John Piper is the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. A gifted writer and powerful preacher, he has acquired the reputation of being one of today’s leading Evangelicals. He has spoken at a Banner of Truth Conference and is the author of a number of books, notably Future Grace, Desiring God and Counted Righteous in Christ.
In his writings he demonstrates an informed interest in the writings of those we would call Reformed in doctrine, quoting liberally from their works. Jonathan Edwards he holds in particularly high esteem. In fact, Piper appears to be a Calvinist and professes to be one. But is he truly orthodox? An examination of his Baptist Catechism points in another direction. In his introduction, Piper describes this catechism as “a slightly revised version of the Baptist Catechism first put forth by Baptists in 1689 in Great Britain. It was adopted by the Philadelphia Baptist Association in 1742. It is patterned on the well-known reformed Westminster Catechism.” One would therefore expect that any alterations would be few and, coming from a Calvinist, would not attempt to convey any substantially new teaching. But this is not the case. Piper’s alterations and additional comments reveal that, rather than following in the orthodox Reformed tradition, he is a revisionist.
The first notable alteration is an omission. Question 9 of the Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the work of creation?” The answer given is: “The work of creation is God’s making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good”. Piper’s answer leaves out in the space of six days without any explanation. This places him among those professedly Reformed theologians who regard the day as an age rather than a literal period of 24 hours. One of the proof texts given by the Westminster Divines for their answer is “Genesis 1 throughout”. Piper gives Genesis 1:1,31, the first and last verses. Is what goes between these verses irrelevant or allegorical? It would seem so to Piper.
The next significant alteration is his answer to Question 12 of the Shorter Catechism: “What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate in which he was created?” The Westminster Divines answered, “When God had created man, He entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death”. Piper tries to improve on this by giving as his answer: “When God had created man, he made a covenant with him that he should live and enjoy all the benefits of creation, but that he would die if he forsook the obedience that comes from faith. God commands him not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and thus forsake his childlike dependence upon God for all things.”
For Piper this change is necessary since in his scheme of theology there is no place for a covenant of works, or law/gospel antithesis. In his Future Grace, he writes against the traditional Reformed doctrine by saying that it “implies a relationship with God that is more like an employee receiving earned wages than like a son trusting a Father’s generosity” (p 413, endnote 4). He also states, “It is customary among some theologians to give the erroneous impression that God wanted Adam and Eve to relate to Him in terms of meritorious works rather than childlike faith” (p 76). (1) However, what Piper calls “erroneous” is, in fact, the position taken by the Westminster divines. They put it this way in the Confession of Faith: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (7:2).
Having ruled out a covenant of works, it becomes necessary for Piper to redefine sin, which he does in answer to Question 14 of the Shorter Catechism: “What is sin?” His answer is: “Sin is transgression of the revealed will of God which teaches that we are to act in perfect holiness from a heart of faith to the glory of God”. This is a far cry from the Westminster Divines’ definition, which states: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God”. The proof text given is 1 John 3:4: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law; for sin is the transgression of the law”. Adam broke the law of God written upon his heart, the same law which was later promulgated on Mount Sinai in the form of the Ten Commandments. Without law there is no sin. For Piper, Adam’s sin was that he simply was not acting “from a heart of faith to the glory of God” – something quite different from the scriptural definition of sin.
With sin redefined, Piper is also obliged to explain the moral law in a different light. Question 39 of the Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the duty which God requires of man?” Piper, instead of giving the Westminster answer, “The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to His revealed will”, replies, “The duty which God requires of man is the obedience that comes from faith”. This is consistent with his understanding of the covenant made with Adam being one of grace exclusively and not of works. Clearly, this is no “slight” revision but a radical change in emphasis. Does Piper mean to imply that obedience to a moral law is not required on the part of man before faith, and that those out of Christ are not under an obligation to fulfil the demands of the moral law? Yet the Confession of Faith states: “The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof” (19:5). Piper obviously does not like the expression the moral law since he rephrases it the obedience of faith. Question 41 of the Shorter Catechism: “Where is the Moral Law summarily comprehended?” becomes, “Where is the obedience of faith given in summary form?”
Piper also finds it necessary to change the wording to the answer of Question 51 of the Shorter Catechism: “The Second Commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in His Word“. His version is “The Second Commandment forbids the worshipping of God by images, or any other way that draws the heart away from His glory rather than towards His glory“. This is an unwarranted alteration since in answer to Question 2 of the Shorter Catechism, “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?” we are told, “The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him”. Piper is not in favour of the Regulative Principle of worship as understood by the Puritans.
In answer to Question 60 of the Shorter Catechism: “How is the Sabbath to be sanctified?” the Westminster divines wrote, “The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” Piper’s version reads: “One day in seven should be especially devoted to corporate worship and other spiritual exercises that restore the soul’s rest in God and zeal for His name. It should provide physical refreshment and fit one for a week of devoted service to Christ.” His focus is on how Christians should use the day for their benefit rather than on the universal obligation of Sabbath observance.
There are other significant changes but, to sum up, John Piper, wittingly or unwittingly, is taking his followers down a different path from that trodden by the Puritans of old. His theology is not orthodox, being a deviation from Scripture. His enthusiasm, winsome ways and plausible writings have already won over some who should know better. But he is not a safe guide. We do not need John Piper to reshape truth. We have our Westminster standards. They do not need improving.
1. Both this and the previous quotation have been taken from Mark W Karlberg, John Piper on the Christian Life, CRN Publications.