John Piper is arguably the most influential Calvinist in the United States today and he consistently defends theistic determinism, the view that God is the decisive cause of all things, including every creature’s evil thoughts, desires or actions. As Piper puts it,
…God is the only being who is ultimately self-determining, and is himself ultimately the disposer of all things, including all choices — however many or diverse other intervening causes are. On this definition, no human being has free will, at any time. Neither before or after the fall, or in heaven, are creatures ultimately self-determining. There are great measures of self-determination, as the Bible often shows, but never is man the ultimate or decisive cause of his preferences and choices. When man’s agency and God’s agency are compared, both are real, but God’s is decisive. Yet — and here’s the mystery that causes so many to stumble — God is always decisive in such a way that man’s agency is real, and his responsibility remains.
One may read this and think to themselves, “Surely, given the preferences and choices of the worst pedophiles, abortionist, criminals, racists, and rapists our world has known, Pastor John does not really mean God decisively causes literally “ALL preferences and choices,” does he?! Yes, he does. And he makes it even more abundantly clear on his website:
“God . . . brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child…
Nothing that exists or occurs falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing, including no evil person or thing or event or deed. God’s foreordination is the ultimate reason why everything comes about, including the existence of all evil persons and things and the occurrence of any evil acts or events. And so it is not inappropriate to take God to be the creator, the sender, the permitter, and sometimes even the instigator of evil… Nothing — no evil thing or person or event or deed — falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing arises, exists, or endures independently of God’s will. So when even the worst of evils befall us, they do not ultimately come from anywhere other than God’s hand.”
John 2:16 plainly states that “The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world,” but John Piper says it all comes from the hand of God.
James 1:13 clearly states, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone,” but Piper says God has decisively brought about not only every temptation but every preference and choice of everyone tempted and even every tempter.
God Himself said, “They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.” (Jer. 32:35)
Yet, John Piper’s doctrine would tell us that God “decisively caused” Judah’s preference and choice to sin in this deplorable manner. I believe this doctrine must be confronted for its blatant and gross mischaracterization of our God. I believe Piper, and many like him, are well-intending in their efforts to rightly exegete the whole counsel of God’s word. This is why I feel compelled to walk through each of his biblical arguments in this article in order to demonstrate clearly his faulty conclusions. He begins…
Before the fall of Adam, man was sinless and able not to sin. For God “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). But he was also able to sin. For God had said, “In the day that you eat of it [the tree] you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
This paragraph establishes the liberty of will that God created within humanity as ones who bear His image. Even Calvinistic confessions acknowledge this original libertarian freedom:
- God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil. (Matthew 17:12; James 1:14; Deuteronomy 30:19 )
- Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which was good and well-pleasing to God, but yet was unstable, so that he might fall from it. (Ecclesiastes 7:29; Genesis 3:6)
This portion of Calvinistic confession is a good working definition of what we mean by “libertarian free will” (LFW), the categorical ability of the will to refrain or not refrain from a given moral action. Or more succinctly put, “a self-determined choice” or “agent-causation.” This is not a choice decisively caused by factors beyond the agent’s control. Adam and Eve had the freedom and power to will and to do that which was good or evil. That is libertarian free will and God’s sovereignty is in no way compromised by the fact that mankind was created with libertarian freedom (as some Calvinists attempt to argue so as to disprove the rationality of LFW).
It should be pointed out that this kind of libertarian free choice must not be characterized as “a causeless choice,” as John Frame attempted to do when he wrote,
The libertarian view states that some human decisions and actions, particularly moral and religious decisions, are strictly uncaused.
This is an error. Was Adam and Eve’s free choice to eat the forbidden fruit uncaused? Of course not! Adam and Eve were the causes of their choice- which is why God holds them responsible.
Libertarians like myself are not attempting to argue that a moral agent’s choices are uncaused, but only that they are not causally determined by factors beyond the agent’s control (i.e. decisively caused by a divine sovereign decree). Instead, we would say that choices are self-caused. The cause of the choice is the chooser.
This does not mean, however, that the agent does not have reasons for his choices, but only that the reasons are influential, not decisive. The agent himself is the decisive cause of which desires he acts to fulfill. While this is a mystery beyond full comprehension, we see no more logical problem with affirming this claim than to affirm the same about the choices of our God, the One in whose image we were created. <More Here>
Piper, quoting Augustine, continues in his article to explain the results of the fall,
As soon as Adam fell into sin, human nature was profoundly altered. Now man was not able not to sin. In the fall, human nature lost its freedom not to sin.
The use of a double negative makes this statement a bit confounding. If Piper simply means that fallen humanity cannot fulfill the demands of God’s law, but will always fall short (as taught by the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:23), then we would be in full agreement. But, it is clear, that is not all that Piper is meaning to say, he continues:
Why is man not able not to sin? Because on this side of the fall “that which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6), and “the mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7–8, my translation).
Or, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
Notice the word cannot twice in Romans 8:7–8, and the words “is not able” in 1 Corinthians 2:14. This is the nature of all human beings when we are born — what Paul calls the “natural person,” and what Jesus calls “born of the flesh.”
This means, Paul says, that in this condition we “cannot please God,” or, to put it another way, “we are not able not to sin.” The basic reason is that the natural person prefers his own autonomy and his own glory above the sovereignty and glory of God. This is what Paul means when he says, “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit .”
Notice how Piper has cobbled together several proof texts and smashed them side by side in order to create a systematic claim about the moral incapacities of mankind from birth? This is not a proper method of hermeneutics and can lead to many errors, even if unintentional.
Let’s unpack two of his primary proof texts and see if the Apostle Paul is intending to communicate Piper’s notion that due to the fall all people are born morally incapable to respond positively to God’s gracious appeals to be reconciled from that fall.
Romans 8:7-9 — “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
Mankind’s inability to submit to God’s law does not prove their inability to trust in Christ who fulfilled the law for mankind. Likewise, mankind’s inability to please God while acting in the flesh does not prove mankind’s inability to respond to the appeal of God in faith so as to receive his Spirit. Piper wrongly presumes that Paul’s warning against remaining in the flesh means that you cannot heed his warning and repent of your fleshly ways.
If I warn my rebellious son saying, “You cannot please me by acting selfishly,” does that suggest the child is unable to heed my warning, humble himself and repent of acting selfishly? Of course not. It only suggests that as long as my child continues to rebel and act according to his pride that he will not please me. This verse says nothing of man’s inability to respond to God’s powerful truth and His gracious appeal to humble ourselves so as to be reconciled (2 Cor. 5:20). Each individual has the choice to remain in their flesh and pride or respond to the Spirit’s call to humble themselves. If you choose the former YOU CANNOT PLEASE GOD.
To be clear, no one is suggesting that man can please God apart from His enabling grace, such as the gospel appeal brought by the Spirit. So, the question is whether or not the grace is actually “enabling” (as John 6:65 teaches), or does this grace “irresistibly” cause which choice the individual will make (as Calvinism presumes)?
1 Corinthians 2:14 — “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
So, the lost man needs someone to help him discern the “deep things of God” (vs. 10), right? Who better to do that than God’s chosen apostles? What are the means God uses to assist us in discerning spiritual truth if not his appointed messengers? Is not the very epistle that Paul is writing to the carnal believers in Corinth a means of helping with their spiritual discernment? And since the “brethren” in the Corinthian church are “not able to receive” these same “deep things of God” (1 Cor. 3:1-3), which previously were “hidden mysteries” (1 Cor. 2:6-8), one would be hard pressed to suggest that Paul was intending to teach that no one is able to understand the simple gospel appeal to be reconciled through faith in Jesus. <More Here>
Piper continues with this line of faulty reasoning:
The reason for this idolatrous preference is that we are morally blind to the glory of Christ, so that we cannot treasure his glory as superior to our own.
The Bible never teaches that mankind is born in a condition of moral blindness. Instead, it warns that one may become blinded, hardened, calloused and given over to their lusts if they persist in suppressing the truth of God over a period of time. <More Here>
Satan is committed to confirming us in this blinding preference. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). So when the natural person looks at the glory of God, whether in nature or in the gospel, he does not see supreme beauty and worth.
Does this effort of Satan strike anyone as being completely unnecessary if the claims of Calvinism are true regarding man’s Total Inability from birth?
If we are born completely unable to see, hear, understand or respond willingly to the word of God, as the doctrine of Total Inability suggests, wouldn’t Satan’s work to blind people and snatch away the word be completely unnecessary and redundant?
Imagine visiting your local cemetery and discovering they hired a person to put blindfolds and earplugs on the corpses lest they respond willingly to the sights and sounds around the graveyard. Would this strike you as peculiar? <more here on the idiomatic use of spiritual deadness>
If you asked the cemetery’s director of operations why such an employee was hired and he sarcastically and confidently said, “Well, there are means to accomplish the ends. How do you think we keep corpses from responding to the sights and sounds around the graveyard except by means?” Is this not completely absurd? Piper goes on,
Where this wakening to the supreme glory and value of Jesus (called “new birth”) has not happened, the fallen human heart cannot believe in Jesus. That’s why Jesus said to those who opposed him, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
Here Piper is asserting, without Biblical justification, the idea of “pre-faith regeneration” (i.e. you must first be born again in order to believe in Jesus). Yet, just two verses prior to the one Piper referenced we read, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Notice the order that Jesus asserts? He does not say to them, “I’ve refused to give you life so that you would certainly come to me.” No, he clearly puts the responsibility on to them for their refusal to come so as to have life. This is paralleled in John 20:31 which reads,
“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Clearly, we are called to believe so as to be given new life in his name, not the other way around. Piper continues,
In other words, you cannot believe in Jesus while you treasure human glory over his. For believing is just the opposite. Believing in Jesus means receiving him as supremely glorious and valuable (John 1:12).
This is why the natural person cannot please God. For he cannot believe God in this way. He cannot receive him and his Son as supremely valuable. But the Bible says, “Without faith it is impossible to please him [God]” (Hebrews 11:6). Or, as Paul says, even more dramatically, in Romans 14:23, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
The Bible never says humanity is required to recognize and fully know and accept the supreme value of Jesus in order to be saved. As born again believers we will certainly grow to know the supreme beauty and value of our Savior, but Piper makes it seem as if we must get to that point BEFORE we can simply humble ourselves and confess our need in faith.
Piper said, “you cannot believe in Jesus while you treasure human glory over his,” and we agree. But who is responsible for what he most treasures? Piper assumes without biblical support that mankind lacks the moral capacity to humble himself and confess that the pursuit of his own glory leads to destruction. Over and over again the Bible teaches that it is man’s responsibility to humble himself and put his trust in God. Calvinism teaches this is ultimately God’s responsibility while still maintaining that mankind will be judged as if it is really their responsibility. This is not biblically established nor is it rational.
While we would agree that mankind’s freedom to choose is restricted to the confines of his nature, we disagree as to what those confines are in relation to sinful humanity. For instance, a man is not free to flap his arms and fly around the world no matter how much he may will to do so. He is confined by his physical abilities. So too, there are moral confines on the abilities of sinful man’s will.
We would agree that mankind is born incapable of willingly keeping the demands of the law so as to merit salvation. And we would also agree that those who sin are in bondage to sin. We would NOT AGREE that mankind is born incapable of willingly admitting that he is in bondage and in need of help — especially in light of God’s gracious, Holy Spirit inspired, clear revelation — by means of the law (a tutor) and the gospel (a powerful appeal to be reconciled).
Suppose a man was born in a prison cell and never told that he was in a cell. He was simply unaware of anything outside the walls of his world. We would all agree that the man is born in bondage and incapable of even recognizing his position. But, suppose someone came into his cell and told him of the world outside the walls. Is the fact that he was born in bondage sufficient to prove that he is incapable of hearing the messenger and believing his message? Of course not. You can acknowledge the bondage of the man from birth without assuming he is also born incapable of believing the testimony of the messengers sent for the purpose of helping him to be set free.
The belief that a man is born in a prison cell is distinct from the belief that the man is incapable of acknowledging that he is in a prison cell and accepting help to escape when it is clearly offered. Calvinists have pointed to passages that prove mankind is born in the cell while assuming mankind is incapable of humbly admitting they are in a cell and trusting in Christ to set them free.
No passage in all of scripture ever suggests that fallen men are incapable of willingly responding to God’s own appeal to be reconciled from their fallen condition.
 Mark R. Talbot, “’All the Good That Is Ours in Christ’: Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us,” in John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds.), Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 31-77 (quote from p. 42).
 Chapter 9 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, which closely models the Westminster Confession of Faith, both highly regarded by Calvinistic scholars.