John Piper’s False Gospel: General Punishment

In Taste and See (Multnomah,1999, p325), John Piper endorses the conditional false gospel. “Christ died for all sinners, so that IF you will repent and believe in Christ, then the death of Jesus will become effective in your case and will take away your sins. ‘Died for you,’ means if you believe, the death of Jesus will cover your sins. Now, as far as it goes, this is biblical teaching.” Piper then goes on to disagree with Arminians for not teaching that Christ died to purchase faith for the elect. But he does not disagree with the Arminians about propitiation and substitution and punishment.

Piper’s false gospel does not teach that Christ was specifically punished for the elect alone . It still only has a punishment in general, to be assigned later to those who believe. But can we call Piper an Arminian, since he does insist that Christ also died for the elect to give them something extra that He will not be giving the non-elect? My answer is that it does not matter what we call Piper’s false gospel, if we see that it misses being gospel in two important and related ways. First, the false gospel fails to report that Christ was punished specifically for the elect, and when it does that, it will be heard every time as saying that there was enough punishment done to Christ to save even people who will nevertheless end up being punished. Thus, even though it has punishment, this false gospel is not about punishment that replaces punishment for all whom Christ intended to save. It has punishment without any intention of Christ to save anybody in particular at all.

Is Arminianism the gospel, or is the gospel needed?

Piper’s punishment- in- general gospel (with faith purchased extra for the elect) is no gospel in a second and important way. The mainline Reformed gospel makes the important atonement to be something other than the punishment of Christ. It makes the real reconciliation to be the Spirit Christ purchased giving people faith to believe, even if they happen to believe a message that says Christ died for every sinner.

The alternative here is to either claim that people who have never heard the gospel are saved, or to claim that general punishment for nobody in particular is the gospel. In any case, it is not the good news about the real meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. If we jump ahead to the things Christ has bought for believers, even including their believing, without telling it straight about the punishment of Christ specifically for the elect, then we will continue to love a gospel which has no election in it and no punishment to release the elect from guilt. If we jump ahead in that way, we jump over why God’s love for the elect is never described apart from the death of Christ.

If the death of Christ is not that which saves any specific sinner, then the death of Christ does not save sinners. If the atonement is Christ purchasing faith to give elect sinners a portion in a general punishment, then the punishment of Christ was not for salvation. The false gospel which nullifies election also nullifies justification by the punishment of Christ.

The false gospel which nullifies justification by the punishment of Christ nullifies justification by the righteousness of Christ. It talks about justification by the imputed righteousness, but without ever talking about God’s imputation of the sins of the elect to Christ. It won’t say whose sins were imputed to Christ.

It refuses to say anybody’s sins were imputed to Christ, because it refuses to say it was the sins of the elect alone which were imputed to Christ. Such a false gospel nullifies the love of God for the elect. But God’s grace by which God gives Christ to be punished for the elect will not be nullified.

Transfer of moral liability

The false gospel of the Arminian and the liberal says that God judges and fixes this evil world apart from punishment. They can agree that there is punishment, and even that Christ was punishment. But they reject any idea that the guilt of the elect was transferred to Christ.

The false gospel of the Reformed mainline is a deliberately misleading statement. I know that there are simply some things that lost people have not yet learned. Lost people, still in their sins, still under the wrath of God, do not understand that Christ was the substitute punished instead of the elect. They sincerely believe in an offer by which God will retroactively assign the punishment done to Christ to those who accept the offer.

Nevertheless, it is intentionally misleading to tell people that God loves everybody and that Christ died for you, when you yourself believe that Christ died extra for some to give them faith. It is deliberately misleading to not even say what you do believe about election and Christ’s death. And I think there is a strong connection between that willful refusal to be straight about election (and about regeneration before faith) which has led the mainline Reformed to miss the gospel of Christ’s death as punishment for the specific elect. Whatever they put in their five point books, punishment only for the elect is not in their gospel.

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7 Comments on “John Piper’s False Gospel: General Punishment”

  1. Nick Says:

    I’d largely agree with your analysis here on Piper’s comments. What Piper is doing, in my view, is a pretty common sleight of hand among Reformed mainstream preachers in which he doesn’t want to come out and say God doesn’t love all men, but at the same time believe God only loved a certain number. It’s a clever way of avoiding sounding “mean” while still remaining orthodox, though it is unnecessarily tangling the Truth and is wrong because it has the intention of deceiving.

    You recognized all this clearly in this statement: “The false gospel of the Reformed mainline is a deliberately misleading statement.”

  2. markmcculley Says:

    In Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel (Concordia, 2000), Jacob Preus writes: “Faith is necessary to appropriate the reconciliation of Christ. However, our faith does not make Christ’s work effective. It is effective even if no one approves it, even if no one is saved.” (p140).

    Lutherans have an “objective reconciliation” that does not reconcile. That kind of objectivity is not gospel. It’s not good news to make salvation depend on “appropriation”.

    Even if you say that grace has to overcome the bondage of your will to “take it” , there are two problems with the false gospel of Lutherans like Preus.

    One, there is no idea that Christ’s death purchased the work of the Spirit and faith for the elect. Even if God by grace gives the faith, that faith is not a certain result of Christ’s work, even though the Bible teaches that it is (I Peter 1:21;II Peter 1:1; Eph 4:7-8; Phil 1:29).

    Two, there can be no notion of a penalty for specific sins imputed, and therefore Lutherans end up with a propitiation that does not propitiate, a ransom that does not redeem, and a reconciliation that does not reconcile.

    Part of the problem with the Preus chapter on reconciliation is that he seems to have no idea of God Himself being both the object and subject of His own reconciliation. Preus limits the concept to the sinner’s enmity to God, and not to God’s enmity to unjustified sinners.

    Even when writing about the Father and the Son (p142), Preus tells us that “Christ was at enmity with God”. This is not mystery: it is simply wrong. It is a result of not talking about the imputation of the sins of the elect to Christ.

    Instead of seeing that Christ was “made sin” legally because of imputation, Preus turns Christ into a sinner angry at God. Christ is and was human, but in no way a sinner except by imputation.

    But of course no Lutheran who teaches an universal objective atonement can dare talk about the imputation of the guilt of the elect to Christ. They cannot even talk about God’s imputation of the elect’s punishment for that guilt to Christ.


    p 507, “Punishment God Cannot Twice Inflict”—Garry J Williams

    “My argument stands against an unspecified penal satisfaction narrowed only by its application. The sacrifice for sin in Scripture is itself specific…If the penal substitution of Christ has no relation to one person’s sin, then it is not in itself God’s actual answer to any sin, and therefore not penal at all…An unspecified “No” is not an answer to anything; it is without meaning….I cannot see how anyone who excludes the identification of Christ’s satisfaction itself with teh specific sins of specific individuals can avoid the logical outcome of denying its truly penal character.

    p 508 “The hypothetical universalists (Davenant) limit the death of Christ AS AN ACT OF PROCUREMENT to the elect only. Christ did not purchase the conditions of application for the lost, but only for those predestined to life.”


    “Effective for those who trust in him” is deliberately compromising language, leaving the impression and intending to leave the impression that the effectiveness of the cross, after all, depends upon the trusting sinner. Similar is the language of the phrase, “to save all who believe.” In itself, this is true. In preaching, there is need to say and emphasize this, while making clear that the faith itself is the gift of God, earned by the cross. But in a treatment of the controversy over the extent of the atonement the phrase is compromise with the heretical foe. What Piper should say is, “to save all the elect for whom He died.”
    Piper’s description of the atonement is false and heretical in that it affirms that “the availability of the total sufficiency is for all people.” Here Piper shrewdly but erroneously plays with the sufficiency language of the Canons. Canons, 2.3 affirms that the death of the Son of God “is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” The Canons affirm sufficiency because of the person of the crucified–the eternal Son of God–and because of the nature of the suffering of Christ crucified (see Canons, 2.4). It does not affirm sufficiency in any sense whatever having to do with the amount of persons for whom Christ died–the extent of the atonement. But Piper makes sufficiency applicable to the extent of the atonement. Thus, he necessarily drifts into, or compromises with, the heresy of universal atonement. Piper’s implicit teaching is that Christ died for all humans sufficiently. This is false doctrine, according to the Canons, which faithfully express the teaching of the Bible. Christ did not die for all humans, that is, for more than the elect in any sense whatever, whether sufficiently, hypothetically, or any other sense. He died for the elect only, a death that intrinsically is of infinite worth and value–to the comfort of every elect, believing sinner. To use Piper’s language, the cross is not available with its total sufficiency “for all people.” “For” signifies ‘for the sake of’ with regard to “God’s purpose with the cross. The cross in regard both to its sufficiency and its efficacy was and is “for” all those whom God has elected, and those only.
    And then to get cute with the favorite Arminian phrase, “whosoever wills…will be covered,” is inexcusable. I know the phrase is biblical. But in the Bible it does not refer to the efficacy of the cross but to the enjoyment of the salvation of the cross by those in whom the cross has worked its saving efficacy (Rev. 22:17). The truth is that whosoever God has willed will be covered by the blood of the atonement.
    With friends like Piper, the doctrine of limited atonement needs no enemies.
    David J. Engelsma

  5. markmcculley Says:

    ware—-a first-order discussion of a second-order doctrine. The contributors to this volume agree that the question of the extent of the atonement falls short of being placed in the top tier of doctrines central and non-negotiable to the Christian faith, yet they also rightly see the importance of this doctrine for faith and practice. Hence, the discussion here is spirited yet charitable, firm yet gracious

    Happily the dire predictions of what lies at the bottom of the slippery slopes situated on either side of this debate are rarely realized

    The debate on the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ has long been expressed as a debate between correspondence (exegesis) and coherence (theology). On the one hand, many texts suggest a general atonement, announcing, apparently, that Christ has borne in common the sins of the whole human population (Isa 53:6; John 1:29; 3:16; 12:32; 2 Cor 5:14–15, 19; 1 Tim 2:4–6; 4:10; Titus 2:11; Heb 2:9; 10:29; 2 Pet 2:1; 3:9; 1 John 2:2; 4:14; etc.). Too often those who hold to particular redemption dismiss such texts or respond with exegesis that smacks of special pleading.4 On the other hand, those promoting universal theories of atonement sometimes dismiss the theological tensions that their positions raise: the nature of substitution, the problem of double jeopardy, and the specter of universalism. All too often justification for this dismissal comes in the form of the trump card of biblical correspondence: the Bible says Christ died for all people, so whether or not this makes sense, it must be true—absolutely clear statements are not threatened by the theologian’s inability to coherently harmonize them with the systematic whole. Rather, such theological antinomies stand as monuments to the mysterious character of the Creator, whose thoughts and ways far exceed those of his creatures. This does not mean that those adhering to a definite atonement have no supporting texts or that those adhering to a general atonement have no theological concerns.

    • On the particularist pole we could have added at least two views: (1) the so-called “commercial view,” a minority variation of particularism that denies the atonement’s infinite value and excludes common grace from the atonement,9 and (2) the “eternal application” model that sees the accomplishment and application of atonement as simultaneous—either in eternity past or on the cross.10

    9 Thomas J. Nettles argues for this less common particularist understanding (though without using the commercial label) over and against Andrew Fuller’s more widely held historical expression of particularism (By His Grace and for His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life, rev. and exp. 20th anniversary ed. [Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2006], 335–59). 10 Once a rare view even among hyper-Calvinists (see, e.g., John Brine, A Defence of the Doctrine of Eternal Justification from Some Exceptions Made to It by Mr. Bragge, and Others [London: A. Ward and H. Whitridge, 1732]), this view has few if any modern proponents

    mark— i am in on #1, but not #2, but most people assume 2 if you have 1

    at least four distinct views associated with a general atonement position: (1) that Christ’s death secures the expiation of all sins and with it prevenient grace so that all may either accept or reject that expiation;11 (2) that Christ’s death simply provides for the expiation of all sins except unbelief, which is a separate category;12 (3) that Christ’s death merely satisfies God’s wrath without properly substituting for each sinner;13 and (4) that Christ’s death expiates for all, universalism

    11 This view is common among professing Arminians who reject the governmental view of atonement. Grant Osborne ably defends this view in this book. 12 Robert P. Lightner, The Death Christ Died: A Biblical Case for Unlimited Atonement (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 101; David L. Allen, “The Atonement: Limited or Universal,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 88. 13 Anselm’s satisfaction view, which still dominates in Roman Catholic circles, arguably fits this description.

    g., P. L. Rouwendal, “Calvin’s Forgotten Classical Position on the Extent of the Atonement: About Sufficiency, Efficiency, and Anachronism,” WTJ 70, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 317–35. 17 E.g., Bruce A. Ware, “The Extent of the Atonement: Select Support for and Benefits of a ‘Multiple Intentions’ Understanding,” outline presented at the 62nd Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (November 18, 2010). See also a thesis prepared by Gary Shultz under Ware’s tutelage: “A Biblical and Theological Defense of a Multi-Intentioned View of the Atonement” (PhD diss., Southern Baptist Theological

    For these a definite atonement is no less essential a piece of the Reformed system than, say, justification by faith or any of the other four “points” of Calvinism

    Brian Armstrong’s dissertation, “The Calvinism of Moïse Amyraut: The Warfare of Protestant Scholasticism and French Humanism” (ThD diss., Princeton University, 1967), available in a more popular format as Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth-Century France (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969). This view gained considerable popularity in 1979 with the publication of R. T. Kendall’s dissertation, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). Among other works sympathetic to this thesis, two stand out as key sequels to these earlier treatments: Alan C. Clifford, Atonement and Justification: English Evangelical Theology 1640–1790—An Evaluation (London: Oxford University Press, 1990); and G. Michael Thomas’s The Extent of the Atonement: A Dilemma for Reformed Theology from Calvin to the Consensus (Carlisle, England: Paternoster, 2002). Most recently, Kevin D. Kennedy has furthered this theory by condensing salient portions of an earlier Peter Lang publication as “Was Calvin a Calvinist? John Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement,” in Allen and Lemke, Whosoever Will, 191–212

    Many today who hold to a general atonement also teach a substitutionary view of atonement (a marked advance on the governmental and moral influence views that were formerly more common in Arminian circles). Particularists, however, see this claim as inconsistent: while advocates of general atonement may hold to an atonement that involves penal satisfaction, it is not accurate to call this a penal substitution, except in some potential sense.

    Nowhere does Scripture say Christ merely made provision to expiate sin, propitiate wrath, or reconcile people to God. Rather, he actually took away sins (John 1:29), bore God’s wrath (1 John 2:2; 4:10), redeemed us (Gal 3:13–14), and reconciled us to God (Rom 5:10– 11; 2 Cor 5:18–19). For this reason, then, the title of Murray’s little book is not Redemption: Provided and Applied, but Redemption: Accomplished and Applied

    For advocates of universal atonement, God did accomplish all that he intended. But God did not intend to effectually redeem anyone; he simply intended to provide redemption for everyone. And in this, they claim, God was perfectly successful. 3 The precise relationship of faith to atonement is a matter of debate among advocates of universal atonement. All agree, however, that faith delimits the application of the universal atonement.

    Details about the source of this faith vary between advocates of general atonement. Some suggest that all people possess the native capacity to believe (Pelagianism), others that faith is made available as a manifestation of prevenient grace (Picirilli and most Arminians), and still others see faith as connected with an efficacious call (Lightner and many “four-point” Calvinists). In any case it is the sinner’s failure to believe that limits the application of atonement.

    Christ died to make simultaneously both a “universal atonement” and a “limited redemption.”44 Historically, this centrist view finds its greatest early Protestant endorsement in the school of Saumur and its greatest early champions in John Cameron and especially Moïses Amyraut.45 Amyraldism, which is properly a minority variation of Calvinism, early on adopted Peter Lombard’s understanding that Christ’s death was “offered . . . for all with regard to the sufficiency of the price, but only for the elect with regard to its efficacy, because he brought about salvation only for the predestined.”46 The connotative elasticity of the phrase “sufficient for all but efficient for the elect” proved useful as a vehicle of mediation at Dordt, where in 1618–19 a mixed body of both “high” Calvinists and Amyraldians crafted a united response to the threat of the Arminian Remonstrance—the famed Canons of Dordt, from which the wellknown “five points” derive.

    Click to access 9781433669712_sampCh.pdf

  6. Mark Mcculley Says:

    James Jordan–It is God who applies the benefits of the atonement as God sees fit. God is free to apply the full and special benefit of the atonement to some people temporarily and to others permanently. The special benefits of the atonement are “limited” in this world to those elected in THE CHURCH, and they are limited in the world to come to those elected to heaven.

    James Jordan–The special (“limited”) benefits of the atonement are for those who are “in Christ.” Those who leave the Vine, who forsake the Olive Tree, cease to be “in Christ” and cease to receive the special benefits of the atonement. In the same way, many of those who received the benefit of the first Passover and were delivered from Egypt, eventually lost that benefit and died in the wilderness.

    James Jordan–Only such an ECCLESIAL conception of “limited atonement” can account for passages like 2 Peter 2:1, which speaks of those who “deny the Master who bought them.” These men were “bought” the same as all other Christians, and received exactly the same thing, being put “in Christ.” The atonement was “for them” in exactly the same way it was for Peter and John. But when they denied the Lord, they lost the
    special benefits of the atonement. All of this, of course, was in the plan of God.

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