A Review of "Vital Grace"

When Dr. Wood told me that he had another book out, I replied that I would be interested in reading it when it was available as an e-book. This conversation continued for several months until, finally, he gave me printed copy. Both Tom and I think that the content of the messages coming from most pulpits in America is a far cry from what the Bible actually says about the authentic Christian life. Vital Grace is his attempt to introduce a course change. He faces an almost impossible task, because the authentic Christian life is ineffable, counter-intuitive, and unexpected. How does one express the ineffable? Even Jesus would only say, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Tom gets many things right. I told him on Sunday that I think that our church should make a class available with this book as the text. Having said that, now I'm going to "knife the baby" (not really. It's more of a deep exfoliation). Knowing me as he does, he expects no less because the purpose of a critical review is to make the next edition of the book even better.
First, there are typos on pages 60 and 150. On page 60, "shear" should be "sheer". On page 150, it should read "Trusting in Christ does not come naturally; ..." Yet even with using an adjective to modify a verb, that sentence should, if it were possible, be presented in flashing red letters as it's one of the many ways that Tom tries to express the ineffable, counter-intuitive, and unexpected.

On page 26, it says, "
He doesn't give us what we deserve (judgement, death, and alienation from God)." If the "we" refers to mankind, then we already have those things. If the "we" refers to believers then we don't deserve those things, because Christ bore them on the cross. The sentence after this, ("Rather, because He in His very Personhood...") is absolutely correct, but the transition is awkward.

What do you want Me to do for you?" is the question asked by Jesus on page 32. I think the better question would be, "What do you want Me to do in you?" The "natural" answer to the first question might be: money, health, fame, power. The Christian answer to the second question is "make me more like You."

His grace offers healing." (pg. 33). Absolutely true (cf. Isaiah 53:5). But it's imported to note that we have to die, first. I think our co-crucifixion with Christ could use more emphasis.

Tom hits one of my pet peeves on page 38 where he quotes the lyrics to a Steven Curtis Chapman song: "
the doorway that will lead back to the place where life was new ... where we belong." He could also have quoted from the song Woodstock, by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: "... and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (See also the sentence "Almost back to Eden" on page 160). Eden was blocked off. We can't go back. We can only go forward. Furthermore, we shouldn't want to go back. While the place was perfect, the people were not. This is, at best, my heterodox opinion, but it's based on the fact Adam and Eve were created disjoint. They were to learn to be united to one another and, through that union, to produce new life. Not only were Adam and Eve created disjoint from each other, they were created disjoint from God. The lesson they did not learn was just as man a woman needed to be united, man and God needed to be united. But God is the being who does what He will with no external constraints on His behavior. He is the only one who tells Himself how to behave (well, man in his impudence makes suggestions and demands. But God is free to do with those whatever He so desires.) Man, being made in His image, could never have abided by the one external constraint imposed on him. It wasn't in his nature. So the only path is forward, where we are united to Christ through the cross (Gal 2:19), indwelt by the Spirit (Rom. 8:9), where the New Jerusalem comes down to earth, and the barrier between God and man, the "sea of glass" around the heavenly throne is gone (Rev 4:6, 21:1), and God is "all and in all" (1 Cor 15:24-28). The endpoint is not like the beginning.

On page 39, Tom comments on Richard Dawkins belief system. "
It is a faith system built on certain presuppositional beliefs." This isn't wrong, but it's incomplete. Dawkin's presupposition is that random events indicate lack of purpose. The problem with this presupposition is that, while random events are random, sequences of random events are not. Sequences of random events tend to an expected value (the "law of large numbers"). Random events can be used to produce determined results (e.g. "Buffon's needle" can be used to calculate the value of 𝜋). Dawkins doesn't see any evidence of intelligent behavior in the activity of the universe. Whether this blindness informs his presupposition, or his presupposition causes his blindness, is an open question. There are people who cannot recognize themselves when they look in a mirror. The condition is known as mirror agnosia. Likewise, there are people who cannot see something like themselves in the behavior of the universe. I'll have more to say on this when we get to page 50.

God, as He revealed Himself, ... is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit existing with perfect unity in their complexity." (pg. 41). What, then, of the notion of divine simplicity? Is the concept just the idle speculation of philosophers whose belief system about God (i.e. their presuppositions) doesn't match the actual reality of God (just like Dawkins' presupposition about randomness doesn't comport with the reality of nature)? The worst I've lost my temper recently was when I read What is Reformed Theology, by R. C. Sproul, where he claimed, "A final way we study theology is through speculative philosophical theology.” To speculate about God is to go beyond what He has said about Himself. It results in a God of our own creation – and our imaginations are far too limited to fashion a god like God. So is God complex? Simple? Or are we looking at God through lenses so fogged with philosophy so that we think we see what can't be seen and think we understand what can't be understood?

The book delves into the realm of biology when it asserts, "
...[humans] are (and we can follow the science on this one) uniquely male (made with one X and one Y chromosome) and female (made with two X chromosomes, no exceptions)..." (pg. 45). There are males who are XXY (Kleinfelter syndrome), males who are XYY (Jacobs syndrome), and females who are XO instead of XX (Turner syndrome).

The computer does not love you, no matter how many times it may repeat those words." (pg. 50). As a computer professional of fifty years, this is a landmine best avoided as it assumes that human brains aren't computers (they are) and that human brains aren't programmed (again, they are). Both brains and computers are physical devices that operate according to universally known principles of computation. Brains and computers differ by degree, not by kind. The brain currently has more complex wiring, better power efficiency, more flexibility, and greater fault tolerance, but there is nothing to prevent such a machine being built, except our engineering expertise which currently greatly lags that of nature. A human who says "I love you" may not love you either, no matter how many times it repeats the words. Both brains and computers work though the movement of meaningless symbols (an atom is a symbol just as much as a mark on a piece of paper). Meaning exists internally to the wiring of the brain/computer and, in the general case, is not accessible externally. It is purely subjective information. Whatever the being is thinking must be communicated to other observers. To tie this into the comment on page 39, whether or not somebody loves us is only known by their behavior and whether that behavior corresponds to what we think the behavior of love is. We infer the thoughts of others, whether it is other people, our pets, or the universe itself, by comparing their behavior to ourselves. The more we see ourselves in them, the more conscious we think they are.

At the heart of all our sin is the attitude, I will not allow anyone to rule my life other than myself." (pg. 53). To reinforce my comment on page 38, this is the attitude of God himself and we were made in His image. It is only through the doctrine of the Trinity, where the Son is in complete union with the Father, can the Son say, "I have come to do your will, O God." (Heb. 10:7). The two wills are one. It is only through union with Christ by the Spirit that we ourselves can say, "your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." It is this mystery of union that lies at the heart of the authentic Christian life.

.. He commonly uses weak things, foolish things, splendid sinners, people who lack influence, miserable misfits who lack financial resource or physical strength, and/or people who the world considers nothing, so that no one can mistake who is actually rescuing and renewing." (pg. 66). While this is a paraphrase of St. Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, it is also very much the lesson that Robert Farrar Capon sees in the parables of Jesus. His "Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus" is highly recommended. We need to see the world through different eyes (cf. Rom. 12:2) and those who see differently, like St. Paul, or Wood, or Capon can help others to see as they see.

Grace was for getting saved (I had already done that) but not for daily living." (pg. 86). I think "received" would be a more felicitous word choice than "done". It's more in line with the "active passivity" principle in the book. We must be vigilant, for our flesh always wants to step in and take credit for what God is doing.

Tom's observation that Jesus uses the word for "
coveting" where our Bibles use the word "lust" (Mt 5:28) is refreshing to see. I tried saying the same thing in a recent men's Bible study and it didn't go over well. Jason Staples makes the same point in his series on "Misinterpreted Bible Passages" in the article "Whoever looks at a woman with lust."

The question in old western movies to the villain facing the hangman's noose on whether he has 'made peace with his Maker' isn't the real question. The real question is, 'has God made peace with you?'". I think my biggest disagreement with the book is here. It may be that I'm wrong. I'm certainly in the minority when judged by the way the church treats pagans, but in 2 Cor. 5:19 St. Paul wrote:

... that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

Reconciliation is a two-way street. God has done everything to reconcile the world to Himself, but the mystery is that not everyone is reconciled to God. Not everyone is prepared to meet their Maker. With God, as with marriage, the unbelieving spouse will [be allowed to] depart. At the end of all things, the dialog might go something like this: "I forgive you." "I don't believe you and I don't want to live with you. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven."

Jesus, in dying our place...:" (pg. 126). The idea of penal substitutionary atonement is big in the Reform circle. And it's certainly true that it is Jesus' death that heals us (Isa. 53:5). But substitution doesn't typically carry the connotation of union. And St. Paul said, "I have been crucified with Christ..." (Gal 2:19). It is through union with Him in His death that we have union with Him in His resurrection life.

Chapter 7 opens with the idea of a misheard song lyric leading to misunderstanding the meaning of the song, and uses this as a lead-in to the typical misunderstanding of Jesus' words in Revelation 3:20. The segue is awkward: we don't misunderstand Jesus because we hear the wrong words. Our misunderstanding, as Tom says, is because we don't pay careful attention to the context. In addition, the first paragraph on page 168 is confusing, as it speaks about Paul's letter to Laodicea (which we don't have) and Jesus's words to the church in Laodicea (which we do have) and it's hard to follow which is which. I asked my wife to read this section, too, and she made the same observation.

He would not have to write things that only a supernatural being would know, He would only have to reveal Himself in ways that were human so that we could know Him. ... He did and it is called the Bible." (pg. 178). On the one hand, this aligns with what I said about how we recognize conscious behavior in others in my comment about page 50. On the other hand, He did write something that only a supernatural being could write: namely, the universe itself. Atoms (and all of the elementary particles we know) are symbols on the parchment of space-time. But nature isn't static, so it's really a movie rather than the pages of a book

But also, this claim that God reveals Himself in the Bible is similar to that made by Ray Lander Laan, host of the "
That the World May Know" video lectures, where he contrasted the Egyptian and Hebrew religions in that the Egyptians wrote their stories in stone, the Hebrews in a book. While this is all true, God first writes His story in people––who then wrote a book. The Bible is a textbook, and while few people end up writing textbooks, even fewer discover the material that goes into a textbook. But whether the subject is math, or physics, or theology, the material is there to be discovered and rediscovered by those who are able to listen. And this, finally, leads to a missing component in how we know we are "dining with Christ". Reading the Bible, prayer, church, music, giving, and suffering are all a part of the Christian life, but the advice of God through the Psalmist is missing: "Be still, and know that I am God." (Psalm 40:10). We can be so busy digging through the Bible to unearth its treasures that we don't stop to listen to what God is saying to us. Vital Grace says, "To miss the grand narrative of Scripture is a serious matter; it is not simply a matter of misinterpreting parts of Scripture." (pg. 179). The book needs to reinforce the importance of Proverbs 3:5-6, particularly "do not rely on your own insight". This is radical, outrageous, and paradoxical. How can we know we're not relying on our own insight except by our own insight? But it is what God tells us to do.

I am reminded of the words of my friend and mentor,
Mike Baer, who wrote:

“We are living in a time when men (even Christians) want to live by their feelings or intellect or willpower when it comes to spiritual truth. “I feel that this passage means...” “I felt lead that this verse means...” “I have studied the original and it means...” “Dr. Flavius Fluffyhead, dean of IWannBe Seminary says it means...” “I choose to take my stand here...” “I have decided to follow...” “I have memorized it therefore I understand it...”But this is all pride, arrogance, and chasing after the wind. Take it fully, my friends, spiritual truth can only be understood by spiritual illumination! To be sure we use our minds and our wills in study; our emotions are affected in the process. But thinking it, feeling it, and choosing it are poor substitutes for the understanding of it that only God can give!”
    –– "Street Level Ephesians" (unpublished)

We must increase our affection for Christ by talking to God with intentionality and regularity." (pg. 183). To this should be added, "be still" and "listen". "Talking to" implies one-way communication. We talk with God. And the outrageously radical practice of not relying on our own insight requires that we listen very carefully for that "voice in the sheer silence". (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV).

I think there is a problem with the "worm anthropology" on page 185, "
If we are not captivated by God's beauty (His holiness), nor offended by our own ugliness...." Certainly, St. Paul laments his wretchedness (Romans 7:20), but Paul understands that that is from his sarx (cf. pg. 95). And Bildad, one of Job's companions, likens humans to worms (Job 25:6), the speaker in Psalm 22:6 says, "I am a worm, and not human.", and the Lord calls Jacob a worm and Israel an insect in Isaiah 41:14. But over against this the Psalmist says that man was made "lower than the angels, and crowned with glory and honor." I wonder if this lopsided emphasis on the worm aspect of man contributes to the question that Tom expressed on page 85 as to whether God really liked him? And when we look at our neighbors, do we see only the worm, or do we also see the crown, tarnished though it may be? We excel at either/or thinking – either worm or crown – and have trouble with both/and thinking – worm and crown. But the Bible is an eastern book. It exhibits both/and thinking far more than the western either/or.

On page 188, Tom suggests adding music to the "means of grace". Theologians can't decide how many means there are. Some theologians think there are three (preaching the Word, Baptism, and Communion), others add prayer to make four, Roman Catholics state that there are seven, Grudem lists eleven.
1 Grudem doesn't specifically list music, but perhaps that's included in worship. So specifically recognizing music is certainly in line with "means of grace" thinking. Grudem defines the means of grace as "... any activities within the fellowship of the church that God uses to give more grace to Christians.1 We put our cup up to the dispenser, press one switch and we get grace; press another switch and we get... diet soda? I think this view is fundamentally misguided. God does not love us more or less based upon our activities. Likewise, God does not grace us more or less based on our activities. In fact, St. Paul goes so far as to say that grace is "not of works". (Eph 2:8-9). God has "lavished" the riches of his grace upon us (Eph 1:8), we have received "grace upon grace" from Christ (John 1:16), and we "stand in grace" (Rom 5:2) which "exercises dominion" over us (Rom 5:21). We need to stop living like paupers, thinking that we need to get more of what God has already overabundantly given us. So when Tom writes, "Suffering is a way we get grace into life." (pg. 192), it is really the case that grace enables us to see the grace that we have through suffering.

On page 209 we read: "
He is not interested in using us for His personal gain, but He does ask for us to show up as a witness to who He is, all He's done, and all He is doing." We are His dance partners. We should dance.

And, finally, page 220 says, "
He will make all things new!" While this is true, it is because He is now making all things new. (Rev 21:5). God's renewal is not just a future hope, it is a present reality.

This has been a long review of a very good book. I waffle between giving it a B+ and an A-, but only because Tom is a grizzled veteran with whom I have exceptionally high expectations. And because of the length of this post, I omitted mentioning the many places I highlighted and annotated "Brilliant!" in the margin.

[1] Grudem, Wayne.
Systematic Theology, pg 950-951.
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