A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Mark Baker
John Piper has one message burning in his bones. Ever since his publication of Desiring God in 1986, he has been pounding home the central message of Christian Hedonism: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. In his book titled What is Saving Faith?, Piper seeks to describe the difference between faith and saving faith. James 2:9 tells us that even the demons have faith. Judas likewise made a “decision” to follow Jesus. This kind of faith is nowhere near saving faith. Piper’s thesis is: “saving faith does indeed have in its very nature affectional elements, dimensions, or aspects” (16). Throughout the book, Piper uses the phrase “treasuring Christ” as a “summary expression” to refer to the various affections associated with faith. A faith that treasures Christ is what makes it saving faith.
Piper offers a five-part argument. Part 1 sets the stage by summarizing other views, both historical and contemporary. Part 2 analyzes all 602 references to the “faith” word-group in the New Testament and divides these uses into nine separate categories. Part 3 provides a detailed definition of faith that treasures Christ. Part 4 looks at Christ as the object of faith, and Part 5 details the implications of the study for evangelism.
Piper’s view does not easily fit in one theological camp. He distances his position from other Reformed authors such as Wayne Grudem. Piper agrees with Grudem that salvation must include accepting Jesus as both Savior and Lord, but his insistence on the affectional dimension of faith demonstrates a key point of departure from him. On the opposite side of the spectrum, some Roman Catholics want to claim Piper for their own camp. Yet Piper also draws a clear distinction between his view and Rome, clarifying that faith that treasures Christ is “emphatically not a giving grace but a receiving one. It offers nothing. It wants everything. It no more gives to Christ than thirsty lips give to the cup of living water” (285, emphasis original).
Though Piper presents a nuanced view, his position is not novel. He interacts positively with historical voices such as John Calvin, Hermann Witsius, Peter van Mastricht, and John Owen (62–73). Yet he is also not afraid to disagree with some of his theological heroes such as J. Gresham Machen (73–74) and Jonathan Edwards (195–197). Piper also proves conversant with contemporary scholarly voices, particularly Matthew Bates’s work, Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Piper distances himself from Bates, rightly arguing that Bates’s conception of faith-as-allegiance is not a refinement of Protestant doctrine but a departure from Protestantism. For Bates, allegiance includes “good deeds done through the power of the Holy Spirit,” which represents a giving grace, not just a receiving grace (83).
A few of Piper’s conclusions left me asking for more. For example, he seeks to find a middle way between Sandemanianism and Roman Catholicism. You probably haven’t heard of Sandemanianism; neither had I. It is named after Robert Sandeman (1718–1771), who stated that faith is “bare assent to the work of Christ” (42). I was left asking, Are there any more influential or contemporary scholars who hold to Sandemanianism today? Where exactly are Grudem and MacArthur on this spectrum? Similarly, Piper pushes back against Machen’s position (73–74), but with only about a page and a half of argumentation, it was difficult to see the heart of Piper’s disagreement. Structurally, Piper chose to separate the themes of “Christ as our supreme treasure” (Part 3) and “Christ, the believer’s treasure and satisfaction” (Part 4). By Piper’s own admission, these themes contain considerable overlap. At times, the division seemed artificial and the force of the argument therefore weakened.
These questions aside, Piper has given a remarkable gift to the church in writing this book. He has not just rehashed old arguments and put them all in one place. This is a fresh work that investigates the nature of saving faith through the lens of Christian Hedonism. Pastors and ministry leaders will want to put this book in as many hands and on as many shelves as possible. Many who have a nominal faith will be awakened to affectional faith through reading this book. Young Christians who want to grow in their faith will find roads to maturity in this book. Mature Christians who desire strategy for effective evangelism will be equipped by this book. Seasoned saints will feel freshly encouraged by the words on every page. Wherever you are on your journey of faith, take up and read.
Mark Baker (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as director of the Heart of Texas Foundation | College of Ministry, located in Houston, TX.
Buy the books
WHAT IS SAVING FAITH?: REFLECTIONS ON RECEIVING CHRIST AS A TREASURE, by John Piper