Does God Desire All To be Saved?: John Piper’s Defense of Reprobation

In recent years, a new theological movement has become increasingly popular within American Evangelicalism, which is sometimes called “Neo-Calvinism” or “New Calvinism.” This movement includes figures like Tim Keller, John Piper, D.A. Carson, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Albert Mohler, Kevin DeYoung, Michael Horton, R.C. Sproul and others. What is the difference between the New Calvinists and the old ones? Well, the New Calvinists have a somewhat more “generous orthodoxy” than the old ones. The New Calvinists are more flexible with liturgiology, more willing to accept contemporary worship practices, more flexible on issues like Limited Atonement, and more willing to accept the Charismata ( which is a good thing). But the reality is that much of the “New Calvinism” is just a resurgence of popularity of the old Calvinism, with a change in “marketing and promotion.” Many figures who would have been thought “hyper-calvinist” and unorthodox not long ago, like John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul, have become mainstream figures within Evangelicalism. This movement has become extremely popular. Even among non-Calvinists, people like Tim Keller and John Piper are constantly quoted and revered. This post is going to take a look at John Piper’s attempt to explain away the verses that indicate that God desires all people to be saved. I will be referring to a short free e-book written by Piper on this question: “Does God Desire All to be Saved?”I will reference quotations from this work with page numbers in brackets.

The texts in question are 1 Timothy 2:1-4, 2 Peter 3:8-9, Ezekiel 18:23 and 32, and Matthew 23:37. There are many other verses that could be proffered that show or imply the same thing. Indeed, the fact that God always gives people throughout the Bible an opportunity ( usually multiple opportunities) to repent before they are judged implies that God desires that they turn from their sins and be saved. So these verses that John Piper has dealt with are by no means an exhaustive list of all the verses that the defender of the Calvinist doctrine of reprobation needs to deal with in order to be free and clear.

Does Exegesis Support Piper’s Position?

The way that Piper proposes to explain the inconsistency between these verses and the Calvinist doctrine of reprobation is that God has “two wills.” But first, before addressing the question as a systematic theologian, he first addresses it as an exegete. He says that “it is possible that careful interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:4 would lead us to believe that God’s desire for all people to be saved does not refer to every individual person in the world, but rather to all sorts of people, since “all people” in verse 1 may well mean groups such as “kings and all who are in high positions” (v. 2).” (p. 14) This is a common Calvinist exegetical point. “All” means “all without distinction” not “all without exception.” The defence that Piper gives for proposing this interpretation is as follows.  He appeals to the reference in the passage to groups such as “kings and all who are in high positions.” But Piper does not explain how this implies that the “all” does not refer to everybody. Let’s look at the entire passage: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4, ESV) The writer first urges that his readership pray for “all people” and then more specifically for “kings and all who are in high positions.” The fact that the writer specifically enjoins us to pray for governmental rulers does not imply that the “all” refers only to “all sorts” of people, especially because the author once again prefaces his injunction to pray for kings with a more general injunction to pray for all people. In short, the case has not been made. Piper does not explain how the writer’s injunction to pray for kings implies that the “all” in the next sentence refers to “all sorts” of people. Moreover, more generally, interpreting the many “all’s” in the New Testament as merely being all sorts of people is strained, both because there is never any evidence within those texts that the apostle is using all in this way, but also that “all” normally means all without exception and not all without distinction. It is interesting that all the other places where pantas ( or the Greek word for all) occurs in the New Testament it is never interpreted as all without distinction but only as all without exception: in every other place it appears ( and it appears often). All without exception is the normal meaning of the word, which means you need a good reason from the context of these verses for giving it a different meaning in those verses. But such reasons are not offered, and if they are given, they do not come even close implying that the all is all without distinction ( as with Piper’s exegesis above). There are places where all is delimited based on context, but even here it does not mean “all sorts”. For example when we are told that “all the sick” were brought to Jesus (Mark 1:32), this does not mean that all sorts of sick people were brought to Jesus. Here the all is explicitly limited to sick people. So it will be all within the set of all sick people ( ie. every single sick person or all without exception of sick people). And within the context, since Jesus came to that town, and that there “all sick people” were brought to him. This implies that the all is further delimited to all the sick people in that town or vicinity. But this is not “all without distinction” of sick people. This does not refer to various “groups” of sick people. It would be strange to suggest here that all sick people in that town were not really brought to him, just sick people from every house or every language spoken in the town. Everybody would recognize this to be a very strange contortion of the text, especially when no reason is offered for interpreting it this way from the text itself. Yet that is what is often done with texts using “all” in the context of salvation by Calvinists. The only way that “all” should be interpreted reasonably as “all types” is if the “all” is explicitly delimited in that way – “all types of people” or “all sorts of people.”

On page 14 and 15, Piper tries to exegetically avoid what the verse seems to be saying in 2 Peter 3:8-9, by saying that because Peter says that God is patient with “you”, speaking of his readership of professing Christians, the next part of the verse is only referring to professing Christians. That is, he is saying that “all” is “all of you” as in, “all of you professing Christians who are reading this letter or the Christian community to whom this letter is addressed.” This makes more sense than his exegesis of the verse in Timothy, except for one significant problem. The problem with this interpretation is the word “repentance”, that “all may come to repentance.” Why is that a problem? It means that Peter could not be referring to the professing Christians who are reading his letter, because they have already repented! Unless Piper wants to change the normal understanding of repentance to mean something more like sanctification, his interpretation does not work. Moreover,  if repentance is not what happens when you become a Christian, but is rather the process of sanctification after you have become a professing Christian, then this clearly undermines the doctrine of justification by faith alone, because Peter says that one “perishes” if one does not “repent” in this way. And if you perish without sanctification, then you are no longer justified by faith alone, but by good works done after becoming a Christian. Thus, Peter cannot be referring to the Christians who are reading his work, because they have already repented, and so the “all” who need to come to repentance cannot be those who have already repented.

Two Wills

After he addresses the exegetical question, he then addresses the question as a systematic theologian, and proposes a way in which the verses can be understood within a broader Calvinist framework that includes the notion that God chooses some to be damned ( reprobation). He proposes that God has “two wills”. In his own words: “Affirming the will of God to save all, while also affirming the unconditional election of some, implies that there are at least “two wills” in God, or two ways of willing. It implies that God decrees one state of affairs while also willing and teaching that a different state of affairs should come to pass.” (p.16) We will address the problems with this view in two categories: unbiblical and irrational.

It is Irrational

It should be said that to say that God has two wills in this context is simply illogical. It means that God has contradictory wills. God wills one thing while simultaneously willing its opposite.  God wills that all be saved while simultaneously willing that only some be saved. This means that there are people of whom it is true that God wills to damn and wills to save at the same time. God himself would thus be a “house divided against himself”, in which God consciously works against his own purposes. This does not make sense. Piper contends that it is not logic that should guide us ( no doubt realizing that the two wills doctrine is illogical) but simply the Bible. In a section titled “Driven by Texts, not Logic” he says “But in spite of these criticisms, the distinction stands, not because of a logical or theological deduction or necessity, but because it is inescapable in the Scriptures.” (p. 17) Yes and No. it is true that there are some scriptural truths which may be too difficult for human rationality to comprehend and that we must accept this without demanding that it make perfect sense to our small minds, crippled by human wickedness. However, it is also true that we must attempt to interpret the Bible in the most rational way possible, because rationality is the best way of determining the truth when confronted with different interpretations of the Bible. This is why Piper’s appeal becomes special pleading. If every systematic theologian were allowed to do what Piper is doing, then it would be impossible to use rationality and scholarship to decide between different interpretations of the text. Any time a theologian’s theory comes up against a problem, he can simply appeal to mystery and his problem would be solved. Piper presumably has reasons for accepting Calvinism over Arminianism, but if that is the case, then he cannot blame the Arminian for simply appealing to mystery to solve any problem he points out with Arminian theology. Piper assumes that he is being forced into an illogicality by the Bible, when he is actually being forced into it by his theology. In this way, the argument is circular. He argues that one should be driven by the Bible, not by logic, but by saying this he assumes that his case is the most Biblical, thereby assuming what he still has to prove. He cannot use this point as support for his argument, because that is circular. It assumes that he has already established that Calvinism is most Biblical way to understand God’s purposes. And the biblical validity of reprobation, given these “perplexing texts”, is precisely what has to be proved.

It is Inconsistent With Other Parts of Calvinist Theology

Furthermore, if you truly adhere to two wills, then you must be ( at best) agnostic about whether unconditional reprobation or universal salvation will occur, because God presumably wills both of them. If you retain the traditional Calvinist doctrine, then reprobation ultimately “wins out” over God’s will to save everyone. That is, it is God’s will that only some are saved that wins out over God’s will that all are saved, because only some end up being saved. And since human will is supposed to be completely powerless in salvation on Calvinism, the outcome here must be fully determined by God’s will. So then, it is clearly God’s will for unconditional reprobation that is more decisive. This means that if God is really sovereign in a deterministic way as Piper believes, then he does not really have two wills at all, because he always intends to accomplish one purpose rather than the other, namely unconditional election. But that means he didn’t really will that all should be saved to begin with. If God is completely sovereign and does not have to make any allowance for human choices with regard to salvation, then the occurrence of reprobation rather than universal salvation means that God never really willed universal salvation but always willed reprobation of some. If God is completely sovereign ( conceived of in a deterministic sense) and he wills universal salvation, then everybody will be saved. If he wills reprobation of some, and he is sovereign in a deterministic sense, then it will happen. If God truly had two wills in this sense, then there would never be any resolution, but there would be some sort of  eternal struggle between one will of God and the other. There would never be a conclusion. Yet, if there is a resolution, then we know that God really only had one will after all. So if you come across someone who advocates the two wills doctrine, you only need to ask him one question: “Which of those two wills of God will be decisive in the end?” This exposes the whole thing, because no matter how you answer this, it contradicts the two wills doctrine. Firstly, it is impossible to say that both wills will come to pass, because that affirms a contradiction. If both wills come to pass, you will have to affirm that some will be damned and all will be saved, which is logically impossible. Alternatively, the Calvinist can say that reprobation will ultimately be decisive. But if reprobation is ultimately decisive then it was never really God’s will to save all, (because remember he is completely sovereign and human will does not prevent him in the slightest from saving anyone, according to the Doctrine of Irresistible Grace). If he affirms universal salvation, then he has admitted that unconditional reprobation is wrong. If he claims that he is agnostic about whether universal salvation or reprobation ultimately occurs, then he can no longer claim to believe in reprobation. 

It is Unbiblical

The first point about Piper’s two wills doctrine is that it is irrational. Now I address the longer point: that it is unbiblical. If all the biblical scenarios that Piper cites were truly instances of God having two wills, you still need textual reason for believing that two wills obtains in the case of salvation. You cannot assert that because it happens in one passage in the Bible, that it therefore is the case in a different part. This is important, because there is no clear scriptural support for unconditional reprobation. Remember, it is not unconditional election in general that is inconsistent with God’s intention to save all, it is a specific part of unconditional election ( namely, unconditional reprobation) that is inconsistent with God’s intention to save all. Unconditional reprobation has no explicit biblical support. Without getting into the details of this debate, it is worth noting that Piper’s argument here assumes that unconditional reprobation is taught by the Bible and that there is therefore a real inconsistency between the verses he deals with and other verses which he believes teach unconditional reprobation.

The most important point in response to the biblical evidence that Piper offers is as follows. All of Piper’s examples seem to involve God’s will for actions of people rather than outcomes, whereas the salvation of all and the damnation of some are God’s will for outcomes not actions. With biblical events that Piper appeals to, there is never a contradiction in God’s will for the outcome, as there is in the ultimate outcome of salvation if God wills both reprobation and universal salvation. 

Crucifixion

Piper uses the crucifixion as one instance where God has two wills. He both wills and does not will that Jesus dies: “That is, there is a sense in which God willed the delivering up of his Son, even though Judas’s act was sin.” (p. 20) After going through cases similar to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, he concludes: “Therefore, we know it was not the “will of God” that Judas, Herod, the Jewish crowds, Pilate, and the Gentile soldiers disobeyed the moral law of God by sinning in delivering Jesus up to be crucified. But we also know that it was the will of God that this should come to pass. Therefore, we know that God wills in one sense what he does not will in another sense.” (p.21)

It is logically possible for God to will that a particular circumstance be brought about without the actions which brought about that circumstance being his will. There is no inconsistency or contradiction here and no need to posit “two wills” to explain it. It is possible for God to will the event of Jesus’s death without willing the evil actions that brought about that event. There is no need to posit “two wills” here in order to explain what has occurred. These are not inconsistent things being willed in different “senses.” For example, I could intend to do evil against someone else, and my action itself can be evil, but, for some reason, the result of my action would be wonderful and good. I could lie to someone, and the consequence of my lie can be good, but that doesn’t change that the lie itself was evil. There is no inconsistency between willing the consequence and not the action itself. This illustrates the distinction I drew at the beginning of the section on the difference between God’s will for actions and God’s will for outcomes. But there is an inconsistency between God willing that some be reprobated and that all are saved, because these are both ultimate outcomes. You could square them if they were somehow instrumental in some more ultimate outcome, but there is no more ultimate outcome. This means that the crucifixion is not analogous to the contradiction between willing that all are saved and some are reprobated. Therefore, the crucifixion is not biblical evidence for Piper’s two wills doctrine.

Secondly, there are many different ways that the crucifixion can be conceived that do not include a concept of two wills. We explored one way above, but there are others. For example, if you do not have a Calvinistic doctrine of sovereignty in which God determines the action of every human being and that human beings retain free will that is not determined by God, it is easy to see how God’s will works with the crucifixion. It is God’s will that Christ die for our sins, but this will is conditional on human sin. That is, God would not have willed this if human beings were not sinful. So human sin is both the precondition and the effectual agent in the crucifixion. There is no contradiction in God willing that Judas should not betray Jesus and that Jesus serve as a sacrifice for sin, for there are many different ways in which this state of affairs could obtain. But you may say that the only way that the perfect Son of God could be executed is through evil, which means that in order for the Son of God to be executed, God would have to will for evil to occur. This isn’t true, because if the world is evil, then there is a circumstance in which it is good for the Son of God to die ( namely, as a sacrifice for sin). But it is important to remember that the atonement is God’s response to sin. It is not his original will. It is human evil which crucifies the Son of God, but it is divine good which makes it an atonement for sin. In other words, God knows, given human sin, that placing his perfect Son on earth will provoke humanity and that they will kill him and so expose themselves as evil. Yet it is possible for God to use this for his purpose. Thus, God does not will the evil to be done, but merely knows that it will be done and plans accordingly. God knows that people will kill his Son, and he plans the Atonement given this knowledge, without determining the evil actions. He makes his own plans to achieve his own purposes knowing in advance that those evil actions will be freely done and by treating those actions as a “given”, so to speak. That is why the death of Christ can happen according to the plan and foreknowledge of God, without the betrayal of Judas and the wickedness of the Roman soldiers being God’s will. The story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers illustrates this idea. Joseph tells his brothers at the end of the entire ordeal: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20) So God’s sovereignly arranges evil actors so that they play into his hand, so that even their evil ends up serving His purposes. But this does not mean that he wills their evil or wills their evil deeds to come about. So this is just to demonstrate that there are other ways of plausibly interpreting the crucifixion’s relation to the will of God that doesn’t involve God having “two wills” or contradictory wills, or God willing the evil actions of those who brought about the crucifixion. This means that it cannot be used as biblical evidence for the two wills doctrine. Piper first needs to show that that the other plausible ways of interpreting the events of the crucifixion are wrong in order to use the crucifixion as biblical evidence of his doctrine of two wills. Also, in order to avoid the charge that he is simply assigning contradictory wills to God, Piper needs to be clearer about how God can will things in different “senses” so that it is not contradictory. He is not clear about this and doesn’t explain in which “sense” God can will it and still will another thing without it being contradictory in the context of the crucifixion.

You must also think of the implications of thinking that God directly wills the betrayal of Judas, or the wickedness of the Roman soldiers. This does mean that God directly wills for evil to occur. If a being directly wills for evil to occur, it is meaningless to call that being good. This contradicts all the Biblical teaching about God being perfectly good and trustworthy. And it is an implication of Piper’s interpretation of these Biblical events which he uses to support his two wills doctrine.

Hardening of Hearts

Piper also appeals to the events surrounding the Exodus in order to give biblical evidence for the two wills doctrine: “Another evidence that demonstrates God’s willing (in one sense) a state of affairs that he disapproves (in another sense) is the testimony of Scripture that God wills to harden some men’s hearts so that they become obstinate in sinful behavior that he disapproves. The best-known example is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” (p. 23) He concludes: “Thus, there is a sense in which God did will that Pharaoh go on refusing to let the people go, and there is a sense in which he did will that Pharaoh release the people. For he commanded, “Let my people go.” This illustrates why theologians talk about the “will of command” (“Let my people go!”) and the “will of decree” (“God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”)” (p. 24)

Recall the distinction I drew between God’s will for actions and God’s will for outcomes. The two outcomes here that would be contradictory is Israel successfully leaving and Israel being prevented from leaving. I’m sure Piper would agree that God does not have two wills as far as the outcome is concerned. The text shows clearly that it was always God’s will that the Israelites leave Egypt. The fact that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart does not imply that God also willed that the Israelites didn’t leave Egypt. There could be many reasons why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart without presuming that he was working against his own stated purpose of freeing the Israelites. The fact that it is God’s will that the Israelites leave Egypt does not mean it is God’s will that the Israelites leave Egypt immediately, right this second. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart delayed but did not thwart the purpose of the people of Israel leaving Egypt. Also, God could have hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he could show his wonders and glory to the Israelites and the people of Egypt. Furthermore, God could have hardened Pharaoh’s heart to punish Egypt. So we have established that there is no two wills required as far as outcomes are concerned.  But Piper’s contention is that God hardening Pharaoh’s heart works against another will of God, because it specifically works against God’s command to let his people go. In other words, every refusal to let his people go is against God’s will, not because it thwarts God’s will for the outcome, but because it thwart’s God’s will for how Pharaoh has to respond. We have to be clear then about what we are talking about here. We are not talking about God’s will for the Israelites, or the outcome of where they will be, but specifically about God’s will for Pharaoh and how he should behave.

There is no problem here if you suppose that Pharaoh refused to obey and that God hardened his heart as a judgment against him. That is to say, God has a will for how Pharaoh should respond. And since he does not obey that will, he is judged. This doesn’t mean that God’s will changes, but merely that God has allowed human free will to refuse his command. And if the human refuses his command, his will that this command is obeyed does not change, but the situation has now changed and God responds accordingly. For example, say that there is a cake and I want to eat it. Somebody else comes and throws the cake on the floor to spite me. My will to eat the cake hasn’t changed, but the situation has changed, and I must respond accordingly. So God is interacting with the wills of those who respond to him, and he is responding to them. This interpretation is natural if you read the text. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened or “strengthened” directly by God only later in the narrative. As Greg Boyd puts it, “The root meaning of the Hebrew word translated “to harden” is “to strengthen.” God hardens people by strengthening the resolve they have formed in their own heart. For example, six times Scripture says “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 9:1210:1102711:1014:8). But it also notes that Pharaoh hardened his own heart seven times before the Lord took his action (Ex 7:13-14228:1519329:7).” So conceiving of it this way, the hardening is an occasion for judgment against the person for refusing to obey. This means there are no “two wills.” God is commanding, and then when the command is not obeyed, he judges. As we read in Exodus 7:4 “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I will multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay My hand on Egypt, and by mighty acts of judgment I will bring the divisions of My people the Israelites out of the land of Egypt. And the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.” That is, the hardening of Pharaoh is his and Egypt’s judgment. It does not represent a different will of God.

Piper makes the distinction between the “will of command” and the “will of decree” to explain this hardening narrative (p.24). God’s will of command is to let his people go. God’s will of decree is to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Ironically, this precisely illustrates why this example, and indeed pretty much all the examples he cites, are not analogous to the Calvinist doctrine of salvation. The will to save all and the will to reprobate some are both wills of decree and neither are wills of command. Both are decrees by God about what state of affairs should ultimately obtain. Wills of command are specific instructions by God to people on how to live, but the will of God to save all and to reprobate some do not involve wills of command, because neither of them is an instruction by God about how people should behave, but an ultimate outcome. Indeed, it is arguable that on a Calvinist picture of divine sovereignty there is no difference between a will of command and a will of decree. If you do think that freely chosen human actions are decisive in the story of salvation, then there is no problem distinguishing between the two. The non-calvinist has no difficulty explaining why God’s wills of command do not sometimes come to pass, because human beings choose freely against God. This does not involve God having two wills, but his will is conditional on the freely chosen actions of individuals. Therefore, on Calvinism, especially with regard to salvation, all the wills of God are wills of decree and therefore directly conflict with one another if they intend both reprobation and universal salvation.

 

2 thoughts

  1. How then do you explain hell? If God desires all men to be saved, why aren’t the likes of Osama Bin Laden in heaven (as far as we know!)? If you say it’s because they didn’t repent, doesn’t that make God out to be impotent to give them the gift of faith?

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  2. Hi Robert. Thank you for taking the time to comment. Yes, people go to hell because they resolutely refuse to repent. The Bible is full of examples where God clearly wills that people repent but they do not. Just one of many examples: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:38, ESV) So it is well-supported from the Bible that God allows his will for people to be resisted.

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