e. it is more than belief.

    Denny you say, “Many evangelical proponents of the New Perspective (NP) have argued that God produces righteousness (be it faith, faithfulness, obedience of faith, etc.) within a Christian which then becomes the “basis” for one’s justification.” Where does Wright say that ‘obedience’ becomes the the basis of one’s justification? In ‘Justification’ pp. 146-147 Wright says, “What the author is saying is: these ‘works of Torah’ will bring upon you God’s ‘reckoning of righteousness’ here and now, and that verdict will be repeated ‘on the last day.’ The works in question will not earn their performers their membership within God’s true, eschatological, covenant people; they will demonstrate that membership…It is ‘justification’ in the present, anticipating the verdict of the future. God will declare on the last day that certain people are ‘in the right,’ by raising them from the dead; and that verdict has been brought forward into the present, visibly and community-formingly…For Paul the apostle, this happens ‘through Messiah-faith.'” It seems that this aspect of the justification debate is more of a language game than is often recognized. As much as those in the reformed camp want to deny works as part of justification, calling it the fruit (which are necessary to prove that faith is genuine) puts it right back in (and I will add that this is a similar way to Wright, personally believing that Wright seems to be more biblical about it).

    On the way back from the Wheaton conference I listened to Piper’s sermon from T4G to see what he actually says. I was struck by one of his opening lines, “Justification is by grace alone through faith alone based on the blood of Christ alone for the glory of God alone.” I think Wright would have a resounding Amen! to that statement (Yes, I do think they would mean different things by this, but not these differences would not be the one that Piper expects). In fact, Wright said in a Q&A at the end of his last lecture that faith is a sign of covenant membership (justification), and one gets into the covenant (i.e., one is justified) by grace. If we flip this around he says, “Justification is by grace through faith,” and I think we can add that it is based on the blood of Christ (as well as union with Christ) which is for the glory of God. Two things to add to this: First, ‘Justification’ seems to strongly support this interpretaion. Second, I would just like to make clear what I think these differences are; obviously what justification entails, but I think more importantly to Wright is what God being glorified looks like. For Piper this seems to merely being thankful and loving to God, of which bringing people to Christ will increase this praise. I think Wright has much better grasp of this; for him it is concrete and historical, it is God bringing the world to rights through resurrection.

    I think Piper is right to move beyond justification broadly to bring it down specifically to the issue of imputed righteousness. Vanhoozer’s brilliant lecture on Saturday morning will hopefully push the discussion in this direction, and I believe has laid some groundwork for both sides to begin to finally have comprehensible discussion. Unfortunately Piper frequently dropped and picked up the discussion and never devoloped or defended imputation. I believe that Wright has brought up some good critiques to protestant teaching on imputation that need to be answered.

    Having written all of this I would like to make clear what my intentions are: I hope that ‘Lutheran’ Paulinists will accept those in line with Wright as believers in Christ. From what I hear from those reacting against Wright it seems that they do not believe that ‘Wrightians’ are Christians (as this post and Piper’s message are examples of), and if they do, then they at least don’t treat them as if they are. If this comes about then I think that Wright will get a fair hearing and will not be as easily misunderstood. When I first started reading him on justification I admit that I was lost. I had to keep rereading the text (both his books and the Bible). It was new, and I was not familiar with his constructs. I am beginning to get there now. Wright will continue to get an unfair reading until Christians accept him as a believer, put forth the effort to understand him, and open their minds to think in terms of other theological constructs. Finally it is my hope that all perspectives will grow in faith, hope, and love.

  • Mark

    I will not say whether Tom Wright is unregenerate. I will not say whether other New Perspective proponents are unregenerate. However, you have to admit that what they teach regarding justification is a serious distortion of the Scriptural witness on this pivotal doctrine. It has serious pastoral implications if their view is embraced. Besides, as a Calvinist, I would even say that many orthodox evangelical Arminians are saved. They just have gotten the doctrine of salvation wrong and drive people towards a Christian life with unstable assurance.

  • JP

    Lucas’ comments might not have had anything to do with what you were saying, but it does have to do with what Jesus was saying.
    The fact is, you cannot impose on the tax collector that he was humble, because we’re not told he was. What we are told is that he is in near despair, and that he begs for mercy from God – any hope he has is in receiving mercy from God, not from anything that God has enabled him to do.
    To put your hope in anything other than God’s mercy is to try to operate outside of what God has done for us, and to diminish the magnitude of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

  • JP

    Also, nor can you impose on the Pharisee in this story that he was proud and looking on people with contempt. Because this is a story Jesus is telling, it is ridiculous to impose our understanding of historical Pharisees on the fictional Pharisee in the story. Take into consideration the audience Jesus was originally telling this to. They wouldn’t automatically assume Pharisees are selfish and proud. They would assume that they behave righteously.

  • A Liberal Bulldog

    Mark, I am glad that you are not willing to call Wright unregenerate, but I am concerned about the rest of your post. Why do we “have to admit” that he distorts the doctrine of justification? Him, and many that are in line with his thinking, have extremely brilliant minds; if it was so obvious then I doubt so many scholars would find his argument convincing (I am not arguing that it is necessarily true, only that it is not as obvious as you claim). You are right that it has serious pastoral implications. Listen to all of Wright’s lectures/panel discussions from the WTC and it will be clear how marvelous they are (I am speaking specifically of the work being done in Wright’s diocese. Curious: Have you actuall read Wright on Justification? What have you read? I would also like to reiterate that I am not trying to be degrading, I only fear that many in the reformed camp overreact and are not loving their brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • David Vinzant

    JP: “nor can you impose on the Pharisee in this story that he was proud and looking on people with contempt.”

    Luke 18:9 “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.”

    JP: “The fact is, you cannot impose on the tax collector that he was humble, because we’re not told he was.”

    Luke 18:14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

  • Jeff Miller

    notice that the tax-collector went to his house justified not “the tax-collector went to his house assured that he was justified”. Being loyal(pisteuo)to Jesus necessitates humility.

  • Ryan K.

    What where the Pharisees proud of though David? A simple reading of the text seems to demonstrate that what they were proud of what being right with God. In other words they were proud of the righteousness they had merited with God. This is the heart of doctrine of justification.

  • Donald Johnson

    According to my studies, the Pharisees taught that Jews were IN the Kingdom, simply by being Jews. Jesus opposes this belief, pointing out it takes repentence and being humble.

  • David Vinzant


    The point is that they were proud. The exact source or cause of their pride is not as important as the fact that they were proud. The passage is saying that the proud will be humbled and the humble will be exalted. Lesson: don’t be proud, be humble.

  • Ryan K.

    David I have to disagree with you here and say your being to reductionistic with this parable. It is beyond obvious that the central activity that both the Pharisee and tax collector engage in here is praying.

    This act of praying highlights not just if they walk around with high self-esteem but their relationship with God. To ignore this may serve a certain theological perspective but if we let the text speak for itself the conclusion is that both were conveying what they believed made them right with God. For the Pharisee it was his right living that made him righteous. For the tax collector it was a broken and contrite heart that Jesus proclaimed made him “justified.”

  • Donald Johnson

    I disagree, based on my studies of the cultural context, which would be the assumed background information of a 1st century Jew reading this text.

    The Pharisees taught they were “IN” unless they did something to put them out. The Pharisee then lists some examples of the “put out” such as adulterers, which break negative commands of Torah. He then gives 2 evidences that he follows the positive commands of the Torah. This confirms for him that he is “in”.

    Jesus contrasts this with someone who would be assumed to be “out” as tax collectors were outcasts of the Jewish community.

  • David Vinzant

    Ryan, we might be in closer agreement than you think. You say “it was a broken and contrite heart that Jesus proclaimed made him ‘justified.'”

    Luke 18:14 says: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

  • Richie

    I find it laughable that anyone who has solid grasp of the gospel could possible think that the pharisee was doing anything but indirectly exalting himself. To even use the phrase “Thank-you God for allowing me”. God doesn’t allow anything…rather he ordains it. It is only by God’s grace that we are afforded anything at all (family, job, health…anything)so to paint God as anything other than the supplier of all our blessings is extremely shortsided.

  • Derek

    I have to say, I really like Piper and am inclined to agree with his position rather than N.T. Wright’s, but there are some very real holes in Piper’s narrative here that the NP proponents are going to have a field day with.

  • Jeff Miller

    I think John Piper did some great contextualization of this passage in the Gospel of Luke. I think the criticism of this passage is aimed at a “sense of entitlement” or “assurance” with which we exalt ourselves and hold others in contempt.
    We can trust in ourselves that we are righteous on the basis of “God-wrought alien righteousness imputed to us” just as easily as with some other technically defined “God-wrought righteousness”. If you don’t think so, just check your own heart. We should not do this but we do, it is natural. We do this by ignoring the law of Christ (the gospel)which will have us asking at times, “who then can be saved?” This overlooking the teachings of Jesus is not a demonstration of faith…certainly not a demonstration of great faith. God is the one who will judge with the authority to reckon righteous and He has made one temple the acceptable place of meeting for God and man…the faith of Jesus Christ.

    “…yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.'” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge *said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? “I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”
    (Luke 18:5-8)

  • CLO1513

    A interview from NT wright in response to Piper

    This is interesting. One thing that striked me is odd is when he said this quote in response to a question of what is a person missing if they were to adopt pipers view over his own. He made the below claims.

    What’s missing is the big, Pauline picture of God’s gospel going out to redeem the whole world, all of creation, with ourselves as part of that.—-See Piper’s book let the Nations be Glad, or countless sermons on calling up missionaries, we realize God’s ordain method is using us to preach his word-

    What’s missing is the big, Pauline view of the church, Jew and Gentile on equal footing, as the sign to the powers of the world that Jesus is Lord and they aren’t

    What’s missing is the key work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the already-justified believers to live with moral energy and will so that they really do ‘please God’ as Paul says again and again (but as Reformed theology is shy of lest it smack of smuggling in works-righteousness again).–(a reformed believer doesn’t even beleive we can even get to be an already- justified beleiver with out regeneration of the holy spirit)(we don’t want to be like the galatians who were warned with the question have you started in the spirit are you now ending in the Flesh? No I do hold to the fact that I couldn’t do anythign to please God beforehand but now God delights in the deeds done in righteousness through christ)

    What’s missing is an insistence on Scripture itself rather than tradition . . .Reformed theology puts high regards on the scripture, the majority of this conference was on the inerrancy of scripture and in all things to look to scripture.

    Its just very interesting the reasons he claims, maybe somebody can illumuniate on them more deeply, who knows more of Wright on what he meant because every reason he gave I feel have been covered both by Piper’s stance and reformed theology I have come to hold over bible study and outside reading .


  • Donald Johnson

    Gal 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–
    Gal 1:7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

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