There are few doctrines more difficult or divisive than election. With humility and grace, Piper argues for God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation, explains challenging texts, and winsomely engages with key opponents.
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About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God; Don’t Waste Your Life; This Momentary Marriage; A Peculiar Glory; and Reading the Bible Supernaturally.
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My aim in this short book 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. A corresponding aim is to show that unconditional election therefore does not contradict biblical expressions of God's compassion for all people and does not rule out sincere offers of salvation to all who are lost among the peoples of the world.
The Perplexing Texts
First Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 18:23, and Matthew 23:37 are the texts most commonly cited to show that God's will is for all people to be saved and none to be lost.
In 1 Timothy 2:1–4, Paul says that the reason we should pray for kings and all in high positions is that this may bring about a quiet and peaceable life that "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."
In 2 Peter 3:8–9, the apostle says that the delay of the second coming of Christ is owing to the fact that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day: "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."
In Ezekiel 18:23 and 32, the Lord speaks about his heart for the perishing: "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? ... I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live."
In Matthew 23:37, Jesus says: "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!"
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). It is also possible that the "you" in 2 Peter 3:9 ("the Lord is ... patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish") refers not to every person in the world but to professing Christians, among whom, as Adolf Schlatter says, "are people who only through repentance can attain to the grace of God and to the promised inheritance."
Nevertheless, the case for this limitation on God's universal saving will has never been convincing to Arminians. And for our purposes, this case is not decisive, since other texts are more compelling. Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11; and Matthew 23:37 surely point to God's desire that all people be saved. Therefore, as a hearty believer in unconditional, individual election, I also rejoice to affirm that there is a real sense in which God does not take pleasure in the perishing of the impenitent, that he desired to gather all the rebellious inhabitants of Jerusalem, and that he has compassion on all people. My aim is to show that this is not double talk.
My purpose is not to defend the doctrine that God chooses unconditionally whom he will save. I have tried to do that elsewhere, and others have done it more extensively than I. Nevertheless, I will try to make a credible case that while the texts cited above may indeed be pillars for God's universal love and universal saving desire, they are not weapons against unconditional election.
Naming the Ways God Wills
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.
This distinction in the ways God wills is not a new contrivance. It has been expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. For example, theologians have spoken of "sovereign will" and "moral will," "efficient will" and "permissive will," "secret will" and "revealed will," "will of decree" and "will of command," "decretive will" and "preceptive will," and "voluntas signi (will of sign)" and "voluntas beneplaciti (will of good pleasure)," among other terms.
Criticism of the Two Wills in God
Clark Pinnock referred disapprovingly to "the exceedingly paradoxical notion of two divine wills regarding salvation." In Pinnock's edited volume, A Case for Arminianism, Randall G. Basinger argues that "if God has decreed all events, then it must be that things cannot and should not be any different from what they are." In other words, he rejects the notion that God could decree that a thing be one way and yet teach that we should act to make it another way. He says that it is too hard "to coherently conceive of a God in which this distinction really exists."
In the same volume, Fritz Guy argues that the revelation of God in Christ has brought about a "paradigm shift" in the way we should think about the love of God — namely, as "more fundamental than, and prior to, justice and power." This shift, he says, makes it possible to think about the "will of God" as "delighting more than deciding." God's will is not his sovereign purpose that he infallibly establishes, but rather "the desire of the lover for the beloved." The will of God is his general intention and longing, not his effective purpose. Guy goes so far as to say, "Apart from a predestinarian presupposition, it becomes apparent that God's 'will' is always to be understood in terms of intention and desire [as opposed to efficacious, sovereign purpose]."
These criticisms are not new. Jonathan Edwards wrote two hundred and fifty years ago: "The Arminians ridicule the distinction between the secret and revealed will of God, or, more properly expressed, the distinction between the decree and the law of God; because we say he may decree one thing, and command another. And so, they argue, we hold a contrariety in God, as if one will of his contradicted another."
Driven by Texts, Not Logic
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. The most careful exegete writing in Pinnock's A Case for Arminianism concedes the existence of two wills in God. I. Howard Marshall applies his exegetical gift to the Pastoral Epistles. Concerning 1 Timothy 2:4, he says:
To avoid all misconceptions it should be made clear at the outset that the fact that God wishes or wills that all people should be saved does not necessarily imply that all will respond to the gospel and be saved. We must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen, and both of these things can be spoken of as God's will. The question at issue is not whether all will be saved but whether God has made provision in Christ for the salvation of all, provided that they believe, and without limiting the potential scope of the death of Christ merely to those whom God knows will believe.
In this book, I would like to undergird Marshall's point that "we must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen, and [that] both of these things can be spoken of as God's will." Perhaps the most effective way to do this is to begin by drawing attention to the way Scripture portrays God's willing something in one sense that he disapproves in another sense. Then, after seeing some of the biblical evidence, we can step back and ponder how to understand it in relation to God's saving purposes.CHAPTER 2
Illustrations of Two Wills in God
The simple purpose of this chapter is to assemble biblical illustrations of God's two wills. What passages of Scripture portray God as willing something in one sense that he disapproves in another sense? We will focus on five biblical examples.
1. The Death of Christ
The most compelling example of God's willing for sin to come to pass while at the same time disapproving the sin is his willing the death of his perfect, divine Son. The betrayal of Jesus by Judas was a morally evil act inspired immediately by Satan (Luke 22:3). Yet, in Acts 2:23, Peter says, "This Jesus [was] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God." The betrayal was sin, and it involved the instrumentality of Satan, but it was part of God's ordained plan. That is, there is a sense in which God willed the delivering up of his Son, even though Judas's act was sin.
Moreover, Herod's contempt for Jesus (Luke 23:11), the Jews' cry, "Crucify, crucify him!" (v. 21), Pilate's spineless expediency (v. 24), and the Gentile soldiers' mockery (v. 36) were also sinful attitudes and deeds. Yet in Acts 4:27–28, Luke expresses his understanding of the sovereignty of God in these acts by recording the prayer of the Jerusalem saints:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
Herod, the Jewish crowds, Pilate, and the soldiers lifted their hands to rebel against the Most High, only to find that their rebellion was, in fact, unwitting (sinful) service in the inscrutable designs of God.
The appalling death of Christ was the will and work of God the Father. Isaiah writes, "We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God. ... It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief" (Isa. 53:4, 10). God's will was very much engaged in the events that brought his Son to death on the cross. God considered it "fitting ... [to] make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering" (Heb. 2:10). Yet, as Jonathan Edwards points out, Christ's suffering "could not come to pass but by sin. For contempt and disgrace was one thing he was to suffer."
It goes almost without saying that God wills obedience to his moral law, and that he wills this in a way that can be rejected by many. This is evident from numerous texts: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21); "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (12:50); "Whoever does the will of God abides forever" (1 John 2:17). "The will of God" in these texts is the revealed, moral instruction of the Old and New Testaments, which forbids sin.
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. I. Howard Marshall's statement, quoted in chapter 1, is confirmed by the death of Jesus: "We must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen."
2. The War against the Lamb
There are two reasons that we turn next to the book of Revelation. One is that the war against the Son of God, which reached its sinful climax at the cross, comes to final consummation in a way that confirms what we have seen about the will of God. The other reason is that this text reveals John's understanding of God's active involvement in fulfilling prophecies in ways that involve sinning. John sees a vision of some final events of history:
And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. (Rev. 17:16–17)
Even without going into all the details of this passage, the relevant matter is clear. The beast rises from "the bottomless pit" (Rev. 17:8). He is the personification of evil and rebellion against God. The ten horns are ten kings (v. 12), and they "make war on the Lamb" (v. 14).
Waging war against the Lamb is sin, and sin is contrary to the will of God. Nevertheless, the angel says (literally), "God has put it into their [the ten kings'] hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled" (v. 17). Therefore, 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).
Moreover, God does this in fulfillment of prophetic words. The ten kings will collaborate with the beast "until the words of God are fulfilled." This implies something crucial about John's understanding of the fulfillment of "the prophecies leading up to the overthrow of Antichrist." It implies that (at least in John's view) God's prophecies are not mere predictions about what God knows will happen, but rather are divine intentions that he makes sure will happen. We know this because verse 17 says that God is acting to see to it that the ten kings will make league with the beast "until the words of God are fulfilled." John is not exulting in the marvelous foreknowledge of God to predict a bad event. Rather, he is exulting in the marvelous sovereignty of God to make sure that the bad event comes about. Fulfilled prophecy, in John's mind, is not only prediction, but also promised divine performance.
This is important because John tells us in his Gospel that there are Old Testament prophecies of events surrounding the death of Christ that involve sin. This means that God intends to bring about events that involve things he forbids. These events include Judas's betrayal of Jesus (John 13:18; Ps. 41:9), the hatred Jesus received from his enemies (John 15:25; Pss. 69:4; 35:19), the casting of lots for Jesus's clothing (John 19:24; Ps. 22:18), and the piercing of Jesus's side (John 19:36–37; Ex. 12:46; Ps. 34:20; Zech. 12:10). John expresses his theology of God's sovereignty with these words: "These things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled" (John 19:36). In other words, the events were not a coincidence that God merely foresaw, but a plan that God purposed to bring about. Thus, again we find Marshall's words confirmed: "We must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen."
3. The Hardening Work of God
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. In Exodus 8:1, the Lord says to Moses, "Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, 'Thus says the LORD, "Let my people go, that they may serve me."'" In other words, God's command, that is, his will, was that Pharaoh let the Israelites go. Nevertheless, from the start he also willed that Pharaoh not let the Israelites go. In Exodus 4:21, God says to Moses: "When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go." At one point, Pharaoh himself acknowledges that his unwillingness to let the people go is sin: "Now therefore, forgive my sin" (Ex. 10:17). Thus, we see that God commanded that Pharaoh do a thing that God himself willed not to allow. The good thing that God commanded he prevented. And the thing he brought about involved sin.
Some have tried to avoid this implication by pointing out that during the first five plagues the text does not say explicitly that God hardened Pharaoh's heart but that it "was hardened" (Ex. 7:22; 8:19; 9:7) or that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32), and that only in the latter plagues does it say explicitly that God hardened Pharaoh's heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:4). For example, R. T. Forster and V. P. Marston say that only from the sixth plague on did God give Pharaoh "supernatural strength to continue with his evil path of rebellion."
But this observation does not succeed in avoiding the evidence of two wills in God. Even if Forster and Marston are right that God was not willing for Pharaoh's heart to be hardened during the first five plagues, they concede that for the last five plagues God did will this, at least in the sense of strengthening Pharaoh to continue in the path of rebellion. 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").(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Does God Desire All to Be Saved?"
Copyright © 2013 John Piper.
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Table of Contents
1 My Aim 13
2 Illustrations of Two Wills in God 19
3 How Extensive Is the Sovereign Will of God? 31
4 Does It Make Sense? 37
Desiring God: A Note on Resources 57
Scripture Index 59