I have never understood the fascination with John Piper. Years ago my pastor gave me a copy of Piper’s The Pleasures of God telling me it was his favorite book. Even then, and while still wet behind my newly Reformed ears, I thought Piper was a bit muddle-headed and self-contradictory. As a result, I have spent very little time following him over the years. I did make an exception when I read his atrocious ode to Daniel Fuller in Future Grace. That book helped explain, at least for me, why Piper would align himself with Doug Wilson, the chief spokesman for the heretical works based Federal Vision, even inviting him to participate in various “Desiring God” conferences.
I suspect people like Piper because his “yes and no” theology allows everyone to have their ears tickled at the same time. It also helps that we live in an age where, for many, the abandonment of reason means to think “in submission to Scripture” and is considered the height of Christian piety (insert Isaiah 55:8 here). That’s why it was no surprise to see Piper’s “yes and no” theology on display recently on the Facebook page: Calvinism: Fellowship, Debate & Discussion. The post that started the ball rolling included a link to a short piece titled: “Isn’t Unlimited Atonement More Glorious Than Limited Atonement?” In it, Piper sets out to defend limited or what he prefers to call, “definite atonement.” Most of his response is solid. For example, Piper argues:
Those who espouse definite atonement affirm all of that; namely, that the death of Christ did effectively secure the complete, eternal, full salvation of God’s elect, the bride of Christ, including the fulfillment of the promises of the new covenant to take out of each one of his chosen people the heart of stone, put in a new, believing heart, and cause us to walk in his statutes.
So far, so good. But then he adds:
[Christ] died for everyone without distinction in John 3:16, in that sense: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” — in what sense “for the world”? — “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It is because of the atonement that that is possible. You can say that to everybody.
So, which is it? Did Christ die in order to ”effectively secure the complete, eternal, full salvation of God’s elect, the bride of Christ” or “for everyone without distinction.” The elect and everyone without distinction are mutually exclusive categories. The former is limited to a particular people known by God and the latter to an amorphous faceless humanity who are no particular people at all. Piper wants it both ways and by interpreting John 3:16 like your typical A-1 Arminian he places himself outside of the Reformed tradition which understands the “world” of John 3:16 in terms of non-Jews hearkening back to God’s promise to Abraham in Gen 17. Or as Paul explains in Galatians 3:14: “That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” And, again in Galatians 3:29; “And, if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” Or, as that far more consistent Reformed Baptist theologian John Gill explains:
…not every man in the world is here meant, or all the individuals of human nature; for all are not the objects of God’s special love … nor is the whole body of the chosen ones, as consisting of Jews and Gentiles, here designed; for though these are called the world, ( John 6:33 John 6:51 ); and are the objects of God’s special love, and to them Christ is given, and they are brought to believe in him, and shall never perish, but shall be saved with an everlasting salvation; yet rather the Gentiles particularly, and God’s elect among them, are meant; who are often called “the world”, and “the whole world”, and “the nations of the world”, as distinct from the Jews; see ( Romans 11:12 Romans 11:15 ) ( 1 John 2:2 ) ( Luke 12:30 ), compared with ( Matthew 6:32 ).
While I had to dig back a bit to find it, Piper made virtually the same “yes and no” claim regarding the imagined universal nature of the atonement in The Pleasures of God where he warns the reader to “not allow some alien logic to force [you] to choose between these two teachings of Scripture.” I admit, I have no idea what sort of logic aliens might use, but on this planet, we’re stuck with things like the law of contradiction and excluded middle. So, what “alien logic” would forbid Piper or anyone else from harmonizing the teachings of Scripture, particularly when dealing with something so central as the atonement? Only by adopting a non-scriptural premise can one be forced to maintain a non-biblical conclusion. The problem is not with logic but with Piper’s exegesis that leads him to reject the clear teaching of Scripture regarding Christ’s atoning work for the elect alone. Consequently, there is no sense in which Christ atoned for the sins of everyone universally considered. I freely admit that God does not reveal himself exhaustively in Scripture, and, with Calvin, I affirm that we cannot go further than Scripture permits. However, this is not one of those cases. Piper’s solution to the atonement is to abandon logic. Maybe that’s why he’s such a popular preacher.
Now, someone (a PCA pastor who will remain anonymous since I didn’t ask his permission to quote him here) asked; “What are the effects of the atonement? And are some of those effects suitable or fitting for the non-elect?”
To answer that, I think one only needs to consider countries where the Gospel has taken root and the civilizations they have produced. Compare those countries with countries devoid of the Gospel or where it has been replaced by clever a counterfeit like Romanism (see also John Robbins’ booklet, Christ and Civilization). There is no question that the non-elect fare much better in Christian countries (even in post-Christian countries like our own) than, say, in Muslim countries or under the thumb of some sort of some authoritarian tyrant. Let’s face it, nobody lives well in North Korea.
Next, my interlocutor asked; “Could that be the kind of distinction Piper has in mind?” While you might say that some temporary benefits of Christ’s particular atonement extend beyond those for whom Christ died, that’s no consolation for those spending their eternity in hell. Besides, you cannot validly infer non-saving benefits to the non-elect from John 3:16 correctly understood. That’s because the non-elect are nowhere in view.
Then came this reply:
Your first point is right–he does approach John 3:16 in a way that Reformed folks don’t, and that sets off an alarm. Your second point is wrong because I’ve shown that he’s not saying what you claim–he’s not saying it’s binary, and you have to believe both A and Not A. He’s saying the atonement has aspects that apply to all.
Since Piper interprets John 3:16 in a way that the Reformed traditionally have not, it is impossible to see how he’s not saying we must believe both A and Not A. The point being, it’s impossible to maintain an Arminian or universalistic understanding of John 3:16 and not contradict Reformed soteriology.
To illustrate this point again, and from the same article, Piper argues:
The transformation that made faith a reality was secured in the atonement for the beneficiaries of the new covenant. In other words, a new heart was purchased for God’s people in the atonement. This is more than the purchase of a possibility. This is more than the purchase of an offer of salvation. This is the real purchase for God’s people of God’s sovereign work to take out the heart of stone and put in the new, believing heart of flesh. Nobody would believe if that hadn’t been bought for them [emphasis mine].
Later he adds:
It not only purchases a genuine offer to the whole world in terms of John 3:16, but goes beyond the offer and actually accomplishes the triumph over unbelief and hardness of heart and brings to pass salvation and all the purposes of God that depend on it.
Where is this genuine offer given to “the whole world”? As already noted, it is nowhere found “in terms of John 3:16.” It seems to me that Piper wants to proclaim to all men that Christ died for them and has a wonderful plan for their life on the condition that they believe. But, then he says; “Nobody would believe if that hadn’t been bought for them.” Again, Piper wants it both ways and ends up with a completely incoherent view of the atonement. It’s like saying I bought some candy for my daughter, but I also offer it to my son even though I have no intention of ever giving him any.