Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sinning that grace may abound

Tom McCall has lodged the following objection to John Piper’s theology:

Although Piper insists that we are not to draw it, he admits that the “logical inference” to be drawn from his view is that we might as well live lives of sin in order that grace may abound…And Piper is, of course, well aware that such an inference is in direct conflict with clear biblical teaching…Piper’s theological determinism leads him to what can only appear to be an outright contradiction at this point. Suppose that a Christian is convinced by Piper that theological determinism is true, and that all events that occur are determined by God to occur so that God might be glorified maximally.

Thomas H. McCall, “I Believe in God's Sovereign Goodness: A Rejoinder to John Piper,” TrinJ 29.2 (Fall 2008): 243-44.

I’ll make a few comments:

i) Piper is a pastor, not a philosopher. Now Piper is a very influential pastor, so he’s fair game. Nevertheless, if McCall is attacking Calvinism, he needs to train his guns on the most sophisticated representatives of Calvinism. As a rule, we wouldn’t expect a pastor to be especially adept at fielding intellectual objections to his position. Why doesn’t McCall target a Reformed philosopher?

ii) McCall’s appeal to Scripture is one-sided. He alludes to Rom 6:1-2. But in the very same letter, Paul also says:

Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Rom 5:20)
13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure (Rom 7:13)
32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all (11:32).

And Paul elsewhere says:

22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Gal 3:22)

a) So McCall has oversimplified the issue. According to the passages I cited, there is a sense in which God wills sin. God makes things worse in the short term to make things better in the long term. Hence, our understanding of Rom 6:1-2 must be counterbalanced against these other Pauline passages.

b) And this isn’t a result of Piper’s “theological determinism.” Rather, this is Pauline theology. It doesn’t involve a prior commitment to “theological determinism.” Rather, we find this rationale in Romans and Galatians: the instrumental value of sin in God’s plan. Even though the magnification of sin isn’t God’s ultimate purpose, it does serve an interim purpose, as a means to a higher end.

iii) To say that sin glorifies God is not to say that only sin glorifies God. God is glorified by virtue as well as vice. So McCall is drawing a fallacious inference. Since sinning is not the only way to glorify God, it’s not as if Calvinism or Pauline theology entails antinomianism. Likewise, it’s not as if the Christian is motivated to sin. For sin is not the only means by which God is glorified. McCall is posing a false dilemma.

iv) Moreover, McCall’s proposed dilemma isn’t really consistent with “theological determinism.”  For if God has predestined a particular Christian not to sin that grace may abound, then that Christian isn’t caught in a hopeless dilemma: to sin or not to sin? For if God has predestined him not to sin that grace may abound, then either sinning or not sinning will not be two equally live options.   


  1. Hello Steve,

    I'm a bit curious about the wording in the Galatians passage you cited. Why do you suppose it says that "the Scripture" imprisoned everything under sin, rather than "God" imprisoned everything under sin? Is it perhaps Paul's way of saying that "Scripture records that everything was imprisoned under sin?

    (and no, my Schreiner commentary hasn't arrived yet :) )

  2. Paul is using "Scripture" as a personification for God.

  3. "...a) So McCall has oversimplified the issue. According to the passages I cited, there is a sense in which God wills sin. God makes things worse in the short term to make things better in the long term. ...".

    I might add this verse, which, in my view, kind of guts his argument if it is also to be embraced with the other verse citations from Romans?

    Rom 8:7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.

    So, if God created man's flesh to fail and he did then how does man, "me" "you", anyone mind ever submit to God's law if, indeed, it cannot?

    Here's one line in my view:

    Mat 1:21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."