Anthony Hoekema (Th.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) taught Bible at Calvin College from 1956 to 1958 and systematic theology at Calvin Seminary from 1958 to 1979. The books he authored include The Four Major Cults, What about Tongue Speaking, and Holy Spirit Baptism. He died in 1988.
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Saved by Grace (Eerdmans, 1989) is the third and final in a series of theological studies. The first two books are The Bible and the Future (on eschatology) and Created in God’s Image (on anthropology). Hoekema completed the manuscript of this book just before his death. It was published posthumously.
Summary of Contents
Saved By Grace is a systematic study of soteriology. The book naturally falls into two sections. The first four chapters comprise one section and examine overarching issues. The last nine chapters comprise another section and examine the components of the doctrine of salvation, from the gospel call to the perseverance of true believers.
Hoekema begins by orienting the reader to his approach. “The theological standpoint represented in this book is that of evangelical Christianity from the Reformed or Calvinistic perspective” (3). Indeed, through the whole book, he never strays outside of the Reformed tradition. Next he considers the question of the “order of salvation” (or ordo salutis). How should one think of salvation; as an order of successive steps or a web of interrelated occurrences? He concludes that “we should not think . . . of an order of salvation with successive steps or stages, but rather of a marvelous work of God’s grace—a way of salvation—within which we may distinguish various aspects” (15). He wants it to be clear that, though the structure of the second half seems to be a progressive ordo salutis, it is not. The doctrines presented are not stages, but aspects. Finally, in two chapters, he addresses the significance of union with Christ and the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of salvation.
Having oriented the reader and explored two themes which underlie all of soteriology, Hoekema outlays the various aspects of soteriology. The aspects are: the gospel call, effectual calling, regeneration, conversion, repentance, faith, justification, sanctification, and the perseverance of true believers. One chapter is allocated to each. In these chapters, Hoekema normally explains the doctrine from Scripture, supports it from a historically Reformed source (such as the Canon of Dort or John Calvin), and then deals with unique issues or objections. I do not have enough space to detail his interaction with every aspect of salvation. Instead, I will work through one chapter as an example of the rest.
The eleventh chapter, on justification, is an adequate representative of the whole book. It begins with Luther—his struggle with the wrath of God, and his discovery of God’s gift of righteousness in Romans 1:17. From here, Hoekema moves to Scripture. What are the Hebrew and Greek words for justification in the Bible and how are they used? What does the whole Bible teach with these words about God’s relationship to those who are united to Christ? Each of these questions is explored.
The traditional opponent of the Reformed view has been the Roman Catholic Church. Hoekema next presents its position, refutes it, and contrasts it to the Reformed Confessions. This leads to a more precise definition of justification than he has previously submitted. “Justification may be defined as that gracious and judicial act of God whereby he declares believing sinners righteous on the basis of the righteousness of Christ which is credited to them, forgives all their sins, and adopts them as his children, and gives them the right to eternal life” (172). A systematic explanation of the definition follows in ten points, with an exposition conjoined to each. Examples of these points are: “[number 2] Justification is a declarative or judicial act of God and not a process” (173) and, “[number 5] Justification is based on the substitutionary work of Christ for us” (174). He concludes his discussion of justification by quoting a familiar hymn: “On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand/All other ground is sinking sand” (191). And so the whole book goes. Most chapters include these general parts, though not always in the same order.
Systematic theology is a summary of the whole Bible’s teaching on a given topic. Systematic theology is good, therefore, to the extent that it is biblical and, because it is a summary, to the extent that it is clear. Saved By Grace is undoubtedly a systematic theology of salvation, and so I will evaluate Hoekema’s book with these two criteria.
First criterion: Is the book biblical? Hoekema writes, “I have tried to draw answers to my questions in this area primarily from the Bible” (xi), and, overall, he has succeeded. The center of each chapter is his examination of biblical texts. So, even when his interpretation may be flawed, the attempt is always to be biblical. And since he never strays outside of Reformed ideas, his interpretations have historical backing. The overall answer to the question is “Yes.” But three critiques are in order underneath this heading.
First, Hoekema’s presentation of union with Christ is generalized. He is right in saying that “it underlies all of soteriology” (54), but his understanding of it is not sufficiently nuanced. He compiles all texts that speak of any kind of union with Christ into one category. Ephesians 1:3-4 is used to talk of our election “in Christ,” Ephesians 3:16-17 is used to talk about how our faith appropriates this union, and John 15:4-5 is used to talk about our sanctification “in Christ.” All of these passages do indeed speak of union with Christ, but they speak of different kinds of union. Or, to put it another way, the language of union describes different aspects of our relation to Christ—judicial representation, vital connection, and so on. These are separate categories. Hoekema creates only one. When doing systematic theology, it is not good to blur biblical distinctions.
Second, Hoekema invests Greek verb tenses with undue authority. This does not always affect his exegesis, but it sometimes makes him guilty of over-reading the text. For instance, he proves that regeneration is an instantaneous change from the fact that the Greek verb for “made alive together with” in Ephesians 2:5 is in the aorist tense, “signifying momentary or snapshot action” (102). Current scholarship is agreed that the aorist does not convey a momentary action, but an undefined one. The aorist tense of the verb does not in itself prove that regeneration is instantaneous. Another instance is from his exegesis of John 5:24: “The verb [‘passed out’] is in the perfect tense, a tense which describes a past action with abiding result. The action pictured is final and irrevocable, like that of a person who has burned his bridges behind him” (237). This picture may be intended by Jesus, but it is conveyed by the content of Jesus’ sentence more than the tense of the verb. Hoekema often overvalues verb tenses. This, however, is a minor critique.
The third critique is my strongest. Hoekema sometimes reasons from his definition of a doctrine to the Bible texts that explain it. Systematic theology must be done the other way around. The chapter on sanctification is an example.
Hoekema defines sanctification at the beginning of the chapter. It is “that gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which he delivers us from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to him” (192). Next, he teaches various aspects of sanctification from passages that seem to discuss the subject. For instance, he teaches that believers are sanctified “in union with Christ” from Romans 6, that the end of sanctification is likeness to God from Romans 8, and that believers are involved in their own sanctification from Philippians 2. There is a subtle problem here. None of these three passages use the term sanctification or any related term. It is possible that these texts have nothing to do with sanctification as it is spoken of in the rest of Scripture (Eph 5, John 17, etc.). In fact, many would argue that Paul in Romans 6 does not refer to the same thing that he does in Ephesians 5, where he actually uses the term. Yet Hoekema uses both passages to speak of “sanctification.” What has happened? Hoekema has reasoned from the definition of the doctrine to the text rather than the other way around. He uses any text that fits his preconceived definition of the term. He creates a category, in consequence, called “sanctification” that is broader than the biblical category. My goal is not to show how far off his category is (it may not be very far), but that the process itself is flawed. Hoekema does not do this everywhere, but he does in places, and those places are not helpful.
Second criterion: Is the book clear? Systematic theology is summary. The purpose of a summary is to increase understandability. It takes what is scattered and assembles it so that it is more readily understood and articulated. Thus, a summary—in this case, a systematic theology—is good to the extent that it is clear.
Clarity is the strength of this book. For one, Hoekema organized it well. The whole book slides easily from overarching ideas to more specific ones. For example, there is a general chapter on the role of the Holy Spirit at the beginning. Later, there is a chapter on effectual calling. Each chapter is also clearly structured—always including a concise definition of the doctrine, biblical evidence, support from a historical source, and objections from or differences with other traditions. It is always obvious where he is and what he is saying.
Two, Hoekema interacts with large subjects in small space, and still says almost all that is necessary. This is the essence of good summary. In the example above, he comprehensively explains justification in a short chapter. Each other chapter is the same; thorough and concise—in short, summary. The book itself is not long, but one does not get the feeling upon finishing it that much more needs to be said.
Saved By Grace is a study of the doctrine of salvation. It spends four chapters on overarching issues and nine on the aspects of salvation. It is both biblical (though there are a few deserved criticisms here) and clear. Therefore it can be read with profit. I would recommend the book to both academicians and lay people who want a clearer view of Reformed soteriology.
Hoekema does not overtly divide the book into these sections. He implies the division and I have made it explicit.