Point by Point with John Piper on Arminianism

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This point/counterpoint is inspired from John Piper’s “How I Distinguish Between the Gospel and False Gospels,” a message he delivered at the 2008 Resurgence Conference. I’d like to comment on some of the statements I read on his blog. You can follow this link to read his words for yourself http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/ConferenceMessages/ByDate/2008/2637_How_I_Distinguish_Between_the_Gospel_and_False_Gospels/, so that you may know I am not taking his words out of context.

You may also link to the Resurgence ministry at: http://www.theresurgence.com/national_resurgence_conference_2008–text_and_context. I apologize for such a lengthy post, but I wanted to include as much material as possible without overwhelming the reader.

In part of his opening statement he said, “My working out of my salvation tonight is in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” I wish it were only that simple.

What is the gospel? The apostle Paul wrote, “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (1Cor. 15.1-5, NIV).

Is the gospel really that simple? Can a person really take Paul at his word, believe the gospel of Jesus Christ and be saved? Yes, because that is the gospel: believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved (Acts 16.31). So, if a minister preaches this, is he preaching a true or a false gospel? Well, according to Scripture, he is preaching the true gospel. Is that what Piper believes? No, unfortunately; as we shall see shortly, that is not what Piper is suggesting whatsoever.

Piper lays out “Six Aspects of the Gospel Without Which There Is No Gospel.” These include:

  1. The gospel was planned by God beforehand (which Arminians believe)
  2. The gospel is an objective physical event in history (which Arminians believe).
  3. The gospel is an objective accomplishment: the purchase or obtaining of redemption for all who would believe (which Arminians teach).
  4. The gospel is an offer to be made to all that what Christ accomplished is free and may be had only by faith in him (which Arminians believe).
  5. The gospel is an application through faith to specific people of what Christ accomplished (which Arminians believe).
  6. The gospel is an eternal and infinitely happy future destiny (which Arminians believe).

So far, by his own method and admission, Piper has actually affirmed that Arminians are orthodox, gospel preachers. But Piper disagrees.

He continued, “There are many today, as in every day, who bring to the Bible the presupposition that sinful man must have the power of self-determination in order to be held accountable by God. This is not a biblical presupposition.

Arminians wholeheartedly agree and wish this was not so. What I am hoping at this point is that Piper is dealing with some sort of Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagiansim and incorrectly equating it with classical Arminianism. We should be so lucky.

He adds, “We don’t usually think about Arminianism as a threat to the atonement. It usually comes in at the point of the accomplishment of the gospel and the offer of the gospel, not the point of the plan of the events of the gospel. But here we see that there is an intrinsic incompatibility between the basic Arminian presupposition and the gospel as including a set of planned sins against the Son of God. That presupposition is that for humans to be morally accountable agents they must have the ultimate power of self-determination at all those points where they are found blameworthy or praiseworthy.

It is quite evident that he has never, in his lifetime, read the “Works of Arminius” to see how Arminius himself addressed man’s will in relation to the working of God in a person’s heart or mind, convicting and drawing the individual to Himself. This “self-determination,” of which Piper speaks, does not, obviously, take into account his own Calvinistic theology or that of the Westminster Confession, which states that the elect are “made willing” to believe in Christ — but indeed it is the Christian who is believing the gospel; God is not believing “for” the Christian. Arminians do not believe in this so-called “self-determination,” and to assert such a thing is offensive. He did what so many other Calvinists do: equate Arminianism with Pelagianism. Ignorance is not bliss.

It gets worse, however, when he continuted, “That presupposition pushes people away from believing that God has the right and power in righteousness and wisdom to infallibly plan the death of his Son through the sinful acts of morally accountable men. But the Bible teaches that he did. There is no atonement and no gospel without God-planned sins against the Son of God. He died at the hands of sinful men by God’s design. That is an essential part of the gospel.

I am not going to presume that by “God-planned sins against the Son of God” he means that the sins of people have been pre-ordained by God, thereby making Him the Author of Sin! I will give him the benefit of the doubt — something I am sure he would not afford me. Of course Arminians believe that Christ Jesus “died at the hands of sinful men by God’s design” and that this is “an essential part of the gospel;” the Bible affirms such (Acts 2.23). He has in no wise convicted Arminians with preaching a false gospel in his first point.

Piper’s third claim, that the “atonement accomplishes potential salvation for all but accomplishes definitive salvation for none” is quite a misnomer and a misrepresentation of orthodox Arminian teaching. How could he claim that in our system it “accomplishes definitive salvation for none” when God has always and forever known His children from all eternity past (Rom. 8.29)? He is clearly ignorant (in the classical sense of the word — lack of proper, basic knowledge) of Arminian theology at this point. In my opinion, he is not speaking of true, classical, Reformed Arminianism, but some perverted form of “Arminianism” that is so prevalent, unfortunately, in our churches today.

He continued, “This is typical Arminian teaching. It diminishes the glory of the cross and encourages people to take into their own hands what belongs to the work of the cross, namely the purchase of their own rescue from unbelief.

That is by far one of the most offensive statements I have ever read against Arminianism. To think that I have in any way diminished the glory of the cross because I have trusted in Christ Jesus as my Lord and Savior by the grace of God is entirely unwarranted (and he should know better!).

The reason why we reject his (and the Calvinist’s) view of Limited Atonement is because the teaching, as it is promoted by Calvinists, cannot be found anywhere in Scripture. As a matter of fact, what we do find in the Bible is what Arminians have always believed about the atonement: Christ Jesus died for the sins of the world (John 1.29) so that whoever would believe on Him could be forgiven of sin (John 3.16). I think Calvinists forget that Christ Jesus DID NOT come into the world to condemn sinners, but to save them (John 3.17).

Where Calvinists get into trouble is when they start to theorize about the implications of Universalism (the heresy that since Christ Jesus has died for the sins of the world, then everyone ever born is going to be saved). Such philosophizing and pontificating is a waste of time, since the Bible has already stated that only those who receive Christ Jesus, who receive the gospel message, who are born again, will be saved. There is no sense in having to construct a system such has Limited Atonement, since only those who receive Christ Jesus will be saved anyway.

He went on to say, “God is allowed to rescue them from the guilt of sin by the cross, but not from the bondage of unbelief by the cross. The cross does not obtain or accomplish that. I must provide the decisive impetus for overcoming my unbelief, the cross did not accomplish that. In that way part of the gospel is undone.”

By constructing this straw man it is not too difficult to tear it apart, is it?
Look, the bottom line is that Arminians want to simply deal with the text of the Scriptures, not with all of these logical deductions from philosophical presuppositions. His claim that Arminians teach that God is allowed to rescue sinners from the guilt of sin by the cross but not from the bondage of unbelief by the cross is simply false. There is no other way to say it except that he is dead wrong.

Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth [a reference to the cross], will draw all men to myself” (John 12.32). If people have the “self-determined” free will that Piper believes the majority of Arminians espouse, then Jesus would not have to “draw” all people to himself. The mere fact that people must be “drawn” to Christ (John 6.44, 65; 12.32) speaks to “the bondage of unbelief.” Clearly, Piper is mistaken.

Piper says that the gospel of the cross is (shockingly) an offer to all people (though I would contest Piper’s alleged offer to all people is not a genuine offer, since only those who have been elected from before the foundation of the world can receive it by first being regenerated!): He says, “The accomplishment of the cross is offered freely to be received by faith alone apart from works of the law, meaning, any work of the heart or hand at all, anything other than faith.”

Arminians wholeheartedly agree with this one. Salvation is by grace through faith; and faith is not a work, according to Paul’s statement found at Romans 4.4-5. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. Thankfully, and it should be pointed out, he does not charge Arminians with believing anything false on this point.

Piper then gets to the real heart of the matter. At this point in his message (remember, in an effort to propogate the pure gospel) he defends, not the gospel, but Calvinism. He says, “Arminianism (Wesleyanism) teaches that God helps all people overcome their deadness of soul and leaves to the decisive will of man whether to follow that grace and trust Christ and as a consequence be born again. In other words regeneration does not cause faith; faith, in an act of ultimate self-termination, chooses to agree with God’s grace and believe and thus be born again.” So, because Arminians believe the Bible teaches that faith precedes regeneration, we are teaching a false gospel.

Now, what is the gospel? Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved (Acts 16.31). Aren’t you saved at the moment you’re regenerated? Yes, you are. So, faith precedes regeneration? Yes, it does. Is a person justified by faith? Yes, they are (Rom. 5.1). Will God regenerate the person who is justified? Yes, He will (Col. 2.13). So, faith precedes regeneration? Yes, it does.

What is the sinner supposed to believe? The sinner is supposed to trust in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (1Cor. 15.1-5). What is the sinner to do about this gospel? Paul instructed us, “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Rom. 10.9-10). Notice that faith precedes both salvation and justification. If this Biblical order is correct, then it is Piper and Calvinists who are holding to a false gospel (though I would never really admit that). And I digress.

Piper continued, “How serious is this? Must one believe that faith is decisively caused by God through regeneration? Or can one be saved believing that faith causes regeneration?” No one has ever suggested that “faith ’causes’ regeneration,” and yet again he has misrepresented Arminianism. You have to wonder at his motive here. God has established the conditions for salvation. Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. Piper is not so much wrestling with Arminianism as he is biblical teachings which smack against his Calvinism.

He adds, “The issue comes down to this: Is the heart relationship to God one of utter reliance on God’s grace in Spirit-wrought humility, such that God gets the glory for all of my salvation, both accomplishment and application?”

And surprisingly, Arminians agree! Oh heavens! We cannot and do not attribute our salvation to something good within us. It is only by the grace of God that we believe on Christ Jesus. But because we disagree with him over this issue of regeneration preceding faith, we, allegedly, hold to and teach a false gospel. He has utterly disappointed me.

He asks, “Can the heart be truly humble and reliant in this way while the mind espouses a theology that claims that the human will is taking credit for what the humble heart is really depending on God to provide?”

Piper treats faith as though it were an object — a present that someone could receive. I’ve complained about this issue time and time again. Faith, my friends, is belief; it is trust; and its object is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. How can God “give” you trust? Are you suggesting that He somehow “plants” trust in a sinner’s mind? This language is completely unsupported from Scripture. Piper is, once again, philosophizing, not exegeting Scripture.

I wish he were done, but he continued, “Arminianism in its popular form (most of evangelicalism) says we are unable without divine assistance to believe, because we are dead in trespasses and sins, but God gives assistance to all, making it possible for us to believe but not bringing us to believe. That is left for our decisive determination. At that point we are ultimately self-determining.”

There’s that “self-determining” language again. I wonder: does Piper have faith in Christ Jesus? I’m not trying to be nasty. What I want to know is how Piper’s trust in Christ Jesus differs from my trust in Christ Jesus? How is my faith in Christ “self-determined” and his faith in Christ not “self-determined”? Does his faith not spring out of his “self”? Is it not “he” who believes? What is the Calvinist getting at when he or she claims that God “gave” them faith? or when they say that God “made them willing” as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches?

I know what he’s getting at; I just don’t think it works. As a matter of fact, he’s not getting these things from a pure reading of Scripture. He’s coming up with such things because he is pontificating Calvinism (and perhaps has too much time on his hands). He has started with a presupposition (Calvinism, in all of its intricate details, is the true gospel) and then drawn his conclusions. And anything that does not appear Calvinistic is not the true gospel.

Lastly (because this is already way too long), he states, “Arminianism/Wesleyanism recognizes more truth about our sinful and helpless condition apart from grace, and gives more credit to grace, but stumbles intellectually over the implications of sovereign grace. It cannot bring itself to embrace the apparent implications of faith as a gift of God, namely, unconditional election. It appears to them unjust and unloving. Historically, a charitable view of a good heart behind this mistaken theology have been encouraged.”

Well, he’s right about one thing: We do find Unconditional Election a “stumbling” block. Why is this so? Because, rather than believe that God has chosen by a decree from before the foundation of the world whom He would save and whom He would not save, we believe the Bible when it states that “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1Cor. 1.21).

Who did God decide to save? Those who believe. This is undeniable. This is what the Bible teaches.

Might I add one last thing. It is shocking to me that God’s supposed election of certain individuals unto salvation (as Calvinists insist) is rooted in a decree and not in the atonement of Christ Jesus, nor union with Him. This is why many Arminians base election “in Christ” (Eph. 1.4). Christ Jesus is God’s elect One, and all who trust in Christ are also elect; election is “in Christ,” rooted in the atonement, not in a mere decree. Talk about diminishing the glory of the cross!