Foundations of Grace – Steven Lawson

9 12 2008

Ever since I first heard about Lawsons first book in the series I’ve wanted to get my hands on a copy. It sat on my amazon wishlist for some time. But I did the responsible thing and bought all my course texts first, and sadly I’ve had to leave this one till now. Thankfully Reformation Trust helped me out with a copy of this first in a projected five volume series. I’ve enjoyed Lawson’s style of writing (see my previous review) so tackling his (projected) magnum opus seemed a lot less daunting. The book opened with a wonderful 13 page forward by Dr John MacArthur on Divine Immutability and the Doctrines of Grace which as Lawsons says in his preface is “priceless”. How we view the Character of God is extremely important for understanding the actions of God. If God is perfect, just, righteous and does not change, then everything he does is right, true and just. Not only that, his actions are right because he does them. He is the ultimate standard by which we measure good. If  we call something God does as unfair, or unjust then we are calling God’s Character into question.

“God saves sinners by His Grace and for His Glory”  – (page 35)

The Doctrines of Grace have certainly rocked my world at times and continue to do so. But Lawsons preface was a little unnerving and off putting. Saying that Arminianism is a starting point for atheism was pushing it a bit far. As far as I have understood it classical Arminianism holds to a Total Depravity, and (Un)conditional Election (based on God’s foreknowledge of those who would excercise faith, different to the reformed understanding), but then to a Universal rather than limited atonement, and prevenient grace as opposed to irresistable grace and the possibility that those who are saved can then lose their salvation. While I don’t find much steam for Arminian theology in scripture, it seems heavy handed to link it with atheism or universalism. What he is correct in recognising is that man becomes his own co-saviour if he adopts the Arminian position.

The book is survey of all the Biblical men who upheld the doctrines of Grace such as Moses, Joshua, Job, Paul, Peter etc. Chapters 2-8 surveys Moses to the Minor Prophets. Chapters 9-10 looks at Jesus from the Gospels.
Chapters 11-18 covers Acts to Revelation. Each chapter is designed like a self contained unit. You can start the book anywhere or read it right through. Lawson opens by looking for what all of these men had in common. Each of them held the Sovereignity of God in high regard and saw the primacy of God’s Glory. They also recognised man’s total inability and need of sovereign grace. To them God was the creator, sustainer, and determiner of all things.

But by far the biggest theme in the book is Divine Sovereignity and Divine Providence. This is something we cannot hammer home too often. God is sovereign over all creation (page 46), over the hearts and minds of people (page 75), over evil spirits (page 108) and Decisions (page 152). Not only that but the Sovereignity of God is immutible and irresistable.  

The book is filled with what I call “Ah hah” moments. Take the story of Moses in the bulrushes. Note how the story contrasts Pharoh’s decree with the sovereignity of God over the heart of Pharoh’s daughter. From a big picture standpoint, the story tells the reader that Yahweh is Lord not Pharoh. A theme which Paul picks up in the New Testament, when contrasting Jesus’ rule with Caesars.  The story also shows us that God is sovereign over the hearts and minds of all people. God’s will is never frustrated by men and women like Pharoah. God is always faithful. But we also have the story of God hardening Pharoah’s heart which is quite a reversal from Pharoh’s daughter. We can’t ignore that Pharoah hardened his heart just as many times as God hardened it, the implication is that the unregenerate man will harden his own heart against God unless God gives him a new heart.

One of the hottest areas of debate amongst many Christians is the idea of Eternal Security. I know how much unneccessary trouble I went through as a young Christian perpetually wondering about my salvation. It didn’t help to listen to pastors who opened with “When you get to heaven and God asks you why he should let you in, what are you going to say to him?”. So I was pleased to see that Lawson defended the doctrine (as he did for the others) time and time again. While the world perished, Noah and his family were spared. In the Exodus not one of the Israelites who crossed the red sea drowned. The Lord preserved David’s life, and established his kingship, no man was able to come against him, even after sinning he was still called a man after God’s own heart. I was glad to see that Lawson did not impose or stretch texts to say something they didn’t. If a book does not teach preserving grace, even though the doctrine is true, we must not make the text say something it does not. 

Lawsons most controversial chapter is called “Christ, The Calvinist”. I’m sure he chose that title for shock value. Personally I don’t like the title. Something about it makes Calvin seem superior to Jesus, which I’m sure Lawson did not intend. I was glad to see a discussion on the Gospels. So often those in the reformed tradition are not nearly as good on the gospels as they are on the epistles. Lawson devotes one long chapter to the three synoptics, and an even longer chapter to Johns Gospel. I have to say if anyone was not a Calvinist before reading John they certainly are afterwards. John 3:16 has always posed a problem for some reformed theologians (my mind goes back to the recent John 3:16 conference trying to disprove Calvinism) but I had no idea that the word “world” (kosmos)had so many possible meanings in Johns Gospel. Lawson highlights 10 possible uses of the word – Entire Universe, Physical Earth, World System, Humanity minus believers, Large group, General public, Jews and gentiles, Human realm, Non Elect, or Elect Only. So given that Lawson reminds the reader that he needs to be careful in saying John is always referring to every living person when he says “world”.

However the book is not perfect and I do have some minor points of contention. Lawson can give the impression that the “Doctrines of Grace” were a system of thought floating around and something that the biblical authors all knew and worked from as a guide. “Each of the Biblical authors were firmly committed to the doctrines of Grace.” – page 103.
 I highly doubt there was any such formulation at the time, and to be fair to Lawson I don’t think this is what he means. It would have been helpful for say that the writers of Scripture had a worldview or better yet a God-view consistent with the Doctrines of Grace.

After reading this book I was convinced that the doctrines of Grace were not the invention of 16th century reformers. Hopefully this will put to rest those deluded arguments advanced by the likes of Dave Hunt and others on the net. My main criticism of the book is that it ignored the idea of physical body resurrection. This seems to be one thing that the reformed camp suffers from. We have spent so much time defending the five points of Calvinism that we  forget to discuss what the end result of Salvation is, namely resurrection. This is surprising given its prominence in the Westminster Confession and many other reformed systematic theologies such as Berkhof’s or Grudem’s. Personally I would like to see the conversation shift, or better yet expand to include this area.  

There are so many directions a book like this could take, and its easy to go off on tangents. At times I wanted Lawson to discuss the relationship between the Doctrines of Grace and the Narrative structure of the Bible. Other times I felt Lawson needed to emphasise that scripture tells one coherent story. But those tangents require books in and of themselves. What He does do here is stick to the task at hand, that is defending the doctrines of Grace as a biblically faithful. Lawsons strength is in his style. He writes with clarity, conviction and the heart of a pastor. His eloquence will satisfy the lay scholarl or the general reader interested in the reformed faith. The book is long, but his style makes for easy reading. The questions at the end of each chapter will help with reviewing the material. The book will prove to be a valuable addition to your bookshelf. Personally I can’t wait for the next installment in the series.




5 responses

9 12 2008

Sounds like quite an interesting book.
I think it is important for Reformed theology to take this sort of approach, and show it can interact with the whole Biblical narrative and with Biblical theology, not just Paul or later systematics. Another great Reformed resource in a Biblical studies area is “New Testament Theology” by Schreiner. I think if Reformed theology wants to remain relevant, projects like Lawon’s will be a very important step.
Anyways, a few other thoughts your review sparked.

“While I don’t find much steam for Arminian theology in scripture, it seems heavy handed to link it with atheism or universalism.”

Glad we agree on that. If Calvinists want to argue that Arminianism does not do as good a job accounting for certain Biblical texts as Calvinism does, fine, that is fair game. However, I find myself increasingly frustrated by the way so many Calvinists treat Arminian theology as teetering on the edge of atheism/radical liberalism/Pelagianism, etc. This, as you pointed out and I was dealing with just yesterday, is simply not true when you look at what Arminians really teach.
Also, this easy and dramatic dismissal of Arminianism seems to be a way Calvinists can sweep aside a number of texts that, like it or not, they have an almost impossible time fitting into their theology unless they really force it. We as students in the Reformed tradition of Sola Scriptura need to be willing to grapple much more honestly and radically with the text our faith is informed by.

“Lawson can give the impression that the “Doctrines of Grace” were a system of thought floating around and something that the biblical authors all knew and worked from as a guide. “Each of the Biblical authors were firmly committed to the doctrines of Grace.” – page 103.”

Yea, I have seen that a lot as well. It is sort of the “Paul was a Calvinist” syndrome. The whole thing is so frustrating because:
A) It pushes the wording and thoughts of 16th century theological articulations, into the minds and words of people who had no ‘Calvinism’ to adhere to, and saying they really did believe ‘the doctrines of Grace’ in the way we think of them seems historically unviable and essentially just wishful thinking.
B) I seems to get the process completely backwards, the Bible is not an attempt to explain the Doctrines of Grace rather the Doctrines of Grace are a human attempt to explain accurately what the Bible speaks. It may do this well at times, and it may do poorly at others.
Whatever its strengths though, it is a later attempt to explain the Bible and can not be retrojected into the texts without doing great violence to the integrity of the Scriptures.

“the story tells the reader that Yahweh is Lord not Pharaoh. A theme which Paul picks up in the New Testament, when contrasting Jesus’ rule with Caesars.”

I liked this point, very Wrightish.

9 12 2008

Yeah I really enjoyed this book, and to my knowledge there aren’t many out there like it from the reformed circle. I agree with you that projects like this are going to be very neccessary from the reformed camp. My frustration is that we’ve spent so much time defending the 5 points of Calvinism but have ignored other big themes in scripture, like resurrection.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Wright – he is one of the best writers out there, and i’ve really enjoyed some of the papers he’s written on the Authority of the Bible, and post modernity. I’ve been very skeptical of him but after reading a lot of his stuff I’ve come to see that most of the criticism he gets on the net is unwarranted.

10 12 2008

I’m sure it is hard to miss lol, but I really appreciate Wright and the work he is doing. Far and away my favorite author in fact.

Over the last few years I’ve read most of the main books he has put out (15 or so) and always get so much out of it that I just keep reading more of them. I have not read his ‘everyone’ commentary series yet, but maybe at some point.
I do not approach him uncritically, but I’ve read enough of his writing that I do tend to get a bit defensive when I see all the misportrayals of his teachings out there.

Actually, I met him at a lecture he was giving at Calvin Seminary a couple years ago. Talked a little, and got to hear a great 3 or 4 hour lecture on the Sacraments.

I’m assuming that if you are reading articles on the authority of Scripture you read “How can the Bible be Authoritative?” If so, and if you want to read more by him on that topic, pick up his book “The Last Word” (at least that’s the U.S. title, in the U.K. it is something else so not sure what one you would order) which is all about the Authority of the Bible and responsible hermeneutics. Not too long and a great read.

If your interested in his work and you don’t mind a few other recommendations, I would say that the three “Christian Origins” books are well worth working through, as well as the smaller work on the historical Jesus “The Challenge of Jesus”, also on Paul I would read through “What Saint Paul Really Said” and especially “Paul in Fresh Perspective”, which is one of his best on a number of levels.

10 12 2008

Yeah I’ve got a couple of his books coming in the post. I’ve read the first of his Christian Origins series and I’ll soon be starting on Jesus and the Victory of God, as well as Paul in Fresh Perspective.

I get tired of fundamentalists on the net labelling everyone else a heretic. They lose all credibility in my eyes when they start doing that. I saw a site devoted to the writings of the puritans denouncing Wright as a heretic once. I had a good chuckle to myself…

10 12 2008

Happy reading when the books come.

I agree, there is an awful lot of crazy stuff on the net.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: