First, let me say this is not a hit piece on John Piper. His Desiring God ministries have helped more people than I could ever hope to help in their Christian walk. This is just a critical interaction with claims in his recent book, and I hope it will be a help to you.
John Piper’s book Does God Desire All to Be Saved? is his very sincere attempt to wrestle with the seemingly contradictory views of Piper’s Reformed theology and the seemingly biblical teaching that God desires all to be saved. Piper is not attempting to advance some ideology that he forces on to the Bible; he genuinely wants to exegete the text and believes this is the best way to do it. This short book (54 pages!), unfortunately, is not his best effort. Although he does answer the titular question correctly (with a strong “yes”), he deals very little with the teachings he holds in tension.
Piper holds to the famous “two wills” scenario of God, whereby God wills in one (desire) sense that all be saved, and wills in another (decretive) sense that only some specific persons are saved (16). It is ambiguous as to whether or not Piper means two faculties of will or something else; I think charity invites us to assume he does not mean this. He is a little unclear when contrasting God’s desire that all be saved with the decree that only some will be. I think the most coherent view of Piper here is to say that God desires both of these things; at least, he desires something that entails that only some are saved more than he desires that all be saved (but he does desire them both). I actually don’t have a problem with the basic idea that God has competing desires (that is, two desires that cannot both be actualized). I think, as a Molinist, that God desires that all are saved. I also think God desires a real love relationship with creatures made in his image, so that if any free creatures made in the image of God were to be created, then they must have the choice whether or not to sin (and then the choice of salvation becomes subsequent to these initial creations faced with such a choice—Piper does not recognize this level of the discussion, confining it merely to those who are choosing salvation or not). These twin desires come strongly into play with respect to Piper’s argument.
However, Piper has a few naïve habits. First, he tends to say things like his argument is “driven by texts, not logic” (17). Next, he accuses his opponents of engaging in “philosophical presupposition” (40). Before I go any further, I want to explain why these two quotes are naïve. First, it supposes that logic is not involved. I don’t even know what it’s supposed to mean to say that Piper has arrived at an exegetical conclusion without it being “driven” by logic. Although he doesn’t say what “driven” means, perhaps he thinks it means logic without consulting the biblical text. While this is fine, the vast majority of Piper’s theological opponents do not ignore the texts. Further, the use of logic is necessary in exegeting the text. When we see Jesus saying “if your right eye offends you, pluck it out,” why is Piper not demanding that we all pluck our eyes out with some instrument, should that offensive situation arise? “Well that’s easy,” he might reply. “Jesus is using hyperbole.” Really? Where in the text does it say that? Any good response Piper gives is going to use logic and reasoning. But then, we say that his interpretation of the text is “logic-driven,” something he apparently thinks is inferior or incorrect. Second, he talks about philosophical presuppositions as if: a) he didn’t have any, or b) not having a philosophical presupposition when coming to a text were possible. His own philosophical presuppositions include infusing God’s sovereign actions with causality.
Next, Piper actually engages in an exegetical fallacy by insisting that the hardening work of God was not in response to any act of the creature (24). In a footnoted response to those who would say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart first (cf. Ex. 8:15), Piper insists, “But they are probably wrong about this . . . The text implies that God is the one hardening even when the passive voice is used. We know this because the passive verb is followed by the phrase, ‘as the Lord had said,’ which refers back to Exodus 4:21 and 7:3, where God promises beforehand that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (n. 8). The problem we have here is that the two theories (Pharaoh hardened his own heart, followed by God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, confirming his decision in consequence vs. God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart from the beginning) seem to be empirically equivalent. This means that the data is consistent with both theories being true. If that is the case, we either need to dig a little deeper in the texts themselves, and use some reasoning, or just engage in philosophical and theological reflection itself.
Let’s try the former. In Exodus 4:21-23, the Lord is instructing Moses in what he should say to Pharaoh. If Piper had taken serious note of verse 22, he would have seen that Moses was to say, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn….’” Interesting that the firstborn should be brought up only a few Hebrew words away from the discussion about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. If this were all that there was, then it wouldn’t be much. But we have verse 23, which says: “So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.’” So it is very clear: Exodus 4 is not referring to the initial hardening of the heart as much as the timeframe of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn.
Exodus 7:1-5 is a discussion on the entire process as a whole, and gives no time reference to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. All that we can conclude is that God does in fact harden Pharaoh’s heart (which all sides agree on). So what does 8:15 refer to when it says, “as the Lord had said.” It seems obvious that it would be something along the lines of 7:3, i.e. “When Pharaoh does not listen to you….” It would be incorrect exegesis to assume that each event in this sequence is given chronologically. They are rather grouped in causal pairs. When the exodus is conducted, then the Egyptians know that God is real. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then plagues and the exodus will occur. When I harden his heart, then signs will be multiplied. All of this is consistent with a non-Reformed exegesis.
Beyond exegesis, Piper has an ambiguity problem with his definition of free will. He defines it as, “ultimate (or decisive) human self-determination” (40). At first, Piper says this only means that, “whatever other influences may lead toward a decision, the influence that settles the choice is the human self” (40). Now, beyond concerns as to what it means to “settle” a decision, he at least appears to be trying to convey a libertarian conception of free will. However, later in the book, Piper says, “I do not find in the Bible that human beings have the ultimate power of self-determination. As far as I can tell, this is a philosophical presupposition brought to the Bible rather than found in it” (53).
First, of course, is the issue that libertarian free will is emphatically not merely presupposed, and his insistence that it is either betrays his ignorance of arguments to the contrary or is question-begging. Second, this slightly different definition comes in the context of a rhetorical shift. The preceding paragraph has Piper claiming that either Reformed theology is correct or else we must concede that God’s will is “constrained by his commitment to ultimate human self-determination” (53; note carefully Piper’s language is not “constrained,” but “restrained,” by Reformed theology. This is especially curious given Piper’s proposed solution as to why not all are saved.). The idea is that we’re supposed to accept Reformed thinking or else proclaim our sovereignty over God. Who wants to do that? That sounds impious, irreverent, and even blasphemous! But let’s move away from the “sounds good” theology rhetoric. Once the rhetoric is jettisoned, it becomes either believe Reformed theology or believe that God wanted a relationship with creatures that were made in his image, and that this relationship precluded the logical guarantee that no one would ever sin or be in need of salvation, and it precluded the idea that all would freely be saved. That loses a lot of rhetorical force.
So what is Piper’s solution to the issue of universalism? Piper is not a universalist, by any stretch of the imagination. He says that the solution is that God wanted to glorify himself by extending the “full range of his perfections,” which include wrath. Thus, some people go to Hell. But, as others have argued, God’s attribute of wrath is plausibly a dispositional property from his essential property (synonym for “perfections”) of justice. God is always in a state of being just, even with no creation present. Nevertheless, God is not always in a state of being wrathful. So when would he be in such a state? Only in cases where justice demands it. Justice demands punishing those who have done wrong. In those cases, God’s being wrathful is exercised on those who have done wrong. So why isn’t everyone in Hell (or going there)?
Because of the next point: Jesus Christ bore the penalty for sins. Jesus Christ satisfied the wrath of God. So if being wrathful is necessary to the glory of God, it is already exemplified on the person of Christ. Piper surely agrees with this much. So then everyone is saved, right? Wrong. Piper would probably rely on limited atonement. But then notice something: this doesn’t answer why particular people aren’t included in Christ’s suffering. Notice the whole point of appeal to wrath was to explain why not everyone could be saved.
But let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that this is insufficient, and that someone needs to be eternally punished. It seems like the devil and his angels are good candidates. Why is God’s wrath not exhibited then? Suppose we bypass that. God could save everyone but one, or a handful of persons. Why did he not do that? God’s perfection is on display in those cases as well. The only good answer hinted at by Piper (and it is only a vague hint) is that the number of people consigned to Hell are needed in order that his glory be displayed to the proper extent. But why? Who knows? It’s a mystery. However, I prefer the mystery in this case be left to the depravity of man, instead of the lovingkindness of God.
Finally, in what could be a dialectical response to just such an argument, Piper offers an analogy of George Washington. Washington faced a treasonous soldier in his midst, and was forced to sign his death warrant. Washington had compassion on the man, and wished to pardon him, but could not, due to what was just. Just as no one should think Washington’s pity was not genuine, so no one should think that the Reformed conception of God’s pity on the lost is not genuine (47-48). I thought this was interesting, and it was not the first time I had heard this.
Unfortunately, Piper only has heard of three objections, and none of them are very good. In fact, none of them matched the immediate objection I had: that the two scenarios are disanalogous. In order for the situations to be analogous, Washington would have had to order the soldier to perform the treasonous acts, so as to increase Washington’s fame and honor later on when Washington acted justly in signing the death warrant for the soldier. This is precisely what God does in Piper’s theology. God so orders the world by causing the specific events that come to pass (instead of actualizing sets of circumstances where the creature will do what God knows the creature would do were those circumstances to be actualized), and then punishes those people for what God has done through them (as they are secondary causes, like sticks in the hands of a man pushing a rock).
Now, to be fair, Piper is only attempting to illustrate that God can have a genuine pity for the unsaved and still send them to Hell. And I am 100% with him on that. However, Piper’s conception of God causes the analogy to fall apart. It does not seem God can really have a salvific love that’s very strong, especially since there is no logical necessity in the number of (nor the specific!) persons who are condemned to Hell. Can God love someone salvifically when he caused them to sin, caused them to reject His message, and then condemns them to Hell? Since that question is not directly addressed by the Bible, I can freely say it doesn’t seem very loving to me. And I doubt it actually seems loving, in the relevant way, to anyone else. Putting the mystery in to the character of God is not a very good option. I’d rather wonder (and it makes sense to me as well) why it is that man rejects God, than why it is God rejects man.
 John Piper, Does God Desire All to Be Saved? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).
 In fact, it might be the case that free creatures made in the image of God must have a generally libertarian free will in order to truly be in that image.
 In fact, none of the texts Piper uses establishes this causal determinism. One must use the philosophical presupposition of logic, amongst other things, in order to arrive at this conclusion.
 Not only this, but if Alvin Plantinga and others are right, creatures who are free in the libertarian sense would always freely go astray, given significant time and moral circumstances. This means God’s creation of creatures made in his image virtually guarantees some sin in the world. But on the non-Reformed view, this sin is a consequence of other things that have been willed directly (in terms of both decree and desire). On the Reformed picture, sin is not merely the consequence of free creatures; it is the consequence of God’s willing that free creatures commit those specific sins.