Reviewing Piper’s ‘Does God Desire All to Be Saved?’ | Adam Harwood, PhD

August 7, 2014

Does God Desire All to Be Saved? By John Piper.
Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. 56 pages. Paperback, $9.99.

A book review by Dr. Adam Harwood, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Theology
McFarland Chair of Theology
Director, Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry
Editor, Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
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All comments initially moderated.
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(Ed.’s note: This summer, the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at NOBTS released another issue of its journals, backdated to Fall 2013. We deemed the book review to be of value to our readers. Thus, it is posted below. CLICK HERE to download the entire journal for free.)

Prior to being printed in this brief book, earlier versions of this essay appeared in three books and an online article.1 John Piper, it seems, desires all to read this essay.

Piper explains his aim “is to show from Scripture that the simultaneous existence of God’s will for all people to be saved and his will to choose some people for salvation unconditionally before creation is not a sign of divine schizophrenia or exegetical confusion” (13). Piper begins by labeling 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Peter 3:8–9, Ezekiel 18:23, 32, and Matt 23:37 as “perplexing texts” (13). He assumes as true the view that “God chooses unconditionally whom he will save” (15). Piper then deduces that, because God desires to save all but elects to save only some, “there are at least ‘two wills’ in God” (16). Known by various terms, these two wills in God are sometimes called God’s secret will and revealed will, or the will of decree and will of command.

Piper then illustrates the two wills in God by citing five biblical examples. First, the death of Christ demonstrates “God’s willing for sin to come to pass while at the same time disapproving the sin” (19). Second, in the war against the Lamb mentioned in Rev 17:16–17, “God wills (in one sense) to influence the hearts of the ten kings so that they will do what is against his will (in another sense)” (22). Third, God hardens the heart of Pharaoh. This demonstrates that “God wills to harden men’s hearts so that they become obstinate in sinful behavior that he disapproves” (23). Fourth, various texts are used to argue that God chooses “to use or not to use his right to restrain evil in the human heart” (27). In the case of Eli’s sons, it was the Lord’s will to put them to death (1 Sam 2:25). Coupled with claims in Ezekiel 18 and 32, Piper explains that “in one sense God may desire the death of the wicked and in another sense he may not” (29). Fifth, Deut 28:63 states God will “take delight in bringing ruin upon” Israel. Piper considers this to be an “apparent contradiction” which can be resolved by considering God’s sovereignty (30).

(Ed.’s note: The report of the Calvinism Advisory Committee states: “We agree that God loves everyone and desires to save everyone, but we differ as to why only some are ultimately saved.” Piper’s answer would be two-fold: 1. God desires His glory more than the salvation of all people. 2. God chooses unconditionally to save only some people.)

Chapter three argues briefly that God’s sovereignty involves “human hostilities and cruelties that God disapproves even as he wills that they occur” (32). New Testament verses which state “if the Lord wills” and “if God permits” should be interpreted according to this definition of sovereignty.

In chapter four, Piper concludes the book by addressing various objections to the view that there are two wills in God. Piper appeals to Jonathan Edwards to argue that God orders all things that occur, even sinful acts, without sinning because God does not will it “as an act of sin in himself ” (38). Returning to 1 Tim 2:4, Piper concludes that this “controversial text” does not settle the issues raised by the title of his book. Why? Piper explains, “God wills not to save all, even though he ‘desires’ that all be saved, because there is something else that he wills or desires more” (39). He repeats, “God is committed to something even more valuable than saving all.” To what is God more committed than saving all people? Piper answers, “The answer the Reformed give is that the greater value is the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy (Rom 9:22–23) and the humbling of man so that he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Cor 2:9)” (39). Piper prefers this answer to the Arminian reply that what “restrains God from saving all” is “human self-determination” (39–40).

Also, God sometimes wills evil to occur through secondary causes. Piper supports this view by appealing to passages such as God sending an evil spirit in Judges 9, Satan leading Judas to do what God brings about (cf. Luke 22:3 and Acts 2:23), and God’s actions behind Satan stirring David to the sinful action of taking a census (cf. 1 Chron 21:1 and 2 Sam 24:1, 10). Piper paraphrases Edwards by describing God’s view of tragedy and sin through both narrow and wide angle lenses. God is grieved by the narrow view, but rejoices in the wide view (45).

Piper states, “God deemed it wise and good to elect unconditionally some to salvation and not others” (47). Piper then defends RL Dabney’s historical analogy about George Washington to argue that “God has a real and deep compassion for perishing sinners” (48). Drawing from Jer 3:32–33, Piper explains, “God does will the affliction that he causes, but he does not will it in the same way he wills compassion” (48, emphasis his).

Piper concludes by stating, “God is constrained by His passion for the display of the fullness of His glory” (53). Piper affirms that “God loves the world with a real and sincere compassion that desires the salvation of all men.” Even so, “God has chosen from before the foundation of the world those whom he will save from sin.” Piper argues that the reason all are not saved must be located in either the Arminian reply of “human self-determination” or the Reformed reply of “the glorification of the full range of his perfections” (53). Finally, “Christ invites everyone to come” and any who come were chosen from the foundation of the world to be saved (54).

The strength of this book is that it seeks to address an Achilles heel in Reformed theology, namely the charge that affirming unconditional election requires a denial of God’s desire to save all people. The weakness of the book is that it argues against biblical texts which teach explicitly that God desires to save all people by appealing to a theological framework of two wills in God, which is deduced then imported into one’s reading of the Scripture. The result is that Piper favors the two wills view (not explicitly stated in the Bible) over biblical texts which state clearly that God desires all to be saved.

Piper is right to raise the biblical texts which provide the strongest objections to his viewpoint. But he waves them off too quickly. For example, Piper cites John Gill’s exposition of 1 Tim 2:4 to suggest “it is possible” that God does not desire to save all people but “all sorts of people” (14). Does Piper want to pin his objection to 1 Tim 2:4 on the conclusion of a man that Michael Haykin called the “the doyen of eighteenth-century hyper-Calvinism”?2

Following Jonathan Edwards (17, 38), Piper wrongly creates a false dilemma by portraying only three theological options, five-point Calvinism, Arminianism, or Open Theism (15, 39, 40, 42, 43, 53). Where does this leave advocates of fewer points of Calvinism or those who identify with a theological tradition which is neither Calvinist nor Arminian––all of whom rightly reject Open Theism?3

Piper’s appeal to the idea of two wills in God, which is central to his argument, has been embraced by some Southern Baptists, such as Tom Schreiner and Bruce Ware,4 but rejected by others, such as David Allen, Steve Lemke, Bruce Little, and Ken Keathley.5 Piper commits the error D. A. Carson specifically warned against in his dissertation, pointing to a hidden will to negate God’s revealed will.6

For readers who seek to reconcile unconditional election to salvation with God’s desire to save all people, Piper’s brief treatment provides an argument which may prove satisfying to the already convinced. But readers looking for an unambiguous answer of “yes” to the question in the title of the book are advised to look elsewhere.
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1The essay appears in The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will, edited by Tom Schreiner and Bruce Ware (Baker, 1995); Still Sovereign, also edited by Schreiner and Ware (Baker, 2000); The Pleasures of God (Multnomah, 2000); and as an essay titled “Are There Two Wills in God?” (Jan. 1, 1995), available at http:// www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god (accessed November 29, 2013).

2Michael A. G. Haykin, “Hyper-Calvinism and the Theology of John Gill,” 6. Available at: http://www. andrewfullercenter.org/files/hyper-calvinism-and-the-theology-of-john-gill.pdf (accessed November 23, 2013). Haykin concludes, 16, “Gill’s theology did hamper passionate evangelism and outreach.”

3See, as examples, David Allen, et. al, “Neither Calvinists Nor Arminians but Baptists,” The Center for Theological Research, White Paper 36, available at http://www.baptisttheology.org/baptisttheology/assets/ File/NeitherCalvinistsNorArminiansButBaptists.pdf (accessed November 29, 2013), and Eric Hankins, “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology,” Journal of Baptist Theology and Ministry 8.1 (Spring 2011): 87–100, available at http://baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_8-1_Spring_2011. pdf#page=90 (accessed November 29, 2013).

4Piper’s appeal to two wills in God appears in these volumes edited by Schreiner and Ware, The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will (Baker, 1995) and Still Sovereign (Baker, 2000). See also Ware’s appeal to two wills in God in his article “Divine Election to Salvation,” in Perspectives on Election: Five Views, ed. Chad Owen Brand (Nashville: B&H, 2006).

5David L. Allen, “The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical and Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. Allen and Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 92; Steve W. Lemke, “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace,” in Whosoever Will, 145; Bruce A. Little, “Evil and God’s Sovereignty,” in Whosoever Will, 293–4; Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 52–58. Keathley, 58–62, affirms a different, non- Reformed version of the two-wills paradigm, which he calls antecedent/consequent wills. He writes, “God desires the salvation of all, although He requires the response of faith on the part of the hearer. This ante- cedent/consequent wills approach sees no conflict between the two wills of God. God antecedently wills all to be saved. But for those who refuse to repent and believe, He consequently wills that they should be condemned” (58).

6D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 214, in Keath- ley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 55.