A Historical-Theological Response to John Piper’s What Is Saving Faith?
John V. Fesko
Harriet Barbour Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson
Pastor and theologian John Piper has recently published his book, What Is Saving Faith? where he makes the case that “there is in the very nature of saving faith some kind of affectional element.” I am limiting my response largely to historical-theological claims that Piper makes in his book and his recent response to a review posted on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) website to support his arguments. I believe that Piper makes inaccurate appeals to various theologians, I want to focus on four theologians in particular: John Calvin (1509-64), John Owen (1616-83), Francis Turretin (1623-87), and Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) for several reasons. First, Piper leans heavily upon these theologians. Second, there is a historical link between Turretin and Edwards, as Edwards was familiar with Turretin’s theology but nevertheless chose to formulate his doctrine of faith in a different manner than Turretin. Third, an exhaustive response to every cited theologian is beyond the modest scope of my reply. By digging into Calvin, Owen, Turretin, and Edwards, I will demonstrate why I am unpersuaded by Piper’s claims. My response therefore first surveys Calvin, second Owen, third Turretin, fourth Edwards, and fifth offers conclusions. One final note, I do not engage in an exegetical critique of Piper’s views as I have left this to the other panelist, Dr. Guy Waters.
In his most recent response to Harrison Perkins’s TGC review of his book, Piper cites John Calvin as an example of someone who includes affections as a part of faith: “‘In a word, faith is . . . a warm embrace of Christ.’ Even the aspect of faith called ‘assent . . . consists in pious affection.’” This is an example of the inaccurate way that Piper cites texts, as Piper fails to note that Calvin is not here talking about justifying but sanctifying faith:
As there can be no doubt on the matter, we in one word conclude, that they talk absurdly when they maintain that faith is formed by the addition of pious affection as an accessory to assent, since assent itself, such at least as the Scriptures describe, consists in pious affection. But we are furnished with a still clearer argument. Since faith embraces Christ as he is offered by the Father, and he is offered not only for justification, for forgiveness of sins and peace, but also for sanctification, as the fountain of living waters, it is certain that no man will ever know him aright without at the same time receiving the sanctification of the Spirit; or, to express the matter more plainly, faith consists in the knowledge of Christ; Christ cannot be known without the sanctification of his Spirit: therefore faith cannot possibly be disjoined from pious affection.
In fact, Calvin is very clear that faith produces love and takes issue with Peter Lombard, who claims that love takes priority to faith: “For what the Schoolmen say as to the priority of love to faith and hope is a mere dream (see Sent. III.xxv, &c.) since it is faith alone that first engenders love.”
Calvin is also explicit to delineate between the role of faith in justification versus sanctification, when he explains Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love”:
With respect to the present passage, Paul enters into no dispute whether love cooperates with faith in justification; but, in order to avoid the appearance of representing Christians as idle and as resembling blocks of wood, he points out what are the true exercises of believers. When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle. Paul does not here treat of justification, or assign any part of the praise of it to love. Had he done so, the same argument would prove that circumcision and ceremonies, at a former period, had some share in justifying a sinner. As in Christ Jesus he commends faith accompanied by love, so before the coming of Christ ceremonies were required. But this has nothing to do with obtaining righteousness, as the Papists themselves allow.
Calvin clearly makes love a fruit or effect of faith and does not advocate Piper’s claim that love is what faith is.
A similar pattern unfolds with Piper’s citation of Owen in his response to Perkins. Piper makes the following quotation: “[Faith] is to receive the Lord Jesus in his comeliness and eminency. . . Let us receive him in all his excellencies, . . . comparing him with other beloveds, . . . and preferring him before them, counting them all loss and dung in comparison of him.” Once again, the context of this statement is crucial to understanding what Owen is saying. Within Owen’s broader corpus, he is very clear about the nature of justifying faith. In his The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, Owen takes aim at the Roman Catholic view: “Others plead for obedience, charity, the love of God, to be included in the nature of faith; but plead not directly that this obedience is the form of faith, but that which belongs unto the perfection of it, as it is justifying.” What, then, is the context of Piper’s quotation of Owen? He quotes Owen from his Communion where they context is not justification but rather communion with Christ:
When the soul consents to take Christ on his own terms, to save him in his own way, and says, “Lord, I would have had thee and salvation in my way, that it might have been partly of mine endeavours, and as it were by the works of the law; I am now willing to receive thee and to be saved in thy way, — merely by grace: and though I would have walked according to my own mind, yet now I wholly give up myself to be ruled by thy Spirit: for in thee have I righteousness and strength, in thee am I justified and do glory;” — then doth it carry on communion with Christ as to the grace of his person. This it is to receive the Lord Jesus in his comeliness and eminency. Let believers exercise their hearts abundantly unto this thing. This is choice communion with the Son Jesus Christ.
Owen moves from justification to communion, which is “to receive the Lord Jesus in his comeliness and eminency.” Love, therefore, is not as Piper claims, what faith is. Rather, it is the fruit of a justifying faith.
In his book, Piper argues for the “affectional nature of saving faith” because “great voices in the history of Protestant thought have pointed in this direction.” Among the theologians to whom he appeals is Turretin. Piper observes that Turretin describes the six acts of saving faith. Although theologians typically distinguish the three elements of saving faith as knowledge, assent, and trust, further distinctions are necessary to have a clearer understanding of faith. Piper explains the six different acts of faith according to Turretin:
- Knowledge – truth is the object of faith and thus requires knowledge to apprehend it.
- Theoretical assent – by which we receive as true and divine what we know.
- Fiducial and practical assent – by which we judge the gospel to be true and worthy of love.
- Act of refuge – by which we desire Christ and seek in him pardon of sin and salvation.
- Reception of Christ – by which we both desire Christ and embrace him as an inestimable treasure; this is the formal principal act of justifying faith.
- Reflex act – looking at all that has transpired and marveling that we have been brought by faith.
In Piper’s assessment, Turretin’s fifth act is the most important because it is the act by which sinners embrace Christ and recognize him as a “supreme good offered, and the inestimable treasure.” Piper comments, “If Turretin is right, you can see why I am so eager to write this book. What does it mean to be a Christian? It means believing on Christ, not by a bare decision to affirm that Christ can rescue us from hell and make our future more like a golf course than a forest fire. That is not saving faith. To become a Christian—to be justified and finally saved—is to ‘embrace Christ.’ Embrace!” Piper’s exposition of Turretin’s view is accurate, in and of itself, but he gives an erroneous understanding of the significance of Turretin’s argument. In other words, yes, Turretin says that people embrace Christ by faith and receive him as a treasure. However, Piper ignores other important points that Turretin makes and misinterprets Turretin’s statements to fit his own view. Three points reveal Piper’s error.
First, within the immediate context of Piper’s quotation, Turretin does say that we embrace Christ (adhaerimus, lit. “stick to him”). However, surrounding statements provide the context for what Turretin means by embrace. Turretin writes of “reception” (receptionis), “receive him offered” (recipimus), and “resting upon Christ” (Redemptori inniti). Turretin uses these terms because they appear in Scripture. Quoting different passages, he says, “Believers are said ‘to receive the gift of righteousness’ (Rom. 5:17); ‘to receive Christ’ (Col. 2:6).” Turretin then concludes, “And because the soul thus apprehending Christ reclines upon him and rests upon and cleaves to him, faith is also sometimes described as an act of ‘reclining’ [Etquia anima Christum ita apprehendens in ipsum recumbit, et illi innititur et adhæret, fides etiam per actum reclinationisnon semel describitur] (Psa. 71:5; Isa. 10:20; 48:2; 50:10).” Notable about Turretin’s repeated use of receive, rest, and recline is that these are scriptural terms and they are all passive. Turretin echoes the common scriptural theme that also appears in the Westminster Confession’s (1647) well-known line: “The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life” (XIV.ii). Notably, the Latin translation of the Confession uses the same terminology as Turretin with the trinity of terms acceptio, receptio, and recumbentia: “Verum fidei salvificae actus illi sunt praecipua, Christi acceptatio & receptio, in eumque solum recumbentia pro justification, sanctificatione, ipsaque adeo vita aeterna.”
Second, Turretin situates the passive language about the operation of faith under the distinction between direct and reflex acts. By this twofold distinction Turretin explains that faith first “believes the promises of the gospel” whereas by “the reflex he [the believer] (looking upon his faith) knows that he believes.” “The direct act precedes; the reflex follows and such a subordination exists between them that just as the direct draws the reflex after it, so the reflex necessarily supposes the first.” Within the framework of this twofold distinction, Turretin places the first five acts of faith (knowledge, theoretical assent, fiducial and practical assent, act of refuge, and reception of Christ) under direct acts. The sixth act is the reflex act. Only under this final reflex act does Turretin include a seventh act that Piper does not report, the “act of confidence and consolation.” This seventh act is a subset of the reflex act where Turretin appeals to love, which consists of “joy, tranquility, peace, acquiescence and delight which arise from possession of Christ, by which the believing soul leaning upon its beloved (Cant. 8:5) and conscious of its own most intimate union with Christ through faith and sure of its own mutual communion and love with him, piously rejoices in the Lord.” Turretin follows with a crucial qualification regarding this last and seventh reflexive act: “And this last act does not enter properly into the essence of faith and constitute as it were its form, but flows from it as a necessary consequence and an inseparable effect.” In other words, love does not constitute the form of faith, as with Roman Catholic views but is nevertheless an inseparable effect of it.
Third, Piper misses Turretin’s important distinctions but also purposefully conflates the acts of faith where Turretin distinguishes them. Though Piper approvingly cites Turretin as one of his mentors who provoked him to his view of affectional faith, he nevertheless demurs from the particulars of his formulation because he finds the term acts of faith ambiguous. He recognizes that Turretin distinguishes the nature of faith from its actings, or what faith is versus what faith does, but Piper very clearly rejects this: “I confess that while some distinguish the various aspects of faith’s nature from the various aspects of faith’s actings, I do not.” Instead, Piper contends: Faith “is act. It does not do acts. This is why the phrase acts of faith is confusing. So when I use the term acts of faith, I am referring to the various actings that constitute what faith is.” So, does Turretin include affectional elements in saving faith? Yes. However, he clearly distinguishes them into direct and reflexive acts and says that the affectional acts are not of the essence of saving faith to constitute its form. Piper, on the other hand, removes Turretin’s careful distinction and collapses the reflexive acts into the very essence of faith. Piper’s rejection of the distinction between nature and act dramatically changes Turretin’s formulation and recasts it so that it is indistinguishable from Roman Catholic views.
When Piper turns to Edwards, he believes he has one of his strongest pieces of evidence. Piper quotes Edwards’s comments on 1 John 5:1-4, “‘Love [to God] is the main thing in saving faith.’ The main thing! Really? Edwards is not the kind of thinker that we can dismiss easily.” In his exposition of 1 John 5:1-4, Piper claims “in the mind of John, saving faith includes the affectional dimension of loving God. . . . I am not saying that faith in Christ and love for God are identical. I am saying that saving faith is a composite of different ways that the born-again soul receives Christ.” But Piper stipulates, “I do not go so far as Jonathan Edwards in his conclusion from this text, though he may be right.” Piper then quotes Edwards’s explanation: “This [v. 4] is explaining what he had said before [v. 3], that our love to God enables us to overcome the difficulties that attend keeping God’s commands; which shows that love is the main thing in saving faith, the life and power of it, by which it produces its great effects.” Piper is aware that Edwards was “a bit too independent and idiosyncratic in his views,” and that his doctrine of justification “is one of his most embattled positions.” He also acknowledges that it is debatable whether we should say love is the main thing in saving faith. Nevertheless, undaunted, Piper concludes:
Edwards is saying (and in this I do agree) that the reason justifying faith has this extraordinary effect of always producing the fruit of holiness (Heb. 12:14) is not only that those who are justified by faith have been born again and receive the Holy Spirit, but also that justifying faith is itself of such a nature as to overcome the world’s desire for sin and transform heavy commandments into happy corridors of obedience. And it does so because in it is love for God as supremely valuable and satisfying.
In other words, Piper may decline to say that love “is the main thing in saving faith,” but he agrees with Edwards that faith contains love. Unlike his recast appeal to Turretin, here Piper rightly understands Edwards even if he backs away from Edwards’s description. Where Piper, however, fails is that he does not dig deep enough into Edwards’s view to understand why he characterizes love as “the main thing in saving faith, the life and power of it.”
Instead of embracing the traditional knowledge (notitia), assent (assensus), and trust (fiducia) definitional pattern of faith, Edwards maintains an affective model: “That even faith, or a steadfastly believing the truth, arises from a principle of love.” By way of contrast, Turretin, for example, recognizes the common threefold distinction regarding the three acts of faith: notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Turretin explains, “The orthodox think trust is so of the essence of faith that it cannot be called faith which is destitute of trust.” And in stark contrast to Edwards, Turretin claims “faith cannot be obedience to the commands because thus two virtues would be confounded which are mutually distinct—‘faith and love’ (1 Cor. 13:13). The former is concerned with the promises of the gospel; the latter with the precepts of the law.” Faith is the cause and love is the effect, or faith is the instrument and love is its consequent fruit. For Turretin, “In the matter of justification, faith and works are opposed as opposites and contraries.” Edwards moves love, which was historically an effect of faith, into its very core. This was no slip of Edwards’s pen, but a conscious and deliberate decision on his part. In numerous places in his discourse on faith Edwards claims that faith arises from a principal of love.
In fact, Edwards must have known he was departing from the tradition based on two considerations. First, in observation 140 Edwards writes: “That love belongs to the essence of saving faith, is manifest by comparing Is. 64:4 . . . as cited by the Apostle, I Cor. 2:9.” In the very next observation, no. 141, he writes the following: “Dr. Goodwin . . . says, ‘The papists say, wickedly and wretchedly, that love is the form and soul of faith.’” Edwards, therefore, was not ignorant of the traditional Reformed rejection of this idea. Even more telling is the editorial marginal comment entered by Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745-1801), “But how does the truth of this charge of wickedness appear?” In other words, Edwards’s son was not convinced of the “wickedness” of saying that “love is the form and soul of faith,” a conclusion undoubtedly reached by reading his father’s works. Second, Edwards explicitly draws the idea that love is the form of faith from William Sherlock (ca. 1639/41 – 1707), a theologian accused of Socinianism in the seventeenth-century. Sherlock claimed that faith arises “from a principle of love to God.” In the seventeenth century Sherlock was engaged in heated debate with John Owen (1616-83) over the doctrine of union with Christ. Owen first published Communion with God (1657) and Sherlock later responded with his “ridicule” in A Discourse Concerning the Knowledge of Jesus Christ and Our Union and Communion with Him (1674).
In 1677 Owen published his major work on the doctrine of justification in which Sherlock, though not named, was in the cross hairs among other heterodox theologians. In his treatise, Owen addresses this specific question: “Some of late among ourselves,—and they want not them who have gone before them,—affirm that the works which the apostle excludes from justification are only the outward works of the law, performed without an inward principle of faith, fear, or the love of God.” Owen goes on to explain that the law excludes all types of works including those motivated by love. Owen, like Goodwin, whose statement Edwards cited above, also rejects the idea that love is the form of faith. Sherlock, by contrast, describes the relationship of love and union with Christ much like Edwards. Sherlock, who in contrast to Edwards describes the union between Christ and believers as a political rather than mystical one, nevertheless maintains that Christ and believers “are acted by the same Principles, and love, and chuse the same things . . . when we are meek and humble, and patient and contented, as he was, we are as closely united to him, as if he dwelt in us, and we in him.” Love, according to Sherlock, is the “great Cement of Union.” These are themes that resonate in both Sherlock and Edwards and given the explicit dependence of the latter upon the former, the connection between their understanding of faith is certain. The bottom line is that Edwards knowingly rejected the Reformed tradition’s definition of faith and was willing to agree with the tradition’s critics to support his view and Piper does not acknowledge or factor this in his own appeal to Edwards.
The Westminster Confession of Faith long ago rightly stated that nothing less than “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” is “the supreme judged by which all controversies of religion are to be determined” (I.x). So, even if my critique is wholly accurate, I have not brought Piper to the bar of Scripture. Rather, I have targeted four of the theologians upon whom Piper bases his case for love being in the core of saving faith and I have demonstrated why he is in error. In short, Piper errs with Turretin because he collapses Turretin’s distinction between the direct and reflexive acts of faith, a move that the Genevan explicitly rejected, and he errs by appealing positively to Edwards without acknowledging that the New England theologian deliberately parted from and disagreed with the Reformed tradition on the nature of faith. If these errors are illustrative of Piper’s use of historical sources, can we say with him that “great voices in the history of Protestant thought have pointed in this direction”? Moving from historical theology to theology, if Piper recasts Turretin’s view to resemble the very Roman Catholic views that Turretin rejected, it is unclear to me exactly how “Roman Catholic thinkers speak about the affections as constitutive of faith—in a very different sense than” Piper does.
These historical errors also press another important theological point, namely, if Piper has misused Calvin, Owen and Turretin, he has at least two options: (1) ask whether they are correct, and if so, revise his own book and retain the distinction between what faith is versus what faith does; or (2) if he disagrees with Calvin, Owen, and Turretin and agrees with Edwards, then acknowledge that he deviates from the historic Reformed tradition. In the end, the crux of the matter is not whether saving faith has connections to love. All agree on this, whether Roman Catholic, Calvin, Owen, Turretin, or Edwards. The critical question is whether the essence of faith is trust as it passively rests, receives, and accepts Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, and reflexively works by love. Or, contrariwise, as Piper suggests do we collapse what faith is and does together so that love lies at the heart of faith? The reason that the Reformed tradition opted for the first choice by distinguishing what faith is from what it does is that if love lies at the heart of faith, then faith ceases to be the lone instrumental cause of justification and our salvation no longer rests exclusively upon the alien righteousness of Christ but also upon our own affections and love for him. Piper’s errors are like a medical doctor who says, “See! The human body breathes and pumps blood, but I refuse to distinguish between the heart and lungs.” Such an error may be understandable but nevertheless deadly if the doctor operates on the lungs when he should be operating on the heart. If we fail to distinguish between what faith is from what faith does do we not conflate faith and works and compromise the doctrine of justification by faith alone? The Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined. Has Piper rightly heard the voice of the Spirit speaking in Scripture? Has he rightly interpreted the Reformed tradition on this issue? At this point, I am convinced that the historic Reformed tradition is saying something different than Piper regarding the nature of saving faith.
 John Piper, What is Saving Faith? Reflections on Receiving Christ as a Treasure (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 13.
 John Piper, “On the Nature of Saving Faith,” at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/john-piper-response-faith/ accessed 11 Nov 2022, emphasis Piper’s.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), III.ii.8.
 Calvin, Institutes, III.ii.41.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and the Ephesians, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), p. 153.
 Piper, “On the Nature of Saving Faith,” emphasis Piper’s.
 John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, in The Works of John Owen, vol. 5, ed. William H. Goold (1850-53; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998), 103.
 John Owen, Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in The Works of John Owen, vol. 2, ed. William H. Goold (1850-53; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997), 58-59.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 57.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 61.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 62-63.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 63.
 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols., ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1992-97), XV.viii.5; idem, Institutio Theologicae Elencticae, 3 vols. (New York, NY: Robert Carter, 1847).
 Turretin, Institutes, XV.viii.5.
 Confessio Fidei in Conventu Theologorum Authoritate Parlimenti Anglicani Indicto Elaborata (Edinburgh: Officina Societatis Bibliopolarum, 1689), XIV.ii.
 Turretin, Institutes, XV.viii.4.
 Turretin, Institutes, XV.viii.7.
 Turretin, Institutes, XV.viii.12.
 Council of Trent, “Decree on Justification,” Session VI, 13 Jan 1547 in, Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, 4 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 2:826-39, esp. 831; Robert Bellarmine, De Iustificatione Impii Libri Quinque 4.18, in Disputationum Roberti Bellarmini (Naples, 1858), 593–97; John W. O’Malley, Trent: What Happened at the Council (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2013), 102–16; Hubert Jedin, Papal Legate at the Council of Trent: Cardinal Seripando (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1947), 326–92; Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent, 2 vols. (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1963), 166–96.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 62 n.9.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 71.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 193.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 194.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 71, 194.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 194.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 195, emphasis added.
 The following analysis of Edwards appears in J. V. Fesko, The Covenant of Redemption: Origins, Development, and Reception (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016), 133-35.
 Edwards, Misc. 411, “Faith,” in The “Miscellanies,” a-500, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 13, ed. Thomas A Schafer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 471.
 Turretin, Institutes, XV.viii.3.
 Turretin, Institutes, XV.x.5.
 Turretin, Institutes, XV.xiii.6.
 Robert W. Caldwell, Communion in the Spirit: The Holy Spirit as the Bond of Union in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), 130-31.
 Edwards, “Faith,” nos. 20, 26, 140, 141, 148, in Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 21, ed. Sang Hyun Lee (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 420-21, 422, 464, 467.
 Edwards, “Faith,” nos. 140-41, in Works, 21:464.
 Edwards, “Faith,” no. 141, in Works, 21:464 n. 9.
 Edwards, “Faith,” no. 148, in Works, 21:467-68.
 McClenahan, Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), 72-76; Carl R. Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 123-25.
 McClenahan, Edwards and Justification by Faith, 73.
 Owen, Justification, 231.
 Owen, Justification, 103-04.
 William Sherlock, A Discourse Concerning the Knowledge of Jesus Christ, and Our Union and Communion with him, etc. (London: Walter Kettilby, 1674), 173-74.
 Piper, Saving Faith, 57.