Editor's note: Now there's a provocative article title. It might sound like a heretical question, but think about. Does Paul ever strike you as having a gospel grounded more in grace than what Jesus preached? John Piper delivered the following message at the 2010 Together for the Gospel conference.
Did Jesus preach Paul's gospel?—the gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ's blood and righteousness alone, for the glory of God alone.
What I am driven by in this message, and in much of my thinking since my days in graduate school in Germany, is the conviction that Jesus and Paul preached the same gospel. There is a 300-year history among critical scholars of claiming 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. And dozens of variations along this line.
Did Paul Get Jesus Right?
So the problem I am wrestling with is not whether evangelicalism gets Paul's gospel right, but whether Paul got Jesus' gospel right. Because I have a sense that among the reasons that some are losing a grip on the gospel today is not only the suspicion that we are forcing it into traditional doctrinal categories rather than biblical ones, but also that in our default to Pauline categories we are selling Jesus short. In other words, for some—perhaps many—there is the suspicion (or even conviction) that justification by faith alone is part of Paul's gospel, but not part of Jesus' gospel. And in feeling that way, our commitment to the doctrine is weakened, and we are thus less passionate to preach it and defend it as essential to the gospel. And we may even think that Jesus' call to sacrificial kingdom obedience is more radical and more transforming than the gospel of justification by faith alone.
I consider this message as an exegetical extension and defense of what R. C. Sproul said yesterday: "If you don't have imputation, you don't have sola fide (faith alone), and if you don't have sola fide, you don't have the gospel." My goal is to argue that Jesus preached the gospel of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, understood as the imputation of his righteousness through faith alone.
A Word About Method
First, a word about method. One of my goals in this message is to fire you up for serious lifelong meditation on the four Gospels as they stand. I am so jealous that you not get sidetracked into peeling away the so-called layers of tradition to find the so-called historical Jesus. I want you to feel the truth and depth and wonder that awaits your lifelong labor of love in pondering the inexhaustible portraits of Jesus given us by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
No matter how obedient we are to the commandments, we will always lack one thing, unless we look away from ourselves to the mercy of God in the person of Jesus.
After spending 12 years of my life in the heady atmosphere of academic biblical studies, here is the conviction I came away with—and it has been confirmed every year of my life for 30 years. I commend it to you. It's the basis of the exposition I am about to give. If you interpret faithfully the deeds and the words of Jesus as he is portrayed in the four Gospels, your portrait of Jesus will be historically and theologically more in accord with who he really was and what he really did than all the varied portraits of all the critical scholars who attempt to reconstruct a Jesus of history behind the Gospels.
Or to state it even more positively: If, by means of historical and grammatical effort, accompanied with the Spirit's illumination of what is really there, you understand the accounts of the four Gospels as they stand, you will know the Jesus who really was and what he taught.
If you believe that, what a lifelong challenge and treasure lies before you! To meditate day and night on the four Gospels with a view to knowing your Lord Jesus with ever-deepening understanding, and ever-deepening love, and ever-deepening fellowship. I believe that the ultimate reason God gave us four portraits of Jesus in the four Gospels is so that we would more fully and accurately see and savor the glories of the Savior that we meet personally in the gospel, and that we would enjoy fellowship with him in this life, as we know him personally from what he did and said in his days on earth.
So those are my assumptions and goals. Let's go to Luke 18:9-14. How shall we read this paragraph? We will read it in the light of the big picture of the Gospel and in the light of surrounding paragraphs that shed light on it. First the big picture.
The Big Picture in Luke's Gospel
Every verse of all four Gospels is meant by the authors to be read in the shadow of the cross. When we start reading one of the Gospels, we already know how it ends—the death and resurrection of Jesus as a substitute for our sins (Mark 10:45; Matthew 26:28)—and we should have that ending in mind with every verse that we read. And this is exactly what each of the Gospels intends.
For example, Luke begins his story with the great word from the angel to the shepherds, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10). And Luke does not leave us wondering how Jesus would be a Savior.
He connects the suffering and death of Jesus to the New Covenant of forgiveness—"This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20). And the New Covenant promises forgiveness for sins: "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). So, according to Luke's portrait of Jesus the blood of Jesus is being shed for the forgiveness of sins.
In Luke, Jesus makes his most explicit claim to be the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. And, amazingly, he does it in a way that calls attention to Jesus' work of justification through a righteous one, not only to the forgiveness of sins. In the garden the night before he died, Jesus said, "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'" (Luke 22:37).
Those words, "he was numbered with the transgressors," are a quotation of Isaiah 53:12. The verse immediately preceding in Isaiah 53 (verse 11) speaks of many being counted righteous (justified) by the righteous one. "Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11). So in the Gospel of Luke, the way Jesus saves is by shedding his blood for the forgiveness of sins and by being a righteous one and counting many righteous.
Now let's look at one of the places where Jesus speaks explicitly of justification, Luke 18:9-14.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." You can tell by the way the parable comes to a climax in verse 14 ("This man went down to his house justified") that the parable is about how to be justified and how not to be justified. Of course the parable doesn't tell the whole story of justification because Jesus had not finished his justifying work on the cross yet when he told this parable. He had not died for our sins and been raised for our justification. So what we are seeing is not the whole story of how we are justified before God, but one of the key dynamics in how it happens.
Three Aspects of the Pharisee's Righteousness
There are three things we need to see about these people in verse 9 who "trusted in themselves that they are righteous." They are represented by the Pharisee in the parable. First, his righteousness is moral. Second, his righteousness is religious or ceremonial. Third, he believes his righteousness is the gift of God.
First, his righteousness is moral. Notice how he presents his righteousness: "I am not like others, extortioners [that is, robbers, thieves, cheaters], unjust, adulterers." In other words, "I am financially honest, just in all my dealings, and sexually faithful to my wife." That is what I mean by moral righteousness. He was a morally upright man, at least outwardly. This is what Jesus meant when he said that he trusted in himself that he was righteous: He was a morally upright man; he kept the commandments (like the rich young ruler, ten verses later in Luke 18:21). This was his confidence before God.
Second, this Pharisee's righteousness was religious or ceremonial. Verse 12: "I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get." These are what you might call religious or ceremonial acts: fasting and tithing. They relate to spiritual disciplines before God, and not so much to how you treat other people. This too was part of his righteousness. He was a morally upright and religiously devout man. This was his confidence before God.
Third, he believed that this righteousness was the gift of God. Verse 11: "The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men.'" He gives God the credit for making him upright and devout like he is. "I thank you that I am morally upright and religiously devout." In other words, this man is not what theologians call a Pelagian—a person who believes he can make himself righteous without God's help. He may not even be a semi-Pelagian—a person who believes that God's help is needed but the human will is decisive and can successfully resist God's help. But none of that is mentioned here. It's not the point or the problem.
The problem is not whether the man himself has produced the righteousness he has or whether God has produced it. The problem is, he trusts in it. This is his confidence. Verse 9: "[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous." Now make sure you see what this is saying. It is not saying that he is trusting in himself to make himself righteous. No. He says explicitly he is thanking God for that. He is not trusting in himself to make himself righteous. He is trusting in himself that he is righteous with the righteousness that he believes God has worked in him. That is what he is trusting.
Not an Overt Legalist
As far as we know, this Pharisee was a total advocate of the sovereignty of God. As far as we know, he would have said, "Not I but the grace of God in me has worked this righteousness." He says, "I thank you, God, that I have this righteousness." That was not his mistake. His mistake was that he trusted in this apparently God-produced righteousness for justification.
When it came to justification—for that is the issue, as verse 14 shows—this man was trusting in the wrong thing. He was looking at the wrong basis for his righteousness before God. He was looking at the wrong ground for his righteousness before God. He was looking at the wrong person and the wrong righteousness. He was looking to his own righteousness—and it was his, not because he created it, but because he acted it. It was not an alien righteousness. It was inherent in him. It was in his will and in his heart and in his actions. It was his, and it was put there, he believed, by God. That is what he was trusting in.
He is not presented as a legalist—one who tries to earn his salvation. That is not the issue. One thing is the issue: This man was morally upright. He was religiously devout. He believed God had made him so. He gave thanks for it. And that is what he looked to and trusted in for his justifying righteousness before God—for his justification. And he was dead wrong to do so.
To confirm that we are on the right track here glance back to Luke 17:10, where Jesus says, "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.'" This is simply astonishing. It is as though Jesus had the Pharisee of Luke 18:11 in view in Luke 17:10. The man lists his moral and religious achievements. Jesus doesn't focus on whether in fact he has done "all that he was commanded" because, in one sense, according to Luke 17:10, it doesn't matter. 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. That is just not how justification comes. No amount of law-keeping can provide it—not even the very best.
Four Terrifying Words: "Rather Than the Other"
We see this in the way the parable ends in Luke 18:13-14: "But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other."
What becomes of the Pharisee? Don't miss the terrifying four words in the middle of verse 14 for this Pharisee, "I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified, rather than the other." The Pharisee, the righteous one, the devout one, the one thanking God for his righteousness, was not justified. He was condemned.
And what about the tax collector? What did he do? He looked away from himself to God. He trusted in nothing in himself. He trusted in God's mercy. And Jesus said, "God declared him righteous and acceptable." That's what "justified" means (see Luke 7:29).
From this side of the cross, we know more about how God counts sinners, who are not righteous in themselves, as righteous. "God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). By trusting Christ alone, we are united to him. And because we are "in him," what he is counts for us, his righteousness, his morality, his devoutness. (See Philippians 3:9; Romans 3:28; 4:4-6; 5:18-19; 10:3-4; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Galatians 2:16).
A Clue in the Context
But is there a clue in the context of Luke 18 that Jesus himself is the ground of the justification in verse 14? We've already seen that in the big picture of Luke, Jesus saw himself as the suffering servant who is the righteous one that makes many to be accounted righteous (Luke 22:37, Isaiah 53:12). But look just briefly at the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-21.
And a ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'" And he said, "All these I have kept from my youth."
Does that sound like anything we have heard before? Notice, the issue is not primarily whether he was right when he says, "All these I have kept from my youth." Jesus has already shown in Luke 17:10 that a person who keeps all the commandments is still an unworthy servant if he depends on them for justification.
Only One Thing Missing
And Jesus has shown in Luke 18:11-12 that the Pharisee's moral righteousness, and religious righteousness, and his claim to depend on God for it all—none of it counts for righteousness before God. He must despair of what is in himself and look away.
So, when it comes to justification, it doesn't matter whether the rich ruler is right when he says, "All these I have kept from my youth." What matters is what he is depending on. What he is trusting in. So Jesus says to him in Luke 18:22, "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
This is amazing. He says he only lacks "one thing." Presumably, if he had that one thing, then he would be perfect. In fact, that's the way Matthew records Jesus words, "If you would be perfect (Greek, ei theleis teleios einai), go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21). So he is not perfect. Not in God's eyes. He needs something else. No matter how much law-keeping he has mustered, he needs something. The one thing is still missing.
What is this "one thing"? It sounds like three things. Verse 22: (1) Sell what you possess, (2) give it to the poor, (3) follow me. How are these three demands really one? These demands may be summed up like this: Your attachment to your possessions needs to be replaced by an attachment to me. It's as though the man stood there with his hands full of money, and Jesus said, "You lack one thing; reach out and take my hands." To do this the man must open his fingers and let the money fall. The "one thing" he needs is not what falls out of his hands, but what he takes into his hands.
The poor are always the beneficiaries when this transaction happens—when a person treasures Jesus above money. That's why Jesus mentions the poor. But the main point is what is happening between this man and Jesus. You lack one thing. You lack me. Stop treasuring money and start treasuring me. You want to inherit eternal life. You want to enter the kingdom of heaven. You want to be justified. Only by your attachment to me will you inherit eternal life, enter the kingdom, be justified. If you would be perfect—which is the only way into God's kingdom—follow me. Be connected to me. Depend on all that I am for you.
So my answer is yes, there is a clue in the context about the basis of our justification. No matter how obedient we are to the commandments (17:10; 18:11-12; 18:21), we will always lack one thing, unless we look away from ourselves to the mercy of God in the person of Jesus. He is God's righteous one by whom many will be counted righteous.
Implications and Applications
Now we turn to some concluding implications and applications.
Implication #1: Jesus' Gospel Is Also Paul's
Jesus taught the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone on the basis of an imputed righteousness, not an inherent righteousness that God works in us. In fact, when we listen to Paul in Philippians 3:4-9, we are tempted to think he was the Pharisee in Jesus' parable in Luke 18:9-14.
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
This is not just Paul's gospel; it is Jesus' gospel as well.
Implication #2: Nothing We Do Is Basis for God's Acceptance
No matter how righteous you are, or how moral you are, or how religious you are, or whether God has produced all that in you or you have produced that in yourself, do not trust in anything that is in you, or that you do, as the basis of your justification before God. That is not how you are accepted. That is not how you come into God's eternal favor. That is not how you will be justified now or in the last day. Trust in Christ—his blood and righteousness—as the sole basis of your justification.
Implication #3: Our Standing with God Is Based on Jesus, Not Us
Take heart in your struggle with indwelling sin, and remember that your standing as a cherished child of God is based not in yourself but in Christ alone. When you feel like a failure as a father or a husband or a pastor or a friend, where will you look if not to Christ for your righteousness? When Satan accuses us that we have never done a perfectly motivated deed in our life—not one—and then reminds us of God's standards of perfection, how will we thrust Satan down but by this truth, this reality?
Implication #4: Transformation Is the Fruit, Not Root, of Justification
Never forget, therefore, that all moral transformation that pleases God is the fruit, not the root, of justification. The Pharisee, it says in Luke 18:9, looked on others with contempt. Not even a believer in the sovereign grace can trust in his inherent righteousness and escape lovelessness. William Wilberforce, who derived decades of persevering political labors of love from his joyful, justified standing with God, argued in his book A Practical View of Christianity that all the immoral behavior of the nominal Christians of his age resulted from the mistaken conception entertained of the fundamental principles of Christianity. They consider not that Christianity is a scheme "for justifying the ungodly" [Romans 4:5], by Christ's dying for them "when yet sinners" [Romans 5:6-8], a scheme "for reconciling us to God—when enemies" [Romans 5:10]; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled. (79)
This error is common right now in our day. People, in order to create greater moral seriousness (especially with the radical commands of Jesus) are making morality part of the ground of justification. This backfires, because it destroys the joyful confidence which alone can bear the fruit of Christ-exalting love. It takes away the one and only ground and source of the very transformation they long for.
Implication #5: All Our Goodness Is Evidence and Confirmation, Not Grounds
Never forget that all your good attitudes, all your good intentions, and all your good works will serve at the judgment not as the ground of your acceptance, but only as the public fruit and evidence and confirmation that you were indeed born again, and that you did have faith, and that you were united to Christ, who is your sole justifying righteousness.
Settle it once and for all that the dozens of places in the Bible that make your good behavior the condition of your final salvation are a condition only as the fruit and confirmation of justification, not the ground of it. If you do not settle this, you will live in continual turmoil wondering what all those texts mean that say to Christians: "Those who do such things will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (1 Corinthians 6:9). Don't submit to that torment. Settle it. All the good that God requires of the justified is the fruit of justification by faith alone, never the ground of justification. Let the battle of your life be there. The battle to believe. Not the battle to perform.
Implication #6: The Gospel Is for Every Person and Every People
The gospel of Christ's righteousness imputed to us as the basis of our acceptance with God through faith alone is universally needed and universally valid in every culture, and should be spoken to every person and every people group on the planet.
The first Adam failed to trust and obey, and we all fell in him—every human! The second Adam trusted and obeyed perfectly so that any and all who are in him are accepted because of him.
As by one man's disobedience the many were appointed sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be appointed righteous. (Romans 5:19)
The fall was universal for all in Adam. The reconciliation is universal for all in Christ. Take it everywhere.
Implication #7: Jesus Gets the Full Glory
Give Christ all his glory in the work of salvation, not just half of it. Half is the work of pardoning sin by becoming our wrath-absorbing punishment. But the other half is the work of providing our perfection by fulfilling everything that God required of us, and then imputing it to us.
Don't rob the Lord of half his glory in bringing you to God. Christ is our pardon. Christ is our perfection. Therefore, knowing that Jesus and Paul preached the same gospel, let's join Paul from the heart in saying
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
In the end, we sing:
Hallelujah! All I have is Christ.
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life.