Does God Always Control All Things?: A Response to John Piper

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

October 4, 2017

John Piper is founder of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary. For over three decades he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN. Piper is the author of more than 50 books, and is one of the leading proponents of Calvinism today. I have benefited greatly from Piper’s ministry; in fact, if it were not for John Piper I might not be married today.

I had just finished the chapter, Risk is Right, from his book, Don’t Waste Your Life. Feeling a bit inspired from Piper’s words, I decided to take a risk and ask a girl named Tia (who was way out of my league) on a date. Less than a year later she became Tia Stratton!

Needless to say, I feel slightly indebted to John Piper. Moreover, he loves Jesus and is an awesome pastor. With that said, however, I do not think he is always the best theologian. I used to hold to his view of Calvinism; I have since come to reject Calvinistic determinism for philosophical, theological, and biblical reasons. Piper recently wrote an article entitled, Does God Control All Things All the Time? This essay will respond to Piper’s quotes and compare and contrast his statements to the Molinist view.

Piper begins by noting:

Many of us are convinced from Scripture that God is absolutely sovereign. He can do whatever he wants to, and he can do it whenever he wants to. He has that kind of power.

So far, so good! The Molinist affirms the exact same thing — God can always do all things that are logically possible. The question raised, however, is the following: “What do you mean by “sovereign”? Piper continues:

“But does that mean God controls all things all the time?”

That is a great question! I contend that God is *IN* control of all things all the time. However, being IN control of something does not necessarily equate to controlling something in a deterministic sense.

Clear & Sufficient Implications 

Piper says,

How do we know that God always controls everything? My answer is that we know this because the Bible teaches it. It teaches it by direct statements and by clear and sufficient implication.

I am happy that Piper allows for “clear and sufficient implication” of biblical data. It is because of this methodology that I reject a Calvinistic view of exhaustive divine causal determinism (See Molinism is Biblical).

Piper continues:

First, God works all things according to his will. Here’s Ephesians 1:11: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Let me say it again. He works all things according to the counsel of his will. I think that means he always controls everything. There’s my answer.

Piper is a good pastor; however, he does not seem to have philosophical training. Thus, he is making severe philosophical errors and jumping to hasty conclusions. Lest one assume that a theologian does not need to worry about philosophy, as I have written elsewhere, “There is no such thing as philosophy-free theology, just theology that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions.” The Molinist agrees with the Calvinist in that God does work all things according to his will. The Molinist affirms predestination of ALL THINGS — however, predestination and causal determinism are not the same thing. To conflate the two is a philosophical error. Note the logically deductive conclusions of the following argument:

1. If irresistible grace (the “I” of T.U.L.I.P.) is true, then for any person x, if God desires to, has the power to, and knows how to cause x to go to Heaven and not suffer eternally in Hell, then x will go to Heaven and not suffer eternally in Hell.

2. If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then for any person x, God desires to, has the power to, and knows how to cause x to go to Heaven and not suffer eternally in Hell.

3. There is at least one person who will not go to Heaven and suffers eternally in Hell.

4. Therefore, one cannot affirm both (i) that irresistible grace is true and (ii) that God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient (a maximally great being).

5. God is a maximally great being.

6. Therefore, irresistible grace is false.

7. Therefore, divine determinism is false (God does not causally determine all things).

8. God is completely sovereign and does predestine all things (Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:5,11).

9. Therefore, predestination and determinism are not to be conflated.

10. The best explanation of the data is Molinism.

So, as step (9) of the above argument logically and deductively concludes, when Piper conflates and equates exhaustive predestination with exhaustive causal determinism and deterministic “controlling,” Piper is making a logical error.

He continued:

We could just stop now. When it says all things, there’s no reason to assume any exceptions here (I don’t think).

To reiterate: The Molinist agrees and affirms that God exhaustively predestines ALL THINGS! However, this does not necessarily mean that some things are not genuinely up to humans. Moreover, the argument is not concerning predestination, but rather, how God predestines.

Piper said,

When you give more careful attention, what you realize is that Paul is using a general statement about God’s working everything according to the counsel of his will as a support for a specific statement about predestination.

Amen to that! God uses everything — including the free choices of man that God does not causally determine or “control” — according to His will! God can predestine a human’s free thoughts, actions, beliefs, and behaviors without controlling a human’s thoughts, actions, beliefs, and behaviors! Because God is both omniscient and omnipotent, God can create a world in which He knows how humans will freely choose. God could have created another world or none at all. Since God created this world, all things that occur — including the free choices of man — occur according to God’s will and His perfect plan.

Piper said,

 We need to think carefully when people make vague statements, trying to limit a context when the context is clearly expansive.

He’s Over All

I wish Piper would take his own advice. The Molinist affirms that God is “Over All,” and that God predestines ALL THINGS! However, this does not logically entail that God deterministically “controls” all things. Some things are genuinely up to us and could genuinely be otherwise — yet they are still predestined by God.

Piper appeals to scripture in an attempt to show that God “controls” all things:

Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Just a general statement.

Amen to that! How can it be that man genuinely “plans his way” but God establishes the steps of man? Molinism offers a fantastic explanation in that God creates a world in which He knows how man would freely plan, but also how man will freely step. God could have created a world in which a man would have freely planned or stepped differently or created no world at all. However, since God created this specific world, God also predestined the free plans and steps of all people.

Proverbs 20:24 reads, “A man’s steps are from the Lord; how then can man understand his way?” A general statement about all his steps.

Yes, this is a general statement about all of man’s steps being predestined by God. This does not mean that God is literally “controlling” the steps of man as a puppeteer controls a marionette.

Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Human beings decide all kinds of ways to make a decision. They try rolling dice, and they draw lots, and they put out pieces of cloth on the ground — whatever. The point here is whatever means they use, it’s going to be God’s will in the end. Every decision is from the Lord.

If God controls all things all the time, then it is not human beings who “decide all kinds of ways to make a decision.” No, on the Calvinistic/deterministic view, God is the one controlling and forcing man to roll the dice and draw lots (welcome to the divine puppet show). However, on Molinism, man is genuinely free to roll the dice or not. However, if a man rolls a “snake eyes” it was ultimately because God created a world in which He knew that the man would freely roll the dice. And based on how the man chose to roll the dice — how fast he chose to move his hand, when he chose to release the dice, and in conjunction with the laws of physics — that the dice would turn up snake eyes. God does not have to control the man’s arm when rolling the dice, nor does God have to supernaturally manipulate the dice (like how Qui Gon Jin used the force to manipulate the “chance cube” in Star Wars: Episode One). No, God just creates a world in which He knows what would and will freely occur. Thus, God predestines and is in control of ALL THINGS without causally controlling all things. This leaves room for human freedom and genuine responsibility.

Proverbs 19:21: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” Whatever humans anywhere in the world are planning and doing, what stands is God’s will.

Again, if God is controlling all things, then God is controlling the plans in the mind of man also. If this is the case, then no thought or belief would be up to the man if they are all controlled by God (say goodbye to genuine responsibility)! A much better explanation is offered by the Molinist. Man is free to plan and is responsible for his plans, but God’s ultimate will is accomplished via the free man’s plan.

Jeremiah 10:23: “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.”

God created a world in which He knew how man will freely walk and step and everything else. Thus, in a sense, one can say that God “directs the steps of man.” However, this does not entail that God controls these steps like a puppeteer controls a marionette. We must also consider ALL the biblical data explicitly implying the free will and genuine responsibility that man possesses over some things.

Biblical Data Implying Human Freedom

The Bible is clear that free will is possessed by humans. Consider Paul’s words to Philemon:

14 But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will.

The question is raised: Is the Bible speaking of libertarian free will? After examining the Bible in its entirety, The Spanish theologian, Luis de Molina, was convinced that scripture was not just consistent with the idea of libertarian free will, but that the Bible made it clear that some of our choices are genuinely up to us or “within our grasp.”

Deuteronomy 30:10-20

10 if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses commands the unregenerate Israelites to make a choice! He says they have options from which to choose. They are to choose between life and death, between blessings and curses. Moses pleads with them to choose life!

Moses precedes his plea for life by making it clear that the unregenerate Israelites actually possess the ability to make this choice. That is to say, this choice is “up to them” and not causally determined by things external to them. He makes it clear that this is not only something they possess the ability to do, but moreover, it is not even “too difficult” for them to make this choice. He says, “you may do it.” The ESV reads, “so that you CAN do it.” This is not just biblical support of libertarian freedom to choose otherwise; it seems to be libertarian freedom regarding an offer to choose God — or at the least, not to reject Him.

Moses makes his views regarding libertarian freedom clear in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Paul clarifies his position regarding libertarian free will in 1 Corinthians 10:13. He states,

“God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

At the least, God has provided some humans with a real ability not to sin. We are able to not fall into temptation. Accordingly, whenever a Christian sins, they did not have to sin as there was a genuine ability to do otherwise (“a way of escape”) available for them to choose. This is exactly what is meant by libertarian free will! Therefore, when someone freely chooses to sin and they were ABLE not to sin, it follows that they are genuinely respons-ABLE for their sin, not God.

Paul also implies that we possess libertarian freedom when it comes to our thoughts — that we are responsible to control at least some of our thoughts and that God is not forcing them upon us. In 2 Corinthians 10:5 the Apostle Paul writes:

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Paul states that “we” — and implies that we ought to — take our thoughts captive to obey Christ. Paul seems to teach that we are responsible free thinkers of the libertarian variety. Accordingly, Paul makes it clear that all of our thoughts are not causally determined and forced upon us from external sources; we possess the ability to think otherwise. That is to say, YOU are responsible for your own thoughts (at least some of them).

Paul is clear that we ought to take our thoughts captive to obey Christ — to obey reality! He also teaches that we can be taken captive by incorrect thinking in Colossians 2:8. It follows that humanity is engaged in a battle. This battle is “not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12). No, whether we realize it or not, each and every one of us is in a battle for our mind!

Paul urges us to take our thoughts captive before they take us captive. We are responsible for our thoughts and thus, we ought to be free thinkers! Which is not even possible on a deterministic view as many Calvinists affirm.

Finally, Paul is clear that Christians are not controlled by anything external to ourselves. He makes it clear that God has given Christians an ability to be in control. Consider 1 Timothy 1:7:

for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

If Christians have self-control, then something other than the self is not in control. Although this is far from an exhaustive treatment, this is some biblical data supporting libertarian free will. If humans have genuine freedom and control over some things (as the Bible makes clear), then it logically follows that God does not causally determine and manipulate all things.

The Will of God

Piper asserts:

All of those passages sweepingly say that everything that human beings do is, in the end, the will of God.

Amen to that! The Molinist agrees, however, the title of Piper’s article is about God “controlling all things all the time.” That is much different than the proposition that “everything human beings do is, in the end, the will of God.” The Molinist affirms the latter while denying the former.

Piper said,

Third, behind human acts, the biblical writers assume God. This is amazing. Here’s Amos 3:6: “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”

God can certainly causally determine disaster to come to a city in some supernatural and miraculous manner. However, God can also allow disaster to come to a city without this supernatural intervention by way of His middle knowledge. For example, God could predestine the disaster the cities of Poland incurred by way of the free and morally evil choices of Hitler without determining the thoughts or actions of Hitler. God created a world in which He knew how Hitler would freely choose to think and act. So, although Hitler was genuinely free to act otherwise, God knew what Hitler would freely choose to do logically prior to His creative decree to bring this world into existence. Thus, God can predestine Hitler’s free actions without touching Hitler. Therefore, Hitler is responsible for his actions — not God.

Piper continued:

Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it? The answer is no. Well, what’s the implication? The implication is the biblical writer assumes every kind of event that comes to a city is ultimately from the Lord. He raises it with a rhetorical question that can’t be explained any other way. That’s his mindset.

It is interesting that Piper seems to assume he perfectly knows the ancient author’s mindset and that this cannot be explained any other way. Piper fallaciously begs the question in favor of his own view; however, it can be explained another way.

Think about it: based on the laws of nature — which God set in place — certain things are guaranteed to deterministically follow from the initial conditions of the big bang and “fall like dominoes.” Human souls, however, are created in the immaterial “image” of God, and are therefore free from physics and chemistry. Thus, although human thoughts can be influenced via natural forces, they are not causally determined by natural law. Humans are genuinely free to think and then act upon our free thoughts. It follows that humans are free to consider the dangers of say, living on the gulf coast. After freely weighing the pros and cons of hurricanes and floods, they are still free to live on the gulf coast or move to Nebraska.

Now, since God is omniscient, He perfectly knows the weather which is based on the deterministic laws of nature (unless man-made global warming is real).[1] God also knows the truth-value to propositions about how humans would freely think, act, believe, and behave — IF God were to create them in certain circumstances. God also knows what humans would freely do in different circumstances (if God were to actualize a different circumstance instead). To deny that God knows these kinds of things is to deny His omniscience and the maximal greatness of God (See The Grounding Objection Against The Maximally Great God). I contend that anyone worthy of the name “Christian” should not do such things!

Since God elected and chose to create this “world” (a set of specific circumstances) and not anther world, AND, God created free creatures who God knows would and will freely behave in certain ways (although they were free to act otherwise), then, in a sense, God creates a world in which He knows that free creatures will choose to live on the Gulf coast and experience suffering which follows from the deterministic weather patterns. God created a world in which He knew this would occur; however, He does not have to supernaturally “ZAP” the earth to cause hurricanes to torture the humans He forced to live on the gulf coast against their will.

We must do a better job thinking about God! As A.W. Tozer, in his book The Knowledge of the Holy, says, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” In the preface of this same book Tozer writes:

The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshipping men. . . The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us.

I contend that although his intentions are good, Piper’s Calvinistic view of God ultimately dethrones God as the only being worthy of worship. I am thankful that Piper’s view is wrong — God is maximally great and worthy of worship. Therefore, Piper’s deterministic view cannot be true.

Piper writes,

This same thing happens in Lamentations 3:37: “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” In other words, the only explanation the biblical writer sees behind anything being commanded is that the Lord ultimately brought it to pass.

If the Lord Wills

Again, this does not necessarily entail divine causal determinism of ALL things ALL the time. One can affirm this statement and logically affirm that humanity possesses libertarian free will and genuine responsibility simultaneously. Contrary to Piper’s beliefs, these two views are not mutually exclusive. Molinism explains how this is the case.

Piper continues:

Fourth, this one is sweeping like the first one. God’s sovereign will governs all daily events. Here is James 4:13–15: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say” — this is what the biblical inspired writer James says we ought to say — “‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’”

What’s the point of that? That means “this or that” — anything you do — you should go into it saying, “I’m not in control here.” It’s arrogant, he says, to think you’re in control. God is in control.

Is God in control of those thoughts too? Does God force one person to not have “arrogant thoughts” while controlling and determining the other to have “humble thoughts.” What about the thoughts and beliefs in Piper’s head that led to him typing those words that you just read? What if one disagrees with Piper, is God forcing me to disagree with him, or do I have genuine freedom and responsibility to assess and evaluate his claims? Am I in control of some of my thoughts and beliefs, or does God control all of my thoughts and beliefs all the time? (See I Think, Therefore I Am)

Regarding the passages of scripture Piper refers to above, this does absolutely nothing to negate human free will. In fact, it seems to imply man’s freedom! A person is genuinely free to make plans to have a picnic in the park on June 13th of next summer, but the person cannot control the severe thunderstorm that will wreck their plans for a pleasant picnic next summer. God is sovereign over the weather AND the free plans and actions that are up to mankind. God can be “in control” of all these things without controlling all of these things.

Piper finally discusses permitting and controlling:

Lastly, God’s permission for Satan or man to act is nevertheless part of God’s ultimate design and final control. I’m trying to respond here to someone who says, “Well, God doesn’t control everything, but he permits lots of things.” I’m saying that’s right. He certainly does permit lots of things. How should we understand an all-knowing God with perfect foreknowledge permitting something in his infinite wisdom?

WOW! To the Molinist who says, “God doesn’t control everything, but he permits lots of things,” Piper says, “That’s right!” This keeps human libertarian free will and genuine responsibility on the table for this particular Calvinist! I have argued that Calvinists should affirm “Mere Molinism” (See Questions for Calvinists). Piper is a prime candidate!

He continues:

Here’s what Jesus says in Luke 22:31: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Notice he does not say, “If you have turned again,” but “when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

This could be one instance of God “controlling” one thing — no one denies that God can do such a thing. The pertinent question is regarding the question, does God control all things all the time. Moreover, this passage does not even take Peter’s freedom from him. Since God is omniscient and knows how people could, would, and will freely choose, Jesus would have access to the knowledge of what Peter would freely do — that Peter would “turn again.” Jesus may have also known that if He were not to give Peter the command to strengthen his brothers, that Peter would have freely chosen not to strengthen his brothers. Since Jesus knew Peter would freely choose to follow His command in that particular circumstance, Jesus gives the command.

Piper explains:

In other words, “Yes, I’m going to give Satan permission to sift you like wheat, and I know it’s going to involve three denials. I know you’re going to turn, and I know that the purpose of bringing you back according to my prayer is that you might strengthen your brothers.”

What does Piper mean by “might”? As he pointed out above, “notice he does not say if…”, but “when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” It seems Piper assumes Peter has the freedom to choose to strengthen his brothers — or not!

Even in situations where God is permitting, he is permitting by design. When you permit something and you know what it’s going to do and you know all of its outcomes and you go ahead and permit it, you permit it wisely if you’re God — and then it wisely fits into the overall pattern of what you are planning and doing.

Amen, amen, and AMEN! Read this quotation from Piper one more time with slight edits offered for clarity:

Even in situations where God is permitting [human free actions], he is permitting by design. When you permit something and you know what [people are freely] going to do and you know all of its outcomes and you go ahead and permit it, you permit it wisely if you’re God — and then [these human free actions] wisely fits into the overall pattern of what [God is] planning.

This is beautiful! Piper ends with a final statement and a question:

The statement is that human beings are responsible, accountable, praiseworthy, or blameworthy for what they do. God’s sovereignty does not diminish human accountability. That’s the statement.

Amen to that, John Piper! According to 1 Corinthians 10:13, humans are ABLE not to sin, and thus, we are respons-ABLE for our sin. One cannot say, “the devil made me do it,” or “God made me do it!” No, you had an ability to do otherwise (libertarian free will) and you failed to think and act correctly. This is why humans are account-ABLE. However, God is still sovereign because God created a world in which He knew how all people would freely choose — and God allows and permits us to freely think, act, believe, and behave.

The question is, which world would you rather live in? One where humans or Satan or chance govern what happens to you? Or one where an infinitely good, infinitely wise, infinitely powerful God works everything together for the good of those who trust him and for his glory?

Well, if exhaustive deterministic Calvinism is true, what we “prefer” is not even up to us — God would control that much. However, with preferences in mind it depends upon who you ask — those whom God unconditionally loves and has chosen to elect or those whom God unconditionally hates and has chosen to be damned in the eternal tortures of hell for choices and beliefs that God was in control of in the first place! So much for an “infinitely good” deity on the Calvinistic view. Molinism is a much better explanation of all the data and avoids the problems following from consistent Calvinism.

Conclusion

Many of John Piper’s statements have been quite compatible with Molinism. I encourage Piper to carefully examine Molinism as it will allow him to logically connect the dots of all of his statements and assertions (See The Petals Drop: Piper’s Problems for more). Deterministic Calvinism is not only logically incoherent, it is also at odds with Scripture when taken as a whole.

At any rate, I am sure thankful for Piper’s encouragement to take risks. His advice contributed to the existence of my family many years later. Piper’s advice influenced me to freely take a risk that led to the fulfillment of God’s perfect plan. I love it when a plan comes together!

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton


Notes

[1] Man made global warming assumes that man is more than mere nature. If man is truly responsible for some things (like the weather), then the one affirming this proposition cannot be a naturalist/physicalist. If man is nothing more than a physical thing, then the laws of nature (i.e., physics and chemistry) determine the actions of man. If nature causally determines the actions of man, then ultimately the laws of nature are determining the fact that the climate is changing. Man is not truly responsible unless there is more to mankind than just the physical.

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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Tim pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (B.A. 1997) and after working in full-time ministry for several years went on to attain his graduate degree from Biola University (M.A. 2014). Tim was recently accepted at North West University to pursue his Ph.D. in systematic theology with a focus on metaphysics.

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