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    John Piper’s Future Grace: Chapter 2

    January 21, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Chapter Two is a bit redundant, if you ask me. The title is When Gratitude Malfunctions, and it definitely builds on the previous chapter, and yet I still think the majority of the chapter was a restatement of the previous chapter with a few added comments.

    With that said, it provided fodder for interesting conversation, that is for sure!

    So…what does Piper mean by gratitude “malfunctioning”?

    Gratitude looks back…

    But we do not live in the past. None of our potential obedience can happen in the past. All of our life will be lived in the future. Therefore when we try to make gratitude empower this future obedience, something goes wrong. Gratitude is primarily a response to the past grace of God; it malfunctions when forced to function as a motivation for the future–unless it is transformed into faith in future grace.

    So far, my best guess is that Piper views gratitude as a motivation or builder of faith, and it is faith which gives birth to works, if that makes sense. Before we get into possible objections or anything else, let me briefly outline his major arguments.

    • Using gratitude as a motivation for works leads to legalism. Piper constantly connects gratitude as a motivator as an attempt to pay God back for what Christ has done. The second we turn our relationship with God into a business deal with a transactional nature, we nullify grace.
    • Obedience must be by faith. His evidence for this includes:
    • Gratitude looks back. This statement seems to be very important to Piper’s argument. His reasoning seems to go like this: Gratitude looks back. It is hard for gratitude to encourage future action without ending up with the Debtor’s Ethic he discussed in Chapter 1. Faith looks forward. All of our future obedient acts are, obviously, in the future. It is easy for faith to motivate future action because that is its natural direction. By using gratitude to fortify faith, we connect the past to the future and have both assurance (from gratitude) and strength (from faith) for future action.
    • Not all of God’s glory is in the past. When Piper is speaking of faith, it can sound very heady to those of us who aren’t used to the language. I felt like he said “faith in future grace” a thousand times, and I was sort of spinning because I wasn’t completely sure what that meant. I had an idea of what it meant, but I wasn’t even sure Piper and I were on the same page. I am beginning to realize that this idea of God’s glory also being future is part of what he’s getting at. There is a lot to look forward to. We are grateful for the past, yes, but the building of God’s kingdom is still before us, and there are many great and noble deeds to be done.

    Possible Objections
    Mystie already brought up the Heidelberg Catechism a couple times, so let’s talk about it. The Catechism says:

    Question 86. Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?

    Answer: Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, after his own image; that so we may testify, by the whole of our conduct, our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that he may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof; and that, by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.

    I read through the supporting Scriptures, and I didn’t actually see any reference to gratitude. Goodness, I hate to criticize a document written by faithful men much wiser than I. So I want to walk carefully here. The only supporting Scripture among those listed that I think even has the potential to imply gratitude is this:

    For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

    I Corinthians 6:20

    Read in context, though, I am not sure if Piper wouldn’t use it as an argument for faith. The verse directly prior to this one says this:

    Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?

    The Greek word used there for know is οἴδατε, which deals with sensory knowledge. Sometimes it deals with cherishing knowledge, but for the most part, the idea is one of knowing, understanding, and paying attention to. I think if we were to take these verses Piper-style, we could paraphrase them as, Don’t you understand that God bought you and His Spirit lives in you? Have faith that you are His, and therefore show the world that your body is His.

    It’s a fine line, I agree.

    A second possible objection was one that my husband raised at our book group meeting. Jesus said, in John 14:23, that if a man loved Him, he would keep His commandments. It is possible to read that as a motivation. I have certainly thought of obedience as being motivated by love.

    In context, though, the passage seems to be using obedience the way James uses obedience: as an evidence of faith. In verse 23, Jesus declares that a man who loves Him will keep His word. In verse 24, He says that one who doesn’t not love Him does not keep His words.

    Let’s think about this logically. Is Jesus really saying that the man who disobeys is motivated by that lack of love? I don’t think so. I really don’t think that nonbelievers walk around saying “because I don’t love Jesus, I’m going to do X.” Rather, the lack of conformity to God’s Word is just another evidence of the lack of love–or love for self or an idol, etc. I don’t think it is a jump to say, then, that those who have faith have love and also works, while those who do not have faith do not have love for God (what is to love if you don’t believe?) and therefore do not have works.

    So again we see that another possible objection seems to actually be talking about a different issue. I don’t think we can say that the John passage is answering the question “what ought to motivate the Christian to obey?”

    What Motivates Me to Obey?
    This question was one a member of our group put to himself. His answer is almost exactly what I would have said. I want to obey God because He said so. At the end of the day, that is the reason.

    Is this different than what Piper is saying?

    At first I thought it was, but now I’m not so sure.

    I would never arbitrarily choose some guy in the room and say, “See that guy over there? I’m going to do whatever he says, just because he says so.” That would be ridiculous!

    So I see that I am comfortable saying that I want do what God says because He said so, because I have faith in who God is. I believe that He created me and knows what is best for me, that He is infinitely wise, and that He knows how the world best operates. I believe He works things according to the good of His people. I believe that He will bring about justice in the end.

    And so on and so forth.

    The simple assertion that a Christians does what God says because He says so may sound light as a feather, but it holds the weight of God Himself. It is the Object–the Who behind the commands–that makes the whole sentence respectable.

    I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that this is the exact same as what Piper means by walking in faith of “future grace” because I’m not exactly sure what that means yet. But I do think this is walking in faith in God. I believe what He says, and I believe that He is Good, therefore I want to obey.

    What is behind Christians who have the solid habit of obedience? I think Piper would say that it is simply…faith.

    In Closing
    I looked through the Heidelberg Catechism a little bit more, and noticed that Question 86 is not the last word on works.

    Question 91. But what are good works?

    Answer: Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.

    For now, I personally think that it is not gratitude or faith, but gratitude and faith. Gratitude building our faith, faith hopefully expecting to see even more to be grateful for. Both of these are impossible without rebirth, and in this we see that all is the gift of God.

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  • Reply Jean January 12, 2017 at 7:04 am

    To all,
    Piper states gratitude is the response to grace received in the past. Past-grace should serve as the reminder that He is who he says and will do what He claims. Future grace is that which is to be received by believing today and acting today on His word before the resultant grace is perceived. It is living by faith that grace will continue and it will bring you joy.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 19, 2011 at 5:19 pm


    Funny you should bring up the definition of the term future grace. This has almost become a running joke in our group. Almost every meeting, I have a new definition (or two) written down to share. I still feel like I can’t nail down exactly what he is talking about.

    I will say, though, that one of the things I’m getting out of this is the idea that clinging to the promises of God aids in obedience, especially when the obedience is difficult. Unlike Piper, I’m not sure I see this as being in conflict with gratitude. I like to think these are complementary, one building the other, and vice versa.

    One of the things that has bothered me lately is that he has completely left out LOVE as the third motivation. (Well, I shouldn’t say completely–he did talk about loving our neighbor.) But I actually don’t mean loving our neighbor; I mean loving Jesus. Jesus said that if we loved Him, we’d keep His commandments. This is why we can “judge a tree by its fruits”–because our actions reveal what we really love. With that said, we haven’t read the whole book, so obviously I don’t know if he’s going to get there.

    Personally, I think that at the time he wrote the book, Piper was seeing a lack of faith in his congregation. Therefore, he wrote a book with the intent to build their faith. I try the take the book like that–the point is that he’s trying to show me where I lack faith.

  • Reply Mystie March 18, 2011 at 4:23 am

    Ok, I’m in chapter 2 now, but I feel like banging my head on the wall and throwing the book across the room. Instead I’m here to make a cranky comment on your summary post. 🙂

    It’s chapter two out of *31* chapters, after a preface and two introductions, and I am sick of the term “future grace” already. He should begin with a defense of his innovative term, but instead he starts tossing it around as if it’s perfectly intelligible and understood from the get-go.

    So far, as far as I can make out, this is his reasoning in the introductions and chapters 1 & 2:

    A wrong understanding of gratitude creates a bad motivation for good works.

    Good works proceed from faith.

    Faith = faith in future grace.

    Gratitude is not faith in future grace.

    Therefore, good works should not be motivated by gratitude.

    Aren’t motive and source different things? Of course your good works come from faith (I’m not ready to grant faith = “Piper’s term ‘faith in future grace'” because he hasn’t laid out his argument for that yet and so he shouldn’t be using the term yet).

    Moreover, a wrong understanding of gratitude creates a wrong motivation for good works does not mean that a right understanding of good works isn’t a motivation for good works. I don’t yet grant his premise that gratitude isn’t given as a motivator in the Bible, primarily because he seems to be equating motivator and empowerment. Because the Bible says works come by faith does not then mean that gratitude has no role in the equation.

    I guess I’ll write my own post soon…. 🙂 But I needed to rant. I just finished Desiring God and I really probably should give myself a Piper break. His style is driving me up a wall. Wordiness really bugs me, especially in theological works.

  • Reply sara January 23, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Brandy, you’re right! – I have seen God work in different ways in different people too. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 23, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Sara, I’m not that far along in the book yet, but I think Piper would probably agree that part of the “crisis of faith” he was seeing at the time of his writing was directly related to a lack of understanding of rebirth and who we are in Christ, though that wasn’t all there was to it.

    I have witnessed sanctification as being both immediate as well as a long-term effort. I have met people who say they were drug addicts, met Christ, and never took a drug again, and I have met other people who met Christ, and repented of drug addiction, but it was a long, hard road.

    I think when you say that God has proved Himself believable, you say a good thing! Remember that throughout the OT, God is constantly saying to the Israelites, Don’t you remember what I’ve done? Why do you not trust me after all that you have seen? I remember when my husband was in a coma, I just kept thinking that the God who had carried us through every other trial would carry us through that one, too, even though it was the biggest we had ever faced. He had never shown me reason not to trust Him. I think that is part of what Piper means when he says that our gratitude bolsters our faith. One of the reasons we know we can trust God and rely on Him is that He has done mighty things, for which we are truly thankful.

    As far as future reward, I don’t think that is a bad motivator, either. Piper talks about that a lot in Desiring God, and C. S. Lewis talked about it, too. The problem was not in desiring good things, but that we aim small and settle for petty sins we find momentarily satisfying. We forget all the amazing good things that God offers. So Piper and Lewis agree that it is not that our desire is too great, but that it is too small, too shallow, too short-sighted. Piper carries it all the way out to: we should desire nothing less than God Himself.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 23, 2011 at 1:29 am

    Ellen, you make me laugh! You don’t seem cranky. 😉

    I have only read one other Piper book (Desiring God), and that was years ago, so I can’t recall whether he was “light on love” or not. I will definitely watch for that, now that you brought it up!

    Is Piper Reformed? I don’t think I knew that.

    Mystie, You have shown me what I get for not reading the first few questions! So, now I think I have a clearer idea that it wasn’t just the answer to a single question, but the whole framework of the Catechism that he is contradicting. Now I think I see why you are taking it so seriously!

    I cannot say that I relate to what Piper is saying in that I don’t find gratitude to lead to a debt mentality in my own life, nor have I noticed it in the lives of those I know. One thing I keep thinking is that this was evidently something he was seeing in his own flock at the time, and he was concerned, so I’m sort of keeping that in the back of my mind while I’m reading.

    It seems to me that gratitude and faith are inextricable. But I think I might agree with his premise, that when he is seeing sin in his flock, the root issue is usually a lack of faith and not a lack of gratitude. They are either not believing something they ought to believe, or believing something which is false. Either way, they are not walking in faith in what God has revealed about Himself and His commands.

    If that makes sense.

    THAT is something I see in my own life. I can’t say I ever remember being in direct and bold rebellion to my God. Rather, the things I have had to repent of along the way have been more issues of understanding. I wasn’t trusting God with something He says I can trust Him with, for instance. That sort of thing. For me, I was grateful that He saved me, but I wasn’t walking in faith, so I see what Piper is talking about.

  • Reply sara January 22, 2011 at 2:23 am

    oh man, I’m sorry, I can’t stop.

    First of all, my last comment was supposed to say, “so you don’t OWE gratitude.”

    Secondly, I said that motivation to obedience was either gratitude or fear, but it can also be “for the hope laid up for you in heaven,” which I would think would be a selfish motivator but the bible uses it, so there ya go. In this quote from Colossians, it is faith and love which are motivated by the desire for a future reward. Weird to me, but you’ve got me thinking about the Word, so thanks!

  • Reply sara January 22, 2011 at 1:28 am

    oh also, I don’t think that gratitude that tries to pay back actually IS gratitude. It’s trying to merit something so you don’t gratitude, which is an impossibility for a Christian.

  • Reply sara January 22, 2011 at 1:26 am

    Perhaps Piper is trying to say that we need to understand who we are (in Christ) – to know that we are indeed new creations and that the old man is dead. We WILL act according to our new natures because it is what it is. A snake is a snake and always behaves as a snake. A Christ follower is a Christ follower and as he daily grows into the image of Christ, becomes more like Him.

    The problem with this line of logic is that it is a broad overview and doesn’t much touch on HOW. How does it happen? Does reformed theology necessitate a belief in *poof* magical transformation? Or don’t we all have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling to do the good things He has laid out for us to do?

    Yes, do what God says because he says it, but what emotion does he use to motivate? It’s either gratitude and love or else it is fear. I’m going out on a limb here to say that the bible uses both to convince us to do what is right.

    As for believing God, well, yes I believe Him because he has proven himself believable. I know that sounds terribly arrogant, but how else could I believe Him?

    I’m reading Ann Voskamp’s book about gratitude right now and am seeing a whole different perspective. There is a gratitude that is in the present. It is, “Thank you, Father, for these friends, eggs, limbs, lungs. Thank for saving me and continuing to perform this good work in me.” It is continual. And yes, it looks back too. At who we are without Christ and if that doesn’t inspire gratitude, then we don’t know how bad we really are without Him.

  • Reply Mystie January 21, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    I have not yet read Piper, but I plan to read several of his (including this one) this year, and get to know his approach and style.

    Heidelberg #2 is: What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort? Three things: First, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sin and misery; and third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.

    So, the whole third section of the catechism is framed as a response of thankfulness for God’s deliverance.

    I also think of the ten lepers and the one who came back to give thanks — it was that one whom Jesus said had faith.

    I’m skeptical that gratitude (a type of love, wouldn’t it be?) necessarily springs from or leads to a debt mentality. I think it has that potential, to be sure, but I’m just not sure it has to.

    *Sigh* I guess I had better hurry up and get to this book. 🙂

  • Reply Ellen January 21, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    I’m a anti-Piper crank in general, partially because I am not reformed, but it was my impression that Piper tends to go light on using the word “love.” You can tell me if you find this to be true. Since I’m not going to read him, it’s nice to have some of his works distilled here…

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