Conferences, Podcasts, and Piper on Sovereignty: A Reply

W. Jackson Watts

I was recently listening to some online sermons that were given at the Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference. All of the speakers were household names, and none more familiar than John Piper. Piper is now retired from active pastoral ministry after decades at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. However, he has continued what has been a prolific writing ministry, and he also speaks regularly at conferences.

I have benefited immensely from Piper’s ministry from afar. I was first exposed to his work when in 2004 I took the course Biblical Discipleship. His bestselling book Desiring God was one of the assigned texts. I did not agree with all that he said in the book then (and I’m sure I didn’t understand it all either!), but I remember thinking, “He is saying something really profound here for Christian spirituality.” Since that time I’ve read more of his work and heard probably two dozen of his sermons.

While I came of age theologically before the full burgeoning of the podcast/online sermon era, I was shaped by it. No doubt I have been influenced by giants like the MacArthurs, Kellers, Carsons, Devers, and Pipers. As best as I can tell, these men exude an authentic commitment to Christ, His church, and His Word. For that I am grateful.

Some Broader Concerns

Where my concerns have persisted is that the preponderance of those who are influencing younger evangelicals is almost always five-point Calvinists. Let me define here what I mean and don’t mean by “concerns.”

First, I do not mean that we should be surprised that so many popular conference speakers are of this theological persuasion. When we consider the books published annually and the authors’ theological commitments, Arminians need to be honest: our theological tradition, in its best version, is in the minority (by a lot!). We have a lot of work to do in getting the word out about the God-centered, Scripturally-based Arminianism that we espouse. We should not then be surprised that publishing trends correlate to how well known some are in evangelicalism.

Second, I do not mean that our principal goal in Christian ministry is to see how well known we can personally be because of our theological stances and speaking circuit credentials. How easy it is to be known first as Arminians or Calvinists, and not as sincere, Spirit-filled men and women of God. How easy it is for us to relish (by whom we admire) or reinforce (by whom we invite to speak) the speaking circuit idolatry that promotes the same handful of people over and over. We should repent of where the spirit of this present age has shaped us in this way.

I do, however, have two interrelated concerns: (1) Seeing that it is part of our goal to spread biblical Christianity as far as the curse is found, it is unfortunate that many theologically serious Christians have come to believe that Calvinism is the only live option in town; and (2) What has partly, but significantly fostered this belief is the massive platform that influential speakers have to promote this error. While Calvinism and its entailments is not a heresy in the historic sense of that word, the way it is taught often leads to confusion and can foster the belief that those who are believers but not Reformed—in the narrow way most Calvinists mean that word—have a deficient theology for life and ministry.

A Specific Concern

The broader concerns I have articulated here are exemplified in many places, but especially in some remarks Dr. Piper shared in his otherwise very good sermon at the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference. He preached Mark 8:31-38, a quite familiar passage in which Jesus reveals his coming sufferings. Peter rebukes Jesus, but then Jesus rebukes him for contradicting the plan of God. Piper spends several minutes (around the 19:00-24:00 minute mark) reflecting on the word “must” in verse 31. This deals with the necessity, in the plan of God, for the Son to die. Piper then observes how the sovereignty of God—defined as God controlling and determining everything in history and human existence—is integral to the Gospel itself.

Piper asserts that some people try to disconnect “the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the innocent suffering, the sinful rejection, [and] the wicked murder of Jesus.” Millions, he says, make a concerted effort to disconnect those two. Yet he is encouraged. He explains,

            “I’m saying that in the last 50 years millions of people around the world are seeing that that effort is futile, unbiblical, [and] undesirable. It is a rending of the precious fabric of the Gospel, because they see, over and over again, in Scripture the sovereignty of God  is the stitching that holds the Gospel together.”

Characteristically, Piper says a lot here. However, I’ll focus on two key points. First, Piper describes a changing evangelical landscape in which Calvinism has blossomed over the last half century. More believers have become convinced that God is sovereign in the sense that He controls (read decides) everything in human life, including who will or will not be saved. The second point is an extension of the first: this vision of God’s sovereignty is said to be not only an element of the Gospel, not just “how one comes to be in a state of grace,” but it is a theological essential that “holds the Gospel together.”

This assertion is not startling for those familiar with Piper’s work and like-minded Calvinists. Where it is somewhat attention-grabbing is that he is implicitly acknowledging the success of preachers, authors, and institutions in spreading the good news of Calvinism. This isn’t just a recent phenomenon, but has been happening for decades. Such Christians see God’s sovereignty, defined by the construct of determinism, as just as essential to the Gospel as grace or faith itself.

A Response

I offer two replies to Piper, first to his demographic claim, and second to the theological one.

First, I wonder which millions of believers around the world Piper has in mind. Thank God that the Gospel is reaching the nations! But much of the data reflects that this growth is in sub-Saharan Africa, China, and South America, to name a few places. I wonder if Piper’s remark lands the same way there as it does to his conference listeners. Much of the growth is within Pentecostalism. No doubt some Pentecostal Christians are Calvinistic in their soteriology, but the vast majority of them are not. In fact, when we consider the expansion of many other traditions abroad such as Anglicanism, Wesleyanism, and Lutheranism, just to name a few, suddenly five-point Calvinism looks rather small. The all-too-familiar, North American, evangelical narrative about Calvinism’s massive expansion must be significantly revised, at least if we’re being honest with the data.

Moreover, many Christians abroad belong to communities where having a Bible in their own language is a rare and cherished fact. To hear the Gospel itself is an all-too-rare privilege. How plausible is it that a theological system as sophisticated as five-point Calvinism is on the radar of those millions in quite the same way that it is for young Americans who have the disposable income to buy books, download sermons on their Macs, and attend conferences? This is mainly a sociological query on my part, not a moral judgment.

Second, I wonder how many listeners to Piper’s sermon, whether in person or online, have taken the time to study the concept of sovereignty in Scripture or in Ancient Near Eastern thought. More specifically, how much thought have they given to the philosophical concept of determinism? Somehow I imagine that Dr. Picirilli’s excellent, thoughtful, and brief Free Will Revisited isn’t selling as well as Dr. Piper’s books. Now let’s ask ourselves: Why might it be the case that some questions aren’t asked, some topics aren’t pursued, or some books aren’t read, while others are? I fear that one evangelical sub-culture, partly embodied by the conference circuit context, is reinforcing people in existing perspectives without challenging them to take a hard look at their theological assumptions, or the theology of the church’s history.

As I have attended multiple seminaries, meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (national and regional), and interacted with assorted local church pastors in my community, the reactions are always interesting to the name “Free Will Baptist” or “Reformed/Classical Arminian.” I find that the most close-minded or hostile individuals are those who don’t really get out a lot. They’ve rarely interacted with Christians in other regions or denominations. Crossway is the only publisher they’re familiar with. They tend not to know much about church history before 1517 (perhaps it began in 1517?).

On the other hand, people who are open to and even accepting of a vision of sovereignty in which God doesn’t meticulously determine everything (although He did purpose to send His Son! Jesus wasn’t wrong when he said, “I must do these things.”) didn’t go to a conference. They either simply (1) read the Bible as a believer in a straightforward way, or (2) when confronted with sovereignty, free will, and soteriology, they got interested in the topic and really sought to understand both sides of the discussion. Most Arminians I know who do not have a Free Will Baptist background like I do came to their beliefs through one of these two paths.

Some Concluding Reflections

I cannot or will not pretend to speak for all Arminians. However, having swam in these waters a while, I’ll offer a few concluding reflections on the vision of sovereignty that I believe Scripture presents us with, or is consistent with, and what it might look like to place that vision in dialogue with the one Piper has presented:

  • I do not think it is theologically careful or spiritually responsible to communicate: “You don’t get the Gospel if you don’t understand sovereignty this way.”[1] It’s no overstatement to say that Piper believes it is not only unbiblical to not see deterministic sovereignty as “the stitching that holds the Gospel together,” but people who do so are theologically reckless and spiritually impoverished.
  • For less charitable interprets who would take this criticism of Piper further, let me be clear: Piper is not saying that non-Calvinists don’t believe the Gospel, and are therefore not saved. He does not go that far. He specifically says that many Christians try to disconnect the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the Gospel. So in making this observation/criticism, he is at least acknowledging the empirical existence of such believers. However, Piper leaves himself totally open to this other charge when he says, “There is no Gospel apart from the sovereignty of God, the all- controlling sovereignty of God.” If he means that the way he states it, then it would imply either (a) non-Calvinist Christians who believe the Gospel are ignorant of some of its central content, namely all-controlling sovereignty (At best they’re inconsistent); or (b) Non-Calvinists are in fact not saved since they, by definition, do not accept the precious stitching of the fabric of the Gospel. I believe Piper would claim option a.
  • Meticulously determining every aspect of human existence is but one construal of divine sovereignty. In other words, it is not the only way for God could exercise sovereign control over His creation. Here I think of people who, when they hear the word “authority,” only think of a hierarchy, even though hierarchy is but one way for authority to operate.
  • It is very difficult to adopt theological determinism without coming to terms with its philosophical entailments, and that would involve facing up to issues of free will and moral responsibility, and the problem of evil. Determinists do have some options on how to answer those, but I don’t believe many Calvinists have fully wrestled with those.
  • Some Calvinists would reply to the last assertion by saying “Biblical claims trump philosophical tensions or inconsistencies.” Of course, this reply ignores the 2,000-year relationship between philosophy and theology. It is a complicated, but important one. The best of the Christian tradition, in my view, has seen philosophy as not a Master of theology, but a handmaiden or servant to it. If philosophical terms and concepts have been widely used in understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, why not learn from it when it comes to how foreknowledge, free will, and the future might relate?[2]
  • God could have designed the world in any way He desired, but we don’t expect that  world and the way humans act in it and respond to God to contradict the way He reveals His character and will in His Word. So Arminians like me agree with Terence Freithem: “The divine sovereignty in creation is understood, not in terms of absolute divine control [determining every detail], but as a sovereignty that gives [permits] power over to the created for the sake of a relationship of integrity.”[3] Our inability to even imagine such a kind of sovereignty reflects our impoverished theological imagination being shaped in modern evangelicalism. Our unwillingness to do so reflects a lack of attentiveness to the breadth of the Christian tradition.

Much remains to be said about this discussion, and I pray it will be an honest, fruitful, Christ-like dialogue. I remain thankful for the ministry of John Piper and many Calvinists like him. It speaks to the sovereign grace of God that He would allow ministries like these to flourish, and for Arminians like me to freely choose to learn from them. But in the end, a sovereign God can exercise comprehensive control over a realm without also meticulously forcing every state of affairs. God is aware, He permits, restricts, and can certainly carry out his purposes for his church in a world that must choose Him.

__________________________________

[1] This is not a direct quote, but rather my way of stating what I think Piper has at the very least implied, and all but stated explicitly.

[2] Some Calvinists espouse a theological (and philosophical) construct known as Compatibilism in which Divine sovereignty (understood deterministically) and free will are somehow compatible. D.A. Carson would be example of one such theologian. However, this view was not the view of Calvin or Edwards, nor is it the view of Piper.

[3] Terence Fretheim, “Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1 (Nashville, Abingdon, 1994), 346.

8 thoughts on “Conferences, Podcasts, and Piper on Sovereignty: A Reply”

  1. Thanks, Jackson. I think it was Leroy Forlines who said many years ago that what Arminians lack in the public theological debate is visible scholarship. Thanks for the scholarly treatment and for making it visible.

  2. Great article; I especially liked that you pointed out the importance of being open to various theological positons that may challenge our own. It is certainly easy to stay in our North American or theological bubble and miss out what is going on globally. I came to my beliefs just as you outlined: reading the Bible and then tried to understand the sovereignty/freewill issues. I read from both sides. Dr. Picirilli’s Grace Faith and Free Will was a tremendous help to me. He gives a fair treatment of both sides without strawman arguments. I have yet to come across a Calvinist author to give a fair treatment of Reformed Arminianism. You are right “hostile individuals are those who don’t really get out a lot.” I find every few Calvinist willing to even attempt to understand our positon. Thank you for demonstrating how to lovingly critique someone.

  3. Excellent! Thanks for your thoughtfulness and keen insight. While I appreciate Piper I find his view on Sovereignty appallingly especially as it relates to suffering and evil being ordained of God. His view is clearly
    and sadly expressed in this YouTube debate: Ravi Zacharias Vs. John Piper On Why God Allows Evil To Exist!

    1. Thanks to all who have commented on these piece. All of your thoughts are greatly appreciated. Bro. Billy, I’ll have to take a look at this debate. I suspect it will leave something to be desired! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      Jackson

Leave a Reply