A video of John Piper’s opinions on gun ownership and gun control is making its rounds online.
His statements are fraught with manifold errors, all of which deserve disentanglement:
1. Piper follows the modern evangelical praise for Jim Eliot and his comrades who gained “End of the Spear” fame through their so-called martyrdom at the hands, and spears, of savages. I am not one to derogate the deaths of those men, to denigrate the grief and suffering endured by their families, or to downplay the salvation of the tribe following their deaths – but it is simply wrong to praise them. Their deaths were instances of sinful suicide, improperly valuing the natives’ salvation and improperly subordinating their family’s (and their own) well-being. The tribe’s salvation was another instance of God’s providentially sifting good out of evil, not of His utilizing an instrument characteristically productive of salvation.
Probably, Piper would likewise mimic modern evangelicals in their comparison of the death of Eliot and his men to the crucifixion of our Savior, seeing the latter as providing moral justification for the former. If Jesus underwent the worst sufferings for the sake of the vilest sinners (not only those who directly slew Him, but even the “worst of sinners” in different times and places), then shouldn’t we do the same for our enemies in need of the gospel? Shouldn’t we likewise accept persecution and pray to the Father, “Forgive them; for they know not what they do”?
But this is specious moral reasoning. The mission of Christ was very specific and for an immense moral objective: the glorification of God in the salvation of the elect. Taking away the sin of the world is a moral end which justifies a greater degree of endured violence than lesser moral ends, such as the contingent, uncertain salvation of a single intruder. While acting for the salvation of others is a worthy and noble purpose, it is not the same purpose as procuring the salvation of the church, and therefore fewer means are morally permissible in fulfilling that purpose. Jesus’s suicide (if it can properly be called that) was morally justified by the solemnity and loftiness of His moral objective, but the same cannot necessarily be said of just any suicide done for the purpose of a particular person’s salvation. The value of preserving one’s own is a high end that frankly trumps the concern we ought to have for the salvation of a violent, albeit unbelieving, interloper.
2. Piper’s intolerably high concern for human salvation gives him a false view not merely on the practical-ethical concern of violently resisting violence, but also on the doctrinal-theological topic of salvation itself: in particular, the error of Arminianism. The Arminian view of salvation includes the disposition of God to universally redeem all of humanity, which disposition is constrained by a logically necessary restriction on God’s power, namely, the inability of God to move the human will. While a disposition in God to universally redeem all of humanity is within the stream of Reformed orthodoxy – though many Calvinists reject it outright – all Calvinists understand God’s intention in salvation to be “constrained,” not by any restriction of power, but by a free concern for His own glory. God wishes to glorify Himself in the gracious salvation of the elect and the just damnation of the reprobate; thus He decrees for both to occur. But in Arminianism, God is understood to have a predominant disposition to save humanity, that is, a disposition to save humanity all-things-considered (whereas the few Calvinists who believe in a universal-salvific love within God understand it as all-other-things-being-equal). This predominant salvific disposition in God entails that He would be unwilling to foreordain the just damnation of any sinner, even if He were capable of doing so. Hence on Arminianism, God is characterized by a supreme, primal concern for human salvation, deeming it an incommensurable good, and subordinating any concern He might have for the display of His justice. Arminianism is thus humanistic, placing a value upon human well-being far beyond moral boundaries.
This view of God is manifested in, or at the very least implied by, Piper’s idolatrously high concern for the salvation of violent attackers. He has no use for deadly violence, whether deterrent or retributive, insofar as it is used against unbelievers – and thus he shows himself to value human salvation more than any possible purpose for deadly violence! Capital punishment, even for the most heinous of crimes, is off-limits. All war, even for the justest of reasons, is off-limits. Defending his wife and daughters from the most monstrous of rapist-murderers is off-limits. Can a more dangerous connection between aberrant theology and distorted ethics be found? But if he consistently accepts a Reformed view of the divine will and the divine justice, not seeing God’s own creation, providence, and justice as motivated by a paramount concern for human salvation, then his impious premium placed upon human salvation will abate until reaching permissible proportions. As it stands now, Piper might profess to value the glory of God over human salvation,1 but he clearly does not value any demonstration of just violence – a central means by which God is temporally and eternally glorified – over human salvation in any circumstance. This is practical Arminianism. Anyone who values his own family’s safety below the salvation of a violent intruder values human salvation too highly and, ironically, “is worse than an infidel.”
3. Piper claims not to be a pacifist, since he opposes only deadly violence, not all violence entirely. But such an idea is frankly absurd, as any permission of just violence must, to be consistent, permit some degree of violence to the death. Imagine Piper’s dream world, where the righteous do not utilize lethal violence, but only sufficient violence to achieve their objectives. Armed men come to arrest a convicted (and unbelieving) thief to take him to trial, and the thief resists. Should the men then inform him, “If you resist enough, not to worry, we won’t kill you”? Such a principle would constitute unbarred license for wicked men to overtake all of society! Should we expect God’s infinitely just and wise design of human society to include such an absurdity? Or should we instead concede that deadly violence is not sinful in every conceivable circumstance, and that deadly violence must be permissible if any violence is at all? Piper’s argumentation is implicitly pacifist, his protestations notwithstanding.
4. Near the end of his answer (around 4:15), Piper makes a rather sensible statement, arguing that we should not kill an attacker if we can avoid it. I agree with this statement, but its danger lies in what is unrevealed. First, he neglects to mention what his principled position is: specifically, that we can always avoid killing an attacker. He holds that opting for individual and corporate Christian suicide is morally preferable to slaying a belligerent unbeliever, and he thus denies that any circumstances can morally legitimize such a slaying. When he states that we should not kill people “if we can avoid it,” he is thus positing a useless qualification; he does not intend to convey that there are any situations where we can’t avoid it. For him, killing is always avoidable, so why would he state its avoidability as if it were a contingent condition?
Second, in the heat of the moment, great uncertainty looms over a number of contingencies: what the intruder intends to accomplish, how violent he is willing to be, how much a specific injury would harm him or slow him down, how much time one has to stop him, and so on. Due to these contingencies, and due to the high value of one’s own family, the benefit of the doubt should heavily lean towards the use of deadly violence. If there is an intruder in one’s home, then deadly force is almost certainly morally justified. Contrary to Piper, the immense uncertainty of the situation does not detract from, but precisely establishes, the moral propriety of slaying the interloper. This is why the Mosaic law exonerates a homeowner for killing a thief in the night but not in the day (Exodus 22:2-3), because the uncertainties in the event differ so largely between the two. Piper would have to pretend that fathers are given a huge list of alternatives from which they casually select their course of action, only some of which result in the intruder’s death. But the reality is that killing the invader is usually the safest option; the gravity and rapidity of the situation rarely permit lethal force to be evaluated as “avoidable.”
5. In principle, it is manifestly false that we ought to value salvation so highly as to passively murder our own families. But besides this revolting mistake in principle, Piper also makes a considerable mistake in fact. He has no idea whether a homeowner’s death will cause a greater chance of increased human salvation than otherwise. Certainly, the invader himself will have a greater chance of salvation than if he were killed on the spot, but other humans can be affected by the life or death of the parties involved. For example, it could very well be that, were the homeowner to survive the invasion, he would proceed to lead many other souls to salvation, souls which in God’s providence would not have been converted by a different means. Alternatively, it could be that the invader, if not killed that night, would go on to kill a number of other unconverted people, thus obliterating their chances of salvation.2 Or, to return to the example of Jim Eliot, the savages who speared his men, in witnessing their nonresistance, could have righteously interpreted their foreign religion as promoting weakness, cowardice, and a denial of healthy self-love, rejecting it on those grounds. (Similarly, it might have been that if Eliot’s men defended themselves, the remaining savages would have converted only due to the moral fortitude displayed in the men’s self-defense, and not otherwise.) We simply do not know how aggregate human salvation will be affected by our actions, so Piper is in error when he believes he is promoting human salvation in refusing to defend his family from an interloper.
6. While Piper professes a principled resistance to all deadly violence against unbelievers – again, because human salvation is an incommensurable good – he affirms an inconsistent double standard when applying the principle to the realm of civil government. He states his belief in deadly violence for cops and for the military, as if it were an obvious (and even pseudo-manly) fact that those guys should “take out” the bad guys; but he does not apprehend, or perhaps does not admit, his underlying statist presuppositions. The chief premise undergirding ”liberal” gun control propaganda is the moral superiority of the government over the populace, that the government can responsibly use arms but not civilians. Piper extends this statist sewage by maintaining not merely that the state alone should be equipped with weapons, but further that the state alone can permissibly use deadly violence. Civilians are forbidden in all circumstances from killing others, but not the state. This demands further reflection: if Piper holds that human salvation is such a momentous moral good that deadly violence is always forbidden, and if he simultaneously holds that the police and military are permitted to use deadly violence, then what is the conclusion? If he does not admit to contradiction, then no inference can remain except that the state is god. The disparate moral standards cannot otherwise be explained. The state is permitted to send people to hell, but civilians cannot use deadly force in even the direst of circumstances. “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the State.”
John Piper’s guidance on gun ownership is not biblical or Reformed; neither is it safe. May his false teachings be discarded, even spurned. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
- Undoubtedly he does. Evidence for this would be a book Piper has authored, God’s Passion for His Glory, which is an introduction to and commentary on Jonathan Edwards’s The End for Which God Created the World. Edwards’s answer is, of course, God’s supreme concern for His own glory. That Piper could write such a piece and still retain these insidious practical errors which contradict the doctrine displays both his opaqueness and the abundant mercy of God in restraining errant consistency. ↩
- I of course am not implying that any of these parties’ salvation would be “left to chance” or uncertain from God’s point of view, but it is still important to note that God employs means in salvation, and thus that various counterfactuals can be true or false (e.g. “If X were true, then he would not be converted”). Consider, for instance, Matthew 11:23. ↩