Monday, March 17, 2008

Book Review Series- "What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace?" by Richard D. Phillips

Tonight I begin a chapter-by-chapter review series on the forthcoming book "What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace?" by Richard D. Phillips, senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C. Slated for release in just a few weeks (April 1, 2008), it's being published by Reformation Trust, a publishing imprint of Ligonier Ministries (R.C. Sproul).

According to the book jacket, Mr. Phillips (M.Div., Westminster Theological Seminary), in addition to his pastoral duties, is also the author of numerous books, including "Jesus the Evangelist" and the "Hebrews in the Reformed Expository Commentary" series. His preaching is heard weekly on the radio program God’s Living Word, and since 2000 he has chaired the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, founded by James Montgomery Boice. Prior to his calling to the gospel ministry, Rev. Phillips served as a tank officer in the U.S. Army and was assistant professor of leadership at the United States Military Academy, West Point, resigning with the rank of major. He lives with his wife, Sharon, and their five children in the Upcountry of South Carolina.

Before delving into the book's preface, I'd like to open this series with a few brief introductory remarks on the topic of the "doctrines of grace".

What is so great about the "doctrines of grace"? Many today would say, "not much". For these classic reformed truths are not necessarily cherished in our day, and in fact are often viewed with hostility, alarm and apprehension. Why is this so? Why should these doctrines, from which most, if not all, Protestant denominations today trace their roots, be viewed with such suspicion by many contemporary Protestants?

One reason, I believe, is that the specific content of the "doctrines of grace" is not taught from many pulpits and is unfamiliar to large numbers. Though most Presbyterians and Lutherans, some Baptists, Sovereign Grace Ministries (and others too, I'm sure) know these doctrines and preach them, yet there are huge segments of the contemporary American church that likely have never been exposed to, nor critically examined, the doctrines of grace (sometimes referred to by the acrostic "T.U.L.I.P", or by the nickname "Calvinism"). As a result many can't explain the difference between the two most prominent theological systems of Protestant history- Calvinism and Arminianism, nor would they be able to answer the question, "Are you a Calvinist or an Arminian?" What they have heard about Calvinism may be nothing more than superficial and dismissive hearsay. One may think (as I used to) "Well, I have heard a little about these Calvinistic teachings--Limited Atonement, Unconditional Election-- and they just don't sound correct or biblical."

Additionally, you may be thinking, so what? Does it really matter anyway, to prefer one ancient set of creeds, over another ancient set of creeds? What practical difference would choosing sides in an ancient theological debate make to my life right now as a Christian? Isn't the important thing to get busy loving each other as Christians and showing God's love to the world?

This is precisely, I believe, the issue that Mr. Phillip's new book aims to address: to show why the doctrines of grace are indeed great and why they matter for us today. His method however, is not to offer an exhaustive argument in defense of the doctrines of grace, nor thorough refutation of Arminianism or other theological systems. Rather, he wants to share his love and enthusiasm for these doctrines even as he demonstrates that they are indeed biblical and therefore highly relevant. In order to do so, he writes in the preface of having two purposes in his book. First:

I seek to exposit definitive passages as they pertain to the respective doctrines. My approach is to present and explain the doctrines as plainly as possible by drawing out both the clear teaching of the Bible’s text and the necessary implications thereof.

His second purpose, which he thinks is equally important but often neglected in books on this topic, is: 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. And how great they are! If we really believe the Bible’s teaching on the sovereign, mighty, and effectual grace of God, these doctrines not only will be dearly beloved, they will exercise a radical influence on our entire attitude toward God, ourselves, the present life, and the life to come.

It is especially this second purpose, which Mr. Phillips so eloquently describes here, that makes me excited about reading and reviewing this volume. Despite this positive bias, however, I aim to write a critical and constructive review of the book.

For Further Reading:
Arminian vs Reformed Theology series

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