Book Review: Chosen By God – By R.C. Sproul

RC Sproul Chosen By God.pngLetter TThe topic of predestination is one of those topics within Christian discussion which is both unavoidable and greatly controversial, and here in his book Chosen By God R.C. Sproul takes on the task of explaining and providing a Biblical account of salvation and the role that the choice of God plays in this.

Predestination as Sproul defines it “in its most elementary form, is that our final destination, heaven or hell, is decided by God not only before we get there, but before we are even born.” 

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As Sproul goes about discussing the doctrine of predestination he does so by discussing the way it is related to the sovereignty of God, man’s free will, and the fall. With this foundation laid Sproul continues to discuss the way in which these things work out practically in salvation, in bringing man from spiritual death to life (that is, rebirth). Finally, Sproul discusses the way that foreknowledge plays into this and addresses various related topics such as the extreme of double predestination, whether or not the Christian may have assurance of salvation, and different objections against the doctrine such as whether or not Christians need to evangelize or in what way Christ died for ‘the world’.

Throughout this exploration of predestination Sproul is very open and honest about his limitations and those things that cannot be accounted for; for instance Sproul states “… Adam and Eve were not created fallen. They had no sin nature. They were good creatures with a free will. Yet they chose to sin. Why? I don’t know. Nor have I found anyone yet who does know”  and also that “I have no idea why God saves some but not all. I don’t doubt for a moment that God has the power to save all, but I know that he does not choose to save all. I don’t know why.”

Thus Sproul lets his reader know up front that there are some mysteries which the Reformed doctrine of predestination cannot answer.

Overall, Sproul offers an excellent account of the Reformed doctrine, with such wonderful explanations of salvation as “[Fallen man’s] problem, which we defined as moral inability, is that he lacks a desire for Christ. He is indisposed and disinclined toward Christ. Unless or until man is inclined to Christ, he will never receive Christ. Unless he first desires Christ, he will never receive Christ. In regeneration, God changes our hearts. He gives us a new disposition, a new inclination… If God gives us a desire for Christ we will act according to that desire.”

Similarly, Sproul refutes misconceptions of Reformed theology, such as his statement that: “Calvinism does not teach and never has taught that God brings people kicking and screaming into the kingdom or has ever excluded anyone who wanted to be there… Natural man does not want Christ. He will only want Christ if God plants a desire for Christ in his heart. Once that desire is planted, those who come to Christ do not come kicking and screaming against their wills. They come because they want to come. They now desire Christ.” 

While not perfect, Sproul offers an excellent account of Reformed theology, specifically as it involves the doctrine of predestination.

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Memorable Quotes:

– “For now let me say simply that, if the final decision for the salvation of fallen sinners were left in the hands of fallen sinners, we would despair of all hope that anyone would be saved.”-33

– “The saved get mercy and the unsaved get justice. Nobody gets injustice.”-38

– “It’s not freedom that is canceled out by sovereignty; it is autonomy that cannot coexist with sovereignty… Autonomy implies absolute freedom. We are free, but there are limits to our freedoms… God is free. I am free. God is more free than I am. If my freedom runs up against God’s freedom, I lose.”-41, 42, 43

– “We do not believe in order to be born again; we are born again in order that we may believe… What the text (John 3:16) teaches is that everyone who believes in Christ will be saved. Whoever does A (believes) will receive B (everlasting life). The text says nothing, absolutely nothing, about who will ever believe.”-73

– “That we are sinners is easy to admit; that none of us even does good is a bit much. Not one person in a thousand will admit that sin is this serious… For a work to be considered good it must not only conform outwardly to the law of God, but it must be motivated inwardly by a sincere love for God.”-106, 107

– “All that God has to do to harden people’s hearts is to remove the restraints. He gives them a longer leash. Rather than restricting their human freedom, he increases it. He lets them have their own way.”-145

– “Chance is neither. It is merely a mental construct… Chance really explains nothing. It is merely a word we use as shorthand for our ignorance.”-193, 194

Specific Criticisms

As mentioned, Sproul is an excellent theologian and this book presents the Reformed doctrines in a very concise, readable, and insightful manner. Yet, it is not perfect.

– One criticism which might be offered is that Sproul doesn’t have a very strong grasp on what is actually being posited when other groups speak of free will. For instance, Sproul states that “If [Adam] was created with no desire for sin, then we must ask where that desire came from… In creation man was given an ability to sin and an ability not to sin. He chose to sin. The question is, ‘Why?'” (p.29, 30).

The very point of free will is that it is not deterministic, it is not rationalistic; that is, to ask ‘why’ is to beg the question, it is merely not a question which can be asked of free will. If there were a ‘why’, then that why would be what determined the action, not the ‘free will’ of the individual. As F.H. Jacobi puts it “Every avenue of demonstration ends up in fatalism.” To attempt to create a causal chain to prove free will is to fundamentally misunderstand what free will is said to be; to successfully ‘prove’ free will in this way would be to disprove it.

This misunderstanding perhaps presents itself when Sproul uses the analogy of a mule starving due to refusing to choose between bowls of food (p.53).

– Another criticism which might be offered is Sprouls assertion [in reference to sin] that “All that means is that God must have decided to allow it to happen”(p.31). Quite simple, this is a little ways removed from say – the Westminster Confession of Faith – which asserts that “The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends…”

Part of this may be a misunderstanding due to the way that Sproul ambiguously refers to free will; often he seems to appeal to free will when he wants to explain sin, but then ultimately denies that it exists.

– Yet another criticism involves Sproul’s statement that “But we must ask the really tough question: Is there any reason that a righteous God ought to be loving toward a creature who hates him and rebels constantly against his divine authority and holiness?” (p.33). Yet, ultimately this not the question which opponents of Reformed Theology are asking; the question they are asking is why – if God created the creature in such a way to ensure the creature would hate him – how can he then hold the creature accountable for something he himself brought about.

– Two minor criticisms include the way in which Sproul creates a sort of straw man argument against the accusation of fatalism; that is, in order to rebuff predestination as fatalism he says “Fatalism literally means that the affairs of men are controlled either by whimsical sub-deities (the Fates) or more popularly by the impersonal forces of chance” (p.191). Thus, Sproul merely offers the least used definition of fatalism (or arguably, a wrong definition, as attributing affairs to chance is roughly the exact opposite of fatalism) and refutes that instead of dealing with the actual objection.

The final minor criticism is the analogy Sproul offers of a judge sentencing his own son to prison (p.196) in order to explain the way in which God laments the punishment of sinners. Yet this analogy falls short, for the judge in the analogy – presumably – did not decree, ensure, and cause (through second causes) his son to commit the crime of which he is being punished.

Minor note: At one point Sproul mistakenly refers to the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argument as ‘ad hominem’, stating that: “An ‘ad hominem’ argument is carried out by taking your opponent’s position and carrying it to its logical conclusion.” This is likely just an oversight on his part – and his editor’s – but it is still worth noting.

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Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.

He may or may not be a Time Lord.

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