"The Cross and Salvation" by Bruce Demarest

David VanDrunen
Monday, July 16th 2007
Sep/Oct 1999

This work promises to be the first volume of a multi-author series entitled Foundations of Evangelical Theology. The title itself may raise some eyebrows, in light of the spectrum of theological opinions expressed in the evangelical community. Is there any distinctive system of doctrine that can coherently be called "evangelical theology"? This question is never specifically answered in The Cross and Salvation, and the ambiguity, which will be discussed below, never goes away. Nevertheless, Bruce Demarest has offered us a theology of salvation ("soteriology") that is firm in its convictions and, with some exceptions, Reformed in its doctrine.

Demarest, a professor at Denver Seminary, divides his book into twelve chapters that proceed through the elements of soteriology in a logical and orderly fashion. Following an introduction, he considers grace, election, atonement, calling, conversion, regeneration, union with Christ, justification, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. Demarest addresses some subjects that are often not considered, strictly speaking, part of soteriology, such as the doctrines of election and atonement. However, because of the intimate connection of these doctrines with soteriology proper, this seems to be a good move.

Generally, the author falls in line with Reformed soteriology. In short, he unapologetically affirms the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners and defends the key soteriological insights of the Reformation. There are a few exceptions to Calvinist thought, however. Demarest backs away from the traditional Reformed views of reprobation and limited atonement, believes regeneration and union with Christ are the results of faith and repentance rather than their source (though he does believe in total depravity), and denies that Old Testament believers experienced regeneration and union with Christ. At times, Demarest's disagreements with the Reformed position seem primarily semantic, though some substantive differences certainly exist.

Demarest follows a consistent pattern in dealing with each particular doctrine: he introduces the topic, summarizes different interpretations of the doctrine advocated by various theological systems, gives a biblical defense of his own position, and concludes with some practical implications.

In summarizing different interpretations of the doctrine, Demarest often discusses the traditional Roman Catholic, Arminian, Lutheran, and Reformed views, as well as some modern movements such as classical liberal, neo-orthodox, process, and liberation theologies. On the whole, these sections are very helpful. They describe the key issues at stake and leave the reader with no illusions about the controversies which soteriology has always engendered. Lutheran readers may often find themselves disappointed with these sections, however. Demarest frequently discusses Luther himself, but treatment of the confessional Lutheran tradition is often curiously absent. Lutheranism is usually addressed only in contexts where Demarest rejects its theology; in some contexts where he may find Lutheran sympathy for his departures from Calvinism (e.g., reprobation and limited atonement), Lutheran views are not even mentioned. It is also notable that Eastern Orthodox theology is almost entirely neglected. Given the increasing contemporary interaction between conservative Protestantism and Orthodoxy, at least some treatment of Orthodox soteriology, especially its doctrine of theosis, (1) would have been quite useful.

In his biblical defenses of the positions he adopts, Demarest usually takes a big-picture approach, surveying the Bible's teaching on the subject from the Pentateuch through the New Testament epistles. This means that he spends less time with detailed exegesis of key passages. There are strengths and weaknesses associated with this method. But the overall result of his biblical work, which demonstrates Demarest's commitment to sola Scriptura and grounds Reformed soteriology in the whole of Scripture, is largely effective.

As mentioned above, the author concludes each section by discussing the practical implications of the doctrine under consideration. In an age when theology is so often thought to be irrelevant for how one lives the Christian life, Demarest's demonstration of the inextricable connection between doctrine and practice is refreshing. Placing application concerns as a separate section perhaps subtly perpetuates the idea that theology and life can be considered separately. Maybe their connection would have been displayed better had Demarest worked the practical implications into the biblical expositions themselves. Nevertheless, the author's concerns are right on target.

It is worth reflecting briefly on several chapters that stand out in one way or another. First is Demarest's chapter on grace, which comes early in the work. Here, while interacting with the various shades of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism, he deals with the nature of sinful man and the character of the grace that rescues him. Choosing to include such a chapter was a wise move. Though Demarest may have been tempted to leave it out, on the ground that most of the issues it treats arise repeatedly throughout the book, the chapter serves an important function: it introduces the general concerns about nature, sin, and grace which are so fundamental to understanding salvation and which Demarest will discuss repeatedly. I must confess a few disappointments with the chapter itself. For example, he does not use the crucial term "Semi-Pelagian" consistently throughout the chapter, and he makes the historically questionable claim that Augustine was forerunner of the medieval maxim "grace perfects nature." Nevertheless, Demarest provides his readers a service by setting out, from the beginning, the foundational nature of questions about the bondage of the will and the effectual character of grace.

The chapter on election is also noteworthy. Like the doctrine of grace, the doctrine of election is important in its foundational significance for soteriology. Unfortunately, this chapter contains ambiguous language on a matter that undoubtedly will be of concern to many readers of Modern Reformation. From a Reformed perspective, Demarest does an admirable job defending the traditional Calvinist view of individual, sovereign, divine election. But he departs from the Reformed view in rejecting reprobation, or double predestination. In the larger scope of Demarest's project, this issue is a minor concern. What is disappointing is that Demarest is not precise in his use of terms like "double" or "single" predestination, "infralapsarian" and "supralapsarian," and "hyper-Calvinism." Reformed readers should be warned that here, and in a few other places, usually in contexts where he disagrees with Reformed positions, Demarest is somewhat unfair in his descriptions of Calvinism. Occasionally, he also slips in unnecessarily pejorative comments about the work of Calvinist theologians.

But Demarest deserves nothing but commendation for his treatment of those most critical issues, justification and sanctification. Readers of this magazine will find his expositions clear and faithful to the Reformation tradition in a day when they remain contentious battlegrounds. He unabashedly affirms that the character of justification is forensic/judicial, that faith is its only instrument, and that the imputation of Christ's righteousness is its only ground. In explaining sanctification, Demarest avoids several contemporary and perennial traps to the Reformation doctrine. For example: against Roman Catholicism, he clearly distinguishes sanctification from justification; against some Wesleyan and Pentecostal traditions, he teaches that sanctification will always remain imperfect in this life; and against those who assert the possibility of "carnal Christianity," he affirms that all Christians are being sanctified. Here, I believe, Demarest is at his best.

As a final reflection, I return to my opening comments on the ambiguity of an "evangelical theology." In contemporary North America at least, calling a theology "evangelical" opens a wide range of often flatly contradictory doctrinal positions. Such a label leaves it uncommitted to a distinct confessional tradition or ecclesiastical heritage. Though he usually adopts "Reformed" positions, Demarest is still merely an "evangelical" theologian, in that there seems to be no confession or church that he can fully call his own. I believe there is something important here that Demarest's book, for all its strengths, still lacks.

He is generally effective in describing various soteriological opinions and in presenting biblical evidence. Yet he goes about this by treating the various soteriological opinions as options that are just there, arranged in smorgasbord fashion for our sampling. In each case, he chooses the one item best fitting his analysis of the biblical witness, usually the Reformed item.

What is missing, in my judgment, is a sense that in expounding biblical soteriology we are also expounding the historical soteriology of the Church of Jesus Christ. If this is really the way of salvation, then it is the same way of salvation experienced and confessed by all true Christians throughout the ages. Certainly, many of these Christians could not explain it as fully or accurately as we might explain it now, but it is nevertheless the same salvation. Does not soteriology, then, consist of more than just picking items from a neatly arranged buffet? Does it not involve explicating a system of doctrines that most faithfully reflects and develops the one way of salvation that theologians have been describing and for which martyrs have given their lives? Should it not display some concern for how the one doctrine of salvation has been grasped, defended, and developed throughout the whole history of the Church?

This, I think, is more than just an apologetic concern. It is an acknowledgment that though we, with Luther, have taken our stand on the Bible alone, we also, with Luther, Calvin, and their followers, have been raised and nurtured in the Church and through the discerning exegetical and theological labors of our ancestors. Our exegesis, our systematizing, our polemics are, in large part, not original with us-nor should they be. This, it seems to me, is a great strength of confessional theologies, of which Lutheran and Reformed theologies have traditionally been examples. They are theologies attached to a church, rooted in a history of confessing the same salvation, organically and covenantally united with the faith of our fathers. Doing a confessional theology is, it seems to me, an appropriate and even necessary way of expressing the continuity of our efforts with those who have gone before.

As one consciously standing in the Reformed confessional tradition, I gratefully acknowledge the work Demarest has undertaken in clearly and boldly setting forth the Gospel. He does cite many of the same biblical arguments, theologians, and confessional statements that I recognize as my own heritage. But what is missing, I fear, is a consistent demonstration of how his soteriology is organically rooted in history, in the Church, in the one perennially confessed way of salvation. Because Demarest's soteriology does, in fact, clearly uphold this one way of salvation in a day of so much doctrinal apathy and confusion, this book is recommended. Yet, it is a recommendation with caveats.

1 [ Back ] "Theosis" is the Eastern Orthodox view that salvation consists of a process of "deification," by which Christians become united with the divine nature of Christ.
Monday, July 16th 2007

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