Do you know what are the Doctrines of Grace? If you are not a Calvinist, you might fumble and try to recall your pastor’s sermon on grace. If you are a Calvinist, the Doctrines of Grace means something specific. Whether you are a Calvinist or not, this book has something to offer, and today’s episode will give you one tidbit to take home.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel” by James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken. 240 pages, published by Crossway in April 2009. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD9.99 and it’s a free ebook in Logos.com for September.
R.C. Sproul wrote the foreword. This is how he opened the book:
I have often wondered how my ministry would change if I were to hear a prognosis from my physician that I had a terminal disease and only months or weeks left to live. Would I retire from active ministry to care solely for my own needs? Would I try to continue ministry with a renewed sense of urgency? Would my messages be more bold?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do know what Jim Boice did when the above scenario became real to him. From the day he learned he was dying of cancer to his actual demise, the span of time was a mere six weeks. Forty-two days. The last two of those weeks he was bedridden and extremely weak. While the virulent disease was sapping his strength daily, Dr. Boice called upon a reservoir of strength in his own soul, a strength quickened and sustained by the grace of God, to continue writing hymns and this present volume. He did not live long enough to see this work completed but was encouraged by the assurance that his colleague Dr. Philip Ryken would complete it for him.
This book was written by a man who called upon a reservoir of strength in his own soul, a strength quickened and sustained by the grace of God.
It is fitting that Jim Boice breathed his last writing on the doctrines most dear to his heart.
The Doctrines of Grace are also known by the acronym TULIP: T for Total Depravity, U for Unconditional Election, L for Limited Atonement, I for Irresistible Grace and P for Perseverance of the Saints.
James Montgomery Boice was the senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jim Boice as he was known, passed away in 2000 and is still fondly remembered by many within Reformed circles.
Philip Graham Ryken is the 8th president of Wheaton College and was the senior minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church. What a coincidence!
Both men are respected pastors, teachers and theologians, well-positioned to write a book on the Doctrines of Grace.
If the foreword by Sproul was an eulogy, then the introduction by Ryken is a rally cry. I quote:
Readers will find that this is a polemical book. By this I mean that it argues for a theological position — Calvinism as set over against Arminianism. It is our conviction that evangelicalism is in desperate need of the best kind of Calvinism. It was Dr. Boice’s intention for this book to mount a vigorous defense of Reformed theology while at the same time maintaining the highest standards of Christian charity.
Throughout the book, the line is drawn. For example, on election, they summarise the Arminian position as thus:
Therefore, the ultimate cause of salvation is not God’s choice of the sinner but the sinner’s choice of God.
Part One: The Doctrines of Grace
You would think they would start the book with a thorough exposition of Scripture. Uncharacteristically, they make the pragmatic claim first. Calvinism is good for the church and thus, good for the world.
Part One: The Doctrines of Grace
- Why Evangelicalism Needs Calvinism
- What Calvinism Does In History
Chapter one begins with a quote from B.B. Warfield:
The world should realize with increased clearness that Evangelicalism stands or falls with Calvinism.
And if I have any non-Calvinist listeners still listening, consider whether what comes next is more palatable.
By “Evangelicalism,” Warfield essentially meant what German Lutherans meant when they first started using the term during the Protestant Reformation: a church founded on the gospel, the good news of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And when Warfield spoke of “Calvinism,” he was referring to the Protestant Reformation, with its insistence on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.
And a bit later…
What Warfield was really saying, therefore, is something that every Christian should and must believe: the gospel stands or falls by grace.
If the authors equate Calvinism with grace, then would rejecting Calvinism mean rejecting grace? The chapter continues on with the five points of Arminianism, followed by the five points of Calvinism, which is unpacked in Part Two of the book. And to answer the question on Calvinism and grace, the authors write:
Calvinism presents salvation as the work of the triune God—election by the Father, redemption in the Son, calling by the Spirit. Furthermore, each of these saving acts is directed toward the elect, thereby infallibly securing their salvation. By contrast, Arminianism views salvation as something that God makes possible but that man makes actual. This is because the saving acts of God are directed toward different persons: the Son’s redemption is for humanity in general; the Spirit’s calling is only for those who hear the gospel; narrower still, the Father’s election is only for those who believe the gospel. Yet in none of these cases (redemption, calling, or election) does God actually secure the salvation of even one single sinner! The inevitable result is that rather than depending exclusively on divine grace, salvation depends partly on a human response.
In chapter two, they write:
If Calvinism is biblical, then we should expect to discover that the church has flourished whenever the doctrines of grace have been taught and practiced. By contrast, we should expect to discover that wherever and whenever these doctrines have come under assault, the church has suffered spiritual, moral, and social decline.
They lay out the evidence from history. We have Calvin’s Geneva, sin city to God’s city. The Puritans we love, they were Calvinists. The Great Awakening, they were Calvinists (except for John Wesley, that guy was Arminian). Do we have anything more recent and less church-y? Abraham Kuyper, theologian cum Prime Minister of Holland. Then the authors show once Calvinism receded as the primary theology, the good times left. They write:
The pathway from Calvinism to liberalism — and even atheism — is well worn, and it usually passes through Arminianism.
The problem with arguing from history is people can pick and choose. After all, what does flourishing mean?
The Roman Catholics could say that everybody was united until the Protestants came and broke the church into a thousand pieces.
The Pentecostals and Charismatics would point to the numerous churches flourishing all over the world as a sign that their theology is relevant today.
And some might point out that the collapse of Reformed in history is evidence of its innate deficiency.
Calvinism in history is just the opening. Just as how non-Christians only think of Christians as gay-hating anti-science bigots, and not know that Christians build hospitals, orphanages and schools, so in the same way, non-Calvinists only think of Calvinists as in-your-face debaters, and not know that Calvinists make up the Puritans and that Calvinists have sacrificed their lives to bring the gospel of Christ to the lost.
Just being aware of the history might temper one’s attitude to Calvinism and maybe that’s enough for you to hear the main part of the book: the biblical argument for Calvinism.
Part Two: The Five Points
In Part Two of the book we dive into the Five Points of Calvinism.
Part Two: The Five Points
- Radical Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Particular Redemption
- Efficacious Grace
- Persevering Grace
These chapters are solid presentations of the Doctrines of Grace, as you would come to expect from Jim Boice and Philip Ryken. The authors quote Scripture, expound Scripture and most importantly, consider opposing Scripture.
For example, on the Calvinist insistence that salvation is solely God’s choice and never Man’s, some argue that the Bible clearly calls people to make a choice. Boice and Ryken know it. They quote Jesus in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” And they respond by way of Augustine vs. Pelagius, Martin Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will” and Jonathan Edward’s “Freedom of the Will”. Familiar name and books if you know the topic, and if you don’t, Boice and Ryken give you good reasons to.
The careful listener will note that the chapter headings are not TULIP. Limited Atonement is Particular Redemption also known as Definite Atonement. The authors comment that Christians balk at the word limited because it seems as if we are limiting God. A bit tongue in cheek, they suggest that if we call it Definite Atonement, the word definite declares that God had a definite goal and who would like to argue that God has an indefinite goal?
For myself and 4-point Calvinists, we will not be satisfied by the name change.
I have heard one argument for Limited Atonement that says God will not let one drop of Christ’s blood go to waste. Therefore, Christ must have only died for the elect.
In my mind, that tells me more about the speaker and not of God. God told Moses and the Israelites not to collect manna on a Sunday. But they did and the manna spoilt. If it was going to spoil, then God shouldn’t have sent it from Heaven in the first place right? Or consider how Jesus feeds the 5000 and 7000 and there were basketfuls of leftovers. Or what about the healing that Jesus did in Bethsaida and Capernaum among people who did not believe in him. That’s a waste of effort. Or an expression of God’s bountiful grace and mercy.
So I can agree with Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints, but I don’t see why the blood of Jesus not cover the sins of the everyone. Boice and Ryken admit this is the majority view among Christians even amongst Presbyterians and Reformed.
One of the things I like about this book is the authors are familiar with the argument so they are able to pre-empt objections, put aside the spurious ones and address the main issue.
Early on, the authors clarify one common ground, they believe that the blood of Jesus was “more than sufficient to atone for all the sins of all the people in all the ages of this world.”
When I read this, I thought, wait a minute, I thought this was the main contention? Thus, I admit my ignorance of this doctrine.
The authors then write:
Unless a person is a genuine universalist, and believes that every individual eventually will be saved, he or she inevitably circumscribes the atonement. Either it is limited in its effects (Christ died for all, but not all get saved), or it is limited in its scope (Christ did not die for all, but all for whom he died will be saved).
So people should not get hung up on the word limited because the atonement is either limited in effect or scope. I thought this was helpful. Continuing on.
Loraine Boettner, who has written so many helpful books explaining Reformed theology, has compared the situation to two bridges. One is a very broad bridge, but it only goes halfway across the chasm. The other is a narrow bridge, but it spans the divide. When things are put this way, anyone can see that it is far better to have a narrow bridge that actually does the job. This is the Reformed position: that the narrow way of the Cross reaches all the way to salvation.
What are your thoughts on that? I was surprised that the authors make this argument. First of all, the illustration of the very broad bridge is inaccurate because it’s not a ten lane bridge that doesn’t cross the chasm. It’s a ten lane bridge where five lanes cross the chasm. Some do get saved.
And the phrase, “Anyone can see that it is far better…” is making the illustration carry the heavy load of supporting the doctrine. And if anyone is convinced by that illustration, I would say you are too easily satisfied and I have other illustrations to sell you.
They quote Spurgeon. I like Spurgeon. But the quote is heavy on polemic, not in substance. Surely, the authors can offer more than a half-way bridge and a Spurgeon quote.
The authors tend to save the best for later. Listen to this:
The real question is not whether the death of Jesus Christ has sufficient value to atone for the sins of the entire world, or whether his death benefits all people in some limited sense, or whether everyone will be saved. The real question concerns the design of the atonement; that is, what did God the Father actually intend to do in sending his Son to die for us?
Later he summaries the three options as:
Jesus’ death was not an actual atonement, but only something that makes atonement possible. The atonement becomes actual when the sinner repents of his or her sin and believes on Jesus.
Jesus’ death was an actual atonement for the sins of God’s elect people with the result that these, and only these, are delivered from sin’s penalty.
Jesus’ death was an actual atonement for the sin of all people with the result that all people are saved.
We are not universalist, so we ignore the third option.
So we are left to think what does the atonement actually mean, what does it actually achieve. Then Boice turns to how the Bible describes what Jesus did: Redemption, Propitiation, Reconciliation and Atonement.
Boice then concludes:
When we put these terms together, looking at their precise meanings, we see that Jesus did not come merely to make salvation possible, but actually to save his people. He did not come to make redemption possible; he died to redeem his people. He did not come to make propitiation possible; he turned aside God’s wrath for each of his elect people forever. He did not come to make reconciliation between God and man possible; he actually reconciled to God those whom the Father had given him. He did not come merely to make atonement for sins possible, but actually to atone for sinners.
This is why I like reading these Reformed theologians, they corner you with these questions, then push the Bible under your noses, and needle you, “Come on, what say you?”
And I’m forced to admit that reading what the Bible says about the atonement, I struggle to say that the atonement only gives the possibility of atonement, a possibility only actualised on the sinner’s say so.
While your mind is reeling from the blows, you grasp for some support, some way to push back and hold on to what you believed before.
The writers help you find support. In this chapter, they title the section, “The Problem Texts”. And there are three categories of problem texts.
- Passages that seem to teach that God has a will to save everyone.
- Passages in which it is suggested that some people for whom Jesus Christ died will perish.
- Passages in which the work of Jesus seems to be intended for the entire world.
And as you would expect, the authors take the same passage and offer an alternate, equally plausible interpretation without ridiculing people who disagree.
Wait a minute. What are the implications of this? If limited atonement is true, then how can we offer the Gospel to everyone? How can we say on the pulpit that Christ died for all of you when he did not.
Once again, the good teachers know the question before you arrived at them and they zestfully answer it.
Does this weaken the gospel message? Far from weakening the message, the doctrine of definite atonement strengthens it and alone makes it a genuine gospel. Suppose we go to the lost with the message that Jesus died for everyone but without the conviction that his death actually accomplished salvation for those who should believe. Suppose, in other words, that we proclaim a redemption that did not redeem, a propitiation that did not propitiate, a reconciliation that did not reconcile, and an atonement that did not atone? That would be a fool’s errand. But if we can say, “Christ died for sinners to restore them to God; if you believe on him, you are saved and can know that he has died for you,” then we have a message worth proclaiming and our hearers have a gospel worth believing.
So that is a walkthrough on one chapter of this book, one chapter that deals with one of the five points of Calvinism.
But wait… there is more!
Part Three: Rediscovering God’s Grace
If you have had the encounter to meet an enthusiastic Calvinist you may have walked away wishing you did not. Boice and Ryken know too well how some Calvinists carry themselves and Part Three offers correction and direction.
Part Three: Rediscovering God’s Grace
- The True Calvinist
- Calvinism at Work
The “Truly Reformed” are considered narrow in their thinking, parochial in their outlook, and uncharitable in their attitude toward those who disagree. They have a bad reputation, and sadly, perhaps some of it is deserved. There is a combative streak in Calvinism, and whenever the doctrines of grace are divorced from warm Christian piety, people tend to get ornery.
Later they argue:
This ought not to be. In fact, it cannot be, provided that Calvinism is rightly understood. The doctrines of grace help to preserve all that is right and good in the Christian life: humility, holiness, and thankfulness, with a passion for prayer and evangelism. The true Calvinist ought to be the most outstanding Christian — not narrow and unkind, but grounded in God’s grace and therefore generous of spirit. Toward that end, this chapter is a practical introduction to Reformed spirituality. In the next chapter we will explore the implications of Calvinism for public life.
The book begins with a survey of Calvinism in history. The book ends with Calvinism and a glorious future(?). They tend to save their best argument for the end, so don’t be too quick to dismiss them. Read till the end of the chapter, or the end of the book.
I went into the book thinking I understood Limited Atonement and was firmly against it. I now realised my ignorance and it does seem to make sense. Enough for me to reconsider my position on it.
Which brings me to the question, Who is this book for? Calvinists would love the book. What about non-Calvinists? Well, it’s always good to hear a well-presented argument from the opposing side. And Jim Boice and Philip Ryken have done a good job here.
You know how in elections, there are candidates who have no chance of winning, but they are really good at rousing voters on a single issue. So much so that these candidates force all the other candidates to respond.
Or consider heresies. If we can guess God’s purpose for allowing heresies to happen, I would say heresies force people to respond, to clarify, to defend, what they believe.
And so when it comes to Calvinists, they may come across as single-issue, or rather five-point-issue believers, or some believe that Calvinists have gone horribly astray in their theology. My thinking is, Calvinists force everyone to contend with what the Bible says of God’s sovereignty, holiness or in this book, God’s Grace. And surely, God’s character is worth learning, because “Who God Is” is foundational to our worship and Christian life.
And that is why I appreciate the Calvinists and Reformed, not because I want to pick a side. I am not looking for a football team to support. I am looking to understand the Bible better to know my God deeper.
And wherever you land on the question of Calvinism, I think you will profit from the Doctrine of Grace.
This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “The Doctrines of Grace” by James Montgomery Boice and Philip Ryken.