Book Review John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ

Book Review

John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness?  Wheaton: Crossway Publishers, 2002.  Paper.  141pp.  $10.99.

Currently there are three major controversies surrounding the doctrine of justification: (1) the ecumenical question raised by ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together,’ (2) the debate surrounding the rise of the New Perspective on Paul, and (3) the Norman Shepherd controversy.  In each of these debates questions surround the doctrine of justification: (1) Do Evangelicals and Catholics believe the same thing regarding justification, (2) What is the relationship between justification and the Law, and (3) what is the relationship between justification and good works?  It is in midst of this tempestuous time that John Piper has written a book defending the traditional Reformed understanding of justification, especially as it relates to the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.  Piper bypasses debates (1) and (3), and deals with the challenges of the New Perspective on Paul.

Piper’s book is an excellent work that will be of benefit for the layperson to the scholar...In the study of this book the layman will gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the significance of the doctrine of justification.

It may surprise some, but there is a growing trend within New Testament scholarship, even within small pockets of the Reformed community, to argue that the Bible does not teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner.  This is the specific issue that Piper takes up in this small tome.  Piper begins his book with a survey of the importance and impact of justification in various areas, such as preaching, worship, evangelism, missions, family life, and pastoral counseling.  He rightly argues that a correct understanding of justification is crucial to all of these areas of life.

In chapters two and three he sets out to defend the teaching that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer by faith alone: “By imputation I am referring to the act in which God counts sinners to be righteous through their faith in Christ on the basis of Christ’s ‘blood and righteousness,’ specifically the righteousness that Christ accomplished by his perfect obedience in life and death” (p. 41).  This is, of course, the traditional Reformed position on justification.  Recently, New Testament scholars from a wide variety of denominations have argued that justification is not about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner but instead a declaration made by God marking who belongs to the covenant community and has received the forgiveness of sins.  This new teaching argues that justification involves the forgiveness of sins but not the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

Piper sets out to defend the traditional view of justification by exegeting a catena of key passages that deal with justification, but especially imputation including, but not limited to: Romans 4.5-6, 3.28, 4.9-11, 5.12-19, 10.10; Philippians 3.8-9, 2 Corinthians 5.21; and 1 Corinthians 1.30.  Piper’s exegesis is very thorough and biblical.  At every turn he interrogates and listens to the text.  In the end, he does an excellent job demonstrating that justification is not merely the forgiveness of sins but that it also involves the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner.

Piper’s book is an excellent work that will be of benefit for the layperson to the scholar.  The scholar will undoubtedly read through his exegetical arguments much more quickly than the lay person.  It behooves the laymen, though, to work carefully through each of the passages that Piper brings forward.  It may be laborious at times to pay careful attention to his exegetical argumentation, but in the end such hard work will bear great fruit.  In the study of this book the layman will gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the significance of the doctrine of justification.

There is only one minor criticism of the book in that Piper relates the doctrine of justification to the life and death of Christ but fails to connect it to his resurrection (p. 42).  The connection between Christ’s resurrection and our justification is an important one: ‘It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Rom. 4.24b-25).  It is lamentable that Piper does not treat this aspect of justification.  Perhaps he will do so in a revised or second edition?  Nevertheless, we should not ignore the positive aspects of this book, as it should be read by all with great profit.  Not counting the ever ubiquitous endorsement by J. I. Packer, the book is endorsed by a host of Evangelical and Reformed luminaries, such as Michael Horton, Alistair Begg, John MacArthur, John Frame, Wayne Grudem, David Wells, R. C. Sproul, John Stott, Richard Gaffin, Mark Noll, Millard Erickson, Timothy George, and Ronald Nash, which should tell us that it is important and orthodox.  Therefore, as Augustine heard a voice tell him, tolle et lege, regarding the Bible, so too should the reader ‘take up and read’ Piper's book!