John Piper and the gospels of Jesus and Paul

Read time: 7 minutes

In a sermon given at a recent ‘Together for the Gospel Conference’ John Piper asks the question, ‘Did Jesus Preach the Gospel of Evangelicalism?’ – by which he means, in effect, ‘Did Jesus Preach Paul’s Gospel?’ His expressed concern is with the argument of critical scholarship ‘that Jesus’ message and work was one thing, and what the early church made of it was another. Jesus brought the kingdom; it aborted; and the apostles substituted an institution, the church.’ The concern is a valid one. I agree with Piper that it is possible to derive an understanding of Jesus that is historically and theologically coherent from the Gospels as they stand. But the problem will not be addressed by yielding to dogmatic pressure and assimilating the Gospel narratives to a Reformed misunderstanding of Paul.

1. Piper says that the problem he is wrestling with is ‘whether Paul got Jesus’ gospel right’, but it is clear that what he is really bent on proving is that Jesus preached the same gospel of justification by faith as Paul. He means to address the widespread suspicion that ‘justification by faith alone is part of Paul’s gospel, but not part of Jesus’ gospel’. This is surely back to front. The question is not whether Jesus preached Paul’s gospel. The question should be whether – and in what manner – Paul preached Jesus’ gospel. I think he did, but we do justice neither to Jesus nor to Paul if we reduce this gospel to an abstract formulation about the imputation of a personal righteousness on the basis of faith.

2. Piper frames the big picture in Luke by highlighting the angelic announcement of ‘good news’ to the shepherds at the beginning (Luke 2:10) and Jesus’ words about the new covenant in his blood at the end (Luke 22:20). The point, seemingly, is that Luke’s ‘gospel’ is essentially that ‘the blood of Jesus is being shed for the forgiveness of sins’. The trouble is that this arbitrary conjunction entirely elides the central usage of ‘gospel’ in Luke, which is an announcement about the coming reign of God – that is, a decisive intervention by God to judge unrighteous Israel, to deliver Israel from its enemies, and to bring about restoration from the margins, from amongst the ‘poor’ (cf. Luke 4:17-19 and the context of Isaiah 61). As Michael Bird, who put me on to Piper’s sermon, says: ‘Jesus’ “gospel” is Isaianic not Calvinistic’.

3. Piper thinks that a gospel not merely of the forgiveness of sins but also of ‘justification through a righteous one’ is implied in Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 53:12 in Luke 22:37: “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” Since the preceding verse in Isaiah 53 speaks of the righteous servant who will ‘make many to be accounted righteous, and… bear their iniquities’, Piper concludes that in Luke ‘the way Jesus saves is by shedding his blood and for the forgiveness of sins and by being a righteous one and counting many righteous’.

There are two issues here. The first is that Jesus quotes Isaiah not in order to explain a gospel of justification by faith but to warn the disciples that from now on they will be associated with one who is judged by Jewish society to be a ‘transgressor’, so they should take the precaution of carrying provisions and weapons with them. Secondly, if Isaiah 53 is relevant to Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ death (I imagine it is), it is because Jesus will suffer for the sins of Israel – the servant is ‘stricken for the transgression of my people’ (Is. 53:8). We cannot proceed uncritically from here to a classic Reformed doctrine of universal justification by faith. We also cannot assume that Paul understood this text in a generalized post-narrative, supra-historical, proto-Calvinistic sense.

4. At the heart of Piper’s argument is Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who go to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). To begin with, the comment that ‘the parable doesn’t tell the whole story of justification because Jesus had not finished his justifying work on the cross yet’ seems a little disingenuous. As Bird says, ‘it defies a straight forward reading of the Gospels to say that Jesus preached his own imputed righteousness’.

But the more serious question is whether Piper is right in thinking that the Pharisee’s problem was simply that he trusted in his own righteousness. First, there’s a case for saying that ‘they trusted in themselves because (hoti) they were righteous’.1 This would shift the focus away from the thought that such men are righteous: rather, because they know themselves to be righteous, they trust in themselves as the true Israel, as the solution to the eschatological crisis.

Secondly, the parable is directed not against the Pharisee’s trust in his own (rather than in an imputed) righteousness but against the fact that he was one of those who ‘treated others with contempt’ (18:9). Piper makes much of the fact that he thanks God for his moral and religious righteousness, but that is not quite right: he thanks God that he is ‘not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector’ (18:11). It is the attitude of the Pharisee towards the tax collector that brings into queston his righteousness according to the Law. Thirdly, the tax collector goes home ‘justified’ not because he trusted in another’s righteousness but simply because he humbled himself (18:14).

5. Piper appeals at this point to Luke 17:10, where Jesus says to the disciples: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Piper concludes: ‘A person who has done “all that God commanded” is still an “unworthy servant” – meaning, he has no claim on God’s justification at all.’ But it is difficult to see what this passage has to do with justification: Jesus is simply teaching the disciples what it means to have the attitude of servants.

6. So how was the tax collector justified? It seems to me that the point of the parable is that the appropriate attitude to be taken by Israel before God under the current conditions of impending judgment (cf. Luke 17:22-37; 19:41-46) was not to trust in a ‘righteousness’ that could not grasp the fundamental need for repentance. The fact is that the complacent would be humbled – quite realistically, by the invading Roman armies. The restoration of Israel would come, as Isaiah states, from the margins, from amongst the disenfranchised.

Piper, however, thinks that the answer is to be found in the story of the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-23), who despite having the same ostensible righteousness as the Pharisee could not let go of his attachment to his possessions and attach himself to Jesus: ‘Only by your attachment to me,’ Jesus is saying, ‘will you inherit eternal life, enter the kingdom, be justified.’

Whether it is correct to introduce the language of ‘justification’ into this story, I’m not sure. But it offers an interesting link to Paul. The community that is justified in Romans, I would argue, is the community that is prepared to trust in the concrete, practical path defined by Jesus, who faithfully suffered, died and was vindicated. For both Jesus and Paul the gospel was primarily an announcement about what God was doing to transform the condition and status of Israel amongst the nations. For both Jesus and Paul, too, the ‘justified’ community was that group, drawn in the first place from the disenfranchised, from the poor, from those who understood the consequences of Israel’s sinfulness, which came to understand that the future of the people of God hung on their willingness to travel the same path. But that’s another story.

  • 1See J. Nolland, Luke, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 35c (1993), 875.
peter wilkinson | Wed, 04/21/2010 - 13:22 | Permalink

Piper's mission seems to be to promote a 'reduced' version of the gospel, framed in the thought-forms of reformed theology, which can be easily understood by ordinary people. Even within reformation thought, he is being selective, and promoting a particular version of how the gospel works. (Not all reformed or Calvinist thinkers accept the concept of the imputed merit of Christ stored up by his Torah obedience).

I think we get a lot further if we look at how Jesus communicated himself. His ministry was not a marketing campaign, somewhat irrelevant to the main purpose of his mission. In Isaianic thought-forms, which Jesus's ministry so clearly picks up, it is the beginning of the new exodus - the successful version, of which the former was unsuccessful. Or maybe the completion of the original exodus - its fulfilment, as it were.

This brings us seamlessly to the crucifixion. The last supper was an enactment of Jesus's identification with the exodus, the distinguishing feature of which was that now, the exodus, and Israel's destiny, was being fulfilled in himself. He would bring about in his own person, through the cross, the inauguration of the new covenant. He would be the sacrificial lamb.

Who would be the beneficiaries of this self-sacrifice? The question is answered if we also ask, who were the intended beneficiaries of Israel's history? The beneficiaries of Jesus's death were not Israel alone, but those for whom Israel's destiny was intended: the gentiles. The promises to Abraham were fulfilled in Jesus, that "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you", something which is amply illustrated in the inclusion of the gentiles in the new exodus imagery of Isaiah. Hence the importance of Isaianic, new exodus imagery in the gospels.

In this sense, the whole of the gospels are 'the gospel', demonstrating the characteristics of the age to come in Jesus's ministry, the forgiveness of sins, which was demonstrated in healings, cleansings, deliverances and raisings from the dead. All of this was supremely accomplished for everyone in Jesus's death and resurrection.

Read Paul through these lenses, and his gospel is the same, with the same imagery: new exodus, fulfilment of promises to Abraham, the return of the Davidic king. Justification is most comprehensible when seen in covenant-inclusion terms, and especially that it comes to the most surprising of people. It wasn't so much a question of whether or not you were trusting in your own righteousness (though that is undoubtedly entailed), but whether you were in a position to receive a covenant fulfilment which looked very different from what most had been expecting, and hence came to people who looked very different from the conventional image of covenant-included people.

I agree with Andrew's critique of Piper. I think Andrew could take us to the rather wider arena of Jesus's ministry which I see crying out in the gospels, confirmed by the trajectory of Acts, and followed through by Paul. This gospel proclaims the broadest possible picture of all God's enemies overcome: principalities and powers which were not simply people, or even political systems (though it undoubtedly included these), but the energising forces behind people and political systems. It offers God's life and covenant community inclusion to the widest possible range of people.

Ralph | Fri, 08/10/2018 - 03:57 | Permalink

While Simeon and Zechariah looked for salvation from their enemies, Jesus was painting on a much larger canvas. He says in Matthew 16:18 that the powers of death itself (gates of Hades) will not thwart the mission of His people. The ultimate power of any political regime is the threat and practice of execution and the Romans of NT times did both par elegance. Not that Jesus is introducing a localised political element to his claim but rather challenging the whole global world order which is where Paul picks it up in Colossians 2:15 where he says, speaking of Jesus in relation to the cross, that He disarmed the rulers and authorities making a public spectacle of them (just like Rome was doing with crosses on hilltops in Judea and victory processions in Rome). I sometimes muse on an implied rider to the Matthew claim — “watch me!” With the subsequent vindication — ressurection (1 Timothy 3:16).


Hi Ralph,

I agree with much of this, but I wonder how you would support this statement from the Gospels: “Not that Jesus is introducing a localised political element to his claim but rather challenging the whole global world order….” Jesus only ever explicitly challenges local and regional authorities—the Jewish hierarchy in Jerusalem, Pilate as a representative of Rome.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks for this Andrew.
I guess I have read Paul back into the gospel account. Perhaps what we should say is that Jesus confronted the political order in the form of the Sanhedrin and other religious leaders, and Roman officials precisely because these were they who were confronting Him while Paul sees these as representative of all rulers. Jesus, in His teaching, does characterise the practices of the “rulers of this world” as not in line with those of His kingdom so Paul is on good ground to teach as he does.


Thanks for the response. I thought you might have come back with Jesus’ rejection of Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of the world, though even then Luke has oikoumenē, which in the context of Luke-Acts looks more like “empire” than the whole world.

Personally, I would also question the scope of the post-Easter vision. Yes, Christ has been given an authority above all hostile forces in the cosmos, and even death cannot finally defeat the church. But I would argue that this cosmic victory, within the apocalyptic horizon of the New Testament, is for the sake of a realistic historical outcome—the eventual victory of Christ over Greek-Roman paganism, the confession of him as Lord by the nations of the oikoumenē, which Satan had offered to him on quite different terms. From our perspective, no doubt, the Sanhedrin and the emperor are representative of all rulers, but I think that the apostolic church had firmly, and perhaps exclusively, in view the conversion of the Roman Empire to faith in the one true God through the faithfulness of his Son.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks once again Andrew.
I’m happy to run with that. Just to come back to the larger canvas of Jesus — the enemy: death itself — the most used tool in history for subjugation and control — finally rendered powerless by resurrection: the first-fruit of all those in Christ. And if death has been dealt with then so must the cause — sin: forgiveness secured at last.