Archive for December, 2009

Piper’s Two (Three) Wills of God and 1 Timothy 2:4

December 28, 2009 28 comments

I certainly don’t mean to focus more than necessary on Piper, but he tends to be involved at significant levels in a number of different issues. I was recently talking with people on facebook about double predestination. Someone linked to Piper’s Are There Two Wills in God?, a very, very commonly linked article. I said that Piper was wrong, and when asked why, gave the following explanation (along with this link to an AOMin response to Piper’s article

Marc, thanks for the opportunity to clarify. Please see the link I provided as it interacts with Piper’s article.

It implies that God decrees one state of affairs while also willing and teaching that a different state of affairs should come to pass. This distinction in the way God wills has been expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. It is not a new contrivance. For example, theologians have spoken of sovereign will and moral will, efficient will and permissive will, secret will and revealed will, will of decree and will of command, decretive will and preceptive will, voluntas signi (will of sign) and voluntas beneplaciti (will of good pleasure), etc.

This is true. But Piper does not understand these two wills in the same way that typical Reformed theologians do. Thus he is creating confusion and is unjustified in the way he attempts to find support for his view in Reformed history. (If someone can point me towards Jonathan Edwards’ interpretation of 1 Tim 2:4 I would appreciate it)

The distinction simply stems from the fact that the word “will” can refer to more than one thing. In the Bible, it refers to God’s decree and it also refers to God’s commands (or law, as Piper quotes Edwards). But note that those are two very different things. It is not a contradiction or even a paradox to say that God commands men to do something, and then decrees that they do not do it.

“we must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen, and [that] both of these things can be spoken of as God’s will.”

It is important how one understands that phrase. By “what God would like to see happen” do you simply mean what God commands? Or do you mean God longs for and desires for something that He does not actually accomplish? If the latter, then you have a problem with Is. 46:10; Ps 115:3. If God does not decree something, it is because He does not desire it.

What Piper is actually arguing for is 3 wills in God: a decretive will, a preceptive (command) will, and a will of unfulfilled desire or simply, a wish. Piper creates confusion by claiming his third view is just God’s preceptive will. It is not.

Piper’s error can be seen in his attempt to apply an understanding of God’s preceptive (command/precepts) will to John 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:4.

1 Timothy 2:4, for example, is not talking about God’s command to repent and believe. It is referring to God’s redemptive *work* of salvation. It is referring to something God does, not to something man must do. Therefore it refers to God’s decretive will. That being the case, it simply does not make sense to say it refers to some kind of lower desire in God that is superseded by a greater desire (“God’s will to save all people is restrained by his commitment to the glorification of his sovereign grace”). If God’s will to save all is restrained by His commitment not to save all, then we shouldn’t pray and ask Him to save all. (Let me give you an example. If I have a desire to go on vacation with my wife, but I have a greater desire to pay rent, why would I tell my wife to continually ask me to go on vacation?) It just doesn’t make any sense of 1 Timothy 2:4. Either the Arminian interpretation is correct (or the Universalist’s), or John Calvin’s interpretation is correct. Piper’s is not exegetically viable.

Let me know what you think. Aside from all the other issues, of particular interest to me is that Piper’s interpretation just doesn’t seem to make any sense of 1 Timothy 2:4.


R.C. Sproul is a good enough communicator to recognize that what John Piper is arguing for is really 3 wills in God, not 2. In his Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, he says

“When we speak about God’s will we do so in at least three different ways… The three meanings of the will of God: (a) Sovereign decretive will is the will by which God brings to pass whatsoever He decrees. This is hidden to us until it happens. (b) Preceptive will is God’s revealed law or commandments, which we have the power but not the right to break. (c) Will of disposition describes God’s attitude or disposition. It reveals what is pleasing to Him [Sproul places Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11 in this category].”

Whether one agrees with Sproul’s reading of the Ezekial passages or not, he is much more helpful in that he does not muddy the waters of God’s preceptive will, as Piper and others do.

Also, I came across a critique of Piper’s essay written by an Arminian. It is worth taking note of:

The fact that God wants all men to be saved, set in juxtaposition with the fact that not all men end up saved, suggests that there is not only one will in the universe, but at least two. Arminians say that there is the will of God and the will of man – two wills at odds in the universe. Calvinists say the two wills that are at odds are both in God. That is, in one sense, God wishes all men would be saved; in another sense, He really wants millions of people to burn in hell for all eternity. Piper opens his essay with this ambitious statement of purpose:

“My aim in this chapter is to show from Scripture that the simultaneous existence of God’s will for ‘all persons to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4) and his will to elect unconditionally those who will actually be saved is not a sign of divine schizophrenia or exegetical confusion.”

I have been surprised to see how many readers seem to think that he accomplished this goal. He does make about as good a case as can be made for such a doomed postulate, but he does so by tricking the mind of the inattentive reader (I don’t suggest that John Piper intends to “trick” anybody. I am sure that he is very convinced of the validity of the case he makes, but Calvinists have in many ways allowed themselves to be “tricked” by a faulty logic which they would never accept if used by their theological opponents. It manifests the phenomenon of how intense desire to believe a thing to be true will lead a man to accept uncritically the flimsiest case in its defense).


Piper attempts to explain “multidimensional” competing desires within the divine will by calling upon the distinction between God’s preceptive will and His decretive will. The problem is that he mis-applies this historic distinction. The distinction has been used historically to demonstrate that there is no contradiction between what God commands and what God wills:
“There is but one will of God; however, there is a distinction in the objects to which His will relates. Therefore in recognizing this distinction we differentiate between the will of His decree and the willof His command… The will of God‟s command is also referred to as His preceptive will or His revealed will. This will has reference to the regulative principle of life as well as to the laws which God has made known and prescribed to man in order that his walk might be regulated accordingly… it is primarily descriptive of man‟s duty… In making a distinction in the will of God, we are not suggesting that God has two wills. In God the act of the will is singular. The difference rather relates to the objects towards whom His will is exercised. Much less do we suggest that God has two wills which are incompatible, as if God with His revealed will would desire something and His secret will would be opposed. When we consider the will of God as being either secret or revealed, this distinction pertains to decidedly different matters [commands vs volition].”
-Wilhelmus à Brakel A Christians Reasonable Service, vol. 1, 114-115
So the distinction accomplishes its task of avoiding contradiction in God by distinguishing between (1) commands concerning man and (2) God’s will.

“The first and principal distinction is that of the decretive and preceptive will. The former means that which God wills to do or permit himself; the latter what he wills that we should do… Therefore Godcan (without a contradiction) will as to precept what he does not will as to decree inasmuch as he wills to prescribe something to man, but does not will to effect it (as he willed Pharaoh to release the people, but yet nilled their actual release).” -Francis Turretin,  Institutes, 3rd Topic, 15th Question

“The will of precept has no volitional content, for it simply states what God has commanded *ought* to be done by man… So it is quite  inappropriate to say that God wills something to  be with reference to His will of command, for the preceptive will  never pertains to the futurition of actions, only to the obligation of them.” -Matthew Winzer, review of Murray’s “The Free Offer of the Gospel”

If these two uses of the word “will” are conflated, then contradiction results. The problem is that Piper has conflated these two wills. He has taken what he thinks “God wills to do” and put it in the category of “what He wills that we should do.” Thus he has destroyed the original distinction that alleviated contradiction. You cannot place God’s “yearning” for the salvation of the reprobate in the category of command. John Murray recognized as much when he admitted “in the free offer there is expressed not simply the bare preceptive will of God but the disposition of lovingkindness on the part of God.” Some have claimed that John 3:16 can safely be placed in the category of God’s preceptive will. Yet this is clearly a departure from what is meant by preceptive will. For John 3:16 is a statement of “that which God wills to do” by acting in history.
When Berkhof wrote in defense of the well-meant offer he said: “It need not be denied that there is a real difficulty at this point, but this is the difficulty with which we are always confronted, when we seek to harmonize the decretive and preceptive will of God, a difficulty which even the objectors cannot solve and often simply ignore.” Raymond Blacketer wrote an excellent essay in the April 2000 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal in which he revisits the debate between the CRC and the PRCA. I commend the essay to all for while Blacketer does not agree with the PRCA in all their points, he is balanced enough to recognize the faults of the CRC when it comes to the well-meant offer. In response to Berkhof’s quote, he notes: “The point of the precept-decree distinction, however, is to clarify how God can command one thing and will the actual occurrence of the opposite! The “difficulty” only arises when one confuses the two, as is the case with the doctrine of the well-meant offer. The objectors have no difficulty to solve; nor are they ignorant of this basic distinction that is operative in the Canons and in major theologians of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods.”