I Wish John Piper Understood Arminian Theology

Why would I assume that John Piper does not adequately understand Arminian theology? Because he consistently misrepresents Arminianism. In his brief piece, "Watershed Differences Between Calvinists and Arminians," he continues to impose a philosophical notion that Arminians explicitly reject: "Arminians say, with regard to depravity, people are depraved and corrupt, but are able to provide the decisive impulse to trust God with the general divine assistance that God gives to everybody." (link) (emphasis added) He has repeated this false impression of Arminianism ad nauseum to the point that this idea has become synonymous with Arminian theology for most Calvinists. If Arminians actually believed this notion then we would not constantly be challenging Piper's argument. But he, simply, does not understand Arminian theology.

No matter what else he has written in this brief piece, this very notion must be addressed, and must be corrected in the minds of Calvinists like John Piper. No, we will never agree with Calvinists on the philosophical theories of unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace, but we agree wholeheartedly on the doctrines of total depravity and its corollary total inability. The "watershed differences" between Calvinists and Arminians on this significant doctrine is the solution to the problem of both depravity and inability, as well as using the language of "corpse" regarding sinners who are "dead in sins" (Eph. 2:1, 2), all of which necessitate, in the theology of Calvinism, that regeneration must precede faith.

At the start, I think we need to address an inconsistency within Calvinist claims, especially with the notion of faith itself. Piper states: "Calvinism says people are so depraved and rebellious that they are unable to trust God without his special work of grace to change their hearts so that they necessarily and willingly -- freely -- believe." (link) So, then, the person is the one doing the believing. God provides the means for an unconditionally elect person to freely believe in Christ. As R.C. Sproul concedes: "But all Christians agree that faith is something we do. God does not do the believing for us."1 (emphases added) How, then, do these confessions of Piper and Sproul differ from that of Arminians? As a matter of fact, given the manner in which Piper frames the Calvinist view, could we not suggest that, though people are depraved and corrupt, they are able to provide the decisive impulse to trust God with the divine assistance that God gives to them?

Of course, that suggestion would be a straw man, as Calvinists do not construct their theology of total depravity or salvation in such a context. Neither do Arminians. God decides who is saved and who is not saved. He alone saves. Faith does not save. God has elected to save the one who will believe in Christ (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20). God does not regenerate and save unbelievers (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13). So, if faith is "something we do," since God "does not do the believing for us" (Sproul); and if God performs a special work of grace to change our hearts so that we (I will leave out the word necessarily) "willingly, freely, believe" (Piper); then both Arminians and Calvinists staunchly insist that an inner work of God's grace, in Christ Jesus and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, is necessary, essential, and sufficient for leading a person to willingly, freely, believe in Jesus Christ.

But Piper is not satisfied with the major agreements Arminians and Calvinists share on this issue; neither were the Calvinists of Arminius' age and that of the Remonstrants. Read for yourself the same false notion of Piper regarding Arminian theology throughout (emphases added):

  • election: "Arminians say God has chosen us, elected to bring to salvation all those whom he foresaw would believe by bringing about their own faith providing the decisive impetus themselves."
  • atonement: "Arminians say in the death of Christ God provided a sufficient atonement for all [as do four-point Calvinists] and designed that it would become effective by virtue of faith for which we, not Christ, provide the decisive impetus."
  • grace: "Arminians say the new birth is God's work of renewal in our hearts in response to our act of saving faith." (link)

The "Arminianism" familiar to the likes of Piper (and J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, James White, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, John Hendryx et al.) is a straw man theology of their own creation that utterly contradicts what Arminians actually insist they believe. Since both Piper and Sproul confess that God does not believe in Christ for us, that faith is something that we do, then how can Piper claim that his view is any stronger than that of the Arminian? In both systems the confession is made that God performs a work in the heart enabling a person to willingly, freely, believe. What concept Calvinists add is the word "necessarily." The Calvinist and the Arminian are almost using the same theological language -- the difference being that one adopts a deterministic philosophy (Calvinism) while the other denies the same (Arminianism).

JOHN PIPER: WHAT?

Under the "election" heading, Piper proffers that Arminians regard God's decision to elect one unto salvation within the framework of us "bringing about [our] own faith" as "providing the decisive impetus" ourselves. But this view rejects a necessary grace. From the Society of Evangelical Arminians we learn that Arminian theology is insistent (emphases added):
[H]uman beings are not able to think, will, nor do anything good in and of themselves. We are unable do anything that merits favor from God and we cannot do anything to save ourselves from the judgment and condemnation of God that we deserve for our sin. We cannot even believe the gospel on our own (John 6:44). If anyone is to be saved, God must take the initiative. (link)
So, which statement is right, what Piper confesses Arminians believe or what the Society of Evangelical Arminians confess Arminians believe? Notice that with four of the five points listed, Piper insists that Arminianism posits a self-determined faith, quite in spite of what Arminians actually teach and believe on the necessity of grace. This leads me to question whether Piper, and most Calvinists for that matter, reject an "Arminianism" that is not inherently Arminian.

Moreover, I fear that most Calvinists are far too academically careless, unconcerned, and overtly apathetic in reading Arminius, the Remonstrants or Arminian scholars. They seem content at propagating an "Arminianism" of their own imagination. Piper himself concludes:
The key difference between a Calvinist and an Arminian is how they understand how we get saved; that is, how we move from a condition of spiritual unbelief to a condition of heartfelt belief or faith in Christ. And the key difference is this: Calvinists believe that God has to produce in us the decisive desire for Christ. And Arminians believe we must produce in ourselves the decisive desire for Christ. The Arminians say that God helps us. He helps all people, but we provide the last, decisive impetus and desire for that belief. (link) (emphases added)
My hope, here, is that you see for yourself Piper's inconsistency. He claims here, "God has to produce in us the decisive desire for Christ," and above claims that God uses a "special work of grace to change their hearts so that they necessarily and willingly -- freely -- believe." But he insists that Arminians hold that "we must produce in ourselves the decisive desire for Christ." Allow me to be brazenly direct: John Piper does not decide what Arminians believe. Arminians are privileged to adopt their own confessions about these issues; and, in our opinion, Piper has a rather consistent history of misrepresenting Arminian theology. Pay close attention to Arminius here.

Jacob Arminius confesses that our free will, due to the fall, has been lost and destroyed regarding the attainment of grace and salvation. He insists that the mind of the fallen person is "incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God."2 He concedes that the perverseness of the affections of the heart causes the sinner to have "an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil."3 He also insists that these conditions grant the sinner an inherent weakness of all the powers "to perform that which is truly good."4 Therefore, like Piper and all other Calvinists, we Arminians insist that if a person is to receive the salvation of God, the Holy Spirit must perform an inner work leading one to willingly and freely, using Piper's own words, believe in Christ. We are not, after all, semi-Pelagians or others who reject man's inherent depravity and inability of coming to Christ and of believing in Him.

Piper desires to frame the Arminian position in a self-determination that renders the sovereignty of God in irresistible hues: i.e., that God is irresistibly drawn to the one who, in and of himself, believes in Christ. This false notion no more rightly represents Arminian theology than Pelagius rightly represents Augustinianism. We do disagree with Calvinism on unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace, and some of us disagree with Calvinism on necessary perseverance. But Arminians agree with Calvinists on the doctrine of total depravity and its corollary total inability. All we deny is the Calvinist's insistence that God produces within His unconditionally elect an ability that causes one necessarily and willingly, freely, to believe.

Understand, though, that this particular notion of total depravity, in the Calvinist system, is necessitated by an a priori, namely, unconditional election. Also, both concepts -- total depravity, as defined and expounded by Calvinists, and unconditional election -- are conceived within the context of determinism, what Calvinists call "the sovereignty of God."5 (If you are akin to ignoring footnotes, I encourage you to read this one.) Piper's language, as quoted in this post, is littered with deterministic language. As noted elsewhere, if the errors of determinism and unconditional election would be corrected, then the theories of God acting irresistibly upon anyone would be deemed gratuitous and utterly erroneous. So, of course Arminians cannot agree with Calvinism, and there remain stark and irreconcilable "watershed differences" between the two systems. All we ask of Calvinists is that they begin, finally, to rightly represent Arminian theology. Four centuries of caricatures, misrepresentations, and straw men is quite enough.

__________

1 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 25. 

2 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:192.

3 Ibid., 2:193.

4 Ibid.

5 This doctrine of the sovereignty of God, in Calvinism, is defined in the following ways by the standard Westminster Confession of Faith (all emphases added):
I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely [unconstrained], and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin [how?], nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures [how?]; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established [and yet, by a necessary consistency, God must have also decreed all secondary causes for God to be considered "sovereign" in a Calvinistic sense].

II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions [an affirmed nod toward Molinism]; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. (link)
That God is confessed as decreeing whatsoever shall come to pass by His "most wise and holy counsel of His own will" in a free sense, and also unchangeably, then God decrees all events, regardless of how heinous, evil, sinful, because this is what He wanted to occur (what He desired to occur). We look to John Piper for support.

Commenting on Psalm 115:3, that God does whatever He pleases, John Piper writes: "This verse teaches that whenever God acts, he acts in a way that pleases him. God is never constrained to do a thing that he despises. He is never backed into a corner where his only recourse is to do something he hates to do. He does whatever he pleases. And therefore, in some sense, he has pleasure in all that he does." (link) So, God's decreeing the rape of a two year old little girl, decreeing all of the secondary causes leading to such a horrid event, "in some sense" pleases the Lord. What is the problem with this Calvinistic understanding of God in His nature?

In case this is not obvious already, Calvin himself concedes that God not only decrees every event that comes to pass, but also brings them to pass Himself: "God is said to draw or bend Satan himself, and all the reprobate, to His will ... Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that He directs their malice to whatever end He pleases. ..." See Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), I.18.1. More emphatically Calvin argues that people "do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what He has previously decreed with Himself, and brings to pass by His secret direction. ..." (I.18.1) Calvin also argues that all the "counsels, wishes, aims, and faculties [of the wicked], are so under His hand, that He has full power to turn them in whatever direction, and constrain them as often as He pleases." (I.17.6)

Do modern-day Calvinists agree with Calvin? Yes, they most certainly do agree with Calvin. Calvinist scholar Wayne A. Grudem argues that God "influences our desires and decisions." See 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. What we see lacking from Calvinists are statements consistent with their theological claims. For example, God has decreed that we Arminians exist within this context, for His pleasure. Calvinists inconsistently, however, argue and rail against the injustices of Arminian theology (and Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Open Theism, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and whatever other ism can be named). What these inconsistent Calvinists are truly railing against, though, is the eternal decree of their God who brings such to pass. Their silence would demonstrate theological and logical consistency. Unless, that is, they do not really believe their own theology.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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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.