Thursday, March 20, 2008

Book Review Series- "What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace?"- Chapter One

Many treatments of the doctrines of grace order their explanations of the doctrines by examining sequentially the doctrines represented by the letters of the well-known acrostic "T.U.L.I.P." (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints). In his book, "What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace?", Richard D. Phillips also follows this outline, but rather than begin with total depravity his first chapter explores the sovereignty of God. In his view, the doctrines of grace are synonymous with "biblical teaching about the sovereignty of God at work in our salvation". Accordingly, it is implied, an understanding of God's sovereignty is foundational to comprehending the doctrines of grace. He explains:

The doctrines of grace offer a perspective on salvation in which God truly is God, so that everything depends on His will and works to His glory. As with all God’s attributes, sovereignty is not a mere abstraction, but a reality that shapes the warp and woof of our experience. The real God is a God who really is sovereign over all reality.

I agree, and would add the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is perhaps an underlying theme that runs through all the doctrines of grace, for in each of the doctrines there is revealed a God who works powerfully and effectively to achieve the purposes of His will. To illustrate what a profound effect a proper understanding of God's sovereignty ought to generate in believers, Phillips points to Isaiah, whose life was forever impacted by his vision of God as the high and exalted One, seated in His throne room, reigning supreme above all things and worshiped by the majestic angels. When Isaiah experienced this incredible vision he cried out, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (Isa. 6:5). Phillips writes that "Isaiah despaired of himself and all his works. You know you have met with God when you cry, “Woe is me!” This is what self-awareness produces when accompanied by God-awareness."

Furthermore, we see in Isaiah, "the link between the sovereignty of God’s grace and the self-abandonment that flows from the doctrine of total depravity. These truths go together, like two parts of a locket. When these pieces click, the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ makes sense as it never has before," writes Phillips. A true apprehension of God's awesome sovereignty leads to a deep awareness of one's utter sinfulness before a transcendentally holy God.

Now Phillips defines God's sovereignty this way:

By sovereignty, we mean that God actively governs everything. By everything, we mean all things that happen, from the greatest to the least of occurrences. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” asked Jesus. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” (Matthew 10:29). So sovereignty means “according to God’s sovereign will.”

Logically, Phillips includes salvation as also being under the rule of God's sovereignty. He writes,

"God’s sovereignty in salvation means that believers are saved for this sole ultimate reason: "according to God’s sovereign will." Or as Paul wrote, our salvation was "predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will" (Ephesians 1:11). That sums it up about as well as possible: we are saved according to God’s sovereign purpose, by God’s sovereign working, according to God’s sovereign will. Salvation truly is "from him and through him and to him" (Romans 11:36).

And the practical result of believing such truths about the sovereignty of God in our salvation, or as Phillips describes it, "when this truth breaks into our minds and hearts", is that "we glory in God forever."

As discussed in the preface, Phillips aims not only to explain each of the doctrines of grace using simple language, but also, to draw out practical implications for application. He writes that "everything in a believer’s life changes when he or she grasps the truth of God’s sovereignty." For example, he examines how Isaiah's experiential revelation of the unique, holy sovereignty of God produced four responses in Isaiah, responses that will also be ours as we come to grips with God's sovereignty: a readiness to serve; humble, trusting obedience; holy boldness; and reliance on sovereign, saving grace.

4 Responses to the Vision of God's Sovereign Lordship
Regarding the "readiness to serve" that the vision of the sovereignty of God produces, Phillips writes, "Since God is the true sovereign, there is no greater privilege than to serve Him. Awe before His glory makes other pursuits diminish." Furthermore, Phillips points out that really knowing that we serve an exalted, sovereign King produces both the inner compulsion to serve Him and to delight in His service.

Secondly, Phillips argues that it was Isaiah's radical recognition of God's awesome sovereignty that caused him not to question, and never complain about, the wisdom of God's instructions, even though his God-given assignment was singularly unpleasant. Isaiah was called to preach a very challenging, "in-your-face" message that would "bring about a hardening in Jerusalem", and "cause calluses as a prelude to judgment." Yet, Phillips points out, Isaiah's vision of a "sovereign, saving God" had produced in him the humble willingness to obey without questioning orders.

Thirdly, holy boldness is produced within God's people as they become conscious of the fact that their God is sovereign above all earthly rulers. He quotes the Scottish Reformer John Knox, who when asked why he could be so bold in defying the Queen of Scotland, replied, "When you have just spent time on your knees before the King of Kings, you do not find the Queen of Scotland to be so frightening."

And finally, the vision of God in His sovereign glory makes His servants trust and rely completely upon the power of sovereign grace to see His work accomplished.

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” (Isaiah 7:14). 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.

Despite the reaction that a hostile, unbelieving world may have, Phillips writes, Isaiah's vision of God as Almighty sovereign was one by which the Spirit inspired him to preach prophetically to Ahaz of the coming Savior. Phillips concludes, "true gospel ministry can succeed only if a virgin girl gives birth to a son." He means that the ultimate success of ministry lies in the power of a miracle-working, sovereign God whose grace alone is be trusted in and relied upon.

Isaiah’s sign of the virgin birth tells us not to trust human wisdom, even as we must not despair in the face of human difficulty or personal failure. For if we, like Isaiah, gain a vision of God’s sovereign glory, especially in the salvation of sinners, we will count it our privilege to serve this sovereign Lord, who brought our Savior into the world through a virgin womb, and who will bring many to salvation as we likewise rely on His sovereign, saving grace.


I believe Mr. Phillips book has been successful thus far in achieving his aims of presenting the doctrines of grace simply, clearly and with a view towards their application. Musing on this first chapter, which describes so eloquently the importance of deeply knowing God's sovereignty, lead me to consider what happens when/if we don't have such a recognition. I think there are many possible effects of having a weak view of God's sovereignty, but it's outside the scope of this review to fully explore them. However, I'll briefly present a few ideas on these lines for your consideration.

Blame It on the Devil Lifestyle
One result of a weak consciousness of God's sovereign rule might be a distorted picture of the Christian life, one that gives Satan way too much prominence and thus leads believers into blaming Satan or demons for everything bad that happens. The truth is that God's sovereignty extends to ruling over the devil and his demonic forces, who actions are as God permits and are ultimately overruled by him (see the book of Job).

If we don't view Satan, as well as all that happens, as being under God's sovereignty, and if at the same time, we lose sight of the way God is providentially working together all things for the good of those who love Him, we may be prone to try to figure out the "why" in every bad circumstance (was it the Devil, was it God, what does it mean?).

I think that Scripture, in books such as Ecclesiastes and Job, shows that such speculation is not profitable. We mostly won't receive answers from God as to "why" certain things happen. But we do know from Scripture that the God who created and controls this universe watches over it, and that He cares for believers, who may please Him by living according to faith in His Son and in His great promises.

"Experiencing" God
Another possible consequence of not seeing and trusting in God's sovereignty may be the contemporary tendency to want to "hear from God". Does God promise to personally and supernaturally give us moment-by-moment instructions on all decisions of life, so that our task is to learn how to hear His voice and sense His directions inwardly? Surely the biblical record shows that God has revealed Himself in spectacular and direct ways to various servants in times past, but the Bible does portray such supernatural guidance as normative. How does this relate to having a vision of God's sovereignty? The impulse to get specific revelations may be due to a defective understanding of God's sovereignty. The Bible tells us "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3)". The Bible also claims special status as God's revelation to his people, one that is sufficient to guide us through life. Therefore by faith we must trust that God's word is inerrant and infallible because it was God's sovereign power that produced and preserved the Bible for us.

Returning again to the book review, we observe that Mr. Phillips is a pastor and his writing style is reminiscent of well put-together sermons. His desire then, to not only explicate but help his audience to be personally changed by these truths, seems driven by pastorly concern. In this first chapter I would say that he has been quite successful in these goals. In a time when the doctrines of grace or Calvinism are so often disparaged, I think this book serves a good purpose in showing that the doctrines, understood properly and applied properly, bring powerful blessings into the life of Christians because they are rooted in Scripture.

Stay tuned for the next chapter.

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