Book Review: "From Death to Life: How Salvation Works"
Nelson IV, Allen S., From Death to Life: How Salvation Works. (Free Grace Press; Conway, AR, 2018). 200 pgs.
How does one genuinely move from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive and thriving in the Lord? This is the central question of Allen Nelson’s recent treatment on the biblical doctrine of salvation. His book, From Death to Life: How Salvation Works, is a short and sweet dive into the deep pool of God’s Word regarding how one is saved.
Nelson begins with a crucial question and answer. Where are we to look for the answer to our questions regarding salvation? We are to look to Scripture alone. The Reformation slogan sola Scriptura shines brightly throughout the course of this book. From every paragraph to every footnote, this book bleeds Bible. If we are to know how God brings people from death to life, we are to look to God’s own Word and not to the thoughts and opinions of a spiritually dead world.
One of the aspects to this book that I deeply appreciate, as a man desiring to pastor in a region saturated in cultural Christianity, is Nelson’s desire to correct the lies of cultural Christianity as well as to show how those lies have impacted churches. Nelson’s own experience dealing with false converts in the South rings true in my own experience, and I’m grateful for a short primer on salvation that seeks to bring simple, biblical truth to the table. I’ve grown up seeing numerous men and women who I grew up with living for the world yet they still appeal to their baptism, VBS experience, or altar call to ground their faith. Nelson rightly speaks to the truth that if you are not bearing fruit, then your faith is dead. This is the experience undergirding this book and one that I echo.
Nelson moves quickly from a quick affirmation of the authority of Scripture to speaking to biblical anthropology. Every single human being is born spiritually dead, and we are all totally unable to bring ourselves to God. Nelson uses the illustration of a man named Mike who repeated a prayer at a VBS at the age of twelve, but has lived a fruitless life. He attends church semi-regularly but there’s no fire in his bones for the things of Christ. The reality though is that this man was never regenerated to begin with. He’s among the walking dead. He is walking, talking, and vaguely engaging in Christian activities, but he’s spiritually dead. Nelson states that one of the reasons why cultural Christianity is so rampant is because our churches, for decades, have neglected a biblical doctrine of humanity’s nature. We assume that everyone is morally neutral and simply need to “make a decision” for Christ. We have long forgotten that humanity is not morally neutral, but rather spiritually dead and unable to “make a decision” for Christ unless God acts on his heart first. This lack of biblical anthropology in our churches today is why we see so many false conversions, and thus churches desperately must begin with anthropology if we are to preach a faithful doctrine of conversion.
Once Nelson moves through anthropology towards the need for Christians to know and proclaim the biblical gospel. This gospel contains both bad and good news. The bad news is what he has already covered. We are dead in our sins and unable to be reconciled to God in our own power. We are, by nature, transgressors of God’s holy law. This leads to the good news. God Himself as graciously provided the solution to our sin nature in the person and work of His Son, Jesus. God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the second Adam who did what the first could not. He lived in perfect obedience to God’s law and thus that righteousness is credited to all who are united to Him by faith. This faith though is one of belief and repentance. The gospel demands that we turn from our dead works of sin to live a life in joyful obedience to the God who has redeemed us. A gospel proclamation with no call to repentance is no gospel proclamation at all. This good news is the only hope for humanity, and we have been called by God to be ministers of this gospel to all kinds of people all over the world.
Once this gospel is proclaimed, the Spirit of God works on the hearts of God’s chosen to bring those dead souls to life. Nelson thus spends some time expounding on the biblical doctrine of regeneration. It is God who is the first cause of our spiritual life. He must act first if we have any hope of believing upon the person and work of the Son. Once our souls are quickened by the work of the Spirit, then we are finally spiritually alive and able to believe. This belief though is coupled with repentance. As we believe upon the good news of the gospel, we simultaneously repent of our sins. This repentance, says Nelson, is more than mere confession. It is a turning away from sin and towards God’s good commandments.
This faith and repentance then leads to the “great exchange.” Nelson gives a simple defense of the doctrine of justification, and of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to those who believe. Without a biblical understanding of how we are justified before God, we have no good news. This righteous standing that is freely given to the believer then sets the tone for a life of growing obedience. Nelson writes that living things, by nature, are things that grow. As new creatures in Christ, we are to be those who are progressively being sanctified and conformed into the image of Christ. If one’s life is not defined by gradual growth in the knowledge and obedience of the Lord, then that one’s profession of Christ is put into doubt.
Nelson finishes the book by putting all of these various aspects of salvation together. We are spiritually dead apart from Christ and thus need divine intervention before we are ever able to believe. Once the Spirit breathes life into our spiritually dead bones, then we arise, believe, and repent. This faith in the person and work of Jesus is what unites us to Christ, and thus we are given a justified, righteous standing before the Father. This justification though does not mean that we can live a lawless life. As God’s chosen people we are to walk in joyful obedience to His good commandments, knowing all the while that it is the Spirit’s power that enables us to grow in this obedience. This salvation will then one day be fully consummated when Christ returns to bring His people home to the new heavens and earth He has prepared for them.
I genuinely recommend this short book on the doctrine of salvation to all who desire to have a greater appreciation for how God works in salvation. One of the aspects of this book that I am most thankful for is its simplicity. Nelson wrote this book for both the pastor and the layperson, and that is clearly seen through the simply, yet precise, language and the easy-to-understand illustrations used throughout the book. He fills this book with Scripture references in order that anyone can look those references up to see where Nelson is getting his conclusions from. He is a thoroughly biblical man writing a thoroughly biblical book for the simple man. The other aspect of this book that I was thankful for was its focus on evangelism. As Christians, we are not to be those who understand the truths of God merely to sit in our pews. We are to take this good news of salvation to the ends of the earth, and this call to personal evangelism permeates the book. By God’s grace, this small book will greatly serve churches desiring to grow in their knowledge of how one is brought from death to life.