Example 21 – John Piper on the Gospel and the “Royal Decree” of “Your Sovereign”

Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence

Calvinist John Piper clearly believes that God has unconditionally chosen certain persons to be saved and only those persons will be saved.  None will be lost of those God has predestined to eternal life and all others will not and cannot not be saved.

            Yet in his book, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself, Piper gives the following illustration of the gospel message defined and proclaimed as a universal “gift” containing the dynamic of promise, potential and the possibility that all who hear this proclamation may receive this “gift.”  He writes,

               “And the gospel means good news.  Good news is for proclaiming – for heralding the way an old fashioned town crier would do.

Hear ye!  Hear ye!  Hear ye!  All rebels, insurgent, dissident, and protesters against the King!  Hear the royal decree!  A great day of reckoning is coming, a day of justice and vengeance.  But now hear this, all inhabitants of the King’s realm!  Amnesty is herewith published by the mercy of your Sovereign.  A price has been paid.  All debts may be forgiven.  All rebellion absolved.  All dishonor pardoned.  None is excluded from this offer.  Lay down the weapons of rebellion, kneel in submission, receive the royal amnesty as a gift of imperial love, swear fealty to your sovereign, and rise a free and happy subject of your King.”[1]

            This of course is inconsistent with what Piper believes as to how one can be “forgiven” and “absolved” of their rebellion against “the King.”  To be consistent with his Calvinist soteriology we would think that Piper would pick an illustration that would reflect his “doctrines of grace” – the eternal divine decree, deterministic sovereignty, predestination, unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace.   But he does not.  He says, “Amnesty is herewith published by the mercy of your Sovereign.  A price has been paid.  All debts may be forgiven.  All rebellion absolved.  All dishonor pardoned.”  Non-Calvinists will agree with these statements.  But the use of the word “all” here by Piper seems inconsistent with his doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement.  “Amnesty” for who?  All?  Not on Calvinism.  “A price has been paid.”  For who?  All?  Not on Calvinism (at least the 5 point kind).  It would seem that Piper means “all” when he says “all” because he explicitly states “All debts may be forgiven.  All rebellion absolved.  All dishonor pardoned.”  But we are suspicious of Piper’s intent here.  Does he mean that “All debts may be forgiven” using the word “may” in the sense of “depending upon whether one is among the elect or not.”  To be consistent with his Calvinism this is precisely what he must mean.  But according to the plain reading of his words here he is being inconsistent with his Calvinism. 

Piper then goes on to say, “None is excluded from this offer” of amnesty.  Taking these words at face value, on Calvinism that is of course not true.  Many are excluded from this offer by God himself.  Those who are not among the elect are excluded.  They cannot “receive the royal amnesty as a gift of imperial love.”

Now if Piper is playing word games with us and in his own mind interpreting his words to mean “None is excluded from this offer, but some are excluded from the salvation it does offer because there is a general call that goes out to all and an effectual call that brings about salvation only in the elect,” then this is really disingenuous.  So is Piper using more verbal legerdemain here?  According to his Calvinism does he really mean by “None is excluded from this offer” that “The offer should of course go out to all individuals.  It should go out to all without exception, but the offer is only the offer.  We know that the salvation it does offer will only apply to the elect.”  If that is the case, then three problems result.

One involves the definition of “offer.”  “Offer” implies the ability of the hearer to accept or reject it.  But that is a contingency that is excluded on Calvinist “total inability” and “sovereignty” defined as theistic determinism.

The second problem, as mentioned above, involves the disingenuousness and dishonesty of the “offer” as spoken to all when it is not intended for all.

This leads to the third and most serious problem.  The above duplicity is associated with the very nature of God or “the King” according to Piper’s anaology.  In the gospel it is God himself who is speaking.  And according to Calvinist soteriology God speaks a word as if it were true to the non-elect hearer when it is not.  And since God knows who the non-elect are, it makes God out to be a liar.

Piper then continues with an exhortation to act, implying the ability of all who hear to do so.  He says, “Lay down the weapons of rebellion, kneel in submission, and receive the royal amnesty…”   But as a Calvinist, Piper believes in “total inability.”  No one can do what Piper portrays as a possibility for all who hear unless they are first regenerated by God.  “The King” would have to somehow produce the desire and actions in his subjects for them to do what he commands and for them to receive what he offers.  Only then can they perform the list of exhortations.  And although the King makes it seem like all can “receive the royal amnesty as a gift of imperial love,” only the elect will do so because the King will cause them to do so.  So the King’s “royal decree” only applies to certain of his subjects.  As King, he controls every thought, desire, belief and action of every one of his subjects.  No one else other than whom he has chosen will “swear fealty to [their] sovereign, and rise a free and happy subject of [their] King.”

In contrast to what Piper’s Calvinism requires that he must mean by these words, the plain sense of the words “None is excluded from the offer” must mean that the offer applies to all who hear, meaning that all may be partakers of this “amnesty’ that springs from “the mercy of [their] Sovereign.”  Note then, we are left either struggling to understand how Piper’s words and analogy here could be consistent with his Calvinism, that is how Piper could be employing verbal gymnastics to make these words fit with his Calvinist determinism, or, we simply take what Piper has written as a consistent non-Calvinist doctrine that the king’s subjects are called to and can respond in surrender and submission to the king’s mercy without their being any “total inability” to do so or perceiving this as “meritorious contribution” to their amnesty or behinds the scenes there is an unconditional election at work.  For a subject of the king to acknowledge that they cannot merit the king’s mercy but must cast themselves upon his grace in humility and submission, believing his decree, cannot logically be considered as meriting the king’s mercy.  That would be to misconceive the humility and submission of faith.  And we take the King’s offer to be genuine, just as it should be taken.  “All inhabitants of the King’s realm” are being offered “amnesty.”  Therefore, “all the inhabitants of the King’s realm” may be “pardoned” if they do what the King has told them to do.

Note also that Piper describes this amnesty as “a gift of imperial love.”  The word “gift” implies an ability to accept or reject the “love” being offered.  Is this a “gift” to be received by the subjects of this sovereign out of their loving response for his merciful amnesty and for paying the price they could not pay, and for being forgiven, absolved and pardoned?”  Or, is it a “gift” to be given only to those the King has chosen to give it?  Piper believes the latter but does not accurately state this in this analogy.  Rather, in the analogy we have Piper communicating concepts that are incoherent with his Calvinist soteriology.

In the end this analogy is contrary to Piper’s soteriology.  What we have here is simply the “good news” that the King has accomplished pardon for the people and is extending this mercy to all.  And given the command and exhortation to surrender and submit, this plainly implies it is up to the individual subjects to accept this amnesty or reject it and that they may do either.  The King will still remain sovereign either way.

I’ll make three observations from this examination of Piper’s text.

First, what this demonstrates is the Calvinist’s inability to get “good news” out of their Calvinist soteriology.  Although many Calvinist will claim Calvinism is the gospel, when that are writing or speaking about the gospel as “good news” they do not expound on or mention their “doctrines of grace.”  This shows that their “doctrines of grace” cannot be put into the service of evangelism as truly good news.

Second, this text exemplifies the linguistic perplexity that readers of Calvinist literature experience.  The reader knows what Calvinists believe but their words do not reflect those beliefs.  In fact they are inconsistent or contradictory to their Calvinist beliefs.  It can be an intellectually and spiritually torturous experience.

Thirdly, Calvinists demonstrate that they do not value consistency between what they say and what they believe soteriologically.  This is not only perplexing, it is intellectually unacceptable.

Fourthly, Calvinists are simply given a pass by non-Calvinist evangelicals to indulge in theological and conceptual incoherence in their writing and speaking.  The logical and moral problems I have identified above are simply ignored by most Christian readers and the evangelical church in general.  There is an indifference as to the Calvinist’s incoherence.  The degree to which Calvinists and most evangelical Christians have come to ignore and accept the incoherence and inconsistency in Calvinist writing and speaking on the gospel is very troubling.  It is indicative of a forfeiting of the life of the mind in evangelicalism and the embracing of theological relativism.

We regret that we have to be so suspicious of Piper’s meanings but we are just trying to read him consistent with his stated soteriology.  He can’t fault us for observing that the plain meaning of his words are inconsistent with his Calvinism and therefore we end up confused about what he actually means to say.  Piper could solve this problem by writing and speaking coherently with what he believes as a Calvinist. The thesis I am supporting is that an integral part of the Calvinist hermeneutic is this illegitimate acceptance of incoherence in their exegesis, writing and speaking.  This passage from Piper is a prime example of this.

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[1] John Piper, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 19.

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