John Piper’s Erroneous Teaching on the Unpardonable Sin
John Piper has had and continues to have a huge influence upon the church. We at ACFJ do not believe that the effects of his teaching are always good, and in fact we believe that Piper has done great harm to abuse victims. (Posts showing the harm Piper’s teaching has done to abuse victims are linked at the bottom of this article.)
You recall that Piper claims that God forbids divorce for any reason whatsoever and that remarriage is a sin as long as an ex-spouse is still alive. In addition, we are seeing other false teaching in his writings and we believe that these false doctrines have done widespread harm to Christ’s people. That is why we are publishing this series of posts on Piper.
Who is John Piper?
- He is lauded for his confidence and charisma.
- He is a Baptist with privilege to transcend denomination.
- He is a celebrity speaker at countless evangelical events, including The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference.
- According to Mark Dever [Internet Archive link], Piper is probably the single most potent factor in the recent rise of Reformed theology. “If I could give just a two word explanation for the question ‘Where did all these Calvinists come from?’ I know what those two words would be: John Piper.” (hear this 51’30” into Dever’s talk [Internet Archive link].)
- He has spoken before the Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly [Internet Archive link].
- He has been a special guest lecture at Covenant Seminary [Internet Archive link] [For Lecture 1, click here. For Lecture 2, click here. Editors.], the flagship seminary of the PCA
- Many of his books are listed at R. C. Sproul’s website Ligonier Ministries. (A key-word search at Ligonier for ‘John Piper’ brings up 49 items, 30 of which are books written by Piper.)
- Several of Piper’s books are recommended by Westminster Seminary California (three are recommended by John G Bales in his series Building the Minister’s Library: Pastoral theology [Internet Archive link], sin & suffering [Internet Archive link], the intellectual life [Internet Archive link]) two more are on the reading list for those preparing for seminary [Internet Archive link]).
- The list of those who have endorsed and praised Piper’s books or written Essays in Honour of John Piper would be far too long to enumerate here.
John Piper has an impressive biography on Amazon.com:
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and studied at Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary (B.D.), and the University of Munich (D.theol.). For six years, he taught Biblical Studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1980 accepted the call to serve as pastor at Bethlehem. John is the author of more than 50 books and more than 30 years of his preaching and teaching is available free at desiringGod.org. John and his wife, Noel, have four sons, one daughter, and twelve grandchildren.
We have pleaded with Reformed theologians to take a closer look at Piper’s teaching. We were ignored. But even those of us who are not theologians have reason to question assertions made in his books. Today, we’ll focus on his teaching about the unpardonable sin, found in the chapters pertaining to divorce in his book, What Jesus Demands from the World.
The Unpardonable Sin According to John Piper
Here is John Piper’s (re)definition of what constitutes the unpardonable sin which can be found on page 320 of What Jesus Demands From The World [bold and underlined emphases added]:
Forgiveness is received through trusting Jesus to forgive our sins, This implies that we see sin as sin and hate it as a dishonor to Jesus. The only unforgivable sin is the sin that we refuse to confess and forsake. We commit unforgivable sin when we cleave to a sin so long and so tenaciously that we can no longer confess it as sin and turn from it. What Jesus calls “the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (in Matthew 12:31-32) and “eternal sin” (in Mark 3:29) is the resistance against the Holy Spirit’s convicting work to the point where he withdraws, leaving the sinner in helpless hardness of heart, unable to repent. Neither divorce nor remarriage is in itself the unpardonable sin any more than murder, stealing, lying, coveting, adultery, or homosexual behavior.
Piper specifically cites the two Scripture references below (we’ve added the seven extra verses in the Mark citation for context):
Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. Matthew 12:31-32
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house. Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit. Mark 3:22-30
A Doctrine Apart
Was this a sound interpretation of Christ’s words? It is evident that Piper is not addressing the context of Christ’s words when he teaches that the unpardonable sin is any sin that we do not repent of. According to ESV Study Bible, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is one of the most enigmatic, debated, and misunderstood sayings of Jesus’ ministry, but the references below are, we trust, a reasonable overview of what Protestants have understood by this term:
The sin against the Holy Spirit, or the unpardonable sin, involves conscious, stubborn, malicious opposition to divine truth once recognized as such and blasphemous hostility against it. LCMS Christian Cyclopedia [Internet Archive link]
Speaking against the Spirit, calling the work of the Spirit the work of Satan, involves an explicit willful, and decisive rejection of the Power that can bring about repentance. . . . The unforgivable blasphemy specified here is the act of deliberately associating the power and the work of Jesus, who is full of the Holy Spirit, with the work of Satan (pp.1525 & 1566 Reformation Study Bible)
to ascribe the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan, or to equate them. R C Sproul [Internet Archive link]
The sin is attributing to Satan what is accomplished by the power of God, and doing this through the flagrant, willful, and persistent rejection of God and his commands. This sin is committed today only by unbelievers who deliberately and unchangeably reject the ministry of the Holy Spirit in calling them to salvation. (ESV Study Bible note on Matt 12:31-32)
if a person persistently attributes to Satan what is accomplished by the power of God — that is, if one makes a flagrant, willful, decisive judgment that the Spirit’s testimony about Jesus is satanic — then such a person never has forgiveness. (ESV Study Bible note on Mark 3:29)
Key to understanding this passage [speaking of Luke 10:8-1, which is another passage on blasphemy against the Spirit] is the distinction Jesus makes between, on one hand, the extreme case of blasphemy against “the Holy Spirit” and, on the other hand, the lesser case of speaking in a dishonorable way against “the Son of Man.” One who asks to be forgiven for disrespectful words hastily spoken against Jesus (the Son of Man) will be forgiven. (Note, e.g., Peter’s rejection of Jesus and his subsequent restoration.) But blasphemy against the Holy Spirit — that is, the persistent and unrepentant resistance against the work of the Holy Spirit and his message concerning Jesus (cf. Acts 7:51) —this, Jesus says, will not be forgiven. The person who persists in hardening his heart against God, against the work of the Holy Spirit, and against the provision of Christ as Savior, is outside the reach of God’s provision for forgiveness and salvation. (ESV Study Bible note on Luke 10:12)
Sin Against The Holy Ghost. There seem to be three things essential to this sin, viz., conviction, malice, and presumption in expressing that malice. (Jonathan Edwards [Internet Archive link] — Edwards’ teaching in this link is highly recommended; read it if you have time)
The unpardonable sin, then, is speaking against the Holy Ghost. (Charles Hodge [Internet Archive link])
O, there is no crime on earth so black as the crime against the Holy Spirit! Ye may blaspheme the Father, and ye shall be damned for it, unless ye repent; ye may blaspheme the Son, and hell shall be your portion, unless ye are forgiven; but blaspheme the Holy Ghost, and thus saith the Lord: “There is no forgiveness, either in this world nor in the world which is to come.” I cannot tell you what it is; I do not profess to understand it; but there it is. It is the danger signal; stop! man, stop! If thou has despised the Holy Spirit — if thou hast laughed at his revelations, and scorned what Christians call his influence, I beseech thee, stop! (sermon by Spurgeon)
what of blasphemy against the Spirit? To understand this difficult saying, we need to see that it came in the context of Jesus’ opponents charging Him with doing His work by the power of the Devil rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit. R. C. Sproul [Internet Archive link]
maliciously speaking to the highest reproach of the Holy Spirit, contrary to the rational conviction of their own consciences. . . . if any person hath been instructed in the things of God, and hath made a profession of religion and godliness, and afterwards falleth off from his profession, and becomes a bitter enemy to it; saying that those things are the effects of the devil in men, which his heart telleth him are the operations of the Holy Spirit, and be so hardy as to persecute and seek to destroy such persons for such profession: the interpretation be to those that hate us, and to the enemies of our God. . . .
[Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is] not words spoken ignorantly or hastily, or according to our real judgment and opinion; but words spoken maliciously, in order to destroy God or Christ, if it were possible. . . (Matthew Poole [Internet Archive link], English Nonconformist theologian)
Someone who knows who Jesus is — who realizes that his work is by the Holy Spirit — and yet so refuses to believe that he actually ascribes the Spirit’s work to the devil, cannot possibly be saved. Why? Because that person is not just ignorant, but they willfully, knowingly, reject Jesus as Messiah, as proved by the Holy Spirit. So this passage describes not someone who in a fit of anger or temptation commits blasphemy, but someone who refuses to believe on Jesus as the Messiah, even when he recognizes the Holy Spirit at work. (Rev. Richard Phillips, chair of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology [Internet Archive link])
Therefore, the unpardonable sin was — and is — in ascribing the works of the Holy Spirit through Christ to Satan. How could it consist of anything else? Fundamentalist Baptists [Internet Archive link]
Finally, here is a long quotation from Calvin’s commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, Vol 2 [Internet Archive link]. In relation to Matthew 12:31 and the related passages in Mark and Luke, Calvin says (emphasis added):
Having proved that the scribes could not blame him [Jesus] for casting out devils, without opposing the kingdom of God, he at length concludes that it is no light or ordinary offense, but an atrocious crime, knowingly and willingly to pour contempt on the Spirit of God. We have already said, that Christ did not pronounce this decision on the mere words which they uttered, but on their base and wicked thought.
All sin and blasphemy. As our Lord declares blasphemy against the Holy Ghost to be more heinous than all other sins, it is of importance to inquire what is the meaning of that term. Those who define it to be impenitence may be refuted without any difficulty; for it would have been in vain and to no purpose for Christ to say, that it is not forgiven in the present life. Besides, the word blasphemy cannot be extended indiscriminately to every sort of crimes; but from the comparison which Christ makes, we shall easily obtain the true definition. Why is it said that he who blasphemes against the Spirit is a more heinous sinner than he who blasphemes against Christ? Is it because the majesty of the Spirit is greater, that a crime committed against him must be punished with greater severity? Certainly that is not the reason; for as the fullness of the Godhead (Colossians 2:9) shines in Christ, he who pours contempt upon him overturns and destroys, as far as it lies in his power, the whole glory of God. Now in what manner shall Christ be separated from his Spirit, so that those who treat the Spirit with contempt offer no injury or insult to Christ?
Already we begin to perceive, that the reason why blasphemy against the Spirit exceeds other sins, is not that the Spirit is higher than Christ, but that those who rebel, after that the power of God has been revealed, cannot be excused on the plea of ignorance. Besides, it must be observed, that what is here said about blasphemy does not refer merely to the essence of the Spirit, but to the grace which He has bestowed upon us. Those who are destitute of the light of the Spirit, however much they may detract from the glory of the Spirit, will not be held guilty of this crime. We do not maintain, that those persons are said to pour contempt on the Spirit of God, who oppose his grace and power by hardened malice; and farther we maintain, that this kind of sacrilege is committed only when we knowingly endeavor to extinguish the Spirit who dwells in us.
. . . But here a question arises. Do men proceed to such a pitch of madness as not to hesitate, knowingly and willfully, to rush against God? for this appears to be monstrous and incredible. I reply: Such audacity does indeed proceed from mad blindness, in which, at the same time, malice and virulent rage predominate. Nor is it without reason that Paul says, that though he was
a blasphemer, he obtained pardon, because he had done it ignorantly in his unbelief (1 Timothy 1:13;),
for this term draws a distinction between his sin and voluntary rebellion. This passage refutes also the error of those who imagine that every sin which is voluntary, or which is committed in opposition to the conscience, is unpardonable. On the contrary, Paul expressly limits that sin to the First Table of the Law; and our Lord not less plainly applies the word blasphemy to a single description of sin, and at the same time shows, that it is of a kind which is directly opposed to the glory of God.
From all that has been said, we may conclude that those persons sin and blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, who maliciously turn to his dishonor the perfections of God, which have been revealed to him by the Spirit, in which His glory ought to be celebrated, and who, with Satan, their leader, are avowed enemies of the glory of God. . . .
From sources like these we see that Piper’s definition is unorthodox among his own Protestant Christianity. We know this is a strong claim which some may want to challenge, so let us explain in more detail why we say that Piper’s definition of the unforgivable sin is unorthodox.
Fans of Piper may defend him by pointing to the similarity between Piper’s wording and some of the other references above. We have extracted the essentials of Piper’s definition here, just to remind you what they were:
The only unforgivable sin is the sin that we refuse to confess and forsake. We commit unforgivable sin when we cleave to a sin so long and so tenaciously that we can no longer confess it as sin and turn from it. . . . the resistance against the Holy Spirit’s convicting work to the point where he withdraws, leaving the sinner in helpless hardness of heart, unable to repent.
Did not some of the other authors describe the unforgivable sin as the rejection of the power (viz. the Holy Spirit ) that can bring about repentance? Yes they did, but with exception of Spurgeon (who refrained from defining blasphemy of the Holy Spirit) they all noted that blasphemy includes a sin of words, a sin of the tongue; and they pointed not just to obstinate refusal to heed the Spirit’s promptings to repentance (a la Piper) but the outright and deliberate lie which, full knowing its own deceitfulness and rebellion, declares the works of God to be the works of the devil. Piper’s definition lacks any mention of this highhanded deceitful lying accusation that the works of God are the works of the devil. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit may be one of the most enigmatic, debated, and misunderstood sayings of Jesus’ ministry (as the ESV editors note) but even so, Piper’s definition appears to fall short.
Unlikely agreement between Piper and Rome
Interestingly, Piper finds some common ground with the Catholic Catechism. Again, Piper:
The only unforgivable sin is the sin that we refuse to confess and forsake. We commit unforgivable sin when we cleave to a sin so long and so tenaciously that we can no longer confess it as sin and turn from it. . . . the resistance against the Holy Spirit’s convicting work to the point where he withdraws, leaving the sinner in helpless hardness of heart, unable to repent. Pg. 320. What Jesus Demands From The World [emphasis added]
Compare to the Catholic Catechism:
“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.” Section 1864 pg. 509
The Catholic Catechism seems to stress not repenting of any sins (unbelief), but Piper once again is even more extreme. He says that you can be lost by not repenting of even one sin. Note the singular in Piper’s passage — “the sin. . . a sin”.
Even more scary, Piper’s interpretation is identical to a definition of the unforgivable sin at the website Chastity: Psychological and Spiritual healing in the Catholic Mystic Tradition [Internet Archive link]. It reads:
An unforgivable sin is simply a sin which you do not repent. There’s really nothing mysterious or mystical about it. God has told us over and over that if we sincerely repent our sins and ask for mercy, we will be forgiven. No sin, not even murder or abortion, will condemn a soul if only it is repented. [emphasis added]
Regardless if Piper follows the Catholic Catechism or Catholic mystics, neither of these are in line with the Reformed/Protestant church that he has such influence over. He deceptively calls his teachings radical, but because he has departed from the accepted reformed understanding with his doctrine, a more accurate term would be heretical. If the unpardonable sin is the extent of our grievance with John Piper’s doctrine, we could overlook it and wonder how such a learned man could be so confounded and why no one seems concerned that he has casually recast a doctrine to his liking. But we believe that Piper’s definition of the unpardonable sin is evidence of a false, works-righteousness gospel that we will further address in the next post in this series.
Does it matter a great deal that Piper’s definition falls short? Yes, we believe it does, because that shortfall opens up a legalistic trap for all believers. Furthermore, we suspect that Piper’s erroneous teaching on the doctrine of unpardonable sin in What Jesus Demands From The World is deliberate because it is necessary for the reinforcement of his legalistic divorce doctrine. His definition of the unpardonable sin was given in the chapter titled “Demand #42: What God has joined together let no man separate — one man, one woman, by grace, till death.” It’s a definition of convenience, not a definition you’d expect from a careful theologian.
If Piper thinks that his definition of the Unpardonable Sin has sweetened the bitter medicine for victims of marital mistreatment, he is dead wrong. His definition only sharpens the blade that will plunge into their hearts if they are swayed by his permanence view on divorce.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Stay tuned.
Note: This post was written by Persistent Widow, with contributions by Barbara Roberts
Our earlier posts canvassing the harm Piper’s teaching has done to abuse victims: