John Piper on Justification: Confusing the Fruit with the Root

Desiring God recently posted a great video in which John Piper discusses justification, and more specifically, how Christians commonly confuse being counted as righteous with becoming behavioral in our righteousness.

Watch the video here:

Piper’s fundamental concern is that Christians often root their righteousness in holiness (i.e., good works) and thus they undermine the transformative power available through justification, which should be the starting point for any positive action.

As Piper says:

The only instrument by which I am made a participant in Christ’s righteousness is God’s acting through my faith. I am born into that relationship through faith alone, not through any of its fruits, like mercy and justice and love and patience and kindness and meekness and so on, which turn me into a useful person in the world.

But why does it “undermine” justification to bring holiness down to its level?

The reason I say this undermines what we are both after is because I don’t think we can make any progress in holiness if we don’t have a profound, deep, powerful assurance that we are accepted by God by faith alone. If you try to make the fruit of justification part of the root of justification, the fruit itself is destroyed.

Such confusion is certainly common in the Church, and one place where Christians make it particularly visible is in their public policy advocacy. Many Christians want to force morality and coerce humanity into assuming a loving attitude. We want to promote justice, but we do so by pretending it requires only a slight readjustment of material distribution. We want to administer mercy, but we go about it by diluting the rule of law. All of this is justified, we will argue, because we are obviously doing “good” (by our own definition).

But alas, the fundamental problem is that without God our view of holiness is inevitably compromised by our very nature. We may end doing some good here and there, but in the end what we are lacking is a proper view and prioritization of individual justification.

As Piper explains:

Christians have to be loving, they have to be just, they have to be caring. In other words, the fruits of the Spirit really matter. We are not born again if we are not living differently than we would if we weren’t born again. I just want to say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone, or imputation through union with Christ along the instrument of faith alone, is the best way forward in that.

Piper concludes with a fitting reference to William Wilberforce, the great British abolitionist.

As Piper has explained elsewhere, Wilberforce did not combat the institution of slavery with mere moral stances. Indeed, the very proponents of slavery he was fighting had done a fine job of rationalizing the slave trade in moral terms.

This is how Wilberforce characterized the prevalent view within his culture (from A Practical View of Christianity):

They consider not that Christianity is a scheme “for justifying the ungodly” by Christ’s dying for them “when yet sinners” — a scheme “for reconciling us to God” — when enemies; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce did not surrender to the cultural morality of his day.

Wilberforce adequately recognized the moral perversions within the slavery discussions of his day, many of which were being advanced in the name of Christ. Thus, Wilberforce believed such a battle could only be won if he worked to transform his culture at its own root. The English people could not be sufficiently energized to fight slavery if they weren’t first asking Christ to justify their souls and redeem their culture.

As Wilberforce said (quoted by Piper in the video):

My main goal is to help England understand that transformation in life and in slave-trade is the fruit of justification, not the root.

This applies to the culture at large only because it applies to each individual. Would Wilberforce himself have been able to endure his fight for justice without having his own priorities straight? Would he have been able to even recognize the evils of slavery if he had ceded to the prevailing cultural morality of his day?

Therefore, in all of our moral pursuits — in all of our striving for a just world — we should be reminded that it is only through justification with God that we can ever hope to bring the fruits of justice to the world.

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