Wallace, John B. Starting at the Finish Line: The Gospel of Grace for Mormons. Pomona House Publishing, LLC: 2014. 202+X pages. ISBN 978-0-9914622-0-9.


wallace starting at finish line cover courtesy publisherThis book has many positive qualities. The author’s sincere faith and desire to see Mormons saved cannot be questioned and, where biblical truths are presented, they are often presented in a persuasive way with better-than-average illustrations. For instance, every true Christian could surely endorse remarks explaining the book’s title: “Christianity is the only religion…that starts at the finish line. Salvation,” Wallace writes, “is guaranteed up front! And every bit of obedience and good work flows from that salvation as opposed to the LDS teaching, which is that obedience and good works are necessary for salvation” (111; partly inspired by John Coursin, 163; perhaps with Paul in mind, 1 Corinthians 9:24). And who wouldn’t like the following illustration (related to Galatians): “Like crabs pulling their comrades back into the bucket, the Judaizers continually sought to pull their ‘brothers’ back into bondage under the Law” (137). As well, Wallace’s decision to avoid discussing many Mormon beliefs and practices that critics of Mormonism often stress, and to focus instead on the gospel (and such Mormon teachings as contradict it), is just the emphasis I would look for in a book to give my Mormon acquaintances.

I cannot recommend Starting at the Finish Line as an outreach tool, however, because it also has some negative qualities that, taken in combination, convince me that other outreach literature should be preferred. If you’re one of those people who reads lots and lots of books rapidly, drawing out what works for you and ignoring the rest, you might wish to purchase and read the book. It contains some very good material. If, on the other hand, you prefer to closely analyze and master a smaller selection of the most useful texts on a subject, or if you’re looking for something consistently sound in its arguments and doctrine, something you could give to others without worrying they might be led astray, I’d counsel leaving this book off your buy list. I have given the book a neutral (three star) rather than negative (one or two star) rating because it does have positive qualities and because persons whose theological convictions are nearer Wallace’s than my own may judge the book’s defects less severe, and so see it as more suitable for outreach, than I do. As well, though (as will become evident) I find some theological convictions prevalent in Wallace’s particular denomination (Calvary Chapel) objectionable, I know that denomination to be one that makes a greater effort than most to honor Scripture’s authority (biblical creationists who speak in my area are often found using Calvary Chapel meeting halls for their presentations, for example). I therefore take no relish is having to write a non-positive review.

In the remainder of this review, I will focus on the defects preventing me from recommending the book. Though my policy is to never read others’ reviews before completing my own, I think I can safely assume that the book’s positive aspects will be sufficiently well covered by reviewers who recommend it. This long version of my review covers weaknesses in Starting at the Finish Line under the following headings: Less than Optimal Defense of the Bible, Human Choice Sovereign in Salvation & Sins Paid for the Damned, Sin Nature without Representation, and Minor & Miscellaneous. (An additional section, Aside: Is Wallace Qualified to Write This Book?, appears between the first and second of the preceding. This section examines an issue some, unlike myself, might consider a weakness in the book.) Shorter versions of the review, covering fewer weaknesses in less detail, may be found on Goodreads and, less nicely formatted, on Amazon.

Less than Optimal Defense of the Bible

The least severe of the book’s weaknesses (least severe of those meriting their own review section, anyway) is a a not-very-detailed and arguably too generic (not tailored to Mormon readers) defense of the Bible’s trustworthiness that, in addition, adopts a prevalent but suboptimal defense method. Since this area of weakness would not by itself prevent me from recommending the book, I might not have discussed it in this review were it not for Wallace’s chapter one assertion that “There is really only one section in this book that matters, and it happens to be the very next one, which I’ve entitled A Defense of the Bible” (7). My own discussion with some Latter-day Saints (in an online discussion forum some while back) confirms that whether the Bible is infallible or not is indeed a key issue for outreach to Mormons, so I can see why Wallace considers defense of the Bible of first importance. Still, his emphasis on the importance of these early chapters does make discussion of any defects in them essential to a critical review.

In deciding whether to treat Scripture as the infallible, unquestionable, God’s-own-word authority it claims to be (2 Timothy 3:16-7, 2 Peter 1:21), one can either (1) accept it on its own divine authority because, as God’s own words, it speaks with more innately obvious truthfulness and greater divine attestation to full correctness than can any evidence or argument external to it, thereafter welcoming external evidence and argument as confirmation of a faith based on Scripture’s own greater authority; or (2) accept Scripture as fundamentally reliable as an historical document, and so useful in determining historical truth, on the basis of corroborating extrabiblical evidence and arguments, thereafter (if one is consistent) granting Scripture itself no greater authority than the evidence and arguments on the basis of which one holds Scripture reliable. While true Bible-believing Christians tend to function in their faith in terms of 1, more often than not they defend their trust in the Bible in terms of 2.

The inconsistency of this combination can be seen by asking Bible-believers who prefer method 2 whether they are willing to reject, or simply hold doubtful, all that Scripture says that cannot be externally validated. If the Bible is really to be treated like any other historical text, then claims in it that would be doubted if made today should be doubted. While belief in the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection seems sustainable on purely historical grounds (no one ever having proven that group hallucinations can happen, and the New Testament documents reliably attesting that multiple individuals at once, even large groups of them, encountered the resurrected Christ), it would seem that most one-on-one encounters (and most single-person experiences) recorded in Scripture, particularly those reporting supernatural occurrences unlike anything in our normal experience, would have to be doubted. While we might consider the reports reliable records of individual impressions, the text’s supernaturalist interpretation of such occurrences could (should) be doubted, just as similar reports in other documents (whether ancient or modern) are routinely (and, in the view of most who think critically, rightly) doubted. As well, assertions about the doctrinal meaning of historical events seem impossible to corroborate; one either accepts the judgment of those making the assertions or one does not (unless such assertions can be corroborated philosophically….). Given this, one who wishes to live out method 2 consistently seems obligated to doubt, or at least permit others to doubt, anything Scripture says that can be identified as interpretive assertion rather than (corroborated) historical fact. (One might also argue, as implied in a prior parenthetical, for disallowing doubt where philosophical arguments sufficiently corroborate scriptural claims, such as when the appearance of design in nature proves so complex and pervasive as to make theism less faith-based than theism.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming no sort of Christian faith could possibly be maintained in terms of method 2. I’ll leave such extreme claims to more self-assured sorts. Believing philosophers and historians might well be able to construct from their arguments something sufficiently substantial to merit the “Christian” label. This will not be a faith grounded in infallible Scripture that speaks with God’s own authority, however, but something more provisional in which, in the final analysis, it is clever human minds amassing evidence and constructing arguments that will be the final authority. In this approach to “faith” (I can’t help but consider this provisional variety of Christian belief something less than true faith), personal religious experience (subjective sense of God’s presence and guidance, for example) becomes just one more bit of supporting evidence for maintaining one’s (ultimately always provisional) belief. Subjective, self-trusting sorts that we humans tend to be, we may often make this last sort of evidence entirely decisive (“Personally, I don’t need scholars or clergymen to help me trust in the reliability of the Bible. I have experienced (and continue to experience daily) the rich spiritual feast that is available to me through the Bible.” [18]), but doing so fails to apply method 2 consistently. Objectively speaking, my personal experiences as I interpret them should be given no greater weight in my belief-formation than anyone else’s personal experiences as they interpret them. (So, in terms of method 2, unbelievers’ profession that they experience no spiritual feast when they read the Bible must be weighed equally with my subjective impression that I, and the profession of other believers that they, do experience such a feast.)

In his defense of Scripture’s authority against Mormon detractors, Wallace adopts method 2. “I am hoping that even this small sampling of extra-biblical writings is helping you appreciate the bigger picture and see that the New Testament is an accurate, reliable, historical record of real people and real events” (26), he notes early in his discussion. While there can certainly be no harm in presenting evidence of these things, it is not at all clear that what Mormons doubt about the Bible is its historical claims about people and events. When they speak of “plain and precious things” lost from the text of the Bible (Book of Mormon 1 Nephi 13 and Elder McConkie, quoted on 13-14, 15), when they hyperbolically suggest that one might well suspect any verse of the Bible polluted (Orson Pratt, quoted on 15), is their focus not the doctrinal assertions, the theological interpretation of historical events, not the events themselves? Method 2 might be able to demonstrate that Paul and other Bible writers did very likely believe and assert the doctrines presently found in Scripture, but such a demonstration would seem to call for more coverage of textual criticism than currently found in Starting at the Finish Line. Wallace’s discussion of the reliability of the New Testament’s transmission and earliness of its composition currently only runs about three pages (21-24, with coverage on the first and last of these pages a bit less than would cover a full page). The treatment is sufficiently superficial (not objectionable, just not thorough) that is can at once say “25,000 manuscripts can’t be wrong” (22) and fail to note that modern Bibles (excepting the New King James Version, 21st Century King James Version, and perhaps others too little publicized for me to know about) favor minority readings over majority readings in most cases where extant manuscripts differ.

Granted, differences affect a small percentage of the text as a whole and one can prove orthodox doctrine on the basis of the readings preferred by contemporary translators who follow mainstream textual critics. (Since the whole issue goes unaddressed in Starting at the Finish Line, what I here grant is not mentioned. Mentioning it would strengthen the defense.) Still, it is the position of those mainstream critics that certain long-lived witnesses from (preserved in) a fairly isolated geographic area (Egypt, where environmental factors favor manuscript longevity) can be assumed more reliable indicators of what the original New Testament writings said than can the majority and traditional readings accepted by believing Christians until the late 1800s. (Not all traditional readings are in the Greek manuscript majority, hence my reference to “majority and traditional.” The textual notes in study editions of the New King James Version nicely lay out the differences for curious English readers.) In other words, where preferred long-lived witnesses and majority or traditional readings differ, most extant manuscripts (the mainstream maintains) in fact can be and are wrong. This viewpoint is neither heretical nor an obvious threat to orthodoxy (though it does seem to have helped along Bart Ehrman’s departure from the faith), but it is something other than a “25,000 manuscripts can’t be wrong” affirmation of majority readings. Wallace may mean merely that the manuscripts can’t be wrong where they all agree, but he does not say this, and a writer who chooses to quote primarily from Bibles whose New Testaments adopt minority readings, as Wallace does, might wish to express his stance with greater precision. Added nuance and more detailed discussion of the issue would make Wallace’s case more persuasive.

In defending the Old Testament, Wallace opts to focus on “the historical reliability of the Old Testament” as he focused on the historical reliability of the New (31). Setting aside my basic conviction that method 2 coheres poorly with Bible-believing faith, this is standard and unobjectionable Bible-defense fare. As in the case of Wallace’s New Testament defense, however, I wonder if his Old Testament defense might fail to address the issues most responsible for Mormon doubts that Scripture is a perfectly reliability guide to correct belief and proper practice. Do Mormons typically doubt the Bible’s reliability where it relates historical information? Is their suspicion not instead that doctrinal inaccuracies have been introduced, or that important doctrinal assertions have been removed? Wallace is making to Mormons the sort of evidential appeal many have found effective in outreach to secularized unbelievers or helpful in their own coming to trust the Bible. (In my case, only presuppositional appeals built on the work of Cornelius Van Til proved sufficient to bring me around, but my case is not the norm.) Wallace’s earlier discussion of Acts 28:1-2, 7-10 in the New Testament (27-8) nicely illustrates how this sort of appeal works. Noting how the previously-doubted identification of Publius as “leading man of the island” has been confirmed by archaeological discoveries, so that “No one questions the existence of Publius anymore” (28), Wallace suggests that this confirmation of Luke’s accuracy in turn favors trusting Luke’s attestation to Paul’s miraculous healing of Publius’ father, which in turn favors accepting Paul’s claim to be truly God-sent (an Apostle), which in turn favors accepting the correctness of Paul’s doctrinal assertions in various epistles (28). This progression to trust in Paul’s doctrinal assertions hinges entirely, of course, upon acceptance of Luke’s judgment that the healing in question was in fact miraculous and in fact effected by Paul, and upon the additional assumption that persons who can perform miraculous healings necessarily write with God-granted infallible authority….But, many find the line of argument persuasive. Still, given that Mormons do not question Paul’s status as God-sent Apostle, and as someone empowered to perform miracles, it is unclear how this argument, or equivalent arguments supporting the reliability of the Old Testament (such as appeal to fulfilled prophecy, which favors accepting prophets’ claims to speak for God, which in turn favors accepting prophets’ doctrinal assertions), is supposed to address the specific doubts of Mormons. Mormon doubts seem to hinge entirely on the transmission of doctrinal assertions; generic evidential appeal in support of the Bible’s basic historical (or prophetic) reliability, joined to the idea that such reliability favors trust in original doctrinal assertions, seems to risk missing the core source of Mormon mistrust. A more exclusive focus on issues of transmission of the Old and New Testament texts might more effectively address Mormon concerns.

Aside: Is Wallace Qualified to Write This Book?

Notably, Wallace admits to having ceased being a “true believing Mormon” (TBM) when, as a junior in high school, he first encountered a uniquely Mormon doctrine, that which makes God something other than “an omniscient, powerful, benevolent being who had always been God ‘from everlasting to everlasting’” (4-5). Though he remained actively involved in the Mormon church for twenty years thereafter, he did so as a “cultural Mormon” (CM) just “going along to get along,” not as a true believer in Mormon doctrine. Does this background favor his assertion that he “can still think and even feel like a Mormon”? Like a CM, perhaps. But like a TBM? I doubt it. If Wallace can feel and think like a TMB, this ability must result from his empathetic and imaginative abilities, not his personal experience, which TBMs are sure to judge lacking. Wallace seems aware that this is the case, granting that he does not expect TBMs to be among his persuadable readers. “I really wrote this book for the Mormon who…is going through the motions, who values and enjoys all the wonderful benefits of being a member of the church…but who secretly doesn’t believe the Joseph Smith narrative in its entirety, if at all….I wrote the book I needed twenty-plus years ago” (8).

Wallace’s background as a long-term CM who really never believed uniquely Mormon doctrines (ceasing to view himself as a TBM as soon as he heard one) does prompt reflection. Imagine someone who was a member of the Roman Catholic Church for twenty years, but admits he never believed Christ really present in the Mass, never believed human choice and effort played a role in the salvation process along with God’s grace, never believed Peter was the first Pope and all Popes since have inherited unique authority granted Peter by our Lord, never believed church tradition an authority on par with (and necessary to properly understand) Scripture, never believed offering prayers or special reverence to Mary or the Saints was appropriate behavior, and in fact never believed any of the doctrines that uniquely distinguish Roman Catholicism from, say, Reformed Protestantism, but says he stayed in Catholicism all those years because he liked the social aspects of it and was actively engaged in various ministries. If this “cultural Catholic” were to write a book calling Catholics to leave their church, how valuable would most readers judge his background as a Roman Catholic? His many friendships among the Roman Catholics he’d long walked among might explain his motivation for writing, and his long exposure would doubtless give him some greater awareness of Roman Catholic beliefs than members of the general public, but few would view his personal experience as making him an expert on the topic.

Were this analogy fair, one might wonder where Wallace gets off writing a refutation of Mormonism. Fortunately, the analogy is unfair at an essential point. The point at which the analogy fails is where it speaks of our hypothetical “cultural Catholic” as having “never believed human choice and effort played a role in the salvation process along with God’s grace.” During his twenty years as a CM, Wallace does seem to have bought into the idea that his own choice, works, and effort were what would make him righteous and fit to stand in God’s presence (54). Since this, not the various Mormon doctrines he never accepted, is Wallace’s focus, one can affirm that he has indeed written on those topics into which his personal experience should give him special insight. True, as a non-Reformed Christian, Wallace does still treat human choice as ultimately determinative of who ends up saved and who doesn’t, holding that Christ paid the penalty even for the sins of persons who will never repent and believe the gospel, making salvation freely available to all who will just exercise their free will to choose it (IX-X). Still, he has rejected the Mormon non-gospel of self-salvation through ceaseless effort (assisted by grace) in favor of a Scripture-informed (if not perfectly Scripture-compliant) belief in salvation that is, after an initial free human decision (one must actively choose to receive God’s gift of salvation), all of God’s grace.

Human Choice Sovereign in Salvation & Sins Paid for the Damned

As just noted, Wallace treats human choice as ultimately determining who ends up saved and who doesn’t, holding that Christ paid the penalty even for the sins of persons who (unrepentant and unbelieving) will end up in hell, making salvation freely available to all in exchange for their free decision (read: their work of freely deciding) to receive it (IX-X). Like others who hold this view, Wallace describes Ephesians 2:8-9 as identifying salvation alone, not both salvation and the faith through which it is acquired, as wholly of grace (17). Though freely choosing to have faith and so acquire salvation, while others equally free choose not to have faith and so remain condemned, seems to me obvious cause for boasting, persons of non-Reformed persuasion never seem to think so. Nor does Wallace.

Nearly halfway through the text, at the conclusion of the final chapter of section IV, Wallace assures Mormon readers that “It turns out that there is a role for you to play in your salvation! And it is to this role that we now turn our attention” (86). This role, as one might expect, is that of voluntarily choosing to have faith and so be given new life and saved. Note the order: unlike in the Reformed (biblical) understanding, where one is able to answer God’s call to repent and believe the gospel because God has given one new life (Jesus’ sheep answer his call because they are his sheep [John 10:26-7]; they do not become his sheep after or because they answer his call), in Wallace’s understanding it is as a result of one’s answering God’s call and believing the gospel that one acquires new life: he writes of the time “when [he] finally surrendered [his] life to Jesus Christ and [as a result] was born again of God’s Spirit” (96). I have heard this viewpoint referred to by some Reformed persons as “the heresy” of “decisional regeneration.” While I think the “heresy” label overused (not too long ago, an Independent Baptist fundamentalist sent me an email warning about “the heresy of Calvinism”), “decisional regeneration” seems apt. Whether one adopts this terminology or not, the non-Reformed view does seem to permit boasting on the part of those who finally give up their rebellion and yield to God’s loving offer of salvation.

Persons who hold this view have a remarkable talent for ignoring what seems grammatically evident. “Perhaps the most succinct passage in the entire New Testament on this teaching,” writes Wallace, “is found in Paul’s letter to the saints in Ephesus: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast’ ([Ephesians] 2:8-9)” (97). Now, Wallace chose to quote this English wording rather than search for some other. (I’m not aware of any version that would better suit the reading he wants to impose, but perhaps there is one. If no Greek scholar translating into English has ever found a different-meaning rendering plausible, suggesting one now would be quite an act of hubris.) In this English construction, the normal and natural reading would always be one understanding the “that” that is “not of yourselves” to be the “faith” mentioned directly before the “that.” (“Faith” is the “nearest antecedent.”) No human work, not even the work of making a voluntary decision, brings about the faith through which grace saves us: God’s sovereign grace gives us the gift of faith, making spiritually alive we who were spiritually dead and incapable of any positive response to God, enabling us to repent and believe as we could not do before (there being no inclination in us to respond in any way but with continued rebellion). This is the clear and natural understanding. This is not Wallace’s reading, however. Not faith itself, but only “our salvation” is “by grace, through faith, and…a gift from God” (97, 98), he asserts. Further: “These verses also tell us that our faith (in Christ) activates God’s grace unto salvation” (98). Are he and I reading the same passage? Where is the reference to sovereign human decision to freely place faith in Christ making God’s grace, powerless to move absent human choice, active and effective? I don’t see it.

I admit it: I hate the popular “a gift doesn’t become yours till you actively receive it (reach out and accept possession of it)” analogy. The reader will doubtless recall that one bit of symbolism originating in the Christian West (symbolism that has now lost any Christian meaning it might once have had) has a gift-giver bestowing his gifts while recipients sleep. It may be true that you cannot use or enjoy a gift you never do anything with (a gift could be left in its wrapping unopened for as long as one liked), but it doesn’t seem to be the case that a gift isn’t yours until you “actively receive it.” Regardless, the basic issue is not so much whether or not one must receive God’s gift of salvation, but why some people presented with the opportunity do receive it while others do not. The biblical view, in agreement with the natural reading of Ephesians 2:8-9 (the reading Wallace contradicts), holds that a secret gift from God, the gift of spiritual life and a new heart capable of new wants and new choices, a gift bestowed upon some while they are “asleep” in spiritual death, is what causes the distinction. Some hear and respond to Jesus’ call because they have already been made his sheep; others reject the call because they are not his sheep (John 10:26-7). No one becomes the Lord’s sheep by making a choice; some choose the Lord because God has already made them his sheep. True Christians, who know their own unworthiness, are of course perplexed by this. Why me? Why not, say, the Dalai Lama? Perplexity is no justification for misreading Scripture, however. Human choice does not in any way determine whether God’s will is done: God’s counsel always stands and all that it pleases him to do gets done (Isaiah 46:10).

Granted, Wallace, like others who promote the view that human choice (not divine choice) ultimately determines who will and will not be saved, tries as best his view will allow to eliminate justification for boasting by those who choose Jesus while others refuse him. “God,” he writes, “is continually scanning the horizon, searching for those who find themselves sufficiently broken and lost, those who have come to that place of complete desperation, having no other option but to place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ” (98). However, the case of Judas Iscariot demonstrates that, so long as God leaves us to autonomously choose what we will, there is no life situation so desperate that we cannot persist in rebellion: ultimately, we can destroy ourselves rather than turn to Jesus, and without new life from God and the divine gift of faith, that is what we will do. If, then, we (unaided, unchanged, still unregenerate) somehow freely choose in our desperation to turn to God, whereas others equally desperate do not, we do have cause for boasting. In our hour of desperation, we choose to have faith and thus activate the grace of God that is powerless to move without us; we do not persist in rebellion and destroy ourselves; by our better decision making, we merit salvation; we’re special.

Wallace drives home his belief in the supremacy of human choice in matters of salvation forcefully in many places throughout Starting at the Finish Line. For example, in his discussion of the need for repentance, a “radical change of one’s mind,” where one sincerely affirms, “I believe this message [of the gospel], and I’m ready to turn from this world, away from my life of sin. I no longer want to live for myself. I want to know this God and begin to live for Him!,” he writes: “The fact is, until someone makes this conscious choice, he or she cannot possibly make good on his or her new commitment because….God’s Spirit doesn’t come in to empower and inspire until after one has made this conscious choice! So you see, there really is a tangible role we play in our own salvation” (99). So, someone dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), an enemy of God unchanged by God’s Spirit and incapable of discerning spiritual truth (1 Corinthians 2:14), must consciously choose to forsake (want to forsake, albeit without actual power yet to do so) everything his unregenerate nature loves and values, consciously choose to embrace (want to embrace, albeit without actual power yet to do so) everything his unregenerate nature hates and opposes, before God’s Spirit transforms him into a new creature capable of making such choices (wanting such things)? Wow! Seriously?

One additional demonstration of Wallace’s belief in the sovereignty of human choice merits mention. (Actually, instances might be multiplied until this review was very long even for me, which is saying something. I’ll resist the temptation.) Recalling the first sermon he heard at the church he has attended for the last fourteen years (Calvary Chapel Westgrove), Wallace writes: “What Pastor Brad said that day is something he incorporates into virtually every sermon…: that our salvation is a free gift from God. There is nothing we can do to earn it, and there is nothing we can do to lose it as long as we maintain our faith that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He suffered and died on a cross to pay the penalty for our sinfulness…” (94). How could a passage that began so well end so badly? As long as we maintain our faith? So, not only is our initial decision, that miraculous choice we make unaided in contradiction to our nature, sovereign over our first becoming saved, but our ongoing maintenance of that choice (now at least supported by a new nature) is sovereign over our remaining saved?

How someone who believes this can have “the supreme confidence with which…to say, ‘I know that I am going to heaven when I die’” (95) is not at all clear. Could this talk of the need to “maintain our faith” if we are to avoid losing our salvation after we have actually acquired it (hardly compatible with John 10:28-9 and 1 John 2:19) be simply a misstatement, an inadvertent communication error? Alas, this seems not to be the case. Another verse Wallace discusses, Hebrews 3:14, does indicate that true believers will persevere in their belief. It does not say, however, that true believers themselves are the causal agents responsible for this endurance. Such, however, appears to be Wallace’s understanding. “This is our fifth responsibility [in salvation]: after we believe, repent, receive, and abide, we endure” (186). Further: “Since we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, the only way we could ever lose our salvation would be if we lost our faith in Christ as Savior” (187). In other words, “eternal security” is only “for the faithful” (186). If one reads Ephesians 2:8-9 properly, and so understands that faith in Christ as Savior is not the product of autonomous human choice but a gift of God, one knows that neither it nor the salvation grounded upon it can, once acquired, ever be lost, because God does not take back his gifts (Romans 11:29). In the grips of the error of decisional regeneration, however, one must grant that, just as an Adam with no natural inclination to sin could nevertheless sin and be cast out of paradise, so might any true believer go against his new nature and lose faith in Christ as Savior, thereby becoming unsaved.

(Such is the consistent outworking of the non-Reformed view. Wallace, perhaps subconsciously drawn to the Reformed position, at another point expresses a contradictory understanding: concerning John 10:27-30, he writes that “No one steals us away from [Christ] (or His Father) once we truly belong to Him. And who truly belongs to Him? Who is truly saved? I have no idea, but He does” [187]. Here, Wallace seems to rightly understand that no one truly saved can ever become unsaved. However, contrary to his seeming belief that 1 John 5:13 means that all true believers should know with perfect certainty that they are going to heaven when they die [186], he here seems to say that believers in this life can’t necessarily be certain they are true believers. Yet, on the same page [187] he indicates that he in fact does have “100 percent certainty” of his salvation. At this point, I’m at a loss to say which he really believes. The consistent Reformed view, by the way, is that evidences of true salvation, ranging from personal spiritual experience to changed beliefs and attitudes to transformed behavior, provide strong and reliable support for assurance that one is saved, but that claiming “100 percent certainty” is a creaturely presumption fallible and finite humans should avoid, as even Paul seems to have done [1 Corinthians 9:27].)

Besides all this, Wallace’s view of salvation does not quite fit the “there is nothing we can do” rubric, since it proposes that we first earn salvation through the work of making a free decision contrary to our nature, and (in most but not all cases where he addresses the topic) that we can lose it if we later make an opposite free decision contrary to the new nature we acquired as a result of the first decision. Simply refusing to use the accurate word “earn” here, or similar refusal to speak of autonomous human choices as “works,” doesn’t change the reality that humans in Wallace’s system bring about their own salvation through meritorious works of decision making. This system may be a relief to someone who previously thought that only long striving after moral perfection could effect salvation, but it is not the biblical gospel of free grace sovereignly bestowed by God on whom he will (Romans 9:18) and where we who are saved have nothing to boast about, not even the superiority of our decision to accept Christ over others’ decision to reject him (because it was only by God’s grace that we acquired the spiritually alive nature that could want to accept Christ).

(Like others on his side of the debate, Wallace can’t manage to be perfectly consistent in his rhetoric. One inconsistency was noted in a parenthetical paragraph above; an additional inconsistency merits comment here. “We are natural-born enemies of God,” Wallace observes, “and yet His love overwhelms our animosity” [71]. To be consistent with the viewpoint he expresses most often throughout the text, where human choice has final say in these matters, Wallace would have to add the phrase “if we so choose” to the end of this eminently biblical statement; he does not. Probably, he also prays for God to save people he knows without adding, “unless they’re just determined not to accept you, in which case you of course must be a gentleman about it and leave them be.” Evidently, the true believer just can’t help expressing the beliefs of that Spirit that dwells within him from time to time, no matter how pressingly the believer’s theology may demand otherwise.)

I’m aware that advanced and careful non-Reformed thinkers do express things with a nuance lacking in Wallace’s presentation. For instance, they suggest that a non-saving prevenient grace is what empowers decisions for Christ by not-yet-regenerate persons. This does nothing to remove cause for boasting from those who become saved, since they make good use of this prevenient enabling while equally-enabled others do not, but it is at least superficially plausible. Wallace, however, actually seems to place the ability to make a free initial decision for Christ in unregenerate persons themselves. He does this by confusing an immaterial aspect of all humans, even unregenerate ones (“spirit”), and the personal presence of God in the regenerate enabling them to live increasingly holy lives (“Spirit”)(49). (“Spirit,”/“spirit” is how we make the distinction in English. The correct meaning would typically be obvious from context even if translators failed to make the English distinction for us.) Basically, he seems to hold that unregenerate humans are not “dead” in sin but just terminally ill; their “flesh” may be totally depraved, but their “spirit” still has some life in it. Though near death, they do have enough good in them to allow the voluntary choices he requires them to make before God, in response, can give them new life. His much earlier identification of sinners as merely “imperfect” [IX] comports with this. While this doesn’t seem to agree with Scripture, is does have sufficient intuitive appeal to explain why someone who thinks he can reread Scripture in a way compatible with it might want to do so.

Those who hold that, for want of a free personal choice to receive Jesus, one can end up in eternal hell in spite of Jesus already having paid the full penalty for all one’s sins, typically make analogies central to their argument. Wallace is no exception. For instance, he suggests that Christ’s actual payment of the full penalty for a person’s sins is equivalent to a piece of paper permitting that no penalty should be paid by anyone for a given crime (101-2). Thus, “like George Wilson,” a man who refused a pardon issued by Andrew Jackson, “we must apply our pardon for it to actually grant us life” (102). “Christ’s payment for our sins…,” it turns out, “does not make us any less guilty of those sins”; rather, it only “removes the penalty that would normally be attached to those sins” (102). This is, I’ll grant you, a valiant effort to make plausible the idea that Christ paid the full penalty for the sins of persons who will end up paying eternally for the same sins themselves, but is Christ’s actual payment of the full penalty God’s perfect justice requires analogous to a U.S. president’s issuance of a piece of paper permitting that no penalty should be paid at all? Jesus’ work on the cross fully satisfied the requirements of God’s perfect justice; any person for whose sins Jesus paid the penalty cannot possibly be punished for those sins, because imposition of such punishment would be an unjust act incompatible with God’s perfectly just nature. The only way to believe in both universal atonement (this view that Jesus paid the penalty for all persons’ sins, whether those persons will ultimately be saved or not) and substitutionary atonement (the belief that Jesus paid the actual penalty for actual sins committed by those for whom he atones) in a logically self-consistent manner is to become a universalist (hold that everyone will ultimate end up saved). Analogies, no matter how clever or complex or superficially persuasive, can’t change this.

Another bad analogy Wallace uses likens our avoidance of the need to pay our sin debt, by virtue of our engagement to be Christ’s bride, to a woman’s avoidance of the need to pay her debt at a store chain, by virtue of her engagement to the chain’s owner (102-4). Like the prior analogy, this one suggests our situation, where Jesus has in fact paid the full debt we owe, is analogous to a quite different situation. In this case, the situation is one where an unpaid debt is simply never collected because the person who owes the money happens to know someone with special authority. “Isn’t it ironic,” Wallace asks, “that when it’s all said and done, it’s all about who[m] you know?” (103) Likening the situation where God’s perfect justice required God himself (in the person of his Son) to pay the full sin debt of those whom he would save (in spite of facts that he created and owns all that exists, including those he would save, and is himself the very person to whom the debt is owed), to a human situation where a store’s owner simply dismisses a debt unpaid, does not strike me as God-honoring argumentation. This second analogy is perhaps not so bad as the first, but I can’t help but think that one who would give all glory and honor to God should find it both unsatisfactory and troubling.

Now, a couple paragraphs back, I mentioned “universal atonement.” This stands in contrast to particular atonement, often (if unfortunately) called “limited atonement” (the “L” in the famous-or-infamous Calvinist/Reformed T.U.L.I.P.; I guess T.U.P.I.P. just didn’t sound right). No true Christian who takes time to reflect will suggest that Christ’s atoning work on the cross had other than infinite value (Calvinists believe it limited in intent and application, not in value). God is infinite, hence everything he does has infinite value; Christ is God; therefore, what Christ does has infinite value. (After all, sins against an infinite God, being thus infinitely egregious, seem to merit infinite punishment; so, an atonement with infinite value seems necessary for the saving of even one person.) If one wishes to maintain belief in substitutionary atonement, if one wishes to maintain (as Scripture in its plain sense certainly seems to) that Jesus suffered and died for specific sins of specific sinners, one must decide whether he died for every sin of every sinner (universal atonement) or only for the sins of those (“the elect”) who will end up saved (particular atonement). Substitutionary atonement is not the only “theory of atonement” out there, of course, but it is the “theory” both Wallace (IX, 73-4) and I think biblical, so the question, “For whose sins did Jesus pay the penalty?,” is a key one.

Wallace makes his belief in universal atonement clear throughout Starting at the Finish Line. The “gospel of grace” involves “God accepting the substitutionary offering of His Son as payment in full for every sin ever committed” (IX). After later reiterating that Jesus “paid the price for every sin ever committed,” Wallace adds that “when something has been paid for in full, the balance is zero” (77). Yet, inexplicably, as we’ve already seen, Wallace holds that God will still exact payment for already-paid debt from persons who fail to make a voluntary choice to receive Jesus. Were someone to secretly pay off all your massive student debt (anyone interested in really doing this, please call me), it wouldn’t matter thereafter if you “believed” he’d done it, wished he hadn’t, or wanted him to “take it back.” You would of course be free to donate all the money you liked to Federal Loan Servicing, but the debt would have been paid in full, the account marked accordingly, and further payment would not be possible. If your sin debt has been paid, you cannot be called upon (ever) to pay it, no matter how stubbornly you might refuse to “receive” the already-accomplished payment. Either Christ paid everyone’s penalty, in which case no one can ever be required to pay it (universal atonement with universal salvation), or he only paid the penalty for those who will ultimately end up saved (particular atonement with particular salvation). The hybrid view that Wallace, and perhaps a majority of today’s evangelical Christians, promote is, I’m sorry to say, nonsense. If you want to hold to substitutionary atonement and to universal atonement, you can only do so consistently and rationally if you become a universalist.

What has long troubled me as I’ve interacted with extreme and uncompromising partisans of universal atonement (advocates of universal atonement I interact with invariably seem extreme and uncompromising, viewing any contrary view not simply as wrong, but as heresy) is that even the non-Reformed belief that human choice is ultimate in salvation comports best with particular atonement, at least if one also holds to God’s perfect foreknowledge (believes that God knows everything that will ever happen, including every choice that every individual will ever make). Wallace not only believes in God’s perfect foreknowledge, but embraces the strongest possible form of such belief. Speaking of fulfilled prophecy, he writes: “for those of us who believe that God, who, outside of space and time, sees past, present, and future as one continuous realm, revealed His mysteries to ancient prophets, it’s easy to see the supernatural on display here” (33). Advocates of particular atonement must wonder why someone who clearly believes that God knows who will and will not accept his Son, since he sees them making the decision from his timeless and spaceless realm of transcendence, should nevertheless have his Son pay the penalty for the sins of both those who will and who will not accept the Son. How does this make sense? Additionally, advocates of God’s sovereignty (not human choice) as ultimate in salvation, will wonder how a God who creates all of time and space and everything in them (or, more properly, all of space-time and everything in it) from such a transcendent realm could somehow not sovereignly determine everything (including human decisions for or against Christ) that occurs within space-time. If God creates from beyond space-time, it’s hard to see how his one act of creation could do anything but create the entire sweep of events that make up space-time, including every human decision. Those unwilling to call “free” any human decision that does not fall impossibly outside God’s sovereignty (persons who insist on “libertarian free will” and reject “compatibilism”) may find this unsettling, but placing God outside space-time doesn’t seem to allow such “freedom” to anything within created space-time. Perhaps one could place some immaterial aspect of the human person with God outside space-time and get past his comprehensive sovereignty that way, but I’m not currently aware of any biblical justification for such speculative philosophizing.

Sin Nature without Representation

Wallace’s non-Reformed theology also introduces problems into his understanding of the origin of human sinfulness and how it comports with God’s perfectly just character. During discussion of the Mormon tendency to view Adam and Eve’s fall and expulsion from Eden as good and necessary, Wallace notes how, in addition to feeling the fall was “in a sense, something to be celebrated, not lamented….Mormon theology also maintains that there is a fundamental disconnect between Adam and Eve’s choice (of disobedience) in the garden and the basic nature of their posterity.” Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, “felt so strongly about this that he included it as the second of thirteen Articles of Faith: ‘We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.’” To this, Wallace responds, “You’ll get no argument from the Christian on this point; we are all accountable for our own choices in this life. However, what’s missing here is the transmission, the conveyance if you will, of Adam’s (and Eve’s) willfully disobedient nature to his children, children’s children, and so on to this present day” (45). Note that Wallace accepts Smith’s dichotomy: one either pays solely for one’s own sins, or one also pays for Adam’s sin (his transgression in Eden). Wallace’s solution is to propose that, by sinning in Eden, Adam and Eve both acquired a sinful nature, and that this nature is thereafter passed along (apparently by a spiritual equivalent of genetic inheritance, albeit of a sort where acquired characteristics are inherited by offspring).

Is this a workable solution? If, because of Adam and Eve’s transgression and through no voluntary choice of my own, I have transmitted to me a sinful nature Adam and Eve only acquired through their voluntary sinful action, am I not then being punished for their sin? It sure seems like it! The problem with Wallace’s approach is that it leaves out the concepts of representation and imputation. When it comes to imputation of credit for righteousness to those whom Christ represents, Wallace has no trouble; he dedicates a whole chapter to the topic (113-116). Somehow, though, the imputation of guilt for sin to those whom Adam represents never finds it way into Starting at the Finish Line. Yet, the principle that one person may stand in the place of, may represent, other persons before God, is the very aspect of God’s just character that makes our salvation possible. Failing to recognize how Adam (not Adam and Eve; sorry feminists) functioned as the legal representative of Eve and of all his natural descendants (all humans save the second Adam, Christ, who stands as the representative of a new line of supernatural descent), makes the transmission of a sinful nature to Adam and Eve’s descendants unjust and arbitrary. (Doubtless egalitarians will bristle at my identification of Adam as even Eve’s representative. That the male partner, “father” in families where there are children, is the representative or “covenant head” of the family—this is a reality blatant throughout Scripture. Much as I’d like to avoid being persecuted by egalitarians, I cannot recant. There’s a reason Romans 5 speaks of “one man,” not “one woman” or “one couple,” as responsible for bringing guilt and sinfulness upon us.) With representation taken into account, however, God imposing upon me (from conception) a sin nature is neither unjust nor arbitrary: it is the just penalty for the sin Adam committed acting as my God-appointed representative. If it is unjust for persons other than Adam to suffer the negative consequences of actions he took as their representative, how is it any more just for persons other that Christ to benefit from the actions he took while representing them?

This seems like a both-or-neither issue to me. Wallace’s halfway version doesn’t work.

Minor & Miscellaneous

Ha! Made you look! While I initially planned to address some additional matters of concern, I’ve decided this review is sufficiently long to meet my always-write-a-really-long-review method of operation. If the mood someday strikes me, I may create a second post taking Wallace to task for various issues no one less hyper-critical than I is likely to care about. Stay tuned!

End of Review…For Now

Versions of this review may be found posted elsewhere. To find out where, see the introduction.