Steve Sewell: Response to John Piper: “How Do Arminians Pray?”

, posted by Steve Sewell

John Piper video clip: How Do Arminians Pray?

In Piper’s words, Arminians praying to God for someone’s salvation:

“Arminians don’t believe that He has the right and authority and power to save anybody. Do they? Let’s be honest. No caricature here. No strawman. ‘Prevenient grace, yes — do that, Lord, but don’t sovereignly push them over the edge. You don’t have a right to do that, because they have ultimate self-determining power to seal the deal, so don’t do that.’ I never pray that way!’”

“There’s no doubt that God wills every nail that’s ever sunk to be sunk. Not one hair turns white or gray apart from His will. Not one bird falls from the sky, not one nail is in a 2 x 4 anywhere on the planet but that God wills it so. But He wills it through hammers, and so through prayer.”

I’m so weary with Calvinists’ (and I’ll use Piper’s own words here) “strawmen” and “caricatures” of Arminian teaching. They can’t refute our theology, so they’re forced to misrepresent it. It’s a lot easier to argue against an opposing position that you define for yourself; then you can make your opponents look ridiculous in front of your uninformed listeners, and make yourself sound smart and your position superior. Statements like what Piper made in this video are irresponsible.

I can honestly say, when I discuss Calvinist theology, I do my best to accurately represent what they teach. I don’t see that with John Piper in this video. He’s very careless with his words. Someone in his position should be responsible enough to back up his statements with at least one quote from a respected scholar or reliable resource. But he doesn’t do that, because apparently he just wants to make Arminian teaching look silly, while making Calvinist teaching sound biblically true. If the goal is simply to discredit, anyone can do that with a few authoritative-sounding assertions in front of a willing audience.

It’s a worn out claim by Calvinists like John Piper that Arminians teach a man-centered and self-determining salvation. Piper says: “Arminians don’t believe that He has the right and authority and power to save anybody.” This is one of the most extreme and bizarre statements about what Arminians believe that I’ve ever heard. Either Piper is severely unaware of what Arminian theology teaches, or he is just giving his own interpretation of it. Oftentimes people only see what they want to see. Of course God has the right and authority and power to save anybody. He has the right and authority and power to do anything He wants to do (within His holy character). He’s God. Whether intentional or not, Piper is misleading his audience to believe that this is an issue between Calvinists and Arminians. This is not an issue. The issue is this: As Sovereign God, what specifically has God ordained in regard to who and how one comes to faith in Christ? That’s the issue. That’s where Calvinists and Arminians differ.

Arminians believe that God, in His sovereignty, ordained Christ to die for all sinners and that salvation be made available to all sinners. We believe that God, in His sovereignty, Has ordained that salvation be offered as a gift, a genuine gift, where sinners are free to receive His offer of love, or to reject it. Perhaps God could have come up with a different plan but He didn’t. Perhaps God could have chosen to save every human being that ever comes into the world but He didn’t. God is the Sovereign Ruler of the universe. He does all things as He sees fit and for His own purposes. Therefore, whatever plan God came up with to save mankind from the penalty of their sins, it would be because of the fact that He is sovereign. Whatever God ordains, it’s because He is sovereign.

Calvinists teach that, since God is sovereign, He must choose who will believe unto salvation and who won’t believe. They believe that since God is sovereign, Christ must die only for those individuals He’s chosen to save — because they believe God must decree and orchestrate every infinitesimal detail of the universe. To quote Piper again: “There’s no doubt that God wills every nail that’s ever sunk to be sunk. Not one hair turns white or gray apart from His will. Not one bird falls from the sky, not one nail is in a 2 x 4 anywhere on the planet but that God wills it so. But He wills it through hammers, and so through prayer.” Piper is an extreme determinist. By his own words, he believes that everything that happens in the world —  which would include all sin and all evil — is according to God’s will. And of course, what he’s saying in the context in which that statement is made, no one is saved unless God has already determined it to be so for them.

Calvinists believe that it’s somehow out of harmony with God’s sovereignty if people are allowed to freely respond to the gospel in faith, or to freely reject in pride. From the Calvinist standpoint, God is only sovereign if He doesn’t allow that freedom to choose. But then, when you think about that statement, it’s completely contradictory. It’s senseless.

Calvinists’ view of God’s sovereignty (in regard to salvation) is associated with their view of the total depravity of man. According to their view of total depravity, one has to be regenerated to be able to make a decision for Christ. Of course, at that point, it’s not really the sinner making the decision, but God making it for them. Naturally, Calvinists may reject that idea, saying that God doesn’t coerce anyone, and that it’s a true faith — albeit, via irresistible grace. However, if God is drawing a person in an irresistible manner, where unbelief and rejection of Christ is not even possible, the reality is, no matter how you slice it, it’s actually God making the decision for them — since they had no other choice but to believe. Deny that idea, as Calvinists may, that’s the only logical and realistic conclusion one can come to.

Piper states: “…because they have ultimate self-determining power to seal the deal.” Again, the way Piper frames this, it gives his audience a false understanding of the Arminian position. First of all, as already discussed, we acknowledge that God is absolutely sovereign. No one has any power at all except what He allows or what He has ordained. Thus the freedom to choose Christ or to reject Him is something that God Himself has determined. Second, even with the freedom to choose that God has granted, it’s only after the Holy Spirit has opened the spiritually blind eyes, brought conviction of sin, revealed the truth about who Jesus is and what He did for us, freed the will and enabled faith. Third, we don’t save ourselves; only God can save sinners. Christ is central. We just simply believe and receive the gift that He extends to us via His Son. At the point of faith, God saves us. We can’t save ourselves.

It’s amazing to me that, even after all that, Calvinists still choose to present Arminian soteriology as man-centered and self-determining. Not only is that a completely false notion of Arminian theology, it’s irrational. So what if we receive God’s gift of eternal life from a freed will of faith and humility? That’s God’s plan of salvation for mankind. That’s the way He designed it. That’s what He ordained. If He wants sinners to receive His Son as Lord and Savior from a willing heart of faith, that He Himself has prepared, then how does that make God any less sovereign? Just because it doesn’t line up with the Calvinist version of it, doesn’t make God any less sovereign. That’s just a limitation that Calvinists have placed on it.

The Arminian understanding of how one comes to Christ  reveals a genuine faith — one that is his or her own. Whereas in the Calvinist scheme, faith is revealed to be a farce. I say that because, if unbelief and rejection is not even a possibility, then how can faith be genuine? Faith, in order to be faith, the option to choose otherwise, must be present. Yielding in faith, necessarily, requires a turning from that which counters. True faith is defined by that which would challenge one to respond in the other direction. As sinful beings, whether born-again or not, there must be the availability and possibility of pride and unbelief in order for the response of humility and faith to be seen as such. The Calvinist version of faith is false.

Praying for the lost:

Piper’s discussion was in the context of praying for the salvation of others. With the Calvinist position of election in mind, I don’t think Piper has thought through this carefully enough. He believes, as he indicated, that within the Calvinist system, Christians can pray for others, and God can still save through those prayers. This is not an exact quote, but Piper exhorted his audience not to use philosophical arguments or logic to prevent them from praying for someone’s salvation. But how can that be? Don’t Calvinists believe that God unconditionally chose His people “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4)? Don’t they believe that “the unconditionally elect” are set in stone already? Yes, they do. So how can it be that praying for someone who may not be one of “the unconditionally elect” can still be saved? Surely Piper doesn’t believe that God will make a last minute decision in real time and choose someone that He didn’t already choose before the foundation of the world, does he? That would clearly be contrary to Calvinist teaching.

I agree that there may be many people that they pray for that may be among “the elect.” That’s a given. But Piper makes it sound like Christians can pray for their children or for anyone else and still move the hand of God to save. But again, the reality is, that only works if they’re already among those whom God has already determined to save. According to Calvinist theology, there’s not enough prayers in the world that can ever save anyone who is not already one of “the unconditionally elect of God.” What Piper proposes simply doesn’t make sense. The concern he shows for his unsaved children suggests a desperate attempt to see a possible way that this could somehow work within his theology. And of course, I fully understand how he feels. I’m in the same situation myself. However, no amount of hope and no amount of prayers is going to turn the “non-elect” into “the elect.”

On the other hand, as Arminians interpret Scripture, the possibility of salvation exists for every person born into the world. Therefore,  we can pray that God will do a work in the heart of anyone, and be confident that He will do so. While there’s no assurance that everyone we pray for will receive Christ, the possibility is always there. We always have hope that they will turn to Christ as Lord and Savior through the convicting and drawing work of the Holy Spirit. In Calvinism, there is no such hope. The best they can hope for is that the one they’re praying for is one of “the unconditionally elect.”

John Piper is, simply, wrong. He’s giving Christians a false hope. He advises against using philosophical arguments to keep them from praying for the unsaved. However, Calvinist theology already makes it clear what the real situation is in the matter of salvation and “the unconditionally elect.” The truth is, it’s Piper himself who is using philosophical arguments, but he’s using them to to get around the theology that he holds so dear.  

As I already indicated, his concern for the salvation of his children suggests that he’s looking for a loophole within his own theology. And again, I truly empathize with him. However, no amount of concern, and no amount of hope for loopholes is going to change the reality of what Calvinism teaches. Then again, I believe that the Calvinist position of election is false. Therefore, Piper’s children still have hope of being saved. So I would encourage him to keep on praying. The truth of the Arminian position is the only certain hope his children have — and mine too.

Original Post:  The Arminian Files