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Book Review

Exegetical Cats on Hot Textual Bricks

The Grace of God, The Will of Man, by Clark Pinnock, Gen. Ed.

Academie/Zondervan, 1989
Reviewed by Douglas Wilson

The Grace of God, the Will of Man is a volume of essays presenting "a case for Arminianism" edited by Clark Pinnock. Because of the different nature of the various essays, and because of their somewhat erratic quality, the book is a difficult one to review.

It may be best to make a few general comments about some of the book's more obvious shortcomings, and then respond in more detail to the strongest point of the book, which is the recognition that in the Bible the atonement is frequently presented as universal in scope. The book misapplies the point, but it is misapplied with sufficient effectiveness to require an answer from those Christians who acknowledge the exhaustive sovereignty of God.


1. The front cover of the book says that it is a case for Arminianism. Actually, it is quite a few cases for Arminianism. The theological positions represented appeared to be neo-evangelicalism, a more traditional Arminianism, Seventh-day Adventism, anti-classical theism, and so on. Consequently, a number of the arguments presented applied as much to fellow-contributors as they did to the Reformed position. In short, the bugle here was blowing indistinctly.

2. There was not enough common ground assumed in order to engage effectively in debate with conservative "Calvinists." For example, I. Howard Marshall's essay treats as an open question whether or not Paul wrote the Pastoral epistles. "...the author of the Pastorals (whom I shall call the Pastor without any prejudice to the question of whether he could also be called Paul)..." (p. 54). The question of God's sovereignty is difficult enough when there is a common commitment to the authority, veracity, and inerrancy of the Scriptures. When it is allowed that the clear claim of Pauline authorship made in the Pastorals could be wrong, then why couldn't other claims be also wrong?

3. Some of the contributors seemed unsure of themselves. For example, when Grant Osborne, in his essay on the Gospel of John, refers to John 5:21, he says, "There is no denying the strong predestinarian thrust of this verse. Yet how absolute is the statement?" (p. 247). And in responding to an argument by Carson, he says, "Certainly there is a lot to be said for this view." (p. 248). In some cases, there appeared to be a desire not so much as to refute Reformed theology, as to tone it down.

Postmillenialism and the Doctrines of Grace

The strongest point made in the book concerns the universality of the gospel. The teaching on this in the Scripture is so clear that Arminians can use this argument with devastating effect against certain enclaves within Reformed circles. Unfortunately, Arminians tend to think that the argument applies across the board. For example, Terry Miethe writes, "In 1 John 2:2 we read, `He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.' How could it be put any plainer? The contrast here is clear. Jesus is the `atoning sacrifice' for the sins of the church, but `not only for ours': Jesus paid the price of sin for all people." (p. 82)

Reformed Christians would agree that this is a mishandling of the verse, but they do not agree among themselves as to why it is a mishandling. And to be frank, I believe there are Reformed interpretations of it which do not do justice to the universality to be found there. All Reformed Christians believe that the atonement is definite, or particular (or put another way, substitutionary), and that it is efficacious. Jesus laid down His life for the sheep. But how many sheep are there?

Reformed Christians who hold to a pessimistic eschatology believe that Jesus died for the elect (true), but that the elect are comparatively few in number (false). This puts them in an unenviable position in the debate with Arminians. "World" means the "few elect?" "All men" means "few men?"

The Reformed Christian who has an optimistic eschatology, on the other hand, can assert the particularity of Christ's redemptive work, and also assert that it is for the world. Why? Because in the postmillennial view, the world is elect.

If a debate on the atonement were to be conducted between an Arminian and an eschatologically pessimistic Calvinist, the Arminian would appear to have the advantage. There are many passages which describe Jesus dying for the sins of the world. If we consider the biblical data that God loves the world (Jn. 3:16), the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29), that Jesus was the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (I Jn. 2:1-2), that Jesus in His death would draw all men to himself (Jn. 12:32), and that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (II Cor. 5:19), the advocate of limited atonement has a problem. How can the belief that Christ died for a few be reconciled with the clear teaching that He died for the world?

There are three positions we may consider here in the light of this.

1. There is the Arminian, who retains the universal sweep or extent of the universal passages, but who does not retain the power evident in them. His atonement is extensive, but not efficacious. He limits the atonement with regard to its power to save. This was seen clearly in Miethe's treatment of 1 Jn. 2:1-2 quoted above. He waters down the statement of John. John says that the death of Christ was an atoning sacrifice, or propitiation for the sins of the world. What does propitiation mean? It means to turn wrath aside. God, in Christ, has turned His wrath away from the world. Miethe turns this into "paying the price" for all people. The passage declares propitiation for the world, and an Arminian limits this to mean potential propitiation.

2. Then there is the eschatologically pessimistic Reformed Christian, who retains the efficacy of the passages, but who neglects the sweep, or extent of them. I remember one time, before I understood the doctrines of grace, picking up a book by a well-known Reformed writer to see what he "did with" John 3:16. What he did was inexcusable exegetically; he said that "world" meant the "elect." Coupled with this was the assumption that the elect are few in number, so all I saw was a mangling of the word "world." Sure, "world" doesn't mean every last person, but neither does it mean "just a handful." He limited the atonement in its extent.

3. And last, there is the eschatologically optimistic Reformed Christian, who holds to a view which our footnote says was "never heard of." Well, I suppose that depends upon what you read. While this position has not been common in this century, in prior eras it has been very common indeed. I would refer the reader to The Puritan Hope by Iain Murray for a fine introduction to the subject. The optimistic Reformed position cannot be touched by the potential universalism of the Arminian ("everyone could be saved, if..."). Why would he trade in actual salvation for the world for a potential, and highly unlikely salvation of the world?

Reformed postmillennialism holds that the world is elect. This does not mean that every last person is elect, but that the world certainly is. This is the one position that does not limit the atonement. It is unlimited in its power to save (contra Arminianism), and it is unlimited in that it is worldwide in scope; the world will be successfully evangelized (contra pessimistic Calvinism).

To illustrate:

Suppose, in anticipation of a major sporting event, I said, "The whole city will be there!" Now let us interpret this statement the three ways discussed above:

1. The Arminian believes that the whole town could have been there. The stadium is big enough, and there are free tickets for every last person at the door. But this response is lousy, and we all know the stadium will be virtually empty.

2. The pessimistic Calvinist believes that only twenty people will really be there, those twenty were required to come, and that is all the management of the stadium wanted anyway. We are allowed to say that the "whole city" was there because these twenty are obviously the ones who counted the most.

3. The Reformed postmillennialist requires that the whole town will actually be there, the stadium will be full, although a few people will be at home sick, and there were some others who did not want to come.

Obviously, the only position which does justice to the phrase "the whole city will be there" is the Reformed postmillennialist position.

And what is our job? To preach the gospel in all the world, with the confidence that Jesus, lifted up, will draw all men to himself. It is our job, enabled by the Holy Spirit, to fill the stadium.

We pray and preach and write with confidence because we know that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it but to save it. In other words, He did not come to give saving the world the old college try.

In conclusion, the best argument presented in this book against the Reformed faith has no force at all when its defenders stand upon the electing grace of God as the only sure hope for the salvation of a lost and sinful world.

Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990
1-23-96 tew
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