Book Review: What’s So Great About the Doctrines of Grace? by Richard Phillips
Calvinism is one of those words that has a clear meaning for some and a vague meaning for others. Getting to the heart of the matter, Richard Phillips has written a book that provides definitions while also sweeping away caricatures. He clarifies Calvinism for a non-technical audience but also does something few books like this are able to do. He provides careful theological reasoning that’s both pastorally sensitive and edifying.
CLARIFYING THE DOCTRINES OF GRACE
Phillips surveys the so-called five points of Calvinism or “doctrines of grace” in the order many Calvinists have come to expect: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. He gives clear descriptions and vivid illustrations of these points along with applications for the believer’s life.
Phillips, a long-serving pastor and theologian, knows well the impact the doctrines of grace can have in the life of the Christian. For some who discover the beauty of God’s sovereignty, he says, “It’s like being born again, again” (4). This reminder of the beauty and transformative power of the doctrines of grace is helpful. As the pan-Reformed or “gospel-centered” movement expands, it might have a tendency to revert simply to one more social tribe and lose the drama of this discovery.
Though the book is organized topically, each chapter brims with biblical insight as Phillips exposits a biblical text as the spine of his argument. For example, he employs Isaiah 6 to show how believing in the sovereignty of God starts with a life-changing, personal encounter with God’s character. He then surveys biblical figures who had personal encounters with God and explains how those encounters shaped their view of God’s absolute sovereignty. He addresses Isaiah’s vision, Paul on the Damascus road, Jonah in the whale, and Habakkuk in the watchtower.
By focusing on Scripture, Phillips’ theological reflections remain warm-hearted and edifying. His biographical vignettes of biblical characters show that real people encountered the living God personally, and this transformed everything! Phillips could have chosen to stress the Reformed pedigree for these doctrines, but that would have made the doctrines accessible only for trained theologians. Instead, he shows that the doctrines of grace are plain in Scripture and therefore accessible to every saint.
Along the way, Phillips deftly anticipates objections. In Chapter 3, for example, he rebuts two charges: that unconditional election makes God unfair, and that people can’t be blamed if God is totally sovereign. He handles these objections concisely so that the reader isn’t bogged down with philosophical arguments.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
This book is a helpful devotional refresher for a pastor. Pastors likely won’t learn anything new, but by considering the glowing piety these doctrines ought to produce, they will perhaps be reawakened to the beauty and spiritual vitality of the doctrines of grace.
At the end of each chapter, Phillips includes a “What’s So Great About…” section. These sections provide useful templates for a pastor to consider in his regular preaching ministry. Do we regularly pause in a sermon and draw out the goodness and wonder of the truths we are explaining?
This book is not just suitable for pastors; newer Christians should read it, too. Unlike other treatments, Phillips’ avoids the accumulation of theological buzzwords. If you pastor a church largely untaught regarding the doctrines of grace, you might hand this book to church members and ask them to jot down the main passages Phillips unpacks. If a new Christian did that, their theological compass would be set on the right course.
You could also give this book to a seminarian or pastoral intern as a companion to a systematic theology. Too often, academic theology has the tendency to produce cold prose with no application. All doctrine should raise our affections for God.
Phillips’ book is the doxological antidote to anyone suffering from the so-called “cage stage” fascination with Calvinism. Thankfully, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace will re-acquaint people with both the truth of the doctrines of grace and the piety that should flow from them.