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John Piper Thinks I’m Going to Hell

John Piper John Piper thinks I am going to hell. No, he didn’t witness me murdering an enemy (at least I don’t think he did) or anything else that is out of the realm of normal sin. I don’t believe he saw me blaspheme the Holy Spirit or anything unforgivable like that. In fact, his problem doesn’t even seem to be with me. John Piper seems to have a problem with how I was saved, or at least how I think I was saved.

Let me explain. John Piper, one of the most influential leaders of the Neo-Reformed movement currently en vogue in conservative American Evangelicalism and the sponsors of my very own theological education, takes issue with dreams. Specifically, he says that he “suspicious… big time” of Muslims seeing Jesus in their dreams and converting to Christianity. While the angels in heaven rejoice at a single lost sheep being found, John’s not quite ready to break out the champagne quite yet, and not just because there are Baptists in the room. Piper’s problem, theologically speaking, is with the plan of salvation seemingly at work. He argues that people must hear the gospel to be saved, and this requires a human effort to preach to the person before he or she can be saved. He says in a recent talk to pastors,

“The Gospel needs to be heard. How shall they believe unless they hear and how shall they hear without a preacher and how shall they preach unless they be sent. That’s a pretty significant argument in Romans 10.”

His argument is simple, in order to be saved, you must first be preached to.

The problem for me is that long before I ever attended a Protestant church or heard their articulation of the gospel, a voice spoke to me from some unseen source and imprinted upon me some truths: There is a God, Jesus is God, I should be saved from my own hell but cannot do it myself, God offers needed salvation freely by his own grace. These are ideas that I accepted as fact long before I ever picked up a Bible or hung out with Christians. So radical were these ideas to my cultural background that I believed I was the only one who knew these things. Imagine my surprise some years later when a friend invited me to church only to find out that there was a whole religion based on the ideas I had carried with me. I am a disciple as a result of direct, supernatural revelation; I am not a convert because of a preacher’s words.

So what am I to do? Should I abandon my call to ministry because I can’t possibly be saved. Should I go to a Baptist church on revival Sunday and wait until the end to run down the aisle and tearfully throw myself at the preacher’s feet. I suppose I am going to have to get baptized again. Third time’s the charm you know. Perhaps I just need to critically examine Pastor Piper’s claim.

Having been educated in circles highly influenced Piper, I know that Romans is a pretty significant book for him. I know that many of his tradition view salvation through the lens of Romans as a universal truth. Evidence for this theology is granted when one simply asks, “what must I do to be saved?” Rarely will a Neo-Reformed take a person to any of the myriad occasions when someone asked Jesus the very same question, rather they will be taken down a Romans’ Road of disjointed verses that provide a simple set of propositions, that if a person agrees to, assures them of salvation. The problem with that view, is that the book letter to the Romans is a particular communication regarding a particular situation in time. Of course it is inspired and there is a great deal we should learn from it, especially the nature of sin and salvation, but to make it the exclusive plan of salvation for the world is just wrong. Romans 10, as quoted by Piper as the basis for his thought being discussed, is a great admonition for the propagation of the gospel throughout the world. But it is unfair to the text, especially in the context of the whole Bible, to declare that it presents the exclusive path of salvation. I think the writer Paul would agree; but if Piper is right, Paul is not saved anyway so who cares what he thinks.

The main problem I see with Piper’s thinking is that he falls off a logical cliff that Neo-Reformed theology likes to walk perilously close to. By turning Romans into God’s tract of salvation, and pouring over each individual verse with an a priori understanding that each individual verse is a stand alone universal truth for all time, we are forced to turn salvation into an equation which must contain specific parts. When this hermeneutic is applied to Romans 10, one has no choice to declare that people can’t be saved unless they have heard, and that they cannot hear without a preacher. Therefore a preacher becomes neccessary for the salvation of another. The problem with this thinking of course is that human effort plays an essential role in a person’s salvation. Salvation is no longer a free gift from God gotten without our merit, but has now become dependent on someone else’s merit, namely the preacher! Put another way, the fate of my soul depends not only on God’s grace or my response, but a third person who must be faithful to preach to me. This is the “Theology of Glory” that Martin Luther fought so hard against to establish “Reformed Theology.” I feel the need to say that while John Piper has said and continues to say many theologically insightful things, in this case his suspicions are wrong, proving that even good preachers can sometimes produce bad theology.

Under the direction and lordship of Jesus Christ, there are many paths to salvation. Each one of us has our story, and God hasn’t even finished writing most of them. When we equate our experience with the exclusive truth of God, we run the danger of wandering into the territory of Job, who believed that he could grasp the mind of God, not realizing the meagerness of his own understanding. We do well to take Job’s lesson to heart and not bite off more than we can theologically chew.

  1. Tim
    January 1, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    I agree somewhat with Piper and you. Paul’s inspired words tell us God’s design for bringing the message of salvation to all nations. He wants it done in personal relationship, heart to heart, face to face mode. That’s why he has commissioned every believer to be a preacher.

    If man rejects God’s design, God can use other means to bring those to himself whom he has called.

    In your testimony God did use a preacher in your salvation process, even though it did not start there. I think your testimony demonstrates that even before we hear a preacher, God is drawing us to himself directly. I don’t think Piper would disallow that, but I could be wrong since he takes issue with Muslims having visions. He may not understand the full story of the Muslim dreams. The full story probably involves a preacher as well.

    “The problem with this thinking of course is that human effort plays an essential role in a person’s salvation.”

    I don’t have a problem with human effort playing an essential role in salvation. The great commission is one of many instructions for that to happen. Many Calvanists, are deeply convinced that any human effort destroys God’s grace and sends the actions in to the meritorious category. I don’t see it that way. I see that much of human effort is driven and enabled by God’s grace. When we walk in the Spirit, we are combining human effort and God’s grace to accomplish eternal transformation in ourselves and others. I would say the greater work of the two is God’s, maybe 99% God’s to 1% ours. God does want our effort, diligence, perseverance, work, etc to bring Him glory. Even as we work, strive, etc to follow the Lord, we know it is not meritorious to ourselves because it all started with God and is enabled by God every day – we are simply responding to God.

    I had a Calvanist tell me one time I was not saved if I had “accepted Jesus” because now my salvation was based on my meritorious good work of “accepting” Him. This is very contrived position in my opinion ascribing accepting to be a meritorious work. John 1:12 states:

    But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

    The word receive here is the same as accept. It is clear from this text that the “gave the right” and the “born” part is all God. Our part is the receive / accept part. Does our part ruin grace? No, not at all. Is it meritorious so we can brag? No, not at all.

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