Book Review: Does God Desire All to Be Saved?, by John Piper
John Piper, Does God Desire All to Be Saved? Crossway, 2013. 62 pages. $9.99.
The Christian religion is riddled with difficult truths that defy human understanding. The Trinity: he is three; they are one. Jesus Christ: fully God, fully man. Compatibilism: divine sovereignty, human responsibility. God’s sovereign grace: he loves all, yet chooses some.
Consider that last one for a moment. How can one legitimately affirm that God desires that everyone be saved while upholding the biblical claim that God unconditionally elects only some? This is the question that John Piper addresses in his short new book Does God Desire All to Be Saved? In it, Piper takes the bull by the horns and argues persuasively from Scripture that God’s sincere desire for the salvation of all people is not at cross-purposes with his election of a select few.
The book is essentially a succinct systematic theology on God’s will. The lynchpin of Piper’s thesis is that we need to describe God’s will from two distinct vantage points: his hidden will of decree and his revealed will of command. These “two wills” often diverge: God regularly wills (determines) events to come about which contravene the very things that he wills (commands).
The book is organized in four chapters. In chapter one, Piper introduces four of the go-to texts that are used to affirm God’s sincere desire that all be saved: 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 18:23, and Matthew 23:27.
In chapter two, he provides a sampling of biblical illustrations of God’s two wills:
- The death of Christ: God predestined the murder of his Son (Acts 4:27-28).
- The war against the Lamb: God prophesied the rebellion of the ten kings against God (Rev. 17:17).
- God hardens the hearts of both Jews and Gentiles (Exod. 9:12; Deut. 2:26-27; Josh. 11:18-20; Rom. 11:25-26).
- God chooses from time to time not to restrain evil (e.g., Eli’s sons in 1 Sam. 2:22-25).
- There is a sense in which God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23), and another sense in which he does (Deut. 28:63: God will “take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you”).
In chapter three, Piper takes a step back to consider the extent of God’s sovereignty. He argues from numerous Scripture passages that “God is sovereign in a way that makes him ruler of all actions” (31). In other words, it is God who ultimately calls the shots, and those shots sometimes contravene his commands.
In chapter four, Piper rounds off the discussion with a number of final considerations to help make sense of the matter. He asserts that God is not culpable for willing that sin would take place. Furthermore, he considers the problem text of 1 Timothy 2:4—God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”—and qualifies it with 2 Timothy 2:24-26 to show that it is God’s sovereign choice, not man’s free will, that accounts for the salvation of a select few. Finally, Piper affirms both the mind-bending complexity and unity of God’s emotions and thoughts, and concludes by echoing the Bible’s indiscriminate invitation to all who thirst for eternal life.
A HELPFUL GUIDE FOR THE INQUIRING MIND
Does God Desire All to Be Saved? is not a groundbreaking or exhaustive theological treatise, nor is it intended as such. The book nevertheless stands out as one of the clearest, and shortest, treatments of the subject. I heartily commend it as a reliable guide for how pastors—and all Christians, for that matter—ought to think and speak about salvation. God’s heart throbs for the lost. The fact that God calls and elects some and not all does not prohibit him from feeling viscerally for all people. The same should hold true for us.
Piper is not out in this book to pick a fight with Arminians. To be sure, Piper’s arguments are thoroughly Calvinistic, and the discussion necessarily touches upon some hot button issues in the Arminian-Calvinist debate, such as free will, the extent of God’s sovereignty, and secondary causes. Nevertheless, Piper is fair to Arminians and insightfully distills the fundamental difference between the two camps in terms of the higher cause which motivates God’s sovereign decrees: free will in the case of Arminians and “the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy” in the case of the Reformed (39).
That said, however, this book is not for everyone. For all its brevity, the book deals with challenging theological truths in the elusive arena of God’s will. As such, it will best serve those who feel intellectually compelled to wrestle with how the doctrine of unconditional election can peaceably coexist with God’s desire that all would be saved. Those who do not feel the urge to engage in this discussion may feel free to sit this one out.
A word or two might be said about Piper’s use of Robert L. Dabney’s analogy in chapter 4, particularly since roughly 10 percent of the book is dedicated to unpacking and defending it. The analogy focuses on George Washington’s dilemma as he faced the question of what to do with the treasonous Major John André (47-53). Despite his reluctance to pass sentence on André, Washington’s commitment to the law won the day and justice was finally served.
The analogy is useful in that it illustrates the complexity of God’s emotions: God, like Washington, genuinely pities the criminal he condemns. But we should be cautioned against milking the analogy for more than it’s worth. Washington’s dilemma is readily understandable because he is personally distanced from the letter of the law and the instrument of punishment: the president, the law, and the judiciary are separate entities. In the Bible, however, God is both the sole legislator of his law and the personal executor of the judgment that he renders. There is no “distance,” as it were, between God, his law, and his verdict. Without any appreciable distance between the Judge and his judgment, Dabney’s analogy runs the risk of obscuring the unity and simplicity of the divine mind that Piper argues for elsewhere. Given Piper’s willingness to address various challenges presented by the analogy, pointing out such a shortcoming that relativizes its utility wouldn’t have been out of place.
Finally, this book offers an important lesson in doing theology: the importance of responsibly grappling with biblical truths that may appear at first blush to be mutually incompatible. First Timothy 2:4, for example, must be understood in light of the entire scriptural witness. God’s indiscriminate desire that all be saved should be understood in light of the doctrine of unconditional election. With respect to Christian theology in general—and God’s desire that all be saved in particular—Christians do well to quench the urge to build a theology squarely on the basis of a single pet verse.