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John Piper on Romans 6.7

By Mark Horne

Copyright © 2003

John Piper’s book, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002) is, from any perspective, a passionate work. Nevertheless, I find I need to disagree with parts of it. The reason I do this is not because John Piper’s book does not contain much that is good. On the contrary, the book contains some important counter-arguments to those of Robert Gundry and others. I was especially pleased, for example, with his defense of the forensic status of Christ as righteous given to his people in First Corinthians 1:30 (pp. 84-87). Piper is absolutely correct to disagree with N. T. Wright’s published statement about the verse in his What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, p. 123) [1]. Saying that Christ became for us righteousness from God is a fine “proof” for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to all who are united to him by faith [2].

Indeed, one of my (minor) complaints would be that, because of what certainly looks like a great deal of special pleading at the beginning of the book, the content in Counted Righteous in Christ will simply not be taken seriously. People will write off the entire work as a rear-guard action (as Piper himself is aware—pp. 48-51).

But there are other assertions in Piper’s work that are not nearly as helpful as his comments on First Corinthians 1.30. An entire section is devoted to the idea that “Justification is Not Liberation from Sin” (pp. 69-80). I especially wish to deal with Piper’s interpretation of Romans 6.7 though I may need to address other issues in this as well. Piper is right that justification is not liberation from sin. Justification is acceptance by God, being declared in right standing with him, or possessing right standing with him. But Piper’s argument for this is simply unnecessary and quite at odds with every Reformed scholar that I know of. In fact, it accepts key errors in Gundry’s own reasoning and thus does more to lend erroneous support for his position than to refute it.

According to Piper, “There is no reason for Gundry to assume (as he seems to) that ‘justification from sin’ (v. 7) means liberation from the mastery of sin, when in fact it may refer to the indispensable foundation for that subsequent liberation.”

Assume? Gundry was appealing to the consensus translation of the ages. The ESB, NIV, NASB, KJV, and NASB all say that the one who has died has been set free from sin or is freed from sin. Only the hyper-literal 1901 ASV retains justified from sin. I prefer the hyper-literal but I’m willing to wager that all the ASV’s translators agreed that Paul meant that one is set free from the power of sin. The New Living Translation declares the consensus of many scholars, including Reformed scholars when it translates “set free from the power of sin.”

To go against this consensus could be considered courageous. But to baldly dismiss Gundry as having merely made an assumption is not impressive at all. It is an insupportable way to deal with a scholar reproducing the overwhelming scholarly consensus.

This consensus is also quite Reformed. John Murray, in his commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959; p. 222) wrote of the phrase,

“Justified from sin” will have to bear the forensic meaning in view of the forensic import of the word “justify.” But since the context deals with deliverance from the power of sin the though is, no doubt, that of being “quit” of sin. The decisive breach with the reigning power of sin is viewed after the analogy [3] of the kind of dismissal which a judge gives when an arraigned person is justified. Sin has no further claim upon the person who is thus vindicated. This judicial aspect from which the deliverance from the power of sin is to be viewed needs to be appreciated. It shows that the forensic is present not only in justification but also in that which lies at the basis of sanctification. A judgment is executed upon the power of sin in the death of Christ (cf. John 12.31) and deliverance from this power on the part of the believer arises from the efficacy of this judgment. This also prepares us for the interpretation of the forensic terms which Paul uses later in 8.1, 3, namely, “condemnation” and “condemned,” and shows that these terms may likewise point to that which Christ once for all wrought in reference to the power of sin (8.3) and our deliverance from this power in virtue of the judgment executed upon it in Jesus’ cross (8.1).

John Murray’s argument is neither a novelty nor an idiosyncrasy on his part as a Reformed exegete. John Calvin held much the same opinion. He wrote in his commentary on Romans of this verse:

This is an argument derived from what belongs to death or from its effect. For if death destroys all the actions of life, we who have died to sin ought to cease from those actions which it exercised during its life. Take justified for freed or reclaimed from bondage; for as he is freed from the bond of a charge, who is absolved by the sentence of a judge; so death, by freeing us from this life, sets us free from all its functions (http://www.ccel.org/c/calvin/comment2/ro1-9.htm).

So Robert Gundry, whatever his many faults, is giving us the straightforward vanilla Reformed interpretation of Romans 6.7–one identical to what is found in the notes of the New Geneva Study Bible. Piper treats this commonplace interpretation as a strange assumption and, having prejudiced the issue in an obvious way, goes on to argue against it. In fact he presents Gundry’s interpretation as an essential part “the assault on the historic distinction between justification and sanctification.” Is it reasonable for a pastor to condemn the interpretation of virtually every Reformed commentator from Calvin to Murray as such an assault while never informing readers of how radically he himself has departed from the consensus? If Piper is taken seriously we will soon see laymen condemning the New Geneva Study Bible notes for compromising “the historic distinction between justification and sanctification.” I am forced to wonder if Piper really understands the historic distinction or if he is pursuing new and more radical bifurcation between the tranformative and forensic benefits of salvation than has ever been considered necessary.

Though it is outside the direct concern of my paper, I will respond briefly to some of Piper’s argument for his own idiosyncratic interpretation of Romans 6.7.

From his book and from his preaching [4] Piper seems to be basically confused by the meaning of the word “forensic.” In his mind, anything that God does that actually changes things cannot be “forensic.” “This is the meaning we should give the passage because the ordinary meaning of the word “justify” … is ‘to pronounce just,’ not ‘to make just’ and not ‘to liberate from sin’” (p. 77). He quotes Leon Morris from The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (p. 285): “The verb denotes the giving of a verdict whereby [people] are adjudged righteous or acceptable with God” (Ibid).

What are we to say to this? Every discussion of justification involves the appeal to the situation in a courtroom before a judge. This situation is quite appropriate to Romans in which Paul says much about sinful man being under God’s judgment. Juridical words abound. Very well. When a man serving time in prison has his sentence overturned so that the judge declares him “not guilty,” is it common in any society for the man to remain legally in prison? Does nothing change? Is being legally released from the power of one’s prisoners only a subsequent act?

When two people are married they are given a new status by law that involves in the act new rights and privileges and obligations. When a couple legally adopts a child it is not some subsequent action by the judge, a non-forensic action, that obligates them to feed and clothe the child. It is all one. It changes everything. And it is, by all known grammar, simply and “merely” a forensic change.

No, Piper is right and Gundry is wrong: justification does not mean “liberate from sin.” But it can and must mean “liberate” if what is in view is a legal penalty. What Piper is claiming is that “justification” can only mean “liberate from the guilt of sin” and never “liberate from the penalty of being given over to the power of sin.” But he never addresses the issue clearly. Even though John Murray clearly both defends the forensic meaning and claims that it refers to acquittal from sin’s dominion, Piper assumes that a forensic understanding of the word “justify” eliminates the possibility that it might refer to liberation from sin’s mastery.

On page 78 Piper addresses the raw power of sin and then speaks of the guilt of sin. Sin produces guilt so to be justified from sin must mean to be liberated from the guilt of sin. But an Augustinian should remember that guilt also produces sin, not as a psychological weakness, but as a judicial sentence from God. This is exactly what Paul argued in Romans 1. As a result of sin people are condemned to subservience to sin. When people are united to the death and resurrection of Christ they are justified so that the sentence to sin’s dominion is overturned.

But what does all this prove? That “justification is liberation from sin”? Not at all. It proves that the word “justification” is a perfectly serviceable term for acquittal from the penalty of enslavement to sin. Why wouldn’t it be? What does this have to do with the doctrine of justification? Justification is used by Paul to refer to a divine verdict pronounced of Jesus himself (First Timothy 3.16). Luke records people who “justified God.” Surely we are not claiming that use of the word “justify” must mean our doctrine of justification every time it is used in Scripture.

This brings us to Gundry’s argument as portrayed by Piper. Gundry simply takes the use of the word “justify” and asserts that the doctrine of justification must somehow be wide and vague enough to fit every single use of the word. There would be no such thing as theology if we were to follow this procedure. The use of the word “justify” in Romans 6.7 does not mean that we can import that meaning into Romans 1-5. What we need is sentence- and paragraph-level exegesis rather than word-level exegesis. Clearly Paul sets up a situation in which Jew and Greek alike stands condemned before God. In opposition to that condemnation, Paul speaks of propitiation–satisfying the wrath of God–and justification. Justification denotes and connotes in that context legal acquittal–the giving to sinners a legal status or standing as righteous in God’s sight.

But Piper, instead of pointing out how flimsy Gundry’s case really is, gives it his imprimatur. He states,

The doctrine of justification by faith apart from works (3.28) raises the question, “are we to continue in sin that grace may increase?” (Romans 6.1). And: “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (Romans 6.15). The raising of these questions is a powerful indication that justification does not include liberation from the mastery of sin. For if it did, these questions would not plausibly arise.

I have three things to say to this, two in passing and the last to point out how Piper supports Gundry at the very point where he should refute him:

  1. I don’t think Piper’s analysis of the “flow” of Romans is at all adequate. In this case, Piper has the Reformed Tradition behind him. So be it. I respect that. However, even though I don’t have the space here to deal with it adequately I want to register my disagreement: The reason the questions (6.1, 15) arise is not because people don’t know why they should stop sinning if all sins are freely forgiven apart from moral deeds. The reason for the question is that Paul has spelled out that Israel’s sin against God actually brought about the salvation for the world that he had promised Israel. The issue is not so much antinomianism but theodicy, and the questions here are the same as raised in 3.1-8 and 9.1ff. But this should be dealt with some other time and place.
  2. I am surprised that Piper thinks this argument is an effective response to Gundry. It seems to me that all Gundry has to say is that Paul has dealt up to now with one aspect of his doctrine of justification and now he is going to respond to objections by filling out the doctrine so that it is presented in its fullness. “Yes, justification is divine acquittal,” says Paul, “But it is also liberation from sin.” I fail to see how the “flow” of the passage really gives Piper a refutation to Gundry.
  3. But most importantly, Piper here assumes that, simply by allowing Paul to use the word “justified” in a different way than before, his teaching in the earlier portion of Romans, with its clear legal context, is compromised. Merely because Paul happens to use the same word he must mean one and the same thing. This is simply not true. But Piper has now taught readers that we must submit to words apart from context. In other words, he has made a flimsy claim look more cogent than it is by treating an even flimsier counter-argument as the only possible answer.

Finally, perhaps some readers are thinking this is no big deal. Since Piper is defending the right doctrine, he should therefore not be criticized for an exegetical mistake. In reply I remind the reader that I am not so much responding to an exegetical mistake as I am to the intentional withholding of information. This will have three negative consequences.

First, Robert Gundry and anyone else familiar with the translation history of Romans 6.7 will laugh off Piper’s argument. They will assume that Piper is withholding information because he knows his own argument cannot really bear informed scrutiny. Instead of being defended, the doctrine of imputation is only further jeopardized.

Second, Piper’s argument teaches a fallacious relationship between the words of Scripture and the construction of theological terminology.

Third, Piper has encouraged members of congregations to be suspicious of traditional Reformed preaching. Any pastor preaching through Romans 6, who relies on the majority tradition or Reformed exegesis of the passage, is in for big trouble if some member of the congregation takes Piper’s book as seriously as Piper wants him too. Suddenly this layperson is alerted that the pastor may be a part of a movement in which

There is a tendency to use the familiar language of historic Protestantism, but with new content. There is great hesitancy to make clear to the readers or listeners that the content is new. I think that those who are moving in this direction have some sense of the magnitude of their defection from mainstream Protestantism and are anxious about the repercussions of such a doctrinal revision. This is a dangerous tendency and begins to erode the importance of truth and clarity–what Paul described as “refusing to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (Second Corinthians 4.2) [p. 70n].

Piper is setting people up to be measured against an “orthodoxy” that is actually an unconvincing, unnecessary, and unacknowledged novelty. He has further set up anyone who falls short of such a standard to be viewed with distrust in his attempts to justify himself.

Copyright © 2003


1. Thankfully, Wright seems to have changed his mind:

The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is one of the big sticking points for sure. I think I know exactly what the doctrine is about and I believe you don’t lose anything by the route I propose. The force of what people have believed when they have used the idea of imputation is completely retained in what I have tried to do. Why? Because in Christ we have all the treasures, not only of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 1, and also I Corinthians 1), but in whom we have the entire package, meaning sanctification and wisdom, as well as righteousness. So Paul’s theology of being in Christ gives you all of that. But the fact that it gives you more than that does rock you back on your heels a bit and prompt you to ask, “Have we made too much of this one thing called righteousness?” The key text, which is 2 Corinthians 5:21, has been read for generations, ever since Luther at least, as an isolated, detached statement of the wondrous exchange. When we do this we forget that the entire passage, for the three chapters that led up to it, and the chapter and a half that follow it (chapter six and the beginning of seven) are about apostleship. These are all about the strange way in which the suffering of the apostle somehow is transmuted into the revelation of God’s glory. In the middle of this the statement occurs that God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” After this I started to read dikaiosune theou (“the righteousness of God”) as “covenant faithfulness” in Romans. I then suddenly thought, “wait a minute.” What about 2 Corinthians 5:21? And then I realized that the whole thing here is 2 Corinthians 3, the new covenant. God has made us ministers of a new covenant. We are embodying the covenant faithfulness of God. I can see how frustrating it is for a preacher who has preached his favorite sermon all these years on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness from 2 Corinthians 5:21 to hear that this is not the right way to understand it but I actually think that there’s an even better sermon waiting to be preached. You can always preach one on 1 Corinthians 1:30 so long as you do wisdom, sanctification, and redemption, all three (emphasis added).

See Travis Temerius’ interview with Wright first published in Reformation & Revival Journal and since published on the web: http://new.hornes.org/theologia/content/travis_tamerius/interview_with_n_t_wright.htm

2. Ironically, Piper’s argument is slightly more convoluted than it needs to be since he seems to think of righteousness primarily as a moral quality which then requires “imputation” in order to be a status before God that one has apart from one’s moral behavior. But N.T. Wright’s entry on “righteousness” in the New Dictionary of Theology (J. I. Packer, David F. Wright, Sinclair Ferguson, editors [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988] pp. 590-592) provides ample justification for regarding righteousness as first and foremost a forensic status. Righteousness “denotes not so much the abstract idea of justice or virtue, as right standing and consequent right behavior within a community” (p. 591). “Righteousness is the status which results from either party [in a lawsuit], if the court finds in his favor” (ibid). So while the “consequent” meaning is possible, the forensic definition is more likely. Thus, there is no need to find a reason why “sanctification” is not imputed if righteousness is imputed. Both can simply be said to be conferred in Christ. As a legal status imputation is simply implied in the word “righteousness” as the way a forensic status is conferred.

3. I would like to register here my discomfort with the word “analogy” in this quotation. My objection to it is the same as my objection to N. T. Wright’s reference to the courtroom “metaphor” in his explanation of justification. God really is a judge. God really did sentence humanity with a curse as a result of sin and thus justly “gave them over” to more sin (Romans 1.24, 28). Thus, being vindicated from the power of sin is not merely an analogy but the truth. When God declares us no longer slaves to sin but free in Christ the word “justified” is not simply being used in a fashion that is analogous to a courtroom setting. The cosmos is a courtroom setting. It may really be more than that, but it really is no less than that.

4. http://www.desiringgod.org/library/sermons/00/101500.html

1 Comment »

  1. if God is not able to free one from the power of sin, then why bother with God?… as I read the bible, salvation is deliverance from sin… the way to be delivered from sin is to die… he who has died has been freed from sin… I don’t believe that is non-literal… as long as one is alive, one is sinning… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, all are sinning and falling short of the glory of God and all will continue to sin and fall short of the glory of God, world without end… death is the only solution… it is obviously God’s solution since all are condemned to die… the sentence may be temporarily suspended, but the verdict is the same… all shall die…

    Comment by Bernard Callaway — January 22, 2009 @ 9:49 am

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