Book Review: Willing to Believe

Image result for willing to believe sproul bakerOne of the most disputed aspects of Christian theology through the centuries has been the nature of man’s free will.  To what extent is our will able one its own to accept and appropriate salvation?  Must God supernaturally intervene to produce faith, or is that something that an individual can achieve on their own.

Obviously this goes to the heart of the Christian message.  Your idea of how a person comes to salvation will have a huge impact on how you do ministry, how you approach evangelism, how you think about the nature and character of God himself.  Because this is such a foundational issue, it often leads to characterizing those who disagree with straw man stereotypes which are easy to beat down and mock.

The late RC Sproul had a gift for being able to read the views of others and understand what they were saying, even if he disagreed with them.  His goal was always to represent those views in the most accurate terms he could – in ways that people who held those beliefs would recognize their own view.  In Willing to Believe he brings that approach to the views of nine influential thinkers in church history that have contributed to the array of views we see around us today.

Several of the thinkers are those who are influential in Sproul’s own Reformed camp:  Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards.  You can look at these and see the thread of thought running through these men.  While Luther, Calvin, and Edwards have unique insights, on the whole they are following in the tradition laid down by Augustine.  Sproul devotes small sections to look at some other influential voices within these, like Turretin and the synod of Dort.  All of these look at the need for God to produce faith.  Man is indeed free, but without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, our freedom is only a matter of choosing the sin that we prefer.  Our sin nature makes us incapable of reaching out to God in faith apart from the Spirit miraculously intervening in one’s life.

In contrast to this, Sproul looks at five competing approaches.  He looks at Pelagius, the ancient heretic who argued that man could earn his salvation by his own works.  He looks at the Roman Catholic system which he labels semi-Pelagian.  James Arminius is shown in contrast to the views of the Reformation, breaking from Calvin and Luther and embracing a view that is closer to the Catholic views.    Charles Finney had a view that man’s nature is not inherently depraved and therefore there is no obstacle to faith except the need to present the gospel.  Finally we see Chafey, a major influence in Dispensationalism, whose doctrine of prevenient grace means all men have the power to grasp God’s free offer of grace.  Sproul shows how Billy Graham was the heir of Finney and Chafey.

This is not a devotional book.  It is not full of illustrations or application points in your life.  Sproul’s desire in this is for you to understand the ancestors of your own view on the freedom of the will, whether in his own Reformed camp or not.  He presents each view fairly and – for those with whom he disagrees – he presents what he thinks are the Biblical weaknesses of the view.  Overall I thought it was a helpful work, if only to encourage us to discuss opposing views with fairness and honesty rather than straw men.

I received a free copy of this book from Baker Books in exchange for an honest review.


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