John Piper, Me, and the Cool Shame Election

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I will begin by saying that I owe a great deal to John Piper, and one of the central things I owe to him is respect. A number of years ago, he invited me to speak in Minneapolis for one of their conferences, and did so not caring that I was a pariah as far as the cool table of evangelicalism was concerned. John MacArthur’s friends waited to ditch him until after he became a pariah; John Piper befriended me when I already was one. I know, up close and personal, that John Piper cares about the truth, and not about ecclesiastical politics or personal pride.

This last week, John posted this article that explained why he was voting for neither Trump nor Biden. He wrote what he wrote because he was convinced by the truth of what he wrote. And because he believes in the authority of truth — unlike many who will wave his article like a banner because it gives them the maneuvering room they need — it is possible to engage with him in a respectful way, and to answer his arguments.

The way I propose to do this is by answering two of the assumptions that feed into his premises. The two assumptions I wish to address are these: First, that all sins are equally damning, and therefore all sins are equal, and second, that any behavior that provokes vile behavior is vile behavior. For the rest, John said many true things throughout the course of his article, and it would be tedious to list the various points of agreement. But, bringing everything down to the point, if I address the two assumptions just mentioned, John’s argument fails as a whole, and Trump and Biden do not stand before us as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.

Are All Sins Equal?

John does a good job showing that all sins are sins, and that all sins — apart from repentance and faith in Christ — are equally damning. Thus far, amen, and we agree. But to say that all sins are equally damning is not to say that all damnations are equal. I believe that John is here following a theological line of reasoning which is flatly contradicted by various passages of Scripture.

If it is true, as it is, that a little old lady can spiral down into the outer darkness through her constant querulous complaining, and that Tamerlane could come under the judgment of God because he wouldn’t stop making mountains out of the skulls of his enemies, does not put querulous complaining on all fours with genocide.

We know this because Scripture flatly teaches that God will judge each man according to his works. Not to be tedious, but allow me to emphasize it.

“If thou sayest, Behold, we knew it not; Doth not he that pondereth the heart consider it? And he that keepeth thy soul, doth not he know it? And shall not he render to every man according to his works?”

Proverbs 24:12 (KJV)

“Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”

2 Corinthians 11:15 (KJV)

“For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.”

Matthew 16:27 (KJV)

“Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works.”

2 Timothy 4:14 (KJV)

The obvious fact that apart from Christ all these judgments will be equally negative does not mean that all these sins are equal, or that the penalties for them will be equal. One man might be convicted of embezzling several hundred dollars while another man is also convicted of embezzling several hundred thousand. The men are both defendants, the charge of embezzling is the same, and the convictions both result in a sentence. But several hundred dollars is not the same as several hundred thousand. In other words, in the judgment, God makes fine distinctions. We know this because Scripture tells us that He judges men according to their works.

We know in addition that these distinctions that He makes between sins result in comparable and equitable distinctions of penalty.

“My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

James 3:1 (KJV)

“Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.”

John 19:11 (KJV)

“Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.”

Matthew 11:21–23 (KJV)

And what all this means is that John’s argument doesn’t actually work. Quite apart from defending the sins of Donald Trump (which some men sinfully do), someone could grant that Trump’s sins were in fact sins, and that they will in fact damn him apart from repentance and faith, and still not believe that to prefer them over the sins of Biden would be equally corrosive to the American soul.

I can believe that Asa did right in the eyes of the Lord (2 Chron. 14:2) without believing that this includes throwing Hanani in prison (2 Chron. 16:10). And it is quite possible that the anger that Asa displayed here was personally damnable. I still prefer him over Manasseh.

The Influences of Sin

This second point need not take long. John assumes that vile manners in a leader are something that induce corruption in a people. John applies this passage — “he sinned and made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 14:16) to the bile and vitriol that have flooded our public discourse since Donald Trump entered the world of politics.

But there are two ways that this can happen. A bad example can set the people to go astray, certainly. Bad companions corrupt good morals. Sin is contagious. Corruption is gangrenous. Yes.

However it is also the case that artless criticism can reveal and/or release a vile pattern of behavior that was going on for a long time already, and which was long tolerated by all the polite people. Obama never spoke the way Trump does, but it was under Obama, the professorial polite one, that the Justice Department and the FBI were thrown into a sink of corruption. Trump’s bluntness has resulted in the cover being blown, which is not the same thing as causing the corruption in the first place.

I have gotten “the treatment” from the “all you need is love” Christians enough times to know how this works. We have somehow moved from the older Christian definition to a new relativistic definition of vile behavior. It used to be that vile behavior was behavior that was, you know, vile. Now vile behavior is that which provokes a vile reaction from others. And because there are always people around who are willing to arrange that for you, this means that vile people are now in charge of defining what is vile.

Now if John Piper and I were given the editorial job of sidelining troublesome Trump tweets before they went out, I dare say that we would have a great deal of agreement on which ones shouldn’t be sent out. That would not be our difference. Where we differ is that John believes that such tweets are leading America down the path into a corrupt public discourse, while I believe that such tweets have been a kind of catnip. They have provoked an already corrupted establishment into a frenzy. But the rancid fumes that are emitted during the frenzy were rancid fumes that were already present.

And they were already there, as the corruption of our public morals was already present, because we have been governed for the last generation or so by vile people who are publicly polite.

The Cool Shame Election

One last comment, and this does not apply to John. As I noted at the top, John cares about the truth, and not about his place at the cool table. He doesn’t care about that kind of thing, but a number of people who snatched up his article do care about it. There is in fact a cool table out there, and a large swath of our evangelical leadership is hungry to be seated at that cool table. Apologies. I used the word hungry there when I probably should have said ravenous.

They like to describe themselves as woke, but the only thing they have been awakened to is the pressing need to not lose, in this coming election, the fruit of all their previous compromises. Imagine, if you will, a Trump blowout. I am not predicting here, just asking you to imagine with me. It is a thought experiment. Imagine a repudiation of the left that would make all the respectable evangelical thought leaders swallow their tongues. Now what?

I mean, if you have been curating your compromises for lo, these many years, the last thing you want is some clown from Queens to blow it all to smithereens.