Review: “Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel”

The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel
Authors: James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken
Publisher: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002.
ISBN: 9781581342994

I would like to thank the fine people at Crossway for sending me this review copy of the book.

It was the 500th anniversary of Calvin that gave me the honored occasion to review this book.  The book was the vision of Rev. James M. Boice, minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia.  Boice started writing the book but was not able to finish it due to sickness, and later, his death.  Dr. Ryken was assigned to complete the writing of the book.  So it’s one of those books that gives you reason to wonder if the finished product is what the original author originally intended for the book.  The title might suggest that this book is about grace or the evangelical teaching of the gospel.  However, the title does not suggest what the book is really about.  The main idea in the book is meant to persuade his audience of the power in the five points of Calvinism (TULIP).

On the downfall of the evangelical church

The authors, Boice and Ryken believe that the evangelical church has become humanistic, and even, materialistic.  Boice foresaw that this would be the downfall of the evangelical church.  If the church does not return to the five vital points of Calvinism, it would eventually see a collapse. So the idea of a coming evangelical collapse is nothing new.    I am once again put on guard with a prophetic voice warning of a collapse of the evangelical church.

Boice boldly tells us what he believes is wrong with the evangelical churches.  He identifies six major trends the church has fallen into: secularism, humanism, relativism, materialism, pragmatism, and anti-intellectualism or “mindlessness”. He states:

Perhaps the simplest way to say this is that evangelicalism has become worldly.  This can be demonstrated by comparing it with yesterday’s liberalism.  What was once said about of liberal churches must now be said of evangelical churches: they seek the world’s wisdom, believe the world’s theology, follow the world’s agenda, and adopt the world’s methods….By itself, God’s word is insufficient to win people to Christ, promote spiritual growth, provide practical guidance, or transform society. (p. 20-21).

What gets me is that the more liberal mainline churches are also saying the following about the evangelical churches but are also deeply involved in the same sort of pragmatism:

“So churches supplement the plain teaching of Scripture with entertainment, group therapy, political activism, signs and wonders—anything that promises to appeal to religious consumers. According to the world’s theology, sin is merely a dysfunction and salvation means having better self-esteem.  When this theology comes to church, it replaces difficult but essential doctrines like the propitiation of God’s wrath with practical techniques for self-improvement.  The world’s agenda is personal happiness, so the gospel is presented as a plan for individual fulfillment rather than as a pathway of costly discipleship.”

Is Boice a little hard on today’s evangelical church?  I think so.  He seems to be painting his picture of his description with a broad brush.  The last words in this quote: “costly discipleship” rings a similar tune to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship.”  What if evangelical and mainline churches actually practiced the much forgotten concept of “costly discipleship”?  We might begin to realize where we, as a church, have gone awry.

On the five-points of Calvinism

This book comes with a slight spin, that is, the only solution to avoid such a collapse of the evangelical church is to restore the doctrines of 5-point Calvinism in the church.  After reading this book, I wasn’t convinced of this point but it did strengthen my understanding of the 5-points of Calvinism.  In fact, Boice laid out the five points systematically.  It was covered in enough detail with scriptural passages to back up the arguments. An Arminian would have to come up with good counter-arguments because the authors deal with the problem texts very well.  Some people may shy away from dealing with the counter-arguments against Calvinism but this book counters them boldly.  Boice/Ryken state:

“The most difficult of all the passages mentioned is the one cited last—1 John 2:2, which says that Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” It is difficult because, alone of all these passages, it seems to make a distinction between a merely limited atonement and a universal one, affirming the latter” (p.130).

Each of these five points has its own chapter and is dealt with in a convincing way.  Rather than using the famous five-points of TULIP, Boice prefers to call them something else:

  1. Total Depravity is Radical Depravity or Pervasiveness of Sin
  2. Unconditional Election (same)
  3. Limited Atonement is Particular Redemption or Definite Atonement
  4. Irresistible Grace is Efficacious Grace
  5. Perseverance of the Saints is Persevering Grace

What helps a person understand these five points is an acceptance of two presuppositions: 1/ the complete impotence of humanity; and 2/ God’s absolute sovereignty in grace.  If these presuppositions are accepted, then the five points come easily.  That’s the open doorway when one converts to Calvinism.

The like the author’s discussion on the ordo salutis (order of salvation): foreknowledge, predestination, effectual calling, regeneration, repentance and faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. I particularly like their mention in sanctification that this synergistic.  We often have a negative reaction when we talk about synergism in salvation because we are so well trained into believing that everything is monergistic.  Boice states:

“But sanctification is a process in which, having been given a new nature by God, the redeemed sinner now can and must cooperate.  To put it in other language, justification is monergistic; it is the work of God.  By contrast, sanctification is synergistic; it is a joint work of both God and man” (p. 145).

In the second last chapter on “The True Calvinist”, the author, which if I may assume is Philip G. Ryken, discusses the attributes of Calvinism.  This chapter doesn’t necessarily discuss Calvinism but what are the fruits of Calvinism.  An Arminian who reads this chapter could also lay claim to some of the same fruits that were written about. Anyway, that’s my opinion.

All in all, this is a fine book.  I am glad to have read this because I appreciate the teachings of the five points of Calvinism, which is really the heart of the book.

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