When Calvinists Defend Arminianism…

A big thank you to John Piper for doing the honors again,

John Piper, “Is Faith Meritorious?”

John Piper on God Ordaining All Sin And Evil Part 1: An Arminian Response to Piper’s First “Question”

[Updated on 9/24/12]

John Piper preached a sermon on God’s sovereign control over all things.  In this sermon, Piper highly praises the works of Jonathan Edwards and relies heavily on his accounting of sovereignty to explain how God can decree and ordain all evil in this world, and yet not be rightly called the author of all sin and evil.  Thankfully, Piper is uncomfortable with calling God the author of sin, while still maintaining that God ordained and decreed all sin for His glory.  How does Piper do this?  The answer will likely surprise you.

First, Piper makes it clear that he believes that those who hold to God’s sovereignty in the context of Calvinistic exhaustive determinism have a far superior world view (a “God-entranced world view”) to those who define God’s sovereignty in a non-deterministic sense.  He writes,

But when a person settles it Biblically, intellectually and emotionally, that God has ultimate control of all things, including evil, and that this is gracious and precious beyond words, then a marvelous stability and depth come into that person’s life and they develop a “God-entranced world view.” When a person believes, with the Heidelberg Catechism (Question 27), that “The almighty and everywhere present power of God . . . upholds heaven and earth, with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things, come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand” – when a person believes and cherishes that truth, they have the key to a God-entranced world view.

So my aim in this second message is to commend to you this absolute sovereign control of God over all things, including evil, because it is Biblical, and because it will help you become stable and deep and God-entranced and God-glorifying in all you think and feel and do.

First, we must point out that Arminians do not have a problem with God being in control of all things, including evil.  Arminians define this within the bounds of God’s permission.  God permits evil.  Evil does not take God by surprise.  But God does not control things in such a way that His creatures sin irresistibly (i.e. of necessity).  Piper may not claim this either, but the logic of his position demands it.  Even his quote of the Heidelberg confession leaves little room for any other conclusion, especially when it says, “yea, all things, come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.”  Apparently, Piper includes sin and evil in the “all things” since he uses this definition of sovereignty as a spring board to his following point that,  “…my  aim in this second message is to commend to you this absolute sovereign control of God over all things, including evil, because it is Biblical…”  So it seems clear that according to his use of the confession that Piper believes that all sin and evil comes by “[God’s] fatherly hand.” 

If not for the way Piper uses the confession, the Arminian could hardly disagree that God is in control over all things including the evil that takes place in the world.  Again, this would be in the context of God’s permissive will and His setting limitations on evil and the extent to which evil can impact His creation and His ultimate plan, with a view towards God’s ultimate just judgment of all sin and evil at the end of time.  In this sense, God would “govern” evil, without necessitating it.  But that is quite a different thing than saying that sin and evil comes by God’s “fatherly hand”, for if sin and evil comes by the hand of God, how can anyone resist what God’s fatherly hand sets out to do? [1]

It seems from this that God must then be the “cause” of all sin and evil in a sense that goes beyond mere permission (and in a sense that should trace not only sin but responsibility for sin back to God’s “fatherly hand” from which it necessarily proceeds; indeed, sin would have its very origin from God).  That Piper sees sin as absolutely necessitated by God’s decree is made clear in his eventual quote of Charles Spurgeon,

When Spurgeon was challenged that this is nothing but fatalism and stoicism, he replied,

‘What is fate? Fate is this – Whatever is, must be. But there is a difference between that and Providence. Providence says, Whatever God ordains, must be; but the wisdom of God never ordains anything without a purpose. Everything in this world is working for some great end. Fate does not say that. . . . There is all the difference between fate and Providence that there is between a man with good eyes and a blind man.’

So Piper approvingly quotes Spurgeon, who clearly argues that all that God ordains “must be”.  This includes sin.  Therefore, all sin and evil in this world is the unavoidable and necessary result of God’s eternal decree.  Obviously, no man has any power to resist God’s eternal necessitating decree.  Therefore, when a man sins, he sins irresistibly in accordance with an eternal decree that he is powerless to resist.

Piper quotes numerous passages of Scripture that he believes support his contention that God controls all evil (natural, animal, and moral).  It seems to me that all of these passages could just as well fit with the Arminian view of God’s sovereignty over evil as I described it above (See Daniel Whedon’s response to such passages below).  I will only focus on a few passages that I think Piper severely misuses.  Concerning Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, Piper writes,

For example, all the choices of Joseph’s brothers in getting rid of him and selling him into slavery are seen as sin and yet also as the outworking of God’s good purpose. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers when they fear his vengeance, ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.’

It seems to me that Piper is quickly softening his language here.  To say that the sinful actions that led to Joseph coming to power in Egypt was also the “outworking of God’s purpose” is quite a different thing than saying that those sins were necessitated by God in accordance with an irresistible eternal decree.  Piper makes reference to the insufficient response that an open theist might give to the way Piper sees God’s sovereignty at work in these passages, but does not really interact with the Arminian view as I described it above.  However, it seems that in his response to the open theist, Piper intends to undo any Arminian interpretation of this passage that would see it in the context of permission and using sinful actions to accomplish His will, while in no way causing those sinful actions,

But this will not fit what the text says or what Psalm 105:17 says. The text says, “You meant evil against me.” Evil is a feminine singular noun. Then it says, “God meant it for good.” The word “it” is a feminine singular suffix that can only agree with the antecedent feminine singular noun, “evil.” And the verb “meant” is the same past tense in both cases. You meant evil against me in the past, as you were doing it. And God meant that very evil, not as evil, but as good in the past as you were doing it. And to make this perfectly clear, Psalm 105:17 says about Joseph’s coming to Egypt, “[God] sent a man before them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.” God sent him. God did not find him there owing to evil choices, and then try to make something good come of it. Therefore this text stands as a kind of paradigm for how to understand the evil will of man within the sovereign will of God.

Piper’s points concerning this passage hardly undermine the Arminian understanding of God’s sovereignty with respect to sin.  It doesn’t really support Piper’s case that God meant their sinful actions for “good” while they “were doing it.”

Why would it?  This only means that throughout the whole process, God was working ultimate good out of their actions that they intended for evil.  But this doesn’t mean that God caused them to sin so that He could bring good out of it.  Rather, at every step of the way, God was working out His plan to get Joseph to Egypt, even through the sinful free choices of his brothers.  In this way, God was “sending” Joseph to Egypt by ensuring that Joseph got to Egypt even through the sinful free will choices that God in no way caused Joseph’s brothers to commit.

God is so wise that even the free will choices of His creatures cannot thwart His ultimate purposes, and God can use those choices, even sinful ones, to accomplish those purposes.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that Piper’s appeal to Joseph being “sent” in Psalm 105:17 lends any support to his contention, since this Psalm is speaking in generalities (as Psalms often do), without concerning itself with philosophical specifics like the exact inner workings of what was involved in Joseph being “sent”. 

So we conclude that while Joseph’s brothers’ intentions in their actions were to get rid of Joseph forever, God’s intentions in (or through) their actions were to get Joseph to Egypt.  This in no way means that God caused those actions.  But this will not do for Piper.  He seems to want this passage to say something more, though appears hesitant to come right out and say it.  He makes specific reference to the language in a seeming attempt to more directly involve God in the actions of the brothers,

The text says, ‘You meant evil against me.’ Evil is a feminine singular noun. Then it says, ‘God meant it for good.’ The word “it” is a feminine singular suffix that can only agree with the antecedent feminine singular noun, “evil.” And the verb “meant” is the same past tense in both cases. You meant evil against me in the past, as you were doing it. And God meant that very evil, not as evil, but as good in the past as you were doing it. (emphasis mine)

Surely, Piper does not mean to say that God means evil for good as evil.  But this is what we would have to conclude from Piper’s language when he writes, “And God meant that very evil, not as evil, but as good in the past as you were doing it.”  Again, I would suspect that Piper would shy away from the claim that God means evil as good in the sense that God actually considers evil actions as good.  But if that is not what Piper is expressing, his point cannot stand.  Rather, God means evil for good in that the evil will still accomplish God’s purpose in getting Joseph to Egypt, which will ultimately result in the “good” of Joseph saving his family and the Egyptians from starvation.  There is no reason to believe that Joseph did not mean that God had the end result in mind, in saying that God meant their evil actions for good (the good of how God would use Joseph in Egypt), even while they were doing them

Biblical scholar Brian Abasciano gives a helpful illustration as to how God might intend for something other than what Joseph’s brother’s intended by their actions without in anyway needing to cause those specific actions or even approve of the motive behind them,

Normally, when one person does an action and means something for it and another person who does not do the action also means something for the action, there is no suggestion that the person who did not do the action somehow really did do it or irresistibly caused the other person to do it. If my son chooses to sign up for baseball, and means to have fun by it, and I mean for him to learn discipline by it, it does not mean that I made him sign up or that I irresistibly caused him to sign up or somehow irresistibly caused him to desire to sign up. He means it in the way appropriate for the person actually doing the action, and I mean it in a way appropriate to someone who has authority over the situation and power to stop the action. Any number of examples could be thought of for this, including ones with an evil purpose in the perpetrator of the action vs. a good one in someone who has power to stop or allow the action. (quoted from a  discussion thread)

Piper is placing a burden on the language of the passage that the language alone cannot be made to bear.  Strangely, Piper seems to plainly undercut his point here at the end of his sermon when he tries to prove that God ordaining sin does not make Him the author of sin.  He quotes Edwards approvingly,

God may hate a thing as it is in itself, and considered simply as evil, and yet . . . it may be his will it should come to pass, considering all consequences. . . . God doesn’t will sin as sin or for the sake of anything evil; though it be his pleasure so to order things, that he permitting, sin will come to pass; for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be the consequence. (emphasis mine)

Later he writes,

“It is evident from what has been said that it is not because he delights in evil as evil. Rather he ‘wills that evil come to pass . . . that good may come of it.’” (emphasis mine)

Here, Piper, following Edwards, seems to be plainly focusing on the end result of evil being good, rather than viewing the actual evil acts as being “good” as they are being done (and notice the subtle language of permission here; more on that later).  If that is the case, all of Piper’s comments about specific language use (i.e., the word “it” referring back to their evil actions) fall to the ground (and it should be pointed out again that the view I am advocating is the traditional Arminian view which affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge in contrast to the “openness” view which denies God’s foreknowledge; the latter being the view that Piper is most directly attacking).  But it may be that Piper is saying that the word “evil” in the passage has reference to their intentions and that God willed or “meant” their evil intentions for “good”.  This can hardly be determined from the language.

It may be that both their intentions and their actions are meant by the word “evil”, with the focus from God’s perspective being on His meaning for their actions, resulting from their intentions, to bring about the good result of getting Joseph to Egypt.  But even if we say it has reference only to the specific evil intentions of Joseph’s brothers, it still does not create any problems for the Arminian view as shown above.  God can mean for their evil intentions to bring about the good that God intends (getting Joseph to Egypt and saving many from famine and ultimately reconciling Joseph to his family, etc.) without in any way causing those actions or decreeing them from all eternity.  Piper’s focus on the language meaning that God’s intention for their evil as being for good “while they were doing it” simply cannot demonstrate that God had some part in their evil actions while they were doing it.

Another passage Piper makes use of to demonstrate that God decrees sin is Acts 4:27, 28.  He quotes Edwards to make his point,

The death of Jesus offers another example of how God’s sovereign will ordains that a sinful act come to pass. Edwards says, ‘The crucifying of Christ was a great sin; and as man committed it, it was exceedingly hateful and highly provoking to God. Yet upon many great considerations it was the will of God that it should be done.’ Then he refers to Acts 4:27-28, ‘Truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur’ (see also Isaiah 53:10). In other words, all the sinful acts of Herod, Pilate, of Gentiles and Jews were predestined to occur.

But this is not what the passage says at all.  The passage seems to be specifically referring to Christ’s death.  That is what was foreordained by God.  Just as with Joseph, God used the sinful actions of evil men to accomplish Christ’s sacrificial death, but this does not mean that God caused or necessitated their sinful actions (or evil intentions).  To say that the foreordination spoken of here has specific reference to every sinful choice leading to Christ’s death in the sense of God causing every one of those choices is to read far more into the text than the text is actually claiming.  Really, all God had to do was give Christ over to their power, knowing that, given the opportunity, they would, of their own free will, put Him to death (or hand Him over to be put to death, see footnote #2 below).  But God handing Christ over to them and giving them power over Him to the point of putting Him to death is not the same as God causing them to hate Christ and kill Him.  Piper seems to anticipate this basic response and relies on Edwards again to provide the answer,

Edwards ponders that someone might say that only the sufferings of Christ were planned by God, not the sins against him, to which he responds, ‘I answer, [the sufferings] could not come to pass but by sin. For contempt and disgrace was one thing he was to suffer. [Therefore] even the free actions of men are subject to God’s disposal.’

But this is also easily answered by simply understanding this passage as God handing Christ over to the power of those who already hated Him.  This would obviously accomplish Christ’s suffering of contempt and disgrace without in anyway forcing us to assume that God caused those who killed Christ to treat Him with contempt.  The verses preceding those quoted by Edwards support the contention that God’s foreordination encompassed no more than God handing His Son over to those who were already bent on killing Him,

You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

 ‘Why do the nations rage

 and the peoples plot in vain?

 The kings of the earth take their


 and the rulers gather together

 against the Lord

 And against his anointed One’

This fits perfectly with the interpretation I am suggesting.  The “rulers” and “kings” were already “gathered together against” the Lord and His Messiah.  All God had to do was hand Christ over to them so they could deal with Him as they wished.  Piper’s interpretation would have us answer the question, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” with “because God caused them to, irresistibly controlling their intentions and actions in accordance with His eternal decree.”  This would hardly seem to be the intended answer to this rhetorical question.

We find further support for our interpretation, against Piper’s, in the parallel account found in Acts 2:23,

“This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Emphasis mine) [2]

Piper quotes a few more passages [3] and then writes,

“Therefore I conclude with Jonathan Edwards, ‘God decrees all things, even all sins.’ Or, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:11, “He works all things after the counsel of His will.’”

It is important to review Piper’s view before proceeding.  According to Piper, all evil and sin “comes…by [God’s] fatherly hand,” falling under God’s providence in such a way that these sins “must be” (i.e. these sins happen of divine necessity), and that God “decrees all things, even all sins” (shockingly, even going so far as to claim that this divine decree of all sin and evil is “gracious and precious beyond words” and alone can produce Piper’s coveted  “God-entranced world view” producing “marvelous stability and depth” in our lives).  With this in mind, it is puzzling to read how Piper and Edwards proceed to vindicate God of the charge that such a view would seem to plainly imply as a logical necessity: that God is the author/originator of sin.

With this in mind, we proceed to the first of Piper’s “Two Questions”, which asks: “Is God the author of sin?”

Piper again relies entirely on Edwards to make his argument,

Edwards answers, “If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing . . . . it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.” But, he argues, willing that sin exist in the world is not the same as sinning. God does not commit sin in willing that there be sin. God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by his “positive agency.

God is, Edwards says, “the permitter . . . of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted . . . will most certainly and infallibly follow.

Since Piper relies on Edwards to explain how God can decree and necessitate sin and yet not be properly called the author of it, we shall here rely on early Methodist theologian Daniel Whedon to refute both Piper and Edwards:

In regard to Edwards, we may here note the very remarkable fact that, although his whole work aggressively maintains necessitation, yet when he comes to this point he defends only the theory of non-prevention!  He seems to forget to which side he belongs, and quietly exculpates his opponents, the non-preventionists, from charging God with the authorship of sin.  He makes two suppositions as follows:

1. “If”, says he, “by author of sin be meant the sinner, the agent, the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing;” (356) then- no matter what “then.” For that is an imaginary “if.”  The real question is: Suppose by “author” is meant necessitator of sin, the necessitator of all sin, the necessitator of the sinner to be the “sinner,” “the actor,” “the doer”; what then is the answer of Edwards?  Nothing.

2.  “But if,” says he, “by the author of sin is meant the permitter, or not hinderer of sin, and at the same time a disposer of the state of events in such a manner…that sin, if it is permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow:” (356) then God is no author of sin.  That is, the non-prevention theory- the theory of his opponents- does not make God the author of sin.  This is a generous exculpation of us Arminians!  But what does Edwards say in defense of his own theory, namely, of Necessitation?  Nothing.  He simply defends the position of his opponents, and leaves his own system defenseless and naked to its enemies.  He has demonstrated Calvinism; he now defends only Arminianism [4]. (The Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, pp. 343, 344)

Exactly.  For all of Piper’s arguments that God decrees and necessitates sin, he is only able to avoid making God the author of sin by following Edwards in arguing like an Arminian.  Just like Edwards, Piper has extensively argued for decretal necessitation of sin (even to the point of suggesting that all sin and evil actually originates by God’s “fatherly hand”), but now defends only the Arminian position of permission and non-prevention.  Not only does this contradict his own arguments to this point (which actually do imply that God is the necessitating author of sin), but it also vindicates the Arminian perspective on God’s sovereignty in relation to sin as well as the Arminian interpretation of the same passages that Piper previously used to show that God ordains all sin and evil.  Again, Whedon drives this point home in his response to Edwards’ use of the same sorts of passages,

Edwards next proceeds to the Scripture argument.  He adduces the cases of Pharaoh, of Joseph’s brethren, of the king of Assyria, of Nebuchadnezzar, and of the crucifiers of Christ to prove- it is not very clear what.  These passages, it is at present sufficient to say, have terms of causation that seem to ascribe authorship of sin to God.  These passages either prove God’s necessitation of sin, or his mere permission or non-prevention.  By Edwards own argument they cannot mean the former; for he asserts there is nothing but mere permission.  If there is nothing but mere permission, then they make nothing against Arminianism.  He quotes but does not analyze them on this point, very much as if he meant, non-committally, to have a causation and necessitation of sin, by the reader inferred, which he thought best not explicitly himself to express. (ibid. 346)

So, for all of Piper’s arguments we are left with the Arminian theory of non-prevention to account for God’s ordaining sin in such a way as to avoid making God the author of sin. How does Piper avoid the implications of his theology?  He avoids them by adopting the Arminian perspective, the very perspective he has worked so hard to argue against in his sermon.  But as Whedon points out concerning Edwards, Piper’s permission and non-prevention solution likewise cannot comport with Piper’s overall theology,

It is not merely permission, not-hindering, non-annihilation, non-prevention, privative non-interference, nor the sole arranging that sin, if not prevented, will take place, that Necessitarianism teaches.  It teaches that God is the necessitative first cause, through a straight inevitable line of necessitating second causes, of man’s existence, and of his very acts, and of his final damnation for the being and act.  Necessitated to be what he is, to do what he does, of that necessitation God is the original necessitator who not only negatively precludes any different results from any possible existence, but positively necessitates that sole result to come into existence.  That is, God necessitates his existence, his nature and sin.  Man has no adequate ability for different existence, choice, act, or destiny. (ibid., pp. 343, 344)

We are left with only two possibilities.  Either Piper is truly relying on the Arminian non-prevention position to escape the force of his own Calvinist logic in making God the author of sin, thereby defeating his previous arguments to the contrary, or he is using “permission” in a manner that is contrary to normal usage and understanding.  This second possibility is hinted at when Piper says, “God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission.” (Emphasis mine)  But what does this mean?  Can Piper’s attempt to mix permission and non-prevention with necessity succeed? 

To say that God “permits” sin to come about “necessarily” is nothing more than saying that God “established a world” in which sin happens of necessity.  In the Edwards/Piper/Calvinist scheme, man is powerless to control his nature.  Man is powerless to choose or act contrary to “strongest motive force.”  Man, likewise, has no control over which motive will indeed be the “strongest” and so irresistibly move his will in a certain direction.  All these things are necessitated by the eternal all-encompassing decree of God.  Adam’s sin, mankind’s consequent fallen nature, and every subsequent thought, motive, desire, and act are necessitated by eternal divine decree. A person can no more resist or act contrary to the eternal divine decree than he or she could create a universe.  How then can we speak of God merely “permitting” these “necessitated” sinful acts? [5]

Even if we speak of God “permitting” the person to sin in accordance with his nature without, perhaps, actually causing the nature to produce the sin, the point is undone when we remember that man’s nature was necessitated as well as the cause and effect relationship between the “nature” and “act” that “infallibly” produces not only the sin, but the specific sin that was decreed to be performed by the person from all eternity.  This must include the sinful intentions as well, since all things come by God’s “fatherly hand.” [6]  To say that God “permits” sin to “necessarily” come about sounds much nicer and far less offensive than saying that God simply necessitates or causes sin, but it amounts to the exact same thing; whether we soften the language or not, it still reduces to necessitation or exhaustive determinism.  Daniel Whedon puts his finger on the problem well when he writes,

In the question of responsibility for an intended effect, be it here noted, it makes no difference through how many intermediate necessary causes the causation has to pass from the first cause to the last effect.  No matter how long the series of mediate necessitative causes, or how many the terms in the series, the first intentional causer is the responsible author of the final intended effect.  If the necessary mediate causes are billions and billions, the intentional causer is as truly the responsible author of the effect at the far end as if it were an immediate voluntary act or a simple volition.  The whole series is responsibly one act; the final effect is the one act.  The line of causation shoots through the whole series, and binds the first cause to a responsibility for the last effect.

Suppose a boy upon a high scaffold intentionally so arranges a number of standing bricks in a row, that when he pushes down the first, that shall push down the second, and the second the third and so on, so that the last brick, according to his purpose, shall fall upon the head of a sleeping man, and fulfill his intention of murdering him.  Would the act be less guilty or the boy less responsible than if he had crushed the man with a single brick, or assassinated him with a dagger, or willed him to an actual death by a volition?  Or if the bricks were a small number, would the increase of them be a score, a hundred, or a thousand, diminish the responsibility?

It would be no moral exculpation of this boy to say that he merely “so disposed” the bricks that the murder, “if permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow.”  The statement would be false, for he did more than this.  He necessitated and non-alternatively caused the brick to fall; and so was the author of the murder- the murderer.  The causative force from his finger ran in a right line through all the bricks and murdered the man.  The intention of the act ran through all the bricks and achieved the crime.  He had excluded from each and every brick the adequate power or possibility for any other effect.  Mere permission and necessitation are thus very different things in the question of responsible authorship…The first cause is the responsible cause of the last effect.  If the first cause is a living being, he is not only the cause. But he is the causer.  And if he intended that the last effect should exist, then he is the intentional causer that the last effect should exist.  And if this first supposed causer is a supposed God, and the last effect is sin, the supposed God is the intentional causer of that sin.  But surely the intentional causer of a thing is author of that thing.  God then, according to necessitarianism, we charge, is the responsible author of sin.

And by the same doctrine it is further true that God is as truly the author of sin as if the sin were his own immediate intentional act.  God is hereby the responsible author of the final effect as truly as it were his own act, or his own simple volition.  From the Will of God to the act of the sinner the line of causation through all intermediates is a straight line.  And to all the purposes of just responsibility it is a short line- a point. (ibid., pp. 344-346- emphasis mine)

Considering Piper’s prior arguments that sin is decreed by God in such a way that it “must” happen even to the point of all sin and evil originating by the “fatherly hand” of God,  it is truly difficult to grasp what Piper is trying to teach us.  It truly seems like his use of “permission” language serves only to obfuscate the very dogmas he has labored so hard to defend for the sake of avoiding the unavoidable implication of his teaching. This may be an example of what Whedon calls, “the use of words to conceal thought.”

Piper quotes Edwards further,

God may hate a thing as it is in itself, and considered simply as evil, and yet . . . it may be his will it should come to pass, considering all consequences. . . . God doesn’t will sin as sin or for the sake of anything evil; though it be his pleasure so to order things, that he permitting, sin will come to pass; for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be the consequence. His willing to order things so that evil should come to pass, for the sake of the contrary good, is no argument that he doesn’t hate evil, as evil: and if so, then it is no reason why he may not reasonably forbid evil as evil, and punish it as such.

As we have already demonstrated, Edwards’ scheme has no real room for mere permission, but only necessitation.  Therefore, it is odd to see Edwards argue that God ordering (i.e. necessitating) “things so that sin should (i.e. must) come to pass, for the sake of the contrary good” is no argument against God hating and somehow “forbid[ing]” that very evil that He necessitated, and then punishing his creatures for doing that very evil that God decreed for them to do.

Again, we will rely on Whedon to counter the argument,

But by Edwards’s argument, God does will and necessitate ‘sin as sin.’  God necessitates sin as being what it is.  Its sinfulness, its malignity, its blackness, its depravity of source in the dispositions, its atrocity of external act, all are necessitated by him.  As the sinner wills it, so the necessitarian deity wills it.  As the finite sins it so this infinite sins it.  God necessitates, wills, decrees, foreordains whatsoever comes to pass; the sinfulness of sin, sin as sin, come to pass.  God, therefore, necessitates, wills, decrees, foreordains the sinfulness of sin, sin as sin…But God ‘was willing to order things so evil should come to pass,’ Edwards adds, and necessitates in the sinner, not for its own sake, ‘but for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be the consequence.” (370)  To this Edwards very justly anticipates the reply that, ‘All that these things amount to is that God may do evil that good may come.’ (372)  If God may truly necessitate sin in the sinner, necessitate the sinfulness and guilt of that sin, and then necessitate an endless hell for the necessitated sin, all for some good and glorious end, then the maxim of the sons of Loyola, that the end sanctifies the means, is a fundamental maxim of divine administration.

God is then admitted to be the Author of Sin, and he is justified in being the Author of Sin.  The fact is granted and excused.  In order to make a beneficial crime holy, the method is (as is well quoted by Professor Bledsoe from Pascal) ‘simply taking off their intention from the sin itself and fixing it on the advantage to be gained.’  Edwards makes the supposed divine necessitation of sin, guilt, and damnation all right and holy, by simply taking the divine intention from them and placing it on the good result to be obtained.  If this is the divine morality, why not the human?

…But Edwards has his reply: ‘For God to dispose and permit evil, [he should say cause, necessitate, predestinate, and will sin,] in the manner that has been spoken of, is not to do evil that good may come, for it is not to do evil at all.’ (372)  Certainly it is ‘to do evil’ unless the goodness of the result changes the ‘do evil’ and makes it good.  But the doctrine that the ‘do evil’ is made good by what ‘good may come,’ is the very pith and infamy of the Jesuit maxim.  The maxim stands in opposition to the true doctrine that intrinsic evil cannot by any result be transmuted into good. (ibid. pp. 348, 349)


We have so far examined most of John Piper’s sermon on God ordaining all sin and evil.  We will examine the rest, along with Piper’s second “Question” in a future post.  Piper has argued strongly for the view that God necessitates all things, even all that is sinful and evil, by an irrevocable eternal decree.  He tells us that all things, including all that is evil and sinful come by God’s “fatherly hand” leading us to the inevitable conclusion that all such things have their origin in God Himself. 

Piper informs us at the onset that this realization is something that is very important for our Christian maturity.  Indeed, it is “gracious and precious beyond words” and will produce in our lives “a marvelous stability and depth” and is, in fact, the “key to a God-entranced world view.”  It would seem that this assertion carries with it the suggestion that those who reject Piper’s view of providence that has God causing all sin and evil are stuck with a view of God inferior to that of Piper and his followers.  The only way, according to Piper, for us to “become stable and deep and God-entranced and God-glorifying in all [we] think and feel and do” is to embrace “this absolute sovereign control of God over all things, including evil, because it is Biblical.”  This is a ridiculous assertion, to say the least [7].

Piper then proceeded to the Scripture argument to prove his view of providence that every sinful act proceeds from God’s “fatherly hand” and seemingly eschewed any view of providence that would have God merely permitting those sins while still working through or around them to accomplish His ultimate purposes.  But when it comes to the thorny issue of vindicating God of the logical implication of his view of providence that would make God the responsible author and originator of all sin and evil, Piper can only rely on the Arminian non-prevention view to relieve the difficulty.

Stranger still is Piper’s further attempt to seemingly meld necessity and permission in such a way as to have his cake and eat it too.  He argues for necessity against permission only to eventually argue for permission and later affirm both necessity and permission, or something like that. But as we have seen in this examination, both Edwards’ and Piper’s view, when wholly unfolded, cannot avoid the logical implications that have troubled Calvinist determinism since its inception.  In a view that makes God the necessitating first cause of all things, even sin and evil (so that all these things happen as they “must” in accordance with an irresistible eternal decree), no amount of clever verbiage (i.e. “the use of words to conceal thought”) can evade the fact that this peculiar view of sovereignty makes God the responsible author of all sin and evil.

If Piper wants to properly rely on the Arminian non-prevention/permission view to escape the implication, then we welcome him to the Arminian camp; if he wants to cling to the supposed “God-entranced view” of absolute sovereignty that makes even sin and evil originate by God’s “fatherly hand”, then he will be stuck with the unavoidable conclusion he wishes to avoid.  Thankfully, despite Piper’s inconsistencies, he is ultimately not willing to accept the logical implications of his claims and call God the responsible author of sin. [8]


[1] It is possible for an Arminian to claim that sin comes from God’s fatherly hand, but only in the loose sense of permitting that sin while in no way originating it (i.e., it could perhaps be thought to pass through His hands in the sense that it could not happen if God did not permit or allow it- see note #4 below).  Clearly, Piper’s and Edwards’ view of God’s ordaining all sin and evil would necessarily imply that God not only permits sin, but decrees it in a sense that prior to creation God Himself thought up every sin that would be committed, with no influence outside of Himself, and decreed for each of those sins to be carried out along with the sinful intentions and the sinfulness of those intentions in such a way that they “must” take place in an unavoidable and irresistible manner.  As noted in the post, this is clearly what is implied in Piper’s use of the idea that such things come from “God’s fatherly hand.”  If Piper should mean it in a way that an Arminian could be comfortable with the phrase (though I can’t imagine any Arminian purposely framing God’s permissive will in such an awkward way), he would simply be using it in a manner that is inconsistent with everything else he says about God’s ordination of all sin and evil as the post points out in numerous places.

[2] It should be noted that “to you” is not in the original, but seems to be plainly implied and is for that reason supplied by the NIV.  This is especially so given the context and the last part of the verse, “…and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”  For this reason it does seem to plainly imply that God handed over Christ by allowing those who wanted to kill Him opportunity to do so.  However, it could be argued that the “handing over” does not refer specifically to God handing Christ over, but to the human action of the Jews handing Jesus over to the Romans or even Judas handing over Jesus to the Jewish authorities. But regardless of who did the handing over, the point would still stand that the sinful intentions of those who handed Christ over did not need to be formed by God in order for God to have planned and ensured that the handing over and the subsequent results (the crucifixion) took place.  Instead, God would only need to provide for them the opportunity to carry out their sinful intentions.

[3] In bolstering his case with a few more passages of Scripture, Piper continues,

“These specific examples (which could be multiplied by many more instances) where God purposefully governs the sinful choices of people are generalized in several passages. For example, Romans 9:16: ‘So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.’ Man’s will is not the ultimately decisive agent in the world, God is. Proverbs 20:24: ‘Man’s steps are ordained by the LORD, How then can man understand his way?’ Proverbs 19:21: ‘Many plans are in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the LORD will stand.’ Proverbs 21:1: ‘The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.’ Jeremiah 10:23: ‘I know, O LORD, that a man’s way is not in himself, Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps.’”

I will briefly comment on these passages: 

Romans 9:16 is actually a reference to man’s will in relation to salvation and not to sin.  It is certainly not a general statement intended to convey the idea that every desire and act of man is necessitated by divine decree, nor would any Arminian claim that “Man’s will is…the ultimately decisive agent in the world.”  Indeed, the passage is not addressing man’s role in receiving salvation by faith (an act of “will”), but God’s ultimate prerogative in deciding who will be saved and through whom His salvation will be mediated.  This does not conflict with Arminianism at all, for Arminians hold that God has the sovereign right to decide the terms of salvation.  It is the terms of salvation that man has no say in for God can save anyway He wants, as the Scriptures say, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” This in no way negates God’s right to save conditionally (through faith in His Son, rather than by works or heritage), nor does it teach that God controls man’s every thought, desire and action.

Proverbs 20:24 is a general statement of God’s providence over the affairs of a man’s life.  No Arminian would disagree.  Joseph Benson’s comments on the passage are excellent, 

“Man’s goings are of the Lord — All men’s purposes and actions are so entirely subject to the control of God’s overruling providence, and so liable to be frustrated or changed, as he shall see good, and to be directed to ends so far distant from those they thought of and intended, that it is impossible for any man to know what shall be the event of any of his undertakings. The intention of this proverb is, to show that the events of human life are neither ordered nor foreseen by man’s, but only by God’s providence; and therefore that men should only mind to do their duty, and then quietly depend upon God for a good issue to their endeavours.”

Another way to look at this passage is as a simple acknowledgement that this world is God’s and as the Creator He alone should be looked to for understanding, guidance and direction.  Since God is the Creator, governor and the author of life, we cannot understand the right way on our own, but should look to Him for wisdom.

This principle can be seen in Christ’s parable of the man who stored up great wealth for his future and died despite his plans (Luke 12:13-21).  The following passages give us further insight,

“In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)

This verse makes it clear that man does make his own plans.  The point is that God can overrule our plans, either for good (in protecting us from the wrong course) or for ill (in bringing discipline or judgment on us for not relying on God to guide us, as in Christ’s parable).  The word “directs” can also mean establish, which can further mean that while we are the ones who plan, it is God who grants success. 

Likewise, we see the same basic principle in Psalm 37:23,

“If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he will make his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.”

So while Proverbs 20:24 teaches us an important lesson concerning God’s providence, it does not support Piper’s view of exhaustive meticulous divine control.  Proverbs 19:21 lays down the same basic principle, but again contradicts Piper’s assertions by acknowledging that man does indeed make his own plans; the point again being that the plans of man cannot finally frustrate God’s ultimate plan, nor can they succeed unless God permits.  Passages like these teach us that God is in no way threatened by the free will decisions of His creatures, but they do not teach us that God meticulously controls our wills so that all that we think and do is in accordance with an irresistible eternal decree.  Indeed, they contradict such a notion in acknowledging that people do come up with their own plans, though it is up to God as to whether or not He will let those plans succeed.

Proverbs 21:1 can be understood as a statement of the king’s personal submission to God’s sovereignty and rule in His life, relying on God to guide and direct him to rule wisely.  To use this verse as support for God irresistibly controlling man’s every decision like a water course runs aground on the following verse, “All of man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.” (vs. 2)  For more on this passage see my post, Does Proverbs 21:1 Teach Calvinistic Determinism?

Jeremiah 10:23 is little different than the passages we have already examined.  We will again rely on Joseph Benson’s commentary for further insight,

“That the way of man is not in himself — The prophet must here be considered as acknowledging the superintendence and dominion of the divine providence; that by it, and not by their own will and wisdom, the affairs both of nations and particular persons are directed and governed. His words in this verse, taken in connection with the following, may be thus paraphrased: Thy providence, O Lord, superintends all events; all that happens comes to pass through thy permission or appointment. It is not in man to hinder that which has been once resolved on in thy decrees. We know, therefore, that it is not in our power to divert those judgments which are coming upon us, but thou canst moderate and limit them as thou pleasest. If, then, it be thy will that we should feel the awful effects of thy justice, chastise us, but spare our weakness; correct us, but with judgment, not in thine anger, &c. Theodoret applies this to Nebuchadnezzar, and explains the passage thus: ‘We know, O Lord, that the prince whom thou sendest against us comes not without thy orders; that the success of his arms, and the good fortune of his enterprise, proceed only from thee: but deliver us, O Lord, from this terrible enemy; and if we have merited chastisement, may we receive it at thy hand. Punish us as a father, and not as a judge.’ The words, however, are applicable to us all, as well as to Nebuchadnezzar and the Jews. We are not at our own disposal, nor able to direct our own way by our own wisdom, either in matters temporal or spiritual. Nor are we at liberty to choose what line of life we please, or to ensure to ourselves the success and prosperity we may desire. We are under God’s government, and at his disposal, and have continual need of his direction, and of the influence of his grace, without which we shall certainly err from the right way, and shall neither choose nor perform what is truly and lastingly good, and for our happiness.”

Note especially that in none of these passages is any such principle “generalized” that “God purposefully governs the sinful choices of people” as Piper claims (in the strict sense of God irresistibly causing those choices; unless, of course, Piper means only that God governs sinful choices in the Arminian sense by allowing them while working through them or around them to accomplish His ultimate plans).

[4] Whedon is clearly referring to the fact that all Edwards’ can come up with to make his view of God authoring all sin and evil seem acceptable is to use the language of Arminians and in a sense vindicate the Arminian view in the process.  However, it would be a mistake to think that Whedon sees Edwards’ argument here as being the same as the Arminian argument based on the rest of his language that makes permission as an Arminian would use it (and in the normal sense of the word) incompatible with the consequences of His view of determinism.  He makes this clear in the next cited quote in the post as well as with the example of the boy and the bricks.  The point being that both Piper and Edwards try to ward off the charge of making God the responsible author of sin by appealing to permission, but in such a way that it cannot really succeed in avoiding that exact conclusion.  In other words, as Robert Shank put it in “Elect in the Son” regarding the way Calvin often spoke of permission, “…what the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away.”  This is exactly why Whedon says that Edwards’ system, despite his appeals to permission, is still “defenseless and naked to its enemies.”  Such a view of permission as Edwards and Piper describe would be like saying that someone who controlled the mind and actions of another to sin in such a way that the person being controlled had no power to avoid sinning “permitted the sin” because he “allowed” the person to think and act just as he was irresistibly controlling the person to think and act.  Again, that is hardly how anyone would understand “permission” and it is not how the word is normally used.

[5] Piper tries to further explain this so called necessitated “permission” by drawing on Edwards’ illustration of the sun “causing” darkness by simply falling beyond the horizon,

“‘If the sun were the proper cause of cold and darkness,’ he says, ‘it would be the fountain of these things, as it is the fountain of light and heat: and then something might be argued from the nature of cold and darkness, to a likeness of nature in the sun.’ In other words, ‘sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence.’”

To this Whedon replies,

“Edwards next defends a necessitating God from responsibility for sin by the distinction between positive and privative causations.  The sun by his direct ray is the positive cause, and, so to speak, the responsible author of day.  But he is the author of night with her darkness, damps and monsters by privation, that is, simply by the withdrawal of his light, and so not the responsible author.  So God is not the direct and positive, but only the privative and so the irresponsible cause of sin.

But, we reply, necessity makes God the positive and not merely the negative cause of sin.  God according to necessity positively sets all first causes and materials in existence and action, just as the boy arranges the bricks and throws down the first, which throws down all to the last (see the story of the boy and the bricks above).  The first start given secures the whole, excluding all but the given result.  The line of causation from God’s finger streaks through all second causes and secures the result.  Sin is an act directly necessitated, and so not by privative but positive causation.” (Whedon, 346, 347)

In another place in a discussion on the meaning of “cause”, Whedon writes,

“Edwards says of cause: ‘The word is often used in so restrained a sense as to signify that only which has a positive efficiency or influence to produce a thing or bring it to pass.  But there are many things which have no such positive productive influences, which are yet causes.’ (68)  He instances as real causes the absences of preventatives.  The absence of the sun is the cause of the failing dew in summer, and of the freezing streams in winter.  Mr. Mill maintains the same doctrine, including the absences of preventatives under the term cause.  He further adds: ‘The state of the whole universe at any instant we believe to be consequent of its state in the previous instant; insomuch that if we knew all the agents which exist at the present moment, their collection in space and their properties, in other words, the laws of their agency, we could predict the whole subsequent history of the universe.’  From which it would seem to result. That every previous thing is the cause of every subsequent thing, and everything that does not exist is the cause of everything that does exist!” (ibid. pg. 49)

[6] Recall Piper’s previous quote of Edward’s on the crucifixion,

“Edwards ponders that someone might say that only the sufferings of Christ were planned by God, not the sins against him, to which he responds, ‘I answer, [the sufferings] could not come to pass but by sin. For contempt and disgrace was one thing he was to suffer. [Therefore] even the free actions of men are subject to God’s disposal.’”

Here it seems that Piper wants to exclude nothing from the decreed sin of putting Christ to death, including the sinful intentions behind the act itself (i.e. the “contempt” and desire to shame and “disgrace” Christ).

[7] Such a claim would naturally lead us to believe that only Calvinist Christians throughout history have properly experienced and understood God’s grace and love.  This means that Calvinists like John Piper have had an experience of God far superior to that of great men of faith like John Wesley and so many other non-Calvinists who dedicated their lives to Christ and His gospel.  This would also include all of the ante-Nicene church fathers, the earliest Christian writers (some of whom were taught by the apostles themselves, or those who were directly discipled by them), who rejected every feature of what would later come to be called Calvinism; men like Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and others, many of whom faced horrible torture and death for their faith. 

According to Piper’s grand assertions, these men lacked the “key to a God-entranced world view” along with the “marvelous stability and depth” that Piper and those who hold to strict exhaustive determinism apparently possess (To see a similarly bizzare claim see here).  Perhaps we are being too hard on John Piper and he just got carried away with his rhetoric, but influential Pastors need to be very mindful of the implications of their words.  The fact that so many Calvinists today who look up to Piper as a great expounder of Biblical truth seem to tend towards a similar spiritually elitist attitude may well illustrate the point.

[8] However, he does not seem to shy away from the idea that God is the author of sin in this excellent exchange with Thomas McCall, though he does make it clear that he does not want anyone to feel they need to view God as the author of sin if they are not yet ready to accept that supposed Biblical truth.