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

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 http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php/2008/12/10/1-timothy-24-an-exegesis/):

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.” http://www.prca.org/articles/ctjblack.html

Adoption into Freedom

This post was originally an email that I wrote last October. I hope that people who read it have had time to consider it. If so, I would really enjoy hearing your thoughts on it now. (I recommend listening to the 20 minute sermon again).

I recently listened to Mike Erre’s podcast of Ephesians 1 “Adoption into Freedom.”

There were a few things I heard that I felt like sharing with you. I’d love to know your thoughts. I wanted to write this email because I felt like a lot was left out of the sermon and because I feel like people may be misled by some of Mike’s comments. He implied that Ephesians has nothing to do with predestination because people in Ephesus wouldn’t have been debating Calvinism, they would have been crying. I feel that such an off the cuff remark unjustly dismisses the deep implications of Ephesians 1.

Ephesians 1

The Blessings of Redemption

1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

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, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.

**A side note: the Hellenistic culture Mike rightly condemns is alive and well as he points out. The culture he described, the culture that practices infanticide, is the culture that millions of Americans flocked to cheer on in the recent film “300”. The theaters that Mike said were created to seduce the people into Hellenism are not unlike the cineplexes we visit weekly. Amanda also reminded me that infanticide is not something from history books. It is alive and well in America. When her sister was pregnant, they did a test to see if there would be any deformities or problems with the child… after the test results they asked her if she wanted to have an abortion. This is common practice.

Before I say anything about what Mike taught I want to say that nothing I say should be interpreted against Mike personally. My issue is strictly with what was taught.


One important issue that I want to address is how we are to interpret and understand Ephesians, and for that case, all of Scripture. Mike spends quite some time describing what he believes the culture of Ephesus was like at the time of the writing of the epistle. Mike’s speculations may or may not be correct, but it is important to realize that they are speculations not arrived at from Scripture. They rely on fallible men and women conducting historical studies. This does not mean they are necessarily wrong, it simply means that they are fallible.

I don’t think it is wrong to consider the context of a particular book in Scripture, in fact I think it is very necessary. However, the question is whether or not such context should be the primary means of understanding Scripture. Mike says we are to understand Ephesians 1 in light of Hellenism. Is there another alternative?

The best means of understanding something that has been written is to ask the author (prayer). Then we should consider what else the author has written on the subject. Certainly after this is done we can also study the historical context of the author’s writings, but the best means of understanding what an author is saying is to let him explain. The Bible was written by the Holy Spirit. Yes it was written by various men inspired by the Holy Spirit, and yes they wrote using the context of their particular culture, but the source of the revelation they communicated was the Holy Spirit.

The best way of understanding the adoption Paul talks about in Ephesians 1 is to consider if the Holy Spirit has discussed the issue of adoption at any other point in His writings. After this is done we may consider what insights the historical context may provide. Mike did not do this. He offered no other passages on adoption to help explain Ephesians 1. Instead, he painted a picture of what historians have said Ephesus was like at the time and said this is how we must understand adoption.

An important question to ask is: Is the Bible sufficient?

Do we need anything outside of the Bible to understand what the Bible is teaching us? I agree that historical context may provide us with helpful information. However, is it true that in order to understand what the Bible says in any particular passage, we have to resort to historical studies outside of the Bible? Is it possible to understand what adoption means without knowing the historical context of Ephesus? Must we rely on sources outside of the Bible to understand Paul’s point? Must we rely on sources outside of the Bible to understand what God is communicating to us – or has He provided us with revelation that is sufficient?

2 Timothy 3:15-17

the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

In his second sermon on Ephesians, Mike explains that there is disagreement about the historical background. He decides to believe what is right based on how many people agree with a particular stance. Is this the best we can do? Is the only way to understand the Bible to choose an historian’s research based on what is most probably correct and then form our theology around that? Or do we have something much more certain?

I also take issue with the way Mike characterizes Paul’s writing. He says Paul went “berserk” and we should imagine Paul pacing around, rambling, because its “just a series of clauses thrown together” that his scribes scribbled down. “He’s just searching for language exalted enough to describe what it is Jesus had done” “Paul keeps searching for words big enough.” This is not what Paul is doing. “Blessed” “heavenly” “predestined” “adoption” “unblemished” “glory” “grace” “redemption” “forgiveness” are not “big” “exalted” words that Paul had to settle with. Paul carefully chose these words because they each have a specific meaning and together they communicate exactly what God wants to communicate to us so that we understand exactly how He is working in our lives.

Consider this statement from Mike:

“Don’t let the word  predestined spin you out. First of all, Paul was worshiping, he’s not giving us theological, like, treatises. But secondly, nobody in the 1st century would have had a heated debate whether or not God was a Calvinist. You know what they would have been doing? They would have been weeping.”

Consider the implications of what Mike is saying. He says we should ignore specific words that Paul wrote because Paul was not trying to teach theology, he was worshipping, he was rambling and the words that came out don’t mean anything other than that they are “exalted” “big” words. Can we say the same thing about the word “forgiveness”? Or does the word forgiveness actually mean something? (Also, is he saying that teaching clear doctrine is not worship?) Mike also implies that Paul is only allowed to teach about what is currently under debate. Does God not have the freedom to teach what He wants about Himself to His people?

Other Relevant Passages on Adoption:

Romans 8: 29For those whom He)foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.

Galatians 3:3 In the same way we also, when we were children, [we] were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

1 John 3:1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now

Romans 8:12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Not everyone is a child of God, not everyone is adopted

Ephesians 5:5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light

John 8:41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

If we seek to understand the adoption that Paul is talking about by comparing it with other passages using the same language, we will have a much better chance of understanding what he is saying.

The last two passages are just a couple of the numerous passages in the Bible that present a contrast between children of the devil and children of God. We were all once children of the devil, under the just wrath of God for our disobedience.

Ephesians 2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved

We should seek to understand adoption, first and foremost, the way that the bible understands adoption. It is clear through these verses that the bible presents adoption as

1) an act that is possible only because of Christ’s work (he is the first born among His brethren)

2) something not everyone receives

3) bringing us out of darkness into light, out of the wrath of God into His grace

4) a matter concerning sin and righteousness (understood in the context of a fallen human race unable and unwilling to obey the law of God)

How the Ephesians in their Hellenistic culture viewed adoption may provide some interesting insight, but if we allow our understanding of the Bible to be shaped by what we think the Ephesians were thinking, rather than what the Bible explains, then we are truly missing the point.


A theme in Mike’s teaching was that “blameless” in verse 4 can be interpreted as “unblemished” as well. He said we are to understand this in contrast to the deformed, blemished infants who were thrown away. Thus we must understand all of this talk of God’s love and adoption as God overlooking our defects (mostly physical) and bringing us into his family despite our blemishes because in God’s eyes we are acceptable.

I do not believe this is correct. We are not acceptable in God’s eyes. Paul is not referring to the physical deformities of the abandoned children in Ephesus, he is referring to our blemished, stained, sinful condition. The NETbible is a great translation that includes extensive footnotes about different possible translations. It says this about blameless/unblemished:

The Greek word translated unblemished (μμους, amwmous) is often used of an acceptable paschal lamb. Christ, as our paschal lamb, is also said to be unblemished (Heb 9:14; 1 Pet 1:19). Since believers are in Christ, God views them positionally and will make them ultimately without blemish as well (Jude 24; Eph 5:27; Col 1:22).


Christ is acceptable in God’s eyes and His perfect righteousness is counted on our behalf. In judgment, God looks at us through Christ’s atoning blood. No mention of Jesus in this regard was made in the sermon, leading hearers to believe God simply ignores our sin (or rather, physical deformities in the world’s eyes – as Mike emphasized instead of sin) and loves us for who we are.

The language of v4 is a little confusing “He chose us in Him”. The NET bible makes the translation clearer: “For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished”

Mike also makes the analogy of “a God who goes up to a hill to pick those who, in the world’s eyes aren’t fit, aren’t acceptable, and He rears them and adopts them into His family.” Again, this communicates the idea that in God’s eyes we are acceptable and fit to be His children. This is not true. The verses above, specifically Ephesians 2 describes us as children of wrath. The only way we can be viewed as acceptable is by being made alive together with Christ (v5) so that God looks upon Christ’s righteousness, not ours. We are born sons of the devil. We are unacceptable in God’s eyes. God goes so far as to say our righteous deeds are filthy garments:

Isaiah 64:6

We are all like one who is unclean,

all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight.

We all wither like a leaf;

our sins carry us away like the wind.

Again, Christ alone is righteous and we may only be called sons of God because He perfectly fulfilled the law and became the first born among many brethren.

God’s Pursuit

Mike then seems to change the analogy. First He talks of a sovereign Father choosing His children. Then He implies that the Father is simply pursuing His children, not choosing them. He says God’s not like the traffic cop waiting to catch you, He’s chasing after you. He then says we are chosen in passionate pursuit. This analogy no longer fits with what he said the verse is talking about – God choosing His children like a father chooses his children out of a dump of defects. Mike says “left up on the hill, we can’t save ourselves. It’s about the God who comes after us.” Here he tries to combine the analogies, but it just doesn’t work unless we are to assume that by pursuit, Mike means pursuit and accomplishment of pursuit. A man in pursuit of a dying baby cannot save the baby unless he actually picks him up and calls him his own. It does no good for the man to stand at the bottom of the mountain of babies and call out to it. The dying baby cannot respond, it cannot raise itself up and climb into the waiting arms of the father. Our situation is even worse. We are not dying babies, we are dead in our trespasses and sins. Not only does God have to climb up the mountain and choose us, pick us up, He also has to give us life to bring us back from the dead. There is nothing the baby does in any of this, it simply receives the gift of life and adoption.

In this context, I would urge you to ask yourself which of the following you believe to be true:

1) You exercised saving faith and then you were born again


2) You were born again and then you exercised saving faith

To keep with our analogy: did the baby get up, crawl down the pile and jump into the father’s arms? Or did the father climb up the hill, give the dead baby a new heart, pick up the baby and then see the baby hug him in response to this love that has already saved him?

Salvation is of the Lord. It is not our doing, it is the work of God. This is what Calvinism teaches. This is what Ephesians and the rest of the Bible is talking about. To dismiss Ephesians 1 as having nothing to do with Calvinism is to keep you from understanding the deep reality of God’s sovereign work of salvation in your life. As the verse says, God predestined you to be adopted as His children. It is not something you did. You are not a child of God because you believe in Him, you believe in Him because you are a child of God.

If God is simply pursuing you, waiting for you to respond, then you will never be saved. We were all dead in our trespasses and sins, enslaved to the devil, unable and unwilling to turn to Christ. God must lift you up and give you new life in order for you to “choose” Him. This is Calvinism. Ask yourself what it means to be chosen by God before the foundations of the world. Go back and study this 1st chapter of Ephesians and then study the 2nd chapter and then ask yourself if you think the letter Paul wrote has anything to do with God’s sovereignty or if it’s just about people crying.

I hope I do not sound overly harsh. I hope I did not offend anyone by challenging your pastor’s teaching. I hope that you will consider this alternative view of Ephesians 1 and I really hope that you will write me back and let me know what you think. However, if you want to simply dismiss this email as an irrelevant disagreement, if you think it’s pointless, if you think it has no affect on your relationship with Christ, then I would like to know why you waste time going to church every week to hear someone teach you about the Bible.

If you’re interested in hearing other sermons on Ephesians 1, I recommend:

“Predestined for Adoption to the Praise of His Glory”

“God Has Chosen Us In Him Before the Foundations of the Earth”

“Chosen By the Father” + “Predestined for Adoption”

Mike says these verses are not about Calvinism. I urge you to compare John Calvin’s sermon on Ephesians 1:3-4 and decide who does a better job of explaining what the text says:

God Bless,