Does John Piper deny personal assurance? Today we need to address a quote that’s found its way all over the Internet, attributed to you, Pastor John. It was brought to my attention by two listeners. The first, Taylor: “Hello, Pastor John! I recently read a critique of you, saying that you deny assurance of salvation. Here’s the exact quote, attributed to you: ‘No Christian can be sure that he is a true believer.’ Is this true? Did you say this?”
The second email comes from a listener named Willis: “Dr. Piper, hello, and thank you for your sermons. In a recent sermon, our teaching pastor used the following quote attributed to you. According to him, you wrote, ‘No Christian can be sure that he is a true believer. Hence, there is an ongoing need to be dedicated to the Lord and to deny ourselves so that we might make it.’ I can’t find this quote in your books. I can’t find it online at DG. From the best I can tell, this quote came from a booklet published in 1997 by you and the BBC pastoral staff, titled ‘TULIP: What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism: Position Paper of the Pastoral Staff,’ on page 25. I can’t find the original document anywhere. Regarding this quote, did you write it? And, second, do you deny that a Christian can actually experience the full assurance of salvation in this life?”
Well, there are lessons here, aren’t there? There are lessons. The first lesson is: if you hear somebody say something — not just about me, but about another person — that seems to you totally out of step, out of character, contrary to what you know about them, what you know about their theology, it is perfectly fitting to ask the pastor, the teacher, the blogger to provide sources for the claims that they make so that you can verify them. That’s lesson number one.
We’re talking here about two sentences. Piper apparently said,
- “No Christian can be sure that he is a true believer.”
- “Hence [that’s an important word], there is an ongoing need to be dedicated to the Lord and to deny ourselves so that we can make it.”
“The Bible teaches us to give warnings to each other.”
Now, as far as I know, I have never said or written the first sentence: “No Christian can be sure that he is a true believer.” I’ve looked everywhere, tried to figure out whether there was some context in which I said it. I can’t find it anywhere. And not only that, but I don’t believe it. So there you go. I don’t believe it’s true, which is probably why I never said it.
Not only that, but when you search all ten thousand or more Piper documents at Desiring God — and just go ahead and search any part of that sentence — you won’t find it. At least, I couldn’t. If anybody out there knows where I said that, tell us, because I’d like to fix it if I did. But I’m not aware of saying it or writing it, so I’m assuming I didn’t.
Here’s the problem with the second sentence: the problem with the second sentence is the word hence. It says, “Hence there is an ongoing need to be dedicated to the Lord and to deny ourselves so that we might make it.” In other words, I’m not only being described as a person who denies that we can have full assurance of salvation, but I’m being described as a person who says that this impossibility of having assurance is the reason that there is an ongoing need to be dedicated to the Lord and to deny ourselves so that we can make it. Now, I assume they mean “make it to final salvation in the age to come.”
Promises and Warnings
Now, what should we say about that? I do, in fact, believe that we must be dedicated to the Lord and we must deny ourselves in order to fight the fight of faith and not commit apostasy and not make shipwreck of our faith, lest we perish. That’s true; I do believe that. But it’s not true that I believe that because we can’t have assurance. That’s not the reason I believe that second sentence. It’s true because it’s what the Bible teaches, just as the Bible teaches that we can and should have full assurance.
“Christians can and should enjoy the assurance that we are children of God.”
This is a guess now: I wonder if what is going on is that someone read that Piper believes you must fight the fight of faith, you must put sin to death in order to persevere to the end and be saved, and then inside their own head they can’t conceive of such a viewpoint, of such a fight of faith, unless one denies assurance. So, Piper must deny assurance, because otherwise he wouldn’t say that.
In other words, maybe somebody reasoned like this: Piper actually speaks threats to believers in his congregation. He warns them. He speaks to his whole church and warns them that if they don’t put sin to death, they might go to hell; therefore, Piper clearly does not believe in eternal security, and it follows that he doesn’t believe people can have assurance.
Now, all of that reasoning is wrongheaded and unbiblical; it’s certainly not my reasoning, and it’s not the Bible’s reasoning. That’s bad theological reasoning. It’s illogical reasoning. It’s unbiblical reasoning. I do believe in eternal security. I do believe that assurance is possible and enjoyed by believers — and I do believe that one should say to a congregation of Christians that if they don’t put sin to death, they’re going to go to hell. That’s not a contradiction. It’s not a contradiction of eternal security, because those who are truly born of God will take the threat to heart and put sin to death. Those who are fake “Christians,” they’ll blow it off and they’ll say, “Oh, we don’t need to hear any threats.” That’s evidence that they don’t know their Bibles and they may not be born of God.
In fact, such biblical warnings and threats are one of the means God uses to keep his people safe and preserve them to the end in the joy of faith and in the strength of assurance. Let’s put some Bible under all that.
Hebrews 6:11: “We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end.”
Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”
Colossians 2:2: Paul prays that our “hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding.”
Romans 8:14–16: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
Glory! How would you survive in the Christian life without that kind of assurance? I believe that, and have always believed that, as far as I can remember. And so, to my knowledge, I’ve never written or said anything contrary to those Bible verses. Christians can and should enjoy the assurance that “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs,” because “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:16–17, 30).
In other words, we can have assurance, not just that we are God’s justified children now, but that God will see to it with his omnipotent keeping power that we remain the children of God forever, all the way to glory and beyond.
Tremble in the Power of the Spirit
Now, without any contradiction, the Bible also says, to these very Spirit-assured children of God, in Romans 8:13, just before those texts about assurance, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Hebrews says to Christians, “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members [namely, your eye] than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). And Paul said to the Roman church, “They were broken off [Jewish unbelievers] because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you” (Romans 11:20–21).
In other words, the Bible teaches us to give warnings to each other. Pastors, give warnings to your people. Scare the hell out of your people, and I mean that with strict literalness. There’s hell in your people that will take them to hell if you don’t scare the hell out of your people. Now, don’t quote this out of context. Piper really loves promises more than he loves threats, but I’m a Bible guy. I’m a Bible guy. I’m going to talk the way the Bible talks. It says, “Do not throw away your confidence” (Hebrews 10:35).
“Those warnings are in the Bible, not to destroy assurance, but to prevent false assurance.”
Look at your people with tears in your eyes, and look at those who are worldly and are drifting into sin or completely consumed with the media that they’re all watching every night, and plead with them, “Don’t throw away your confidence, which has great reward.” That’s a warning. Pursue holiness, because if you don’t, you won’t see the Lord. Tear your eye out to avoid lust, because if you don’t, you’re going to go to hell with both eyes. That’s the way preachers should preach and small groups should talk to each other.
Those warnings are in the Bible, not to destroy assurance, but to prevent false assurance. People who think that they are on their way to heaven, but who don’t hate their sin and fight it, are deluded; they should not have assurance. The warnings are a life-giving, soul-saving litmus test to help us born-again people hear the warnings. They tremble. They turn to Christ for forgiveness and for the power to kill sin.
This is my last sentence, and it’s so important: in that turning to Christ and in that resolve to kill sin in the power of Christ, the Spirit bears witness that they are the children of God. It’s not based on their perfection; it’s based on that sweet inclination, “I’m turning to Jesus and, in the power and the love of Jesus, I’m hating my sin and I’m killing it every day.” Thus, the Spirit causes them to enjoy the sweet experience of assurance.