Book Review: Mere Calvinism

I love a well-thought out illustration, and I love the doctrines of grace. Both of these are found in abundance in Dr. Jim Orrick’s Mere Calvinism. When I first got a hold of the book, my mind rushed back to the first time I read Mere Christianity and how Lewis was able to explain the Christian worldview in such a way that made Christianity the obvious hope in life and death. Mere Calvinism accomplished the same feat as Orrick explained the five points of Calvinism in such a way that the reader is left seeing the doctrines of grace gushing out of every book of Scripture. The reader cannot help but to be in awe upon the gracious sovereignty of our Triune God in salvation.

The structure of the book is simple, and it has been written so that any, and I mean any, lay church member can pick it up and be presented with rich biblical truth in the clearest of ways. Orrick has an immense gift for illustrating the doctrines of grace in ways that both the Wall Street stock broker and the small-town, rural farmer can connect with. Orrick walks through the  TULIP of Calvinism like he’s walking through a densely populated forest, clearing the thorns and bristles while showing the reader the discernible way forward. He begins with a two-sentence definition of what a Calvinist is. “First, a Calvinist believes that God always does whatever he pleases. Second, a Calvinist believes that God initiates, sustains, and completes the salvation of everyone who gets saved.” [1] The particular doctrines of grace, or points of Calvinism, logically flow from those biblical affirmations. The doctrines of grace are not just points of doctrine, they fit into an entire system of thinking. Calvinism is a worldview that wraps the believer up in the comforting sovereignty of the Creator.

As Orrick moves through the doctrines of grace he convincingly points to their biblical roots, and seeks to answer the various points of objection that are raised by non-Calvinists. He answers these questions, such as how unconditional election relates to evangelism, with both clarity and charity. He lovingly, but firmly, reminds the reader that the concepts of depravity, election, particular redemption, effectual calling, and perseverance are explicitly biblical, and thus the reader must be willing to engage these concepts honestly. As well as answering objections, Orrick ends each chapter with questions of his own that the reader is to think through and answer. These questions are particularly helpful for those who are honestly wrestling with these doctrines.

One of the most helpful aspects of this book lies at the end. Orrick spends the final chapter answering the “what if” questions tied to what the Christian life would be like without the doctrines of grace. Without total depravity, the onus for concocting ways to save sinners lies on mankind. “In fact, all the pressure and responsibility of discovering what will work on sinners falls back on you and me. If sinners are not dead and divine intervention is not required, then surely we have something in our first aid kit that will cure the sick.” [2] If unconditional election is unbiblical then the concept of election in general loses its rich meaning for the believer. “If election is conditional, then God’s choice of which people are saved is based on foreseen conditions in them, and again election is virtually meaningless since it is no more than a confirmation that those who believe in Christ are worthy to be chosen to be included in his family.” [3] Orrick powerfully states that, “if limited atonement is not true, then Christ’s death was something other than a substitutionary penal atonement. If Christ died for every person, and if every person is not saved as a consequence of Christ’s death, then Christ was not really their substitute, he did not really suffer their penalty, and since God is still angry with them, their sins are not atoned for.” [4] Likewise in regards to irresistible grace, “If irresistible grace is not true, then a sinner must be capable of responding to the gospel call, and the work of the Holy Spirit is not really necessary for salvation.” [5] And finally in regards to the perseverance of the saints, “If God does not preserve his people and enable them to persevere to the end, then no one’s salvation is secure. You may be sailing on the sea of salvation today, but who knows what unexpected gust of temptation will prove too strong for you to withstand, and tomorrow you may be hopelessly blown off course and lost forever.” [6] The end of the book calls for a response from the reader in light of the biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty in salvation, and it is a call that the evangelical church today needs to heed.

The other aspect of this book that I greatly benefited from was Orrick’s use of illustrations. Whether it’s through telling a story about his uncle’s faithfulness to God’s Word or illustrating limited atonement through his bow-hunting routine, the illustrations found all throughout this book bring the five points of Calvinism to life in a way that breathes refreshment into the life of the Christian. I left this book thinking to myself that Orrick genuinely reminds me of a modern-day John Bunyan if there ever was one. If you cut him, he bleeds Bible in a way that connects with the everyday life of the reader.

All in all, Mere Calvinism is a book that I’ll be passing out to church members for years to come. I was pointed to the doctrines of grace in a fresh way as I reflected on God’s sovereign grace to save those who are utterly helpless in and of themselves. Orrick began the book by describing Calvinism in two sentences, and he finished it with his uncle’s simple two-word description: “But He.” [7] Those two words are so packed it’s hard not to meditate on them without tears falling from your eyes. Our God is a God of sovereign grace, and that changes everything. Praise be to Him!

[1]Jim Scott Orrick, Mere Calvinism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019), 14.

[2]Ibid., 205.

[3]Ibid., 206.

[4]Ibid., 208.

[5]Ibid., 209.

[6]Ibid., 211.

[7]Ibid., 218.

Cody works as an Upper School Teacher at Cornerstone Classical Christian Academy in Montgomery, AL teaching Greek and the Humanities. He is also serving as a pastoral intern at Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL. He received his MDiv in Christian Ministries from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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