Piper Calls Thanksgiving a “Debtor’s Ethic”

John Piper, the Debtor’s Ethic, Future Grace— “the Israelites are at their best, though, what is notable about them is not their gratitude, but THEIR FAITH: And Israel saw that great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians: and the people feared the LORD, and BELIEVED the LORD, and his servant Moses. Exodus 14:31 To contrast, when Moses behaved badly and struck the rock with his staff, this was his reprimand: And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye BELIEVED ME NOT, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them. Numbers 20:12 The LORD doesn’t say that this is because they weren’t grateful enough….”

Daniel Fuller (The Unity of Faith, p 313): “Paul would have agreed with James that Abraham’s work of preparing to sacrifice Isaac was an OBEDIENCE OF FAITH. Paul would have disagreed strongly with Calvin, who saw obedience and works as only accompanying genuine faith…The concern in James 2:14-26 was to urge A FAITH THAT SAVES a person, not simply to tell a person how they could demonstrate their saving faith…Calvin should have taught that justification depends on a persevering FAITH since he regarded Abraham as already justified before Genesis 15:6.”

And then Daniel Fuller quotes Jonathan Edwards: “We are really saved by perseverance…the perseverance which belongs to faith is one thing that is really a fundamental ground of the congruity THAT FAITH GIVES TO salvation…For, though a sinner is justified in his first act of faith, yet even then, in that act of justification, God has respect to perseverance as being implied in the first act.”

Mark McCulley asks– How could we possibly give thanks, when the future hangs in the balance and depends on our future acts of faith?

John Piper—the Bible rarely, if ever, motivates Christian living with gratitude…Could it be that gratitude for bygone grace has been pressed to serve as the power for holiness, which only faith in future grace was designed to perform?… some popular notions of grace are so skewed and so pervasive that certain biblical teachings are almost impossible to communicate. For example, the biblical concept of unmerited, conditional grace is nearly unintelligible to Christians who assume that unconditionality is the essence of all grace.

Piper—… “the conditional promises of grace are woven all through the New Testament teaching about how to live the Christian life. “If you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14). “Pursue…sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)…I find that Biblical thinking behind these kinds of conditional promises is uncommon in the minds of Christians today. Some popular conceptions of grace cannot comprehend any role for conditionality other than legalism.”

Gaffin: In the matter of sanctification, it seems to me, we must confront a tendency, within churches of the Reformation to view the gospel and salvation in its outcome almost exclusively in terms of justification. The effect of this outlook, whether or not intended, is that sanctification tends to be seen as the response of the believer to salvation. Sanctification is viewed as an expression of gratitude from our side for our justification and the free forgiveness of our sins, usually with the accent on the imperfection and inadequacy of such expressions of gratitude.

Gaffin: Sometimes there is even the suggestion that while sanctification is highly desirable, and its lack, certainly unbecoming and inappropriate, it is not really necessary in the life of the believer, not really integral to our salvation and an essential part of what it means to be saved from sin. The attitude we may have — at least this is the way it comes across — is something like, “If Jesus did that for you, died that your sins might be forgiven, shouldn’t you at least do this for him, try to please him?” With such a construction justification and sanctification are pulled apart; the former is what God does, the latter what we do, and do so inadequately. At worst, this outlook tends to devolve into moralism.

Like Daniel Fuller . Gaffin accuses others of being “Galatianists” who teach sanctification by works instead of by faith, and then himself turns our works into that which is a part of our “faith”, because our works are 100 % caused by God’s work in us. Like John Murray, Gaffin insists on defining “justified from sin” (Romans 6:7) as a definitive ontological breach with the power of sin so that we work. He simply assumes that freedom from guilt before the law (as a covenant of works”, as some like to say) is not an adequate motive or basis for the indicative “sin shall not have dominion”

And Gaffin does this while accusing those with “justification and gratitude” priority with teaching a Galatianist “sanctification by works” ! Gaffin puts “union” before both justification and sanctification, and his defacto definition of “union” is the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in us, and in this way gives first place to Christ’s indwelling present and future presence. Why give thanks for the past when now (in this new age) you CAN (and will) obey in a way Adam could not?

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12 Comments on “Piper Calls Thanksgiving a “Debtor’s Ethic””

  1. markmcculley Says:

    Hyde on why “gratitude” is not the “sola” motive—

    In preparing sermons in my ongoing “Studies in First Peter” I found the Scottish Presbyterian Alexander Nisbet’s (1623–1669) commentary (1658) on 1 Peter 1:13–25 to be helpful and relevant to the current debate. With verse 13, Peter turns from indicative to imperative, from praise to God to exhortation to Christians. And in his comments on these verses, Nisbet lists twelve—not merely one—motivations to holiness. At a minimum this shows us that the Reformed tradition is much broader than some want to make it out to be.

    I’ll just list the motivations below (some are simple, some more complex), but if you’d like to follow along and read the entire section, pull up a chair and grab your Banner of Truth reprint off the shelf. The relevant pages are 34–55.

    The consideration of our spiritual privileges by Jesus Christ. (v. 13)
    The sweet privilege of adoption. (v. 14)
    Since the Lord has called us from an estate of sin and wrath to a state of holiness and happiness we should walk answerably to our calling. (vv. 15–16)
    There should be a conformity between the Lord and all his children. (vv. 15–16)
    God our Father is also an exact and impartial Judge of us and our actions. (v. 17)
    We are strangers and sojourners in the midst of many hazards and temptations. (v. 17)
    The great privilege of our redemption—its price and its effect. (vv. 18–19)
    Since Christ was appointed Mediator from eternity and was manifested for our good we are bound to live to his honor. (v. 20)
    Since the Father has glorified our Guarantor in our nature to bring us confidently into his presence as reconciled to us, we should live to his honor. (v. 21)
    The Spirit’s power enabling to believe the gospel has so purged out heart corruption that we have attained a sincere love for the Lord’s people, therefore we ought to grow in this love. (v. 22)
    The excellency of or new life and nature in regeneration. (v. 23)
    The higher excellency of our spiritual state above even the glory of man naturally considered. (vv. 24–25)


  2. markmcculley Says:

    Edwards thinks that the “personal union” between Christ and the elect who are justified (based in part on their future perseverance) means that Christ does in them makes them fit for what Christ did for them, so in the end there will be no “justification of the ungodly”.

    McDermott: “for Edwards,God has decided that at the moment when a person trusts in Christ, that person becomes so really united with Christ’s person, that imputation is not merely legal but based on God’s perception of a new real fact, which is the new moral character of the person called Christ who now includes (by real union) what used to be the sinner.”

    Edwards seems to agree with Osiander (and the early Luther) that the righteousness of Christ which justifies us is not legal foundationally but instead the presence of Christ indwelling our faith.

    the tradition of Jonathan Edwards tends to identify regeneration as the “real union” and also to identify this “application” with the atonement itself. What many Calvinists mean by definite atonement is that the “real union” makes the atonement definite. Thus they make the Spirit’s work to be the real difference instead of Christ’s death.

    Edwards in his book on justification asks “whether any other act of faith besides the first act has any concern in our justification, or how far perseverance in faith, or the continued and renewed acts of faith, have influence in this affair?” When Edwards answers that no other acts are required, Edwards means that works after justification should not be considered separate from the initial act of faith. Edwards thought of perseverance as a part of the original act of saving faith, “the qualification on which the congruity of an interest in the righteousness of Christ depends, or wherein such a fitness consists.”

    By virtue of “union” with Christ, faith —Edwards claims– “is a very excellent qualification” (p. 154), “one chief part of the inherent holiness of a Christian”

    “The act of justification has no regard to anything in the person justified BEFORE THIS ACT. God beholds him only as an ungodly or wicked creature; so that godliness IN the person TO BE justified is not ANTECEDENT to his justification as to be the ground of it” (p. 147)

    justification finds its primary ground “in Christ,” in Christ’s righteousness, and its secondary or derivative ground “in us,” that is, in faith defined as a disposition, as a “habit and principle in the heart” (p. 204).

    Faith AFTER justification, along with the works and love that result from faith, is described as “THAT IN US BY WHICH WE ARE JUSTIFIED” (p. 222 ).

  3. markmcculley Says:

    John Piper attempts to use Romans 8:2 to teach both justification apart from works and justification by works:

    John Piper—-Now I want to stop and make sure that you are hearing what I believe the Scripture is saying, because it is not commonly said, but our lives hang on it. There is a real sense in which our justification depends on our sanctification. There is a sense in which whether we are acquitted before God depends on whether the law of the Spirit of life has freed us from the law of sin and death.

    But how can this be? The sentence of “not guilty” has already been given, and it was given to those who have faith. How then can I say that the past sentence of “not guilty” is dependent on the present process of sanctification? And how can I say that to experience justification one must not only have faith but also be freed by the Spirit from the power of sin?

    1) The faith to which justification is promised is not merely a single decision to acknowledge Christ’s lordship and accept him as Savior. The faith by which we are justified is an ongoing life of faith. When we read Romans 4 and James 2 carefully we see that Abraham believed God’s promise and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. He was justified by his faith. But then we notice that the illustrations of this faith in Romans 4 and James 2 are not merely its first act in Genesis 12 that caused Abraham to leave the land of Ur and follow God to Canaan, but also Abraham’s faith in God’s later promise in Genesis 15 to make his own son his heir, and the faith in Genesis 22 that enabled him to almost sacrifice his only son, Isaac. In other words, when Paul and James think of the faith by which Abraham was justified they think not merely of his initial belief but of his ongoing life of faith. Therefore Paul says in Colossians 1:21–23,

    And you who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, IF INDEED YOU REMAIN IN FAITH stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel.

    Or as he says in 1 Corinthians 15:1, 2: I preached to you the gospel which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, IF YOU HOLD IT FAST—unless you believed in vain.
    We are justified not ALONE by that initial reception of the gospel but by an ongoing life of faith.

    2) Second, the coming of the Holy Spirit into a person’s life and the working of the Spirit to liberate that life from the law of sin and death always accompany genuine faith and there is no other way to have it….It is by faith that we receive the Holy Spirit, and it is by faith that the Spirit works within us. To live by faith and to live in the power of the Holy Spirit are the same thing, viewed from two different angles.

    Paul says in Romans 8:14, “As many as are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.” . One must believe in Christ to be God’s child; one must be led by the Spirit to be God’s child. And these are not two conditions but one, for it is by faith that God supplies to us the Spirit, and it is by a life of faith he works miracles among us.

    Now with these two insights I think we can solve our earlier problem. On the one hand Romans 5:1 says we have been justified by faith. . Freedom from condemnation is made conditional upon the work of the Holy Spirit freeing me from sin.

    May no one react and say, O, that cannot be. All you have to do is believe in Christ as Savior; you don’t have to overcome sin by the power of the Spirit. That error cheapens faith, contradicts the teaching of Romans 8:1, 2, and runs the risk of hearing Jesus say on the judgment day: Depart from me, you evildoers, I never knew you.

    You don’t want to believe in a Christ who makes no difference in your life, do you? Who wants a Jesus who is so nothing that all he can produce is a people who think, feel, and act just like the world? We don’t want that.


    But Charles Hodge explains the problem: The law kills but the spirit (i.e. the gospel) gives life. This II Corinthians 3 passage and the following context present two important questions. First, in what sense does the law kill? And second, How is it that the apostle attributes to the Mosaic system this purely legal character, when he elsewhere so plainly teaches that the gospel was witnessed or taught both in the law and the prophets?
    The answer furnished by the Scriptures is plain. The law demands perfect obedience. It says, “Do this and live,” Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12, and “Cursed is every one who CONTINUES not in ALL things written in the book of the law to do them,” Gal. 3:10. As no man renders this perfect obedience, the law condemns him. It pronounces on him the sentence of death. ….These effects of the law are systematically presented by the apostle in the 6th and 7th chapters of his epistle to the Romans, and in the third chapter of the epistle to the Galatians.

    —Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians , p 56.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    The success of Christ’s death becomes a gift for the elect (those for whom He died)
    The gift carries moral, not legal, obligations—gratitude

    Is the Giver entitled to be disappointed?
    Did the Giver say he will not withdraw the gift?
    Does the Giver use his possible disappointment or the threat of withdrawal to extract some gratitude from us?
    Does the giver ever say—if you are not grateful, then it was not grace I gave you?

    John Calvin—“The integrity of the sacrament lies here, that the flesh and blood of Christ are not less truly given to the unworthy than to the elect believers of God; and yet it is true, that just as the rain falling on the hard rock runs away because it cannot penetrate, so the wicked by their hardness repel the grace of God, and prevent it from reaching them. ”



    the reality of Christ’s body and blood do not come physically to the elements, but that “the Spirit truly SPIRITUALLY UNITES things separated in space” (Calvin).

    Following a phrase of Augustine, the Calvinist view is that “no one bears away from this Sacrament more than is gathered with the vessel of faith”.


  5. markmcculley Says:

    from Andy Catlett, by Wendell Berry, p 116–The great question of the old and dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for love received and given, however much. No one who has gratitude is the loneliest one. Let us pray to be grateful to the last.


  6. markmcculley Says:

    I meet lots of people who think Christians are basically narcissistic. As opposed to our selfishness, these non-Christians claim willingness to be damned if any other person is going to be, They are even willing to say there is no such thing as wrath or damnation if anybody besides them would have to suffer it. They seem to agree with Kant’s position—-that any action done with self-interest is suspect, any fact believed while thinking that those who believe that fact will be rewarded is a suspect fact.

    I do get it. I myself suspect myself, and everybody else, including those who think “morality means no reward”.

    I suspect that those who think that “Calvinists want to get paid”, also want to get paid for not being Calvinists.

    But Jesus talked about reward, about good stuff like resurrection and immortality for those Jesus loved. The Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-7.

    Would it be less narcissistic to say–well, Jesus loves me because I love him, and He would love you too, if you only would—-


  7. markmcculley Says:

    False generalization by Phil Johnson–” All those who deny that Christ’s law-keeping is imputed are teaching that redemption is accomplished by the setting aside of the law’s absolute demands, not by Christ’s satisfying the law
    I don’t think that Christ was watered as our substitute, but I do think there could be other motives for our being watered (don’t ask me which, I don’t care). My point is this—I don’t think Christ’s law keeping is a substitute for our obeying the law, but I do think that Christ’s death is a substitute for out being motivated to keep the law as a means of obtaining blessings, because i do think Christ’s death means our not being under the law. But I do NOT think that our not being under the law means that we cannot sin by disobeying the law of Christ.
    There was no Jewish law that commanded Christ or anyone else to be baptized with water . Christ was not offering obedience to the Jewish law, His water baptism was necessary, but the question is: In what way was it necessary? The Bible does not teach that His water baptism merited part of the righteousness which is imputed to the elect. The Bible does not teach that his incarnation or his resurrection or his resurrection status or his physical circumcision is part of the righteousness which is imputed.


    not to make the imputation happen, but because the imputation has happened

    not as a condition of the imputation, but as a result of the imputation

    We do not work to get assurance. We must have assurance before our works are acceptable to God. But many “Calvinists”, along with the Arminians, think of faith as the “condition” that saves them. Yes, they disagree (somewhat) about the source of faith, but they both are way more concerned about the condition faith leaves you in(the results in your life) than they are in the object of faith.


  8. markmcculley Says:


    Is This “a Holy Experience” or a Common One? Review Article

    Andy Wilson

    One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, by Ann Voskamp. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011, 240 pages,

    “Eucharisteo is elemental to living the saved life” (40).

    “Thanks makes now a sanctuary.”. (69)

    I have concerns about how she makes gratitude into a means by which she can enrich her experience of salvation. She sees eucharisteo (does she use the Greek because it sounds more mysterious?) as a mystical ladder by which she can ascend to a more profound experience.

    But Voskamp tends to blur the distinction between God’s direct and indirect government of what takes place in this world. She talks about the evils that befall us as good gifts from God that only feel bad to us (95). At some points, it even sounds as though she is denying the reality of evil. She writes:

    The God of the Mount of Transfiguration cannot cease His work of transfiguring moments—making all that is dark, evil, empty into that which is all light, grace, full…. Is there anything in this world that is truly ugly? That is curse? (99)

    Well, yes, there is. Affirming God’s providential control over all that takes place in the world does not require that we say that nothing truly bad ever happens.

    Louis Berkhof—Second causes are real, and not to be regarded simply as the operative power of God. It is only on condition that second causes are real, that we can properly speak of a concurrence or co-operation of the First Cause with secondary causes. This should be stressed over against the pantheistic idea that God is the only agent working in the world.

    While God causes all things to work together for the ultimate good for those who belong to Christ, it is not accurate to say that “All is grace” (100)

    She concludes that the real problem is her inability to see the situation as a gift from God (125). She writes that “eucharisteo is how Jesus, at the Last Supper, showed us to transfigure all things—take the pain that is given, give thanks for it, and transform it into a joy that fulfills all emptiness. I have glimpsed it: This, the hard eucharisteo. The hard discipline to lean into the ugly and whisper thanks to transfigure it into beauty. ”

    mcmark—think John Frame—if you have three “perspectives”, you can see anything and everything you want to see.

    A quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stands at the head of one of her chapters: “Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see” (122). But does this really square with the teaching of Scripture? The book of Revelation tells us that it will not be until Christ’s second coming that this declaration will be made: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (Rev. 11:15).

  9. Mark Mcculley Says:

    Melanchthon against mercenary motives–The Colossians do not do good to the saints as if they were moneylenders, buying big profits with small favors The world is generous in hope of getting back. All gifts are greedy—-But the saints give because they value God’s will above the promised rewards. Their actions are not prompted by the desire to get something in return. For they know that all things have already
    been FREELY given and cannot be won through human effort. The magnitude of God’s reward to Christ’s death to the Colossians stirs them into doing good works, not to obtain future blessings, but because they believe themselves to have obtained so much already

  10. Mark Mcculley Says:

    Colossians 2: 3 as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in Him, 7 rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, overflowing with gratitude.

    Colossians 3: 2 Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience…. 15 Let the peace of Christ .. control your hearts. Be thankful.

    I Thessaloniaans 5: 18 Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

    1 Timothy 4:3 They demand abstinence from foods that God created to be received with gratitude by those who believe and know the truth.

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