The thesis of my book What Is Saving Faith? is that “saving faith has in it the affectional dimension of treasuring Christ. Where Christ is not received as treasure, he is being used. This is not saving faith” (20).
Harrison Perkins, a Presbyterian pastor in London and online faculty in church history for Westminster Theological Seminary, reviewed the book earlier this year for The Gospel Coalition. I’m thankful that I’ve been given an opportunity to respond, since I regard the criticisms expressed there as mistaken.
I’m thankful for the time and serious engagement Perkins has given to the book. I don’t claim to have the last word on the nature of saving faith. So if our interchange can stir up serious biblical reflection about this life-and-death reality, I’m sure we’ll both be glad.
Act of Faith
Perkins is right to say I argue that treasuring Christ is part of saving faith. More precisely, and correctly, he says I argue that “treasuring Christ is an affectional ‘act of faith,’ not in the sense of an action that results from faith, but as one of the ‘actings that constitute what faith is.’” That’s right, and I agree with Perkins that this is an important distinction: (1) some acts of faith are faith and (2) some acts of faith result from faith.
For example, we’d agree that receiving Christ (John 1:12) is an “act of faith” in the sense that this is what faith is. It’s a receiving of Christ. But when Paul says that love for people “issues from . . . sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5), we’d agree that love results from faith. Faith is “acting” to produce love. Love for people is not faith. It’s a “work of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3).
My view is that some affections are “acts of faith” in both senses. The affections I have in mind are spiritual emotions (not physical sensations or reflexes), in the sense that they’re a work of God’s Spirit in us. There are affections that constitute part of what faith is. And there are affections that result from faith. The most common affectional word I use to describe one element of saving faith is treasuring. Saving faith treasures Christ. But it’s equally true that saving faith produces affections. There is a kind of joy and peace and hope that’s the fruit of faith: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13).
Perkins considers it a mistake to think affections are part of what saving faith is. He says that in arguing for this I “reconstrue the Reformation understanding of faith . . . [and] revise Reformation doctrine.” I don’t think so. He says my Reformed citations don’t refer to affections as part of faith but only as results of faith. But consider the following:
- Calvin: “In a word, faith is . . . a warm embrace of Christ.” Even the aspect of faith called “assent . . . consists in pious affection.”
- Turretin: “[Faith is] embracing . . . that supreme good offered, and the inestimable treasure, . . . resting upon Christ . . . [and] prepared to lose anything else rather than reject him. This is the formal and principal act of justifying faith.”
- Owen: “[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.”
- Mastricht: “Several acts coincide in saving faith . . . [but] one particular act is predominant among them. . . . [Namely,] ‘receiving’ . . . [which] denotes desiring and reception with delight.”
- G. T. Shedd: “Evangelical faith . . . is complex, involving a spiritual perception of Christ and an affectionate love of him.”
My aim in this book isn’t to “reconstrue” or “revise” the Reformed understanding of saving faith but to make a precious and venerable insight more prominent and effective in our theology and preaching—and to undergird it with extensive exegetical argument.
Treasured Savior, Treasured Lord
Perkins says, “Piper encounters a host of complexities for the doctrine of justification by faith alone.” Maybe not a host. But enough, true. That’s why I include a chapter on Roman Catholicism and why I make a steady effort to speak with care and precision and clarity about justification by faith alone so as not to smuggle into faith its fruit of sanctification.
My book is mainly exegetical. I argue from biblical texts that Scripture teaches treasuring Christ is part of saving faith. When we receive him as Savior, it’s as a treasured Savior. When we receive him as Lord, it’s as a treasured Lord. And so on, with all his other excellencies and offices.
When we receive Jesus as Savior, it’s as a treasured Savior. When we receive him as Lord, it’s as a treasured Lord.
But Perkins says, “It seems Piper often reads his affectional view into his exegesis of biblical texts.” He cites my treatment of 1 John 5:1–5; Hebrews 11:1, 12:1–2; 1 Corinthians 13:8, 13; and 2 Corinthians 5:6–9 as examples.
With regard to 1 John 5:1–5, Perkins claims his view is “more straightforward” and doesn’t introduce “modern psychological categories.” There are two key questions: (1) What is the meaning of “[faith] is the victory that has overcome the world” (5:4)? and (2) How does faith thus “overcome the world,” so that God’s “commandments are not burdensome” (5:3)? Perkins argues that “faith overcomes the world by tying us to Christ, crucifying us with him, so that the law is objectively no longer a burden as a condition for everlasting life, freeing us to keep it with joyful gratitude.”
That is a theologically true statement. But it doesn’t fit John’s line of thought in this text. In this context, “the world” that needs to be overcome for God’s commandments not to be burdensome is not my objective guilt but “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes” (2:16). That’s the way John defines “the world” which competes for “the love of the Father” (2:15). Faith’s victory is its miraculous experience of God as its supreme desire triumphing over the “desires of the flesh.” This is how the commandments cease to be burdensome.
John describes this miracle in two ways: “love for God” and “the victory of faith.” Verse 3 says that love for God is why his commandments aren’t burdensome, and verse 4 says that faith’s victory over the world is why the commandments aren’t burdensome. I argue that burden-removing love for God is not separate from burden-removing faith but a part of it. I still believe the exposition on pages 189–95 is “straightforward” and faithful to John’s “categories,” not “modern” ones.
With regard to Hebrews 11:1 and 12:1–2, my argument is this: If faith is the “substance [hupostasis] of things hoped for” (KJV), then part of faith is the present realization, or taste, of something so good that we “hope” for it. Hope is for something joyful. I argue that Jesus experiences this faith when “for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (12:2). Thus the experience of Jesus confirms that “things hoped for” (11:1) are joyful and that faith is the present, endurance-producing experience, in some measure, of that future joy. Hence the affectional nature of saving faith.
Perkins differs from this view by saying, “If the object of joy is the object of faith, we would be the object of Christ’s faith since having a redeemed people is the object of his joy. . . . Surely Christ is not trusting in us.” What this objection overlooks is that not everything that faith hopes for (11:1) is hoped for as a ground of confidence. Some of what faith hopes for is what the ground secures.
So Jesus “trusts in” the promise of his Father that he will be glorified. But he also trusts (and joyfully treasures) that the fruit of that promise is being surrounded by a redeemed, Christ-exalting people. Of course, he doesn’t “trust in” his redeemed people the way he trusts in his Father’s promise. But as the “substance of things hoped for,” his faith embraces with gladness all that this promise secures, including his people.
Finally, Perkins argues that from “faith, hope, and love” (1 Cor. 13:13) only love “never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8). He adds that since in the present time “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7), “faith will one day give way to sight.” He concludes: If treasuring Christ is part of faith, then in the age to come “treasuring Christ would disappear.” So treasuring Christ cannot be part of saving faith.
Faith is the present, endurance-producing experience, in some measure, of our future joy.
One problem with this argument is that it proves too much. Would Perkins also want to say that in the age to come we no longer “trust” Christ? I wouldn’t say that. So whatever Paul means by “faith gives way to sight,” I don’t think it means every dimension of faith ceases to be. Rather what ceases to be is our inability to “see” Christ in person the way we will at his coming: “When he appears . . . we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). When he appears, saving faith does not cease to be. Only the dimension ceases that is necessary in the absence of his second-coming visibility. Trust remains forever. Treasuring remains forever.
For every human being, including those in our churches, few questions are more important or more urgent than “Do I have saving faith?” To answer it, we need to know what saving faith is. That’s why I wrote the book.
At stake is not only the salvation of our souls but also the glory of God. There are God-centered reasons why God has designed faith to be what it is and to make it the sole instrument of justification. One of those reasons is this: “Faith alone is the instrument of justification because it glorifies Christ’s righteousness not only as useful but also as precious. It does so because, as a treasuring grace, it magnifies his all-satisfying worth” (286).