This is a book review on John Piper’s Does God Desire All to Be Saved?
Nearly three years ago, I was sitting on the floor of my small group leader’s spare bedroom with a dozen high school students when we came upon 1 Timothy 2:4. In his pastoral words to Timothy, Paul writes,
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
-1 Timothy 2:3-4
As we thought through what this verse might mean, and what the contextual clues in this passage and throughout Scripture had to say about it, we concluded that though God desires all people to be saved, not all people are saved.
What is keeping God from saving all people?
Thankfully, in light of the contextual clues throughout Scripture, the wisdom of our small group leader, and the teaching we had received growing up, we avoided the heresy of universalism. After quickly dismissing the idea that God saved all people despite their faith, we were stumped. How could God desire for all people to be saved, yet all people not be saved? What hindered God from accomplishing his will? These questions were well over our heads.
Our small group leader explained that he believed God was even more committed to giving us self-determination or free will than he was to saving all people. Essentially, God loves us too much to force a decision upon us, therefore, leaving it up to our choice whether we would respond in faith.
This was problematic to me for several reasons. First, the Scripture shows examples of people like Paul who came to faith as a result of God’s regenerative work in bringing them to new life and faith in Christ’s work. Second, the Scripture seemed to present a greater will of God than to merely give us our own choice.
Conveniently, there are men far wiser than I who have asked these same questions and searched the totality of the Scripture for them. One of those men is John Piper. In Piper’s 2013 short theological essay, Does God Desire All to Be Saved?, the seasoned pastor-theologian asks the same question we asked that night.
The Aim of the Essay
If you’re going to read this essay, you should know that Piper comes in with a few presuppositions. First, Piper assumes that Scripture is inspired by God and does not contradict itself. Second, he presumes that God is sovereign over everything.
To be clear, both of these presuppositions are orthodox positions, but it is important to remember that Piper’s aim in writing this essay is not to defend these truths, but rather, assuming that they are true.
To show from Scripture that the simultaneous existence of God’s will for all people to be saved and his will to choose some people for salvation unconditionally before creation is not a sign of divine schizophrenia or exegetical confusion.
By saying this, Piper introduces the idea that God has two wills: a sovereign will and a moral will.
Where This Book Excelled
Generally speaking, this essay was fantastic. In a mere 54 pages, Piper lays out his argument clearly, carefully, and pastorally. There were a few areas where I felt like this book particularly shined.
Built on Scripture
Throughout the essay, Piper builds his assertions not on ever-changing logic or deduction, but on the Scriptures. He immediately points out the seemingly problematic nature of a text like 1 Timothy 2:4, but rather than dismissing it as a misunderstanding, he engages it.
Though Piper notes that “it is possible that a careful interpretation of [this verse] would lead us to believe that [this] does not refer to every individual person, but rather to all types of people,” he puts that interpretation to the side for the sake of understanding the reality that Scripture teaches God desires for all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:8-9, Ezekiel 18:23, and Matthew 23:37).
Relied on History
While the crux of the argument made in this book is made on the basis of thorough examination of the Biblical text, Piper consistently relies upon the insights of faithful Christians of the past. He frequently points the readers back to authors like John Gill, Adolf Schlatter, Heinrich Heppe, Jonathan Edwards, Theodore Beza, Stephen Charnock, Robert Dabney, and John Calvin. For an idea that initially seems rather novel, Piper does well to point to the men of the past in order to strengthen his case.
Engaged with Opponents
As Piper develops his explanation, he simultaneously interacts with the position of his opponents. In a conversation where both camps claim their position is built on the Bible and relies on history, one of the most revealing aspects of the author’s side is the way that he engages opponents’ own text.
Throughout the essay, Piper walks through the ideas presented in A Case for Arminianism by Clark Pinnock and a number of other contributors. For example, he fundamentally changes the way that we answer the question when he references the words of the late I. Howard Marshall. In the section entitled, “Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles,” Marshall writes,
We must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen, and both of these things can be spoken of as God’s will.
Identifying the Epicenter
Piper rightly identifies the points of unity and the grounds of debate when he writes,
Both the Reformed and the Arminians affirm two wills in God when they ponder over 1 Timothy 2:4. Both can say that God wills for all to be saved. And when queried why all are not saved, both the Reformed and Arminians answer the same: because God is committed to something even more valuable than saving all. The difference between the Reformed and the Arminians lies not in whether there are two wills in God, but in what they say this higher commitment is.
This is crucial because initially it seems like Reformed theologians are forced to perform exegetical gymnastics in order to conclude that there are two wills in God, but Piper is arguing that both sides actually come to the same initial conclusion.
Where This Book Fell Short
At this point, I have spent ample time explaining the areas in which this essay surpassed my expectations. While this work was incredibly well-written and thought-provoking, a few areas missed the mark.
Overly Reliant on Previous Works
To be honest, if I had not read his other works, Spectacular Sins: And Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ and Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace, much of the assertions made in this book would seem insufficiently explained. Piper relies heavily upon the conclusions of these two books in order to lay the groundwork for the theological ideas presented here.
Lack of Practical Application
Near the end of this essay, Piper notes that Randall G. Basinger argued that “belief in the absolute sovereignty of God is practically irrelevant in daily life.” Piper shows the irony of this statement in light of James 4:13-15, but falls short of giving useful application. The inclusion of actual examples in the Christian life such as evangelism, work, or marriage, would elevate the weight of this essay’s argument.
Who Should Read This Book?
This is not simply a book for the theology nerds, but rather a pastoral call to understand the seemingly paradoxical relationship within the will of God. This is a book for pastors, teachers, business men and women, stay-at-home parents, and even college students. While Piper does not explicitly state how this will affect the Christian life, I believe that by reading it you will not only grow in your knowledge of the Lord, but your love as well.
This topic is dense, but Piper guides the reader through these deep waters. If your aim in reading this book is mere intellectual satisfaction, you’re missing the point. You should read this book in order to grow in your understanding of who God is and, therefore, worship Him for it.