Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Review: What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace?

As I've previously noted, I've been trying to read lots of books on grace. So when I spotted this book on special offer for the Kindle, I loaded it up and took it on holidays. However, it wasn't quite what I had expected. Instead of dealing specifically with grace, it turns out that the book is a point-by-point defence of the five points of Calvinism. So what's the problem, I hear you ask. Aren't you a Calvinist? While I do hold the doctrines of the Church of Ireland on election, predestination and all that, I didn't really enjoy the book.

Richard D Phillips states that he has two purposes in the book. 'The first is to explain the doctrines of grace, also known as the "Five Points of Calvinism" through the exposition of Scripture... The second purpose is... to help believers feel the power of these precious truths in their lives. In other words, I aim not merely to teach the doctrines of grace, but to show what is so great about them.'

There are five points of Calvinism, but six chapters. The opening one deals with the theme of God's sovereignty as standing over and above the rest of the doctrine. It's a helpful chapter, which then focuses on Isaiah's vision of God, with the four hallmarks of response to the sovereign God: 1. A readiness to serve - which he claims only comes after the vision. But surely this fails to take account of the fact that the vision comes in chapter 6. Isaiah has already been a prophet. 2. Humble, trusting obedience. 3. Holy boldness. 4. Reliance on sovereign, saving grace.

It's here in this subsection that I really didn't like the book. He describes the dithering King Ahaz, who refuses to ask for a sign in Isaiah 7:

This is seen in the sign Isaiah gave to King Ahaz. Isaiah urged this sign on Ahaz to enliven his faith. It was a sign that was foolish in the eyes of the world, but glorious in the eyes of God: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." In the presence of Ahaz's apostate unbelief, Isaiah laid his hand on the greatest sign of sovereign grace of which he could think: the virgin who would be with child.

As he continues, he makes it clear that he's jumping immediately to Jesus, without thought of original context, or of what that might have meant for Ahaz in the first place. Instead, the scripture becomes flat with no context or contours. I'm afraid, coming so early in the book, it didn't make me want to go much further, if this was the way he was going to handle the scriptures.

But I persisted. The remaining chapters cover the five points of Calvinism, with fairly standard defences of total depravity (How bad am I really? Much, much worse than you have dared to think.); unconditional election (which promotes humility and not pride); limited atonement (we find solid ground for our assurance of salvation); irresistible grace (it glorifies the saving work of the Holy Spirit and demonstrates the saving power of God's Word; and perseverance of the saints (we look not to ourselves, but to the faithful God's sovereign, preserving grace).

All in all, I liked much of the book, but at times was concerned with his handling of the text. I'm not sure it would be overly convincing to those who were enquiring, but for those who are convinced Calvinists, there will be something to help ground you more surely in the doctrines of grace.

What's so Great about the Doctrines of Grace? is available from Amazonand for the Kindle.

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