UPDATE (June 1, 2011): John Piper’s Desiring God Ministries has just posted the video of a lengthy 98-minute video of him and Purpose-Driven Rick Warren discussing the latter’s doctrines and ministries. Last year, Piper received a lot of criticism when he invited Warren to his annual pastors’ conference. While I haven’t seen the video (and I have no plans of watching it), there have been many reviews on the blogosphere, and Tim Challies’ “Thinking About Rick Warren & John Piper” was very useful.
Challies noted that Warren’s statements in the interview don’t add up to what he has said and written in his numerous popular books and sermons,Â ”What he said in this interview simply does not correlate to the facts of his books and ministry.” He is a “chameleon,” a double-speak,Â saying everything that people with whom he is conversing want to hear. To Roman Catholics, Mother Theresa “offered the same unconditional love our Savior did.” To Jews, he never mentions Jesus as Messiah. In his interview with TULIP believer Piper, he says he believes in the doctrines of grace. And it is evident from his “seeker-sensitive” megachurch and other ministries that his Arminian methods don’t measure up to his “doctrines of grace.” Michael Horton also noted Warren’s greatÂ “tailoring” skills.
While I’m not at all surprised by Warren’s sophistry, I’m disturbed by Piper’s affirmations of Warren’s orthodoxy. He says about the Purpose Driven Life, much maligned by most Reformed theologians, but also by a host of other sound evangelicals:
Frankly, I’m appalled at the kinds of slander that have been brought against this book by people whose methods of critique, if they were consistently applied to the Bible, would undo it as the Word of God… When I read the book, I thought “what’s the issue here?”
Piper seemed to take the role of an apologist for Warren’s lack of doctrinal preaching at Saddleback or anywhere, noting “his intention to be theologically sound and practically helpful without using doctrinal or theological terms in his public ministry.” Is that right, or is it plain pragmatism?
So what’s up with John Piper these days?
William Tyndale, the sixteenth century English Reformer and Bible translator, is credited with the first use of the word “evangelical” in 1536 when he referred to the good news of Christ as “the evangelical truth.” Later, the Roman Catholic Sir Thomas More derogatorily called the Reformers as “evangelicals”â€”those who affirmed the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone in opposition to Rome’s medieval gospel. Martin Luther and other Reformation theologians later called their churches as “evangelical churches.”1
However, since the Reformation, two major major streams of evangelicals developed.2 The first stream, pietism and revivalism, was a reaction to a perception that the piety of Reformation churches were slowly eroding, and repeating seasons of revival were necessary to maintain this piety. Eventually, however, this stream eroded the Reformation’s doctrine, worship and piety, emphasizing instead moralisms, felt needs, innovations, entertainment and social reform, all in the name of fundamentalism and evangelizing the “unreached,” and today, the “unchurched.”
These features, and many other forms of modernity and postmodernity, are what defines “evangelicalism” today, a broad movement of the lowest common denominator that includes a gumbo of political conservatives, Biblicists, fundamentalists, Word-Faith televangelists, prosperity gospel peddlers, Oneness Pentecostals, Zionists, megachurches, Emergents, and practically any church that embraces the word “evangelical.”
But a Reformation stream continues to flow against the strong pietistic/revivalistic current. Its desire is to maintain and contend for the evangelical faith that was once for all delivered to the saints embodied in Reformation doctrine, worship and piety. This essay will use these two broad streams to distinguish between “evangelical” in contrast to “Reformed/Calvinist.”
Maybe due to a lack of Biblical knowledge or to an anti-doctrinal and ecumenical mindset, some in the pietistic/revivalistic stream have elevated even aberrant teachers such as revivalist Charles Finney (Pelagian), evangelist R. A. Torrey (Spirit baptism as a second blessing), Benny Hinn (Christians are “little gods”)Â and Joel Osteen (health and wealth gospel) to hero status. And on the flip side, some evangelical Arminians esteem five-point Calvinists as examples to imitate: missionaries William Carey and David Brainerd; preachers Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards; and theologians J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul, to name a few.
If You Knew What He Believes. . .
One of these pastor-theologians of our time endeared by both evangelicals and Reformed is Dr. John Piper, senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota since 1980. A man of great learning and zeal for God, he has a multi-faceted ministry as God’s servant. His book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (1986) established him as a well-respected author, and since then, he has published several other bestselling books on Christian doctrine and practice. Piper is also the founder of Desiring God Ministries, which provides the evangelical world with a treasury of his sermons, essays and conference lectures, mostly free of charge.
In addition to his pastorate, writings, and Desiring God Ministries, Piper’s church runs Children Desring God, which offers resources to equip the body of Christ to reach the next generation; Bethlehem College and Seminary for training pastors and teachers; and Bethlehem Urban Initiatives, a non-profit organization that facilitates Christian community development, evangelism, and discipleship among the church’s inner-city neighbors.
While all of these ministries are well-known to the evangelical world, some of his beliefs are not; indeed, they are ignored by many. In this essay, I will first briefly look at his doctrine on a couple of topics, namely, God-centered pleasure andÂ Biblical church leadership. Then, I will interact with his eschatology in more detail, and lastly, examine his doctrine of salvation more thoroughly than the first three. After examining these subjects, the question that I will leave you is this,
“Are you sure you still like John Piper?”
Piper advocates what he terms as “Christian hedonism” in his book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (1996, 2003). In this book, he echoes Westminster Shorter Catechism’s God-centered hedonism, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Some people are inclined to believe that Christians are supposed to seek Godâ€™s will as opposed to pursuing their own pleasure. But what makes Biblical morality different than worldly hedonism is not that Biblical morality is disinterested and duty-driven, but that it is interested in vastly greater and purer things. Christian Hedonism is Biblical morality because it recognizes that obeying God is the only route to final and lasting happiness.
This runs counter to evangelicalism’s man-centered worship, doctrine and practice, hedonism that promotes the prosperity gospel, instant gratification, consumerism, self-esteem and satisfaction of felt needs.
Biblical Church Leadership
In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, he affirms the authority of men over women in leadership roles in both the church and family.
There are many voices today who claim to know a better way to equip and mobilize the men and women of the church for ministry. But I commend to you this morning with all my heart the plain meaning of these verses [1 Tim 2:8-15]:
- That manhood and womanhood mesh better in ministry when men take primary responsibility for leadership and teaching in the church.
- That manhood and womanhood are better preserved and better nurtured and more fulfilled and more fruitful in this church order than in any other.
Does not this run against the grain of evangelicalism’s “democratic” church polity, where there is gender equality, every member is a minister, and male leadership is seen as old-fashioned, irrelevant, ancient, and patriarchal?
DGM says that Piper is “probably the furthest away from dispensationalism, although he does agree with dispensationalism that there will be a millennium.” Thus, he aligns himself with historic premillennialism, the premillennialism of some early church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Papias.
My own view is… historic premillennialism. I think amillenialism is the next most plausible view. Postmillennialism has a long and respected history. In fact, the most influential dead theologian in my life, Jonathan Edwards, was a postmillennialist. Indeed, most of the early missionaries of the modern missionary movement, like William Carey, shared this view as wellâ€”the strong conviction that the gospel would triumph in all the world and subdue all other religions, with gospel power, not military power.
What is historic premillennialism? It differs greatly from dispensational premillennialism in its hermeneutics and endtime scenario:
I think one of the keys is to understand and make much of the fact that the Churchâ€”the followers of Jesus Christâ€”is the true Israel and that we Gentile Christians will inherit all the promises of Israel by faith in the Messiah, Jesus Christ. We have to see this and make much of this, if our Jewish friends are ever (by grace) going to feel jealousy that we inherit their promises.
What? Piper Agrees with that Tyrant Calvin?
The above doctrines which Piper affirms were discussed very briefly to make room for a bigger presentation of his stance on the so-called Five Points of Calvinism or “the doctrines of grace.” What most evangelicals are not aware of when they listen to or read Piper’s sermons and lectures is that they are getting a good dose of Calvin’s teachings about God, man, sin, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.
Piper has a very high view of God’s almighty sovereignty in the salvation of his people:
God’s sovereignty is worked out in the area of salvation. To ensure that the salvation of sinners abounds to the praise of God’s glory, God saves His people by grace alone apart from works, lest anyone should boast (Eph 2:8-9). The sovereignty of God’s grace is seen in God’s unconditional election of His people out of the mass of sinful humanity for salvation (Rom 8:29, 9:6-23; Eph 1:4), the glorious atonement of Christ which actually accomplishes the salvation of God’s people (I Pet 3:18), the irresistible grace of God’s effectual call (Rom 8:30; 1 Pet 2:9) and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:26ff, John 3:4; Tit 3:5) which enable and move a person to respond to the gospel of Christ in saving faith, and God’s persevering in grace with his saints (1 Pet 1:5; Jude 1; John 10:28-30; Php 1:6) so that His people will in fact persevere to the end and be saved.
Nothing in the redemption of man, from election to calling to justification to sanctification to glorification is the work of man. Why? Because man is unable and unwilling to come to God on his own:
Our sinful corruption is so deep and so strong as to make us slaves of sin and morally unable to overcome our own rebellion and blindness. This inability to save ourselves from ourselves is total. We are utterly dependent on Godâ€™s grace to overcome our rebellion, give us eyes to see, and effectively draw us to the Savior (Eph 2:5; Rom 8:7-8; 1 Cor 2:14).
Is Piper saying that man has no “free will”? Yes, he affirms that man is a slave of sin and therefore, if a slave, then is not free and his will is not free:
Picking up on the term “flesh” above (man apart from the grace of God) we find Paul declaring it to be totally enslaved to rebellion. Romans 8:7-8 says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
The “mind of the flesh” is the mind of man apart from the indwelling Spirit of God (“You are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you,” Romans 8:9). So natural man has a mindset that does not and cannot submit to God. Man cannot reform himself.
Since the unregenerate man is totally enslaved to rebellion, it is God’s Spirit who has to make the first move to free him from his slavery:
We donâ€™t cause the Spirit to bring about the new birth any more than we make the wind blow. Or to be more specific, the decisive act of will in the new birth is not ours. The Spiritâ€™s will is decisive. To be sure, our will moves in the moment of the new birth. Change happens in us. There are perceptible effects of the windâ€”â€œ you hear its sound.â€
The main effect of the windâ€”the Spiritâ€”is that we are made alive spirituallyâ€”born againâ€”and now our wills move. They move to receive Christ and believe on Christ. But our wills move because the wind is blowing, not the other way around. We donâ€™t move first. Our wills are awakened and moved toward Christ because the Spirit blows where he wills and gives life to whom he wills (John 3:5-8).
Contrary to what most evangelicals are taughtâ€”that God regenerates a person after he first believes out of his own effortâ€”Piper asserts the opposite process. That is, God softens the heart so that he is made able and is willing, even desiring, to believe.
Who are those whom God gives a new soft heart of flesh in place of a hard heart of stone? Not all mankindâ€”for then everyone will believeâ€”but only those whom God had chosen before the creation of the world. But does not this doctrine make God unfair, whimsical and arbitrary? Paul says, “God forbid!” (Rom 9:14) and then explains why this is so in the following verses. Piper summarizes Paul’s arguments:
Now the two keys are in place for understanding the argument of Romans 9:15. Paul is arguing that there is no unrighteousness with God when he elects unconditionally. Why? Using our two keys, the answer is: because Godâ€™s name, the essence of his glory, consists in his absolute freedom to have mercy on whom he will have mercy. That is who he is. And his righteousness is his unswerving allegiance always to uphold and display this glory. Therefore, he must uphold and display his freedom, if he is to be righteous… To be righteous he must choose the beneficiaries of his electing mercy before they are born or have anything good or evil.
In the decree of election, God upholds his absolute sovereignty over all his creation. If he does not have the prerogative and freedom to elect, then he is less than God. Before time began, he already had a plan to save those whom he elected to be redeemed from sin. How?
LimitedÂ or Particular Atonement
The Trinitarian God made a covenant of redemption wherein the Son of God was commissioned by the Father to come down from heaven as a man to accomplish the elect’s salvation by his sacrificial death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. But for whom did Christ die? Piper says that the extent of the atonement by Christ is “limited” to all the sins of all the elect, not all the sins of all mankind, as many believe:
Therefore it becomes evident that it is not the Calvinist who limits the atonement. It is the Arminian, because he denies that the atoning death of Christ accomplishes what we most desperately needâ€”namely, salvation from the condition of deadness and hardness and blindness under the wrath of God. 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.
Since man is powerlessâ€”unable and unwillingâ€”to come to God, if God left him on his own to believe, no oneâ€”absolutely no oneâ€”will be saved! The Arminian doctrine of universal atonement by Christ will not stand not only Biblical scrutiny, but also simple human logic.
To complete this Trinitarian work of salvation, God the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s perfect obedience to the elect. When the Spirit purposes to renew a man’s heart and mind, he will irresistibly accomplish it, for no mere creature can resist God’s decree:
We mean that the Holy Spirit is Godâ€™s Spirit, and therefore he is omnipotent and sovereign. And therefore, he is irresistible and infallibly effective in his regenerating work. Which doesnâ€™t mean that we donâ€™t resist him. We do. The Bible is plain about that (Acts 7:51). What the sovereignty of grace and the sovereignty of the Spirit mean is that when God chooses, he can overcome the rebellion and resistance of our wills. He can make Christ look so compelling that our resistance is broken and we freely come to him and receive him and believe him.
Preservation and Perseverance of the Saints
Finally, Piper affirms that the elect to whom genuine saving faith was given will persevere in the faith to the end:
We believe that all who are justified will win the fight of faith. They will persevere in faith and never surrender to the enemy of their souls. This perseverance is the promise of the new covenant, obtained by the blood of Christ, and worked in us by God himself, yet not so as to diminish, but only to empower and encourage, our vigilance; so that we may say in the end, I have fought the good fight, but it was not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
What about those who spoke, behaved and thought just as any other Christian did, but later fell away from the faith? Did they lose their salvation? Piper says this is not possible:
Nevertheless, we must also own up to the fact that our final salvation is made contingent upon the subsequent obedience which comes from faith. The way these two truths fit together is that we are justified through our first act of faith because God sees in it (like he can see the tree in an acorn) the embryo of a life of faith. This is why those who do not lead a life of faith with its inevitable fruit of obedience simply bear witness to the fact that their first act of faith was not genuine.
A good tree bears good fruit; if a professing Christian bears bad fruit, then it simply means the tree is also bad. Genuine saving faith is evidenced by a life of good works; if there are no good works, then that faith is not real.
Just viewing these few screenshots of John Piper’s vast amount of works leads us to see that he is almost completely outside the camp of today’s evangelicalism. His God-centered theology is in stark contrast to evangelicalism’s man-centered emphasis on what Michael Horton calls “Christless Christianity”â€”self-help, consumerism and prosperity. And his “Biblical manhood and womanhood” stance regarding male leadership and the complementary role of women in the church and home does not sit well in a feminized evangelical world.
Because the Secret Rapture, Left Behind, the Millennium, Zionism, and Temple cultures are ingrained in the evangelical psyche,Â Piper’s doctrine of the last thingsâ€”a mostly-unknown historic premillennialismâ€”also sits outside pop eschatology.
Lastly, it might be that for many, the most shocking discovery in the above analysis of Piper’s doctrines is his absolute commitment to the Five Points of Calvinism, a system ridiculed, caricatured and hated by most evangelicals. Unknown to many who are church-history-challenged, this system of doctrine is embodied in the creeds and confessions of the 16th century Protestant Reformation and for which Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox would joyfully offer their bodies for burning, and indeed, countless Reformers were martyred for these beliefs.
In its preface to its affirmation of the Five Points of Calvinism, the staff of Piper’s church declared:
Our experience is that clear knowledge of God from the Bible is the kindling that sustains the fires of affection for God. And probably the most crucial kind of knowledge is the knowledge of what God is like in salvation. That is what the five points of Calvinism are about. We do not begin as Calvinists and defend a system. We begin as Bible-believing Christians who want to put the Bible above all systems of thought. But over the years – many years of struggle – we have deepened in our conviction that Calvinistic teachings on the five points are Biblical and therefore true.
So, if you consider yourself a first stream evangelical, are you sure you still like John Piper?
1 Philip Johnson, “The History of Evangelicalism,” 2009.
2 Michael Horton, “Who Exactly are the Evangelicals?” 2010.