Today I review chapter 7 of John Piper's new book: The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. Chapter 7 is titled: "The Place of Our Works in Justification."
I have found the chapters in Piper's book thus far to be of varying value. A couple I have felt were without merit. On the other hand, a couple have presented good scholarly cases for a dissenting view from Wright. This is one of those chapters. Although I come down on the side of Wright, Piper has made a good case for his interpretation of Romans 2. He loads his gun with the likes of Moo and Schreiner.
I would divide this chapter into two parts. The first deals with the interpretation of Romans 2. The second shows the consistent Reformed expectation that works must follow as a result of justification (though certainly not as a ground or basis for it).
1. Every attempt to create a biblical theology must come to grips with certain passages that, either superficially or substantially, seem to conflict with the final conclusion for which one is arguing. For the Protestant view of justification by faith, Romans 2:5-10 are such verses:
"According to your (sg) hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up for yourself (sg) wrath on the Day of Wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will repay to each person according to his works--
a) on the one hand, to those who seek glory and honor and immortality with the endurance of a good work, eternal life;
b) on the other hand, to those who both disobey the truth out of selfishness and obey unrighteousness, wrath and rage;
b') tribulation and hardship on every living human who does the evil, both Jew first and Greek,
a') and glory and honor and peace to everyone who does the good, both Jew first and Greek.
Piper, following the traditional interpretation, and bolstered by commentators like Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner, argues that before Paul is done, he will argue that no one, Jew or Greek, actually fall into the "a" category--at least not at the point where Paul's argument is in Romans 2.
In the traditional approach to Romans 2, Paul is setting up his argument. There is no impartiality with God. Either Jew or Gentile could in theory be right with God on the basis of their deeds. We will all be judged on the Day according to our works. But when we get to chapter 3, we realize that no one actually can. In that sense, Romans 2 is about the plight of humanity, a humanity that will have to stand before God and give an account--but none of us have a good account to give!
The real crux of the disagreement between Wright and others like Moo and Schreiner comes when we get to Romans 2:13-16:
"For the hearers of the law are not righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified. For whenever Gentiles--those who by nature do not have the law--do the things of the law, these are the law for themselves, although they do not have it, who demonstrate the work of the law written on their hearts, with their conscience at the same time witnessing and either accusing or even excusing between each of their thoughts on the Day when God will judge the hidden things of mortals..."
Wright, among others, takes the Gentiles in question here to be Christians. In other words, they demonstrate the law written on their hearts in the manner of Jeremiah 31--"I will write my laws upon their hearts."
Piper disagrees and makes a cogent argument that these are unbelievers who like Romans 1:20 know the invisible truth of God. Piper notes that "or even excusing" seems to reflect a less than optimistic attitude about their chances at the judgment.
This is a good argument and one that I once accepted. It was the similarity of Romans 2:15 to Jeremiah 31:33 that changed my mind. I note two things about this passage:
a) Any law that Gentiles might keep must, de facto, be some core law rather than the full Jewish law. I say this because a Gentile by definition is uncircumcised and, thus, by definition cannot keep the law. The examples Paul gives are stealing, committing adultery, and idol worship, things Paul certainly expected his Gentile converts not to do.
b) Given that 2:5 refers to Judgment Day, Paul does consider works as a necessary element in the (final) justification equation. If they're not there, judgment ensues. In 2:15, Paul is speaking about Gentiles who will have those works like not stealing and not committing adultery. They will have those works because the law will be written on their hearts. And they will have those works because of the Holy Spirit--an element in the equation that Paul does not mention here but that is clear given things Paul says elsewhere and given the parallel tradition we find in Hebrews.
2. The second concern Piper has in this chapter is to diss something Wright said at a 2003 conference in Edinburgh, namely, about the silence of Protestants regarding the importance of works in final justification.
He then proceeds to quote the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530), the First Helvetic Confession in Switzerland (1536), the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, what Piper calls an "expression of Anglican Reformed faith" (1571), then finally the Westminster Confession (1647). All of these indicate that works are a necessary consequence of justification by faith.
It is of course when one looks at such things that one is reminded that Wesley was just a "hair's breadth from Calvinism." That hair on this subject largely had to do with his optimism with regard to just how many works might follow justification by faith.
Let me step outside the bounds of both Wesley and Calvin (and Luther) to speak for Paul, however, who really didn't get so bent out of shape over these nuances.
Piper is right that the phrase Paul uses in 2:6 is different from when he is contrasting justification by works from justification by faith. 2:6 uses the phrase "according to works" while elsewhere, such as in 3:28, it is "on the basis of works." But wait, let me finish the phrase, "on the basis of works of law." Oh, and let me finish the other phrase too, "faith of Jesus Christ."
Piper will get to these debates later in the book I know, but the phrase "works of law" seems to be more than a reference to mere human effort, the Protestant way of taking the phrase. I'll wait to talk more about these things until Piper gets to them.
Perhaps Piper is right in the sense that it is a slightly different phrase. Perhaps Paul doesn't want his audience to think he is talking about the same thing in Romans 2 that he is in Romans 3. In the end, though, Paul doesn't seem to have a problem with speaking of justification by works in a final sense, given all the caveats of Romans 3 about no one ultimately deserving God's favor.
But given God's favor, indeed given God's empowerment, works are expected at the Judgment. And Paul simply doesn't have a problem in that context of speaking of it not just as co-instrumental. Frankly, in the context of final judgment, works seem to take the prominent role!
This lends support to the view of the new perspective that "works of law" in Romans primarily refers to the more ethnically unique parts of the Jewish law. On the other hand, what Christians have long called the "moral law" (an anachronistic term to be sure) appears to be the criterion by which mortals will be judged on the Day.