“For Theologians”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 4

(Note: this post is part of a series—see “John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney,” for an introduction and links to the other articles)

Future Grace

In 1995, John Piper published Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God. The book was widely praised in the Reformed Evangelical world. The 2012 reprint included four pages of blurbs:

“Of all of John Piper’s ‘big books,’ Future Grace has had the biggest impact on my life and ministry.” – Kevin DeYoung

Future Grace is one of the fundamental building blocks for John Piper’s distinctive message.” – John Frame

“I’m indebted to John Piper and hope many others will read this new edition of Future Grace and benefit from it.” – Joshua Harris

“This book is deeply biblical, passionately practical, and Christ-centered.” – R. Albert Mohler

“This book provides a much-needed key that will help every Christian understand just how to live a joy-filled life that is pleasing to God.” – Wayne Grudem

Future Grace is one of John Piper’s most theological works, looking in detail at the nature of saving faith; at the same time it is one of his most practical, serving as a wartime manual for fighting the fight of faith. This combination makes it among his most important books.” – Justin Taylor

“There have been two or three books outside of the Bible that have profoundly shaped how I see and understand my relationship with God. When I first read Future Grace in the summer of 1999, it sent my head spinning and my heart soaring. I couldn’t be more excited about this revision.” – Matt Chandler

Future Grace changed my life, and it can change yours.” – Russell Moore

“For Theologians”

The book opened with not one, but two introductions. The first explained “Why and How This Book Was Written,” and is introduced by two quotes, John Piper’s mission statement, and a quote from Charles Spurgeon:

The second introduction is titled “For Theologians,” and it too is introduced with a quote — from Robert L. Dabney:

Piper starts this second introduction by saying “Not everyone needs to be this section. But it may be helpful for some if I orient the book in the history and the categories of more formal theology.” The way this is framed illustrates the dynamic I am exploring, namely, “why and how a white-supremacist was promoted to twentieth century white evangelicals.” The Reformed Evangelical movement greatly prizes theology. Countless hours spent thinking, speaking, and writing about theology, getting every jot and tittle just right. Theology is one of the animating principles in the movement — if your theology is “right,” any number of shortcomings can be overlooked, and Robert L. Dabney is a prime example of this.

Notice how Dabney is presented to the reader. For many, this is the first time they will have encountered his name. How will they be introduced? What will be the first impression? The reader will notice that he is included in the section that is not for “everyone,” but is particularly “For Theologians.” An elite class has been presented—not everyone needs to read this, but if you have the intellectual capacity or interest to dig into the “meat” of history and theology, you will find Robert L. Dabney welcoming you at the door.

This second introduction moves into an overview of some historical confessions, the Augsburg Confession, the the First Helvetic Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Westminster Confession. Piper then points to Dabney:

 “Numerous other witnesses could be called in to show that the historic viewpoint of the Reformed confessions is that justifying faith is also sanctifying faith. (Footnote 6: See a more extended list of witnesses in Robert L. Dabney, “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, vol. 1 (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967, orig. 1890), 73–106.

Piper, Future Grace, 21 (2012 edition).

So after appealing to a select few who may be helped by “the history and categories of more formal theology,” Piper points them to where they can dig deeper: Robert L. Dabney.

The quote that Piper used to introduce “For Theologians” is also reproduced later in Future Grace in Chapter 27: “Faith in Future Grace vs. Lust.” 

“Robert L. Dabney, the nineteenth-century southern Presbyterian theologian, expressed it like this: “Is it by the instrumentality of faith we receive Christ as our justification, without the merit of any of our works? Well. But this same faith, if vital enough to embrace Christ, is also vital enough to “work by love,” “to purify our hearts.” This then is the virtue of the free gospel, as a ministry of sanctification, that the very faith which embraces the gift becomes an inevitable and a divinely powerful principle of obedience.”

Piper, Future Grace, 332.

In the footnote, readers are again recommended to go read Dabney: 

“This quote comes from Dabney’s compelling essay on the necessity of good works (including sexual purity) in the light of free justification by grace through faith.”

The Moral Effects of a Free Justification”

“The Moral Effects of a Free Justification”

This “compelling essay,” is titled “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification” and was originally published as a sort of book review in The Southern Review (April 1873): 369–406, and then reprinted in Dabney’s Discussions, Volume 1. In the article, Dabney spends ten pages briefly reviewing four books, and then turns the last twenty pages toward his own exposition of the theme, which is succinctly summed up in the Westminster Confession (§11.2): “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.”

Again, here is how Dabney expresses it:

“…faith, if vital enough to embrace Christ, is also vital enough to “work by love,” “to purify our hearts.” This then is the virtue of the free gospel, as a ministry of sanctification, that the very faith which embraces the gift becomes an inevitable and a divinely powerful principle of obedience.”

Dabney, “Moral Effects,” in Discussions, 1:96.

A little later he goes on to say it like this:

“Thus faith must perform its vital action in both the spheres of obedience and of trust, or it cannot live.”

Dabney, “Moral Effects,” 97.

I should say that doctrinally speaking, I entirely agree with Dabney (and Piper) on this. Genuine faith in Jesus necessarily produces works of love, or, as James puts it, “faith without works is dead.” What is deeply ironic about Dabney’s article, as well as Piper’s appeal to Dabney in particular, is that his life is the most glaring example of brazen, lifelong, unrepentant hatred, both for Black people (see “What’s so Bad about Robert Lewis Dabney?”) as well as Northern Presbyterians (see “Love Your Enemies”?). This doctrine is a powerful truth, but as Thabiti Anyabwile has said:

“If you can support a theological, biblical or ministry claim… without using writers and leaders who were slaveholders, white supremacists, segregationists, misogynists, etc… then you should.”

In fact, appealing to Dabney on this particular point arguably undermines your position. In Dabney, we see an “impeccable” version of Reformed Orthodox Faith, coupled with venomous hatred. Faith, for Dabney, did not work itself out in love.

Though Dabney’s article is focused on the theological question at hand, it is interesting that even here, he uses a uniquely Southern view of slavery (“property in persons”—a common expression in his day), to illustrate a theological point. In explaining how sinners could never earn favor from God with their works, he says this:

The slave did not deem that he had brought his owner in debt by rendering a service which the owner rightfully claimed as property. Hence we have no “condign merit”on which to claim even a restoration to favor.”

Dabney, “Moral Effects,” 87.

From the irony of appealing to a racist to support the doctrine of “faith working through love,” to an illustration drawn from slavery, Piper’s appeal to Dabney was perhaps ill-advised, but like the illustration of George Washington, this too would be repurposed again and again in the years to come.

The TULIP Seminar

Over the years, John Piper delivered a number of weekend seminars at Bethlehem Baptist Church on a variety of topics, including missions, suffering, complementarity, and Calvinism. 

Student’s Workbook

One of the seminars is titled TULIP: The Five Points of Calvinism, and the materials from that seminar have been edited and reprinted as a resource for other churches to use as well. In both the “Instructors Guide” (page 138) and the “Student Workbook (page 144), this passage from Future Grace is reprinted, including the quote from Robert Lewis Dabney. The course was also uploaded to The Gospel Coalition as part of their “TGC Courses.” The original posting included four “Downloadable Resources,” including Dabney:

The link to Dabney has since been taken down from TGC’s page, but this is just another thread in understanding “how and why was Dabney recommended to evangelicals”: Piper’s book was influential in its own right; the teaching spread directly to the congregation at Bethlehem Baptist Church through the seminar; it spread still further to other churches through the curriculum; and even further still on TGC’s platform. All of this is part of “how” Dabney was passed along.

John Piper vs. N. T. Wright

Wright; Piper

A decade later, John Piper would famously take up a literary debate with N. T. Wright, primarily over the issue of justification, and Piper would cite Dabney’s article once again in support of his position. In 2007 he published The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, and chapter 6 is devoted to “The Place of Our Works in Justification.” Piper thought that Wright was dangerously unclear in saying “something like this” (the following was Piper’s paraphrase of Wright’s position): 

“In the future at the final court scene, God the Judge will find in our favor on the basis of the works we have done—the life we have lived—and in the present he anticipates that verdict and declares it to be already true on the basis of our faith in Jesus.

Piper, The Future of Justification, 103. 

He critiques Wright’s interpretation of Romans 2:13, and then moves to address a charge made by Wright against the reformed tradition: 

“Wright thinks Reformed pastors and scholars do not pay enough attention to the relationship between justification and works. When he spoke at the 2003 Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, he said that there seemed to be ‘a massive conspiracy of silence about something that was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus).’”

Piper, The Future of Justification, 111.

Piper responds: “Whether there was a conspiracy of silence in Edinburgh, there surely has not been one in the history of Reformed reflection on Scripture, or in the Reformed confessions” (111), and then he surveys a number of them: the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, the Swiss First Helvetic Confession, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, and finally the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is here that he cites Robert L. Dabney:

“Robert L. Dabney puts it this way: “Since the same faith, if vital enough to embrace Christ, is also vital enough to ‘work by love,’ ‘to purify our hearts.’ This, then is the virtue of the free gospel, as a ministry of sanctification, that the very faith which embraces the gift becomes an inevitable and a divinely powerful principle of obedience” (emphasis added). Robert L. Dabney, “The Moral Effects of a Free Justification,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (London: Banner of Truth, 1967, orig. 1890), 1:96.

Piper, The Future of Justification, 114.

It is telling to stand back and reflect on this. Piper is debating the relationship of works—“works of love”!—to saving faith, and to defend his position, he appeals to a white-supremacist theologian. In a theological dispute over the “inevitability” of works of love flowing out of justification, N. T. Wright is apparently on the wrong side, but Robert Lewis Dabney is enlisted as an ally. These “battle lines” are bewildering! A generation of evangelicals, following Piper’s lead, was led to believe that Wright was the “bad guy,” and I too bought into this for a time, until I began reading Wright for myself, and found in him a remarkable exegete and theologian with a  breathtaking grasp of the breadth and depth of Scripture. It’s strange to look back on this now, and realize that among other things we were being told “Wright = dangerous; Dabney = helpful.”

In conclusion, let me reiterate, I thoroughly believe this doctrine: genuine faith necessarily produces works of love. But, to quote Thabiti again, if you don’t have to quote a white-supremacist to make this point, why would you? And I would only add, if you truly love this doctrine, you won’t.

But again, for decades—from 1995 to 2007 and beyond, Dabney was recommended by Piper as a helpful ally in defending this Reformed doctrine. “How did it happen?” We’re increasingly starting to see.

Next Post: 5. Interlude: “A Single River” or “A Poisonous Stream”?

6 thoughts on ““For Theologians”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 4”

  1. This series is so helpful! Thank you for this. I finally have a clearer understanding of a thread that pulls my conservative Presbyterian world closer to the world of John Piper and Doug Wilson. My husband had made the observation recently that the kind of slaveholding theology that comes from Dabney has a lot to do with the dangerous pattern of ‘forgive and forget’ in so many of our circles. I hope you put this is all in a book someday!

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