I hope you had a delightful Christmas weekend, experiencing the peace of Christ in your life. We are back to work with a really important question from Josh in South Carolina: “Pastor John, in your book God is the Gospel, you make this statement: ‘The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God.’ You then close chapter 3 saying, ‘If we do not see him and savor him as our greatest fortune, we have not obeyed or believed the gospel.’ Are you saying that those who acknowledge their need of Christ’s propitiation to be justified, and stand righteous before God, yet fall short of God being the object of their affections, are not effectively justified by the gospel?”
I am very, very thankful for this question, because I have had others talking to me recently. I am eager to clarify this if I can. I know that the way I often talk about that nature of saving faith troubles some very good people who are faithful to the gospel. For example, I say things like: Faith is being satisfied in all that God is for us in Jesus. I say that all over the place in the book Future Grace, the most prominent place where I say it.
Now in the places where I have said things like that, and I say them unrepentantly, I try to give many supporting Bible foundations for that definition. And we can’t go into all those, but let me just mention one, because it is going to relate to the answer here.
Jesus said in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” So Jesus portrays himself as bread and by implication water, because he refers to thirst. And then he gives two parallel statements. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger. And then parallel to that: Whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
Therefore, coming to Jesus so as not to hunger and believing in Jesus so as not to thirst are parallel. And I think they are referring to the same reality. Jesus is the bread that satisfies the hunger of the soul. And Jesus is the living water that satisfies the thirst of the soul. And coming and believing are virtually interchangeable in these parallel statements. And so coming so as not to hunger and believing so as not to thirst are the same.
So it seems to me that Jesus is pressing us to see deeper into what believing really involves. Believing is a coming, not geographically, not physically, but a movement of the soul in thirst and in hunger for its deepest needs to be satisfied; that is, a coming to Jesus for that satisfaction and finding it in him. That is what I think that verse teaches about the nature of believing, of faith. And I think that meaning is all over the place in the gospel of John.
Therefore, I believe that if we do not see and savor Jesus as the supreme satisfaction of our souls, we don’t believe in Jesus in a saving way. But I am not adding anything to faith — like, you have got to believe, be justified, and then you have got to do something else to go to heaven, or something like that. That is not the point. The point is, I am pressing into faith in the New Testament. I am pressing into numerous places in the Bible where saving faith is more than knowledge, more than agreement, and more than trust or receiving of a partial Christ.
When I say faith is more than the receiving of a partial Christ, I mean faith includes not only receiving Jesus as Savior and receiving Jesus as Lord, but also receiving Jesus for what he really is; namely, the supreme Treasure of the universe. Or, if you prefer to stay with the words Savior and Lord, I put it like this: I mean that faith receives Jesus as a treasured Savior, a treasured Lord. And if you say that a person can be a Christian, born again, justified, heaven-bound, enjoying eternal life, a person could be a Christian and have a higher treasure than Jesus, I do not know what Bible you are reading.
Jesus said in Matthew 10:37, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Do we think he would say, “Well, it is not okay to treasure mother or father, son or daughter more than me, but it is okay to treasure your job more than me. It is okay to treasure your health more than me. It is okay to treasure your nation more than me. It is okay to treasure your reputation more than me. It is okay to treasure your life more than me”? No. Where Jesus is not treasured above all things, he is not trusted with saving faith.
Now of course I am deeply aware both from the Bible and from John Piper’s own experience that the trusting and the treasuring of Jesus rise and fall in intensity from day to day. Anyone who has read my books, especially the book When I Don’t Desire God, knows I don’t have a perfectionist bone in my theological body, because I would be a goner. I am a sinner in need of grace everyday, including the grace for my imperfect faith and my imperfect treasuring of Jesus as part of that faith.
The issue is not perfection. The issue is, Have I set my face with as much of my heart and as much of my mind and as much of my soul and my strength as I can to treasure God in Christ above all things? And I have more or less success just like believing rises and falls. The fact is that it is not a criticism of my view to say that treasuring Jesus rises and falls and therefore you can’t equate it with faith. Whoa, wait a minute. Faith rises and falls every day. Justifying faith rises and falls every day.
John wrote, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11–12). We become children of God through receiving Jesus, that is, believing. That is what belief is. Belief is a receiving. It is a reception. And I am simply pressing the issue that comes out over and over again in the Bible that to receive him as a forgiver of sins, to receive him as a guilt-remover, to receive him as a door out of hell, to receive him as a healer of the body, and not to receive him as a Treasure to satisfy the soul is not to believe on Jesus. Jesus is not honored and the Father is not glorified where he is welcomed only for his gifts and not for himself.
So to answer Josh’s question more directly, let me point to something strange in the way he worded his question. He says, “Are you saying that those who acknowledge their need of Christ’s propitiation to be justified and stand righteous before God yet fall short of God being the object of their affection are not effectively justified?” Indeed, I am. But look what he left out. Did you notice he never mentioned faith? Faith is missing from that. So I am going to read it again just so you see it.
“Are you saying that those who acknowledge their need of Christ’s propitiation to be justified and . . . Now right here, you need to hear, “and receive him by faith,” right? That should be there, because that is how you are justified. Faith is how you are justified, not just seeing your need. You are not justified by seeing your need. You are justified by seeing your need and then trusting him, receiving him as all you need. And that is totally missing. And so I don’t know quite how to respond when it is totally missing.
So I am going to stick it in. Here is the way I think he really meant his question. I think this was an oversight. “Are you saying that a person can acknowledge their need of Christ’s propitiation to be justified and receive him by faith and, thus, stand righteous before God? Are you saying that that can happen and a person not be satisfied in God or find God as his supreme joy and still be justified?” And my answer is that is an impossible situation. It cannot happen, because receiving Jesus by faith is a receiving of Jesus which includes a receiving of all that God is for us in Jesus; namely, he is our supreme Treasure as is written large all over the Bible.
I am not adding anything to faith. I am trying to define faith biblically so that it can have a transforming effect upon the world, which it so desperately needs right now. And there is more there in the Bible about the nature of faith than is often seen.