I remember the first time my wife and I had a discussion about the doctrine of unconditional election. We were both in college, and dating at the time, and as she explained the doctrine to me I grew more and more upset. I couldn’t believe what she was telling me and told her that this “ridiculous doctrine” was unfair and cruel. Thankfully, I kept reading my Bible and came to see that what my wife was explaining to me is the clear teaching of the Scripture. But that first conversation was a tense one!
Now, over a decade later, I find myself on the other side of this debate. God’s absolute sovereignty over all things (and especially our salvation) has become to me something beautiful, humbling, and captivating.
However, through conversations with others, I find myself from time to time in my wife’s old shoes (not the heels, the theological position!). Now I’m the one arguing against the “Ryans” of the world who see these truths as cruel, destructive, elitist, unbiblical, or just plain boring. But thanks to Richard Phillips’ new book What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace? I have more help than she did!
Pastor Phillips has done a great service to us by not only explaining and defending the Doctrines of Grace (another name for the five points of Calvinism), but also by taking the time to answer the “so what?!” question. This is usually why the conversation gets so intense. When arguing with my wife those many years ago, I just couldn’t see the richness and benefit of the doctrine of election- my attention was only drawn to my human understanding of fairness. I kept asking “Why would God do this?!”
Phillips addresses this question, and by taking the time to do so, he helps both sides move beyond the raw logic of the discussion and get to where the rubber really meets the road. Both sides come to see God’s love in revealing these precious doctrines. God didn’t give us this truth to frustrate us or to make us angry, but to encourage us and lead us to worship. Kudos to Pastor Phillips for getting this right!
And the book actually does several things right. First, it keeps it short and simple. The book is only 97 pages comprised of just six chapters (the five points, plus a chapter on God’s sovereignty). It is well written, easy to read, and serves as a great introduction to the topic. You could give this book to someone completely unfamiliar with Calvinism’s five points and, by the time they were done reading this book, they would both understand the system and realize why it is cherished by so many people.
Also, they would see the biblical basis for the Doctrines of Grace. Here is a second area in which Pastor Phillips has done a terrific job. In each of the 6 chapters, he exposits a specific text that teaches the doctrine. The first chapter, “What’s So Great about God’s Sovereignty?”, takes us to Isaiah 6 and the temple of God. Following that, each of the chapters walk us through a passage of scripture that explicitly teaches one of the five points. The second chapter’s discussion of Total Depravity centers around Romans 3. In Chapter 3 the teaching of Unconditional Election is explained through an exegesis of Romans 9. The controversial topic of Limited Atonement, or Particular Redemption, (chapter 4) is taught wonderfully from Hebrews 12:2. Irresistible Grace (chapter 5) is explained through the narrative of Matthew 9:9. And in chapter 6, the Perseverance of the Saints is exposited from Philippians 1:6.
Again, I really appreciate this approach. It is so common place, when teaching these doctrines, to simply fall back on logic and proof-texting. However, grounding the discussion in an exposition of a biblical text gives the doctrine a much clearer and recognizable authority.
However, this is not to say that logic and other texts are not brought into Phillips’ discussion. This is a third area in which this work is well done. Each doctrine is supported by demonstrating the logical consistency of it with the other doctrines as well as with the rest of biblical revelation. All of the five points are then supported by several passages of scripture; no doctrine is built on only one passage of scripture. This also helps the reader to see the strength of the system, that it is logically consistent and biblically founded.
Will this book put an end to the discussion? Sadly, no. However, Richard Phillips’ clear teaching and practical focus should serve to help a “Ryan” or two stop and really see the beauty and blessing of the Triune God working to change a sinful soul into a persevering saint.