John Piper on the Implications of Arminianism and the Atonement

Often, when Arminians and Calvinists are challenging the theology of their respective opponents, they include the arguing against what appear to be the implications of that theology. For example, when Arminians allege that Calvinism renders God the Author of sin and evil,1 we are not insisting that Calvinists explicitly render God the Author of sin and evil by their own theological confessions (though, tragically, some actually do). Arminians have an ample amount of testimony of Calvinists insisting that their theology is not suggesting that God is the Author of sin and evil. We, however, see the implications of their theology as necessarily concluding that He actually is the Author of sin and evil based upon the implications we see from their own theological confessions.

John Piper, expounding upon the doctrine of limited atonement, views the denial of limited atonement, in its intent and extent, problematic: 1) the atonement, then, does not really save anyone; and 2) Arminians are really the ones who limit the atonement, since we, allegedly, deny "that the atoning death of Christ accomplishes what we most desperately need." (link) (emphasis added) Of course, Piper is wrong on both counts, as will be painfully obvious in this post. But I intend to interact with his own statements:
If you say that he died for every human being in the same way, then you have to define the nature of the atonement very differently than you would if you believed that Christ only died for those who actually believe. In the first case you would believe that the death of Christ did not actually save anybody; it only made all men savable. [emphases added] It did not actually remove God's punitive wrath from anyone, but instead created a place where people could come and find mercy -- if they could accomplish their own new birth and bring themselves to faith without the irresistible grace of God. (link) (emphasis original)
The problems here are manifold. Let us examine the notion of Christ dying "for every human being in the same way." What does Scripture teach? How shall we interpret the universal statements in Scripture explicitly stating that Jesus died for every human being in the same way (cf. John 1:29; 3:16; 6:51; Rom. 14:15; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19, 20, 21; 1 Tim. 2:6; 4:10; Heb. 2:9-10; 2 Pet. 2:1 1 John 2:2; 4:14)? The question is not merely how but why we should interpret the universal references in a limited manner. Is there not another motivating factor that is driving the doctrine of limited atonement? Yes, there is, and that is the theory of unconditional election.

Then there is the notion that Christ's atonement "did not actually save anybody" if He died for every human being in the same way. But this is neither logically nor biblically feasible. Piper articulates this matter of the atonement through the lens of his own theology. In a sense, then, he is employing circular reasoning by suggesting that, because limited atonement is true, then Arminianism is wrong. Why is Arminianism wrong? Because limited atonement is true. But how could Piper allege that, in Arminianism, the atonement did not actually save anybody when Arminian theology posits a doctrine of election? God intended to save people, and He intended to do so based on the atonement offered by Christ. This is faulty logic on the part of Piper. But he is also erroneously and unbiblically assuming that the atonement automatically saves people.

In the words of Dr. Terry Miethe, under such an erroneous assumption, if Christ's death was sufficient to save all for whom He died then it must save all for whom He died.2 But where in Scripture are we taught this assumption? As a matter of fact, we are taught the direct opposing view, that many for whom Christ died would not ultimately be redeemed. (cf. Heb. 10:29; 2 Peter 2:1) This much should be obvious: the fact that Christ has made provision for atonement of the whole world does not necessitate actual, applied atonement for the whole world. Atonement provision for the world is available (2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19); atonement application is available solely to those who, by grace, receive Christ by faith (Rom. 3:24, 25, 26). There is no automatic redemption.

We cannot neglect the universal statements regarding the atonement in the Christian scriptures. Jesus Christ universally accomplished redemption (Titus 2:14), paid a ransom (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:6; 1 Pet. 1:18), provided Himself as a substitution (Rom. 5:5-10; 2 Cor. 5:18), brought about reconciliation (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:19; Heb. 2:17), provided a propitiation (Rom. 3:25, 26; 1 John 2:1-2) or atonement (Lev. 16:16-20) -- all of which satisfied the justice of God on behalf of wicked sinners; demonstrated the divine love for all wicked sinners; so that anyone in the whole world could, by grace through faith in Christ, be saved (Isa. 53:6; John 1:29, 36; 3:16, 36; 6:51; 11:50; Rom. 3:24, 25, 26; 5:6, 8, 11; 8:32; 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11; 15:3, 22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; Eph. 2:12, 13, 14, 15; Col. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:4-6; 3:5-6; 4:10; Titus 2:11-14; Heb. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:18; 1 John 2:2; 3:5; 4:10).

Still, there is no charge against this view regarding the promotion of a "double payment." Just as Christ dying for the world, for the reconciliation of the world to God, providing redemption for the world, so that the wrath of God will not be experienced by the sinner; so this "payment," ransom, reconciliation and redemption is predicated upon the grace of God, and applied to the individual through faith in Christ. This "payment" must also be applied to the sinner, and such is applied to the sinner-turned-believer on the condition of faith. Hence there is no such argument as a "double payment."

Moreover, Scripture never informs us that the wicked are "paying" for their sins, as they are separated from God for eternity. Indeed, this debt could never be fully paid, for only Christ could provide a perfect "payment." Hence the notion of sinners "paying" for their sins in hell is a concept without biblical warrant and, therefore, nullifies any argument regarding "double payment" -- Christ "paying" for their sins on the cross and sinners "paying" for their sins in hell. The argument is only an imagined one.

The Calvinist is in error to assume that, by Christ dying for the world, what is intended is that Christ died solely for the so-called unconditionally elect. Not even one of our Greek-to-English Lexicons grant such a philosophical notion, as Dr. Miethe demonstrates:
Again, this is an important assertion. The question is, Where does the burden of proof lie? Douty mentions the following works: Trench's Synonyms of the New Testament, Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament, Robinson's A Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Souter's Pocket Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Berry's Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Arndt-Gingrich's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Abbott-Smith's Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Tasker's New Bible Dictionary, Everett F. Harrison in Baker's Dictionary of Theology, and John D. Davis in his Dictionary of the Bible (both Harrison and Davis list John 3:16 as referring to mankind, though both are Presbyterians).3
As to "making men savable," in lieu of "actually saving" some, we have to address this matter biblically. One could defensively challenge Piper's assertion with the question: Did Christ's atonement render fallen mortals less savable? The Calvinist argues that Scripture does not teach universal provision and redemption. In a secondary sense, the Calvinist is correct, in that the whole world will not be atoned and saved (cf. Matt. 7:13, 14; John 3:36; Acts 26:18; Rom. 10:16, 17; Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Thess. 2:9-12; Rev. 19:11-21; 20:11-15; 21:8). But in a primary sense, the Calvinist is incorrect, in that a comprehensive provision for atonement has been accomplished by Jesus Christ in His priestly role as Savior of humanity. The whole world potentially and theoretically could have been redeemed. (1 Tim. 4:10) However, this concept is inconsistent with the theory of unconditional election, whereby God, from eternity past, unconditionally decreed to save some and not others.

The same is true with regard to God's wrath. The atonement would universally remove God's wrath but only by grace through faith in Christ. God's wrath against sin remains as long as there are people who spurn the blood of Christ shed on the cross (cf. John 3:36). But Piper is certainly in error by the snarky reply: "if they could accomplish their own new birth and bring themselves to faith without the irresistible grace of God." Again he is assuming his own theology as correct and judging Arminianism thereby. This is not a proper argument. One must assess any teaching by its own merits and not by the supposed orthodoxy of another. No classical Arminian would ever suggest that any person is capable of "accomplishing their own new birth and bringing themselves to faith" apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. His arguments thus far ring hollow.

The Calvinist limits the atonement both in its intent, and in its extent, and this from eternity past. So that, in the mind and intention of God, He planned to atone solely for the sins of those whom He unconditionally pre-selected to save. There cannot possibly be any more stringent limiting of the atonement and salvation than this concept. Piper is not convinced of this logical and consistent fact, however. He attempts to make the following argument appear convincing:
Therefore it becomes evident that it is not the Calvinist who limits the atonement [though the atonement has been limited both in its intent and in its extent from eternity past solely to the unconditionally pre-selected]. It is the Arminian, because he denies that the atoning death of Christ accomplishes what we most desperately need -- namely, salvation from the condition of deadness and hardness and blindness under the wrath of God. (link)
Once again Piper is attempting to draw an implication based not upon Arminian theology of the atonement but upon Calvinistic presuppositions and assumptions as a theological comparison to Arminian soteriology. In his mind, the atonement actually and quite automatically saves -- it saves the unconditionally pre-selected ones. We deny this as being biblical in nature. But our denial of this unbiblical concept renders us as somehow limiting the atonement. How? Allegedly because Arminians deny "that the atoning death of Christ accomplishes what we most desperately need." Is this true? Do Arminians deny that the atoning death of Christ accomplishes what we most desperately need? Piper is justified in this argument only by intentionally neglecting our doctrine of prevenient grace.

Jesus is a perfect Savior. He perfectly saves the one who by grace trusts in Him alone for salvation. For Piper and other Calvinists, however, this atonement "accomplishes" salvation for the unconditionally pre-selected ones not by grace through faith (cf. Eph. 2:8) but by regeneration resulting in faith (cf. Calvinistic philosophy). The atonement and salvation is automatic for the limited number of unconditionally pre-selected ones in Calvinistic philosophical-theology. Yet Arminians are the ones who really limit the atonement, according to Piper. We, to confess the least, are not convinced. Adding insult to injury he writes (emphases added):
The Arminian limits the nature and value and effectiveness of the atonement so that he can say that it was accomplished even for those who die in unbelief and are condemned. In order to say that Christ died for all men in the same way, the Arminian must limit the atonement to a powerless opportunity for men to save themselves from their terrible plight of depravity. (link)
The preceding and subsequent comments are unwarranted, unfair, and insulting. Piper knows full-well that Arminians do not think that anyone can save him- or herself and yet he uses his words likes weapons regardless. This is poor reasoning and inept arguing.

The "nature" of the atonement remains the same in Arminian theology: the essence of the atonement is to cleanse the sinner of his or her sins and to be the efficacious agent bringing about forgiveness of one's sins by God, the One offended. Thus the "value" of the atonement remains intact in Arminian theology, without losing its worth, since it accomplishes its intent in those who, by grace, trust in Christ -- a truth which demonstrates the "effectiveness" of the atonement: it genuinely covers the sins of the believer, brings the forgiveness of the Deity offended to the believer, thus leading the believer to measure the worth of the atonement as inestimable.

As to Christ dying "even for those who die in unbelief and are condemned," I admit my surprise of this argument, given that Scripture explicitly states the reality of this truth: "But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them -- bringing swift destruction on themselves." (2 Peter 2:1, emphasis added) The language of "bought" is atonement-language: ἀγοράσαντα referring to being purchased in a marketplace, ἀγορά itself referring to "ownership transfers from seller to buyer." (link) Redemptively, the word is also used of those for whom Christ died and were redeemed at John 17:9, 10; 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 2 Pet. 2:1; Rev. 5:9; 14:3, 4. Yet the possibility remains that the one thus bought by Christ will not ultimately be redeemed.

Elsewhere Scripture insists that there exists people for whom Christ died who also died in unbelief and condemnation. The author of Hebrews writes: "How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?" (Heb. 10:29, emphasis added) These individuals ἡγιάσθη, "were sanctified," and sanctification only happens to believers. Yet these individuals spurned the Son of God, profaned the atoning blood of the covenant, and outraged the gracious Holy Spirit by their apostasy. Hence they, having once been atoned and sanctified, died in apostatic unbelief and condemnation. Scripture really does teach the concept against which Piper argues.

I find the following comment of Piper especially peculiar, notably the first sentence:
On the other hand we do not limit the power and effectiveness of the atonement. We simply say that in the cross God had in view the actual redemption of his children. And we affirm that when Christ died for these, he did not just create the opportunity for them to save themselves, but really purchased for them all that was necessary to get them saved, including the grace of regeneration and the gift of faith. (link) (emphasis added)
Yes, John Piper and all Calvinists actually do limit the power and effectiveness of the atonement, since its power and effectual nature was from eternity past only intended for the unconditionally pre-selected people and no one else -- that is a severe and unalterable limitation. But, again, we discover Piper's snarky comment about Arminian theology: Christ "did not just create the opportunity for [people] to save themselves." This is an entirely baseless comment, and one that is unbecoming and entirely unnecessary in the dialogue between the two opposing parties, Arminians and Calvinists.

If Piper and other Calvinists intend to critique Arminian theology, denoting what they deem as negative logical implications of the anachronistic, early-Church-historical system, then they should do so based upon confessions and defenses made by actual Arminians, and not those judged by a comparison of an opposing theological worldview, i.e., Calvinism. If we, in any sense, suggested that people save and regenerate themselves by their own free will, for example, then Piper's arguments against Arminianism would be entirely valid. As is, however, the arguments are baseless and truly only telling of the great lengths one must stride in order to demean orthodox Arminian theology.


1 We think that, in Calvinism, God can be viewed in no other sense than the Author of sin and evil since He has, in Calvinistic confessions, decreed that people sin and commit evil, actually brings about the same, and also influences our desires and decisions. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.18.1; see also Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143. For Calvinists to then argue against our complaint, of Calvinism rendering God the Author of sin and evil, is, we think, inconsistent, unwarranted, and ignored by us and other non-Calvinists. Sin and evil were God's eternal idea before He even created human beings and decreed their decisions and actions, according to Calvinists, and therefore He cannot be viewed in any other manner than the Author, Originator, and  Divine Orchestrator of sin and evil.

2 Terry L. Miethe, "The Universal Power of the Atonement," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 74.

3 Ibid., 73.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.