Faith and Treasuring Christ: A Review Article
Guy P. Waters
James M. Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson
John Piper has long emphasized in his writings the affectional life of the Christian believer. In What Is Saving Faith?, Piper probes the relationship between saving faith and love for Christ. Exploring dozens of passages from the Old and New Testaments and surveying the testimony of leading Reformed theologians, Piper advances the controversial thesis that treasuring Christ belongs to the essence of saving faith.
In this review, we will first summarize Piper’s thesis, giving particular attention to what Piper does and does not claim in WSF. We will then register a number of areas of appreciation before we turn to address some areas of concern. This review will particularly concentrate upon the way in which Piper appeals to particular passages of Scripture in support of his book’s thesis.
The Thesis and Argument of What Is Saving Faith?
Early in WSF, Piper puts his thesis in the form of a question and answer.
I want to know if there is in the very nature of saving faith some kind of affectional element. That is, does saving faith include any element of love for Christ, or admiration, or adoration, or treasuring, or cherishing, or delighting, or satisfaction, or thankfulness, or revering? …. I will argue in this book that saving faith does indeed have in its very nature affectional elements, dimensions of aspects.
Critical to Piper’s definition of saving faith (and to the thesis of WSF) is the word “element.” Piper is “not asking whether affections … accompany saving faith,” nor if “such affections are the result of saving faith,” whether as fruits, evidences, or good works produced by saving faith. Piper is asking, rather, whether “affections like love for Christ, or delight in his glory, or satisfaction in his perfections, or treasuring his worth” are “part of the nature of faith,” are “so integral to saving faith that, if they were not there, we would not have saving faith.”
Piper is aware of the three-fold anatomy of saving faith that Reformed theologians routinely and approvingly cite – notitia (knowledge), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust). Piper does not so much reject this description of saving faith as pronounce it insufficient. There are “more than three elements of saving faith,” and that additional element is affectional.
How does WSF present and argue the case for its thesis? Since Piper explores scores of biblical texts, we may offer a representative sampling of his readings of these passages. Citing Matt 6:30-31, 8:26, and Heb 11:27, Piper concludes that “affectional states, like confidence and peacefulness, are part of what faith is.” Referencing 1 Thess 1:4-6, Piper argues, “we may infer that saving faith is not receiving plus joy, any more than the object of faith is Christ plus treasure. Christ is the treasure we receive. And joy is included in the nature of the receiving.” In 2 Thess 2:10,12, Piper understands Paul to “call attention to the affectional nature of saving faith. It includes a love of the truth, the gospel …. Therefore, saving faith is a receiving of Christ not only as true, but also … loved…” “Love for Christ,” this passage teaches, “is an essential affectional aspect of saving faith.” Piper argues from 1 John 5:1-5 that, “in the mind of John, saving faith includes the affectional dimension of loving God.” In particular, “First John 5:3-4 does not describe two distinct ways of overcoming the world and removing the burdensomeness of God’s commandments. They describe one composite way using different language: love for God and faith in Christ.” Piper hastens to add that he is “not saying that faith in Christ and love for God are identical.” Rather, “saving faith is a composite of different ways that the born-again soul receives Christ. And one of those ways of receiving him is to receive him as superior to everything that makes God’s commandments difficult. John calls this faith. And he calls it loving God.”
Piper anticipates and responds to objections to his thesis. One objection is that Piper’s formulation is for substance identical with Roman Catholicism’s doctrine of fides caritate formata (faith formed by love). Before summarizing Piper’s response to this objection, we will briefly review Rome’s doctrine. In distinction from fides informis (unformed faith), justifying faith, according to Rome is fides caritate formata (faith formed by love). According to Trent, “in the very act of justification, together with the remission of sins, man receives through Jesus Christ, into whom he is inserted, the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, all infused at the same time … For faith without hope and charity neither unites a man perfectly with Christ nor makes him a living member of his body. Therefore it is rightly said that faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead and unprofitable and that ‘in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.’” Thus, when “‘faith is active along with works,’ [the justified] increase in the very justice they have received through the grace of Christ and are further justified …” One is progressively justified on the basis of a faith that, by its very nature, loves.
Piper repudiates Trent’s understanding of saving faith (and the doctrine of justification that accompanies it). He insists that Galatians 5:6, a text to which Roman Catholics have appealed in support of their doctrine, affords no basis for that doctrine. He paraphrases Paul’s expression in that text, “faith working through love” – “faith alone is the instrument of justification, but this justifying faith is the kind of reality that moves the believer to love people.” Faith and love, in this passage, must be distinguished from each other – “the kind of faith that justifies produces the works of love. But they are not the same.” Critically, Piper sees the love in view in Gal 5:6 to be love to other people, not love to God. But, when Piper insists that saving faith is affectional, he says that saving faith treasures Christ or loves Christ.
Piper’s formulation prompts a second objection – does such an understanding of faith, notwithstanding its explicit exclusion of love to human beings from the essence of faith, nevertheless concede Rome’s position, namely, that faith is formed by love (in this case, to Christ)? Piper answers in the negative. He affirms that the sinner is justified by faith alone, solely on the basis of Christ’s “blood and righteousness.” “Trusting Christ” is not “identical with loving Christ,” and “faith” and “love” are not “interchangeable.” Therefore, “it is wrong to say that we are justified by love rather than faith alone.” 
We are not justified by love because “saving faith is essentially a receiving of Christ,” that is, “Christ as valuable, precious, satisfying – a treasure.” Saving faith is “not a giving grace but a receiving one.” Piper insists that when he “use[s] words and phrases like delighting in, being satisfied with, enjoying, and loving – all having Christ as their object, [a]s I use these terms, all of them are receiving graces, not giving graces. They are not performances. They are the reflexes of emptiness looking away to Christ.” The entirely receptive character of faith’s treasuring or delighting in Christ, Piper argues, safeguards the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Some Areas of Appreciation
One is bound to appreciate Piper’s call to think clearly and biblically about the nature of saving faith., and to do so in sympathy with the Reformed tradition. Such an understanding of saving faith has never been a given in the church’s history. As Piper is well aware, the Protestant Reformers defined, explained, and defended a biblical understanding of saving faith in light of Rome’s claims to the contrary. In the eighteenth century, Robert Sandeman argued that faith was “bare assent to the work of Christ.” At the close of the twentieth century, the Lordship controversy within evangelicalism raised the question whether one might have Jesus as Savior without necessarily having him as Lord. More recently, and from a different direction, Matthew Bates has advanced a definition of pistis (faith) as allegiance or loyalty to King Jesus. Piper commendably wishes to plant his flag with the Reformers and offers thoughtful criticisms of Sandeman and Zane Hodges, on the one hand, and Roman Catholicism and Matthew Bates, on the other.
Piper is also correct to observe that, within the Reformed tradition, there have been intramural disagreements about the nature of saving faith. In the nineteenth century, Archibald Alexander and Thomas Chalmers so emphasized the intellect in addressing the nature of saving faith that one contemporary alleged that their formulations resolved faith into “a simple belief of propositions.” With less nuance, Gordon Clark made similar claims about saving faith in the twentieth century. Against definitions of saving faith that risk being intellectualistic, Piper argues that saving faith involves more than the embrace of propositions. He does so without lapsing into an anti-intellectual definition of saving faith.
Piper, furthermore, raises a valuable pastoral concern that informs the whole of WSF. He comments that he has lived in “the same inner-city neighborhood for forty years … beset with every kind of breakdown and dysfunction.” He has “spoken to hundreds of people in this neighborhood about Christ. And I think I could count on one hand the number of people who have denied Christ. They have all ‘received him.’” But they have nothing in their lives to show for it. “This kind of ‘receiving’ of Christ is not a joy that I celebrate; it is a heartache that I bemoan.” Piper testifies here to the widespread confusion, both inside and outside the church, of historical faith for saving faith. He rightly insists that the church must speak into this confusion with biblical integrity and fidelity.
Finally, WSF models the way in which Christians may attain to settled and vibrant biblical convictions about saving faith. Piper carefully explores dozens of pertinent biblical passages and does so in conversation with some of the best theologians of the church’s history. Precisely because he is conversant with the text of Scripture, Piper asks, on the one hand, how Christ as the believer’s treasure affects the way we conceive of faith and, on the other hand, how our conception of faith affects evangelism, discipleship, and Christian assurance. Whether or not one is persuaded of Piper’s thesis, the questions that he asks, and the meticulous care with which he seeks answers to those questions commend themselves to the reader.
Some Areas of Concern
By way of preface, it is important to underscore the Reformational convictions in WSF that Piper repeatedly affirms – the sinner is justified through faith alone apart from works; faith is purely receptive in justification; the sinner is justified solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness; justifying righteousness is imputed to the sinner and received through faith alone; neither our love to God nor our love to human beings is justifying. These convictions are sincerely held and WSF in no way is attempting to overturn, much less to undermine, them.
But it must be also said that WSF’s thesis that saving faith is essentially affectional, and the arguments advanced in support of that thesis, are unable to sustain the weight of Piper’s Reformational convictions. We may see this dynamic by pursuing two complementary lines of reflection. First, the thesis of WSF is not proven. Second, the thesis of WSF raises a significant problem.
First, the thesis of WSF is not proven. That is to say, WSF fails to establish its thesis from the texts of Scripture that are brought forward to support it. The burden that WSF shoulders is to demonstrate that treasuring Christ (delighting in Christ, loving Christ) is an element of saving faith, not merely a fruit, evidence, or accompaniment of saving faith. We will survey four representative passages that figure prominently in WSF and see that, in each case, none requires the conclusion that treasuring Christ is an element of saving faith.
We noted above that Piper understands Paul in 1 Thess 1:4-6 to say that “Christ is the treasure we receive. And joy is included in the nature of the receiving.” But Paul’s words in these verses do not require that conclusion. He commends the Thessalonians for having “received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6). The prepositional phrase translated “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” likely indicates the manner in which the Thessalonians believed. Paul identifies “joy” as originating from the Spirit and, in this respect, joy is more closely associated with the Spirit than it is with faith. Furthermore, parallel to the prepositional phrase “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” is the prepositional phrase “in much affliction.” We have what Gordon Fee has called “that remarkable collocation of joy and suffering found throughout the New Testament.” Paul is not here identifying the faith of the Thessalonians with their joy. He is, rather, marveling at the joy that accompanies their faith in the face of suffering. It is the juxtaposition of suffering and faith-as-it-produces-joy that Paul is concerned to stress here.
Piper argues from 2 Thess 2:9-12 that “Paul does not appear to be making any distinction between … failing to love the truth and failing to believe the truth [since] both bring judgment.” Saving faith “includes a love of the truth, the gospel [verse 10]. Or, as verse 12 suggests, it includes taking a greater pleasure in the gospel than in unrighteousness.” Therefore, saving faith is “a receiving of Christ not only as true, but also as better than the pleasures of sin, and therefore loved, cherished, preferred, treasured above alternative sources of pleasure.” To be sure, Paul speaks of unbelievers here as “refus[ing] to love the truth [lit. “did not receive the love of the truth”] and so be saved,” and as “not believ[ing] the truth but ha[ving] pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess 2:10,12). Paul affirms here what he affirms throughout his correspondence – sinners refuse the gospel because of their prevailing love for sin. They express “no liking for it, no desire to possess it.” It is this state of affairs that accounts for why many do not believe the gospel. By contrast, believers “believe the truth” and “receive the love of the truth.” These expressions testify to the fact the one who receives the truth in faith no less experiences a prevailing desire for that truth that testifies to the broken dominion of sin. Paul’s expressions here in no way require, however, the conclusion that treasuring Christ is an element of faith. Faith necessarily accompanies such treasuring. Faith may even be said to yield the treasuring of Christ as its fruit. But Paul does not identify saving faith with treasuring Christ.
In Phil 3:8-9, Piper argues, Paul “states three aims [of embracing Christ as his supreme treasure]: (1) that I may gain Christ, (2) that I may be found in Christ, and (3) that as a result of being ‘in Christ,’ I may have a righteousness that is not my own, not from law-keeping, but that is from God.” Paul offers “two answers to the question, ‘How did you gain Christ? What was it that brought you into union with Christ? What was it that clothed you with a righteousness not your own.’” The first is “Jesus became supreme” (Phil 3:8), and the second is “it happened through faith in Christ” (Phil 3:9), and “these are not different answers” – “I experienced union with Christ through the God-given experience of receiving Christ as my supreme treasure – that is, through saving faith.”
To be sure, the orienting thought in Paul’s argument is the apostle’s “gain” of Christ (3:8). But the verses that follow (3:9-11) “explain what [Paul] means by gaining Christ.” They do so in terms of “the three basic categories present in the application of salvation: justification [3:9], sanctification [3:10], and glorification [3:11].” When Paul twice speaks of “faith” in this passage, he does so in both cases in connection with “righteousness,” that is, the righteousness of justification (Phil 3:9). Faith is the instrument by which one receives “righteousness” for justification. As such “faith” plays a specific and delimited role in Paul’s argument in Phil 3:8-11. The reception of “righteousness” through faith is one way in which Christ may be said to be “gain” to the believer. For that reason, faith (Phil 3:9) is neither interchangeable with nor the equivalent of Paul’s conviction of the supremacy of Christ (3:8).
Piper, we have seen above, argues from 1 John 5:3-4 that “faith dethrones the enslaving desires for the world and replaces the world with God in our affections. Which John also calls loving God.” These verses “describe one composite way [of overcoming the world and removing the burdensomeness of God’s commandments] using different language: love for God and faith in Christ.”  Piper intends by the term “composite” to avoid saying that “faith in Christ and love for God are identical.” Faith and love for God are “a composite of different ways that the born-again soul receives Christ. And one of those ways of receiving him is to receive him as superior to everything that makes God’s commandments difficult. John calls this faith. And he calls it loving God.”
Critical to understanding John’s statements in 1 John 5:3-4, however, is his framing statement in 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” The apostle here proffers two evidences of the new birth – faith in Christ, and love for the Father. In 1 John 5:2-3, John explicates the love of God, and, in 1 John 5:4-5, he explicates faith in Christ. John is not proposing love and faith as composite ways of receiving Christ, but as distinct evidences of the new birth.
How, then, are “faith” and “love” related in John’s argument? John’s point in 1 John 5:2-3 is that love consists in the “keep[ing of God’s] commandments,” which are “not burdensome.” His point in 1 John 5:4-5 is that the one who is “born of God” is able to keep God’s commands in this way because he has “overcome the world” through faith in Christ. Critically, “overcome the world” in context does not refer in the first instance, as Piper understands it, to the “shift” of “our preferences and pleasures and desires … from the world to God.” The apostle John links overcoming the world with faith in Jesus as the Son of God. “The only one who has overcome the world is Jesus (John 16:33), the Son of God, who came into the world, and he shares his triumph with those who put their trust in him.” When the believer finds himself “of one mind and heart with Jesus the Son of God,” then and only then is he poised to appropriate that triumph in his own experience. In this way, therefore, the one born of God finds the keeping of God’s commandments not burdensome – through faith in Jesus, the Son of God, who has overcome the world on behalf of each of the children of God.
The thesis of WSF, that treasuring Christ is an element of saving faith, is not proven from these representative passages advanced in its support. We will now turn to a significant problem posed by WSF’s thesis. WSF relates faith and love to one another in such a way as to conflate them. To be sure, in identifying treasuring Christ as an element of saving faith, Piper insists that “trusting Christ [is not] identical with loving Christ. One cannot replace faith with love as if they were interchangeable.” But, shortly afterwards, Piper says, “love to Christ in this book … is another name for treasuring Christ. Therefore, like treasuring, it is not in addition to, nor the result of, trusting Christ. It is an aspect of trusting Christ. It is another name for treasuring, and therefore has the same role as treasuring.” It seems, then, that in some respects love to Christ is of the essence of saving faith.
It is at this point that Piper advances two qualifications. The first is that, while loving Christ / treasuring Christ is an element of saving faith, love to human beings is excluded from this “love.” Gal 5:6 (“faith working through love”), according to Piper, envisions “neighbor love, not love for God or Christ.” He does not, therefore, “bas[e]” his thesis upon this passage, a passage, we have seen, to which Rome appeals in support of its doctrine of fides caritate formata. The second is that, by “love to Christ,” Piper has in view love as a “receiving grace,” and not as a “giving grace” – “love considered as the humble reception of Christ as lovely in his saving work is not excluded [from justifying faith].” In this way, justification may be said to be through faith alone apart from works.
There are at least two problems presented by such a formulation. The first is that Paul consistently distinguishes the grace of faith and the grace of love throughout his correspondence. Even were one to concur with Piper that “love” in Gal 5:6 is exclusively towards human beings, “love” in 1 Cor 13:13, to take one example, is not only explicitly distinguished from faith, but it also cannot be limited to love to human beings. If the “love” in 1 Cor 13:13 is in any respect an element of “faith” in that text, why does Paul take such care to distinguish the two? The distinction for which Piper pleads with respect to “love” (“love to Christ” is an element of saving faith / “love to people” is a fruit but not an element of saving faith) is not one that can be sustained with consistency from Scripture.
A second problem concerns Piper’s insistence that treasuring Christ / loving Christ as an element of saving faith is strictly receptive in nature. But consider four passages that Piper presents as illustrative of that principle.
“Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33)
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8)
“…You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb 10:34; compare 10:32-35)
“By faith Moses … considered the reproaches of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb 11:26; compare 11:24-27)
Each of these passages emphasizes the act of relinquishing or giving up in relation to Christ. It is difficult to conceive such acts as strictly receptive in nature. They are more aptly characterized as giving.
Piper is entirely correct to insist that faith and treasuring Christ must never be separated from one another. But there is an opposite error, one into which WSF lapses, namely, the conflation of faith and love. That is to say, at points WSF effectively blurs the boundaries between faith and love. In so doing, WSF fails to sustain the biblical integrity of each grace.
This blurring has implications for our understanding of the Bible’s teaching about justification. Piper rightly and repeatedly insists that the sinner is justified solely on the basis of the righteousness of Christ, imputed to the sinner, and received through faith alone apart from works of the law. But introducing treasuring Christ / loving Christ as an element of saving faith, in the manner for which WSF pleads, compromises that sincerely held conviction. And, while Piper consciously and commendably distances himself from Rome’s doctrine of justification, the thesis and argument of WSF neither sufficiently distance themselves from Rome nor sustain WSF’s Reformational convictions.
The best path forward is neither to separate nor to conflate faith and love, but to distinguish faith and love. The believer must treasure Christ above all, but as the necessary fruit and evidence of saving faith. This path serves as a wholesome corrective to the pastoral dilemma that rightly concerns Piper, namely, the widespread error that one may believe in Jesus Christ but not love Jesus Christ supremely. And it sustains Piper’s Reformational conviction that the sinner is justified through faith alone apart from works.
In conclusion, we may be grateful to John Piper for his passionate desire to be steadfastly faithful to the Scripture in conversation with the best of the Reformed tradition. Even where one disagrees with the thesis and argument of WSF, one must commend it for doing what Piper does so well – leading his readers deeply into the text of Scripture and the best of Christian theology. May we all attain to greater clarity and precision as to the nature of saving faith, the better to “walk by faith, not by sight” and to glorify the Christ whom we believe and whom we love.
 This review article is a modest revision and amplification of my remarks offered at a Panel dedicated to the review of What is Saving Faith? at the National Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Denver, CO, in November, 2022.
 Piper, What is Saving Faith?, 15.
 Piper, What Is Saving Faith?, 15.
 Piper, What Is Saving Faith?, 193.
 Council of Trent, “Decree on Justification,” VI.7, Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion (43d ed.; ed. Peter Hünermann; San Francisco: Ignatius, 2012), §§1530, 1531.
 Piper, What Is Saving Faith?, 282.
 Piper, What Is Saving Faith?, 283.
 Robert L. Dabney, Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology Taught in Union Theological Seminary, Virginia (5th ed.; Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1927), 603.
 Piper, What Is Saving Faith?, 139.
 Importantly, “here … John is not trying to show how a person experiences the new birth; his aim is rather to indicate the evidence which shows that a person stands in the continuing relationship of a child to God his Father … ,” I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 226.
 Piper, What Is Saving Faith?, 21, 177
 See here the biblically faithful and exceptionally precise formulations of WCF 11.2 and WLC 73 – “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (WCF 11.2); “Q. How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God? A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness” (WLC 73).