Book Review: Sin and Grace

Tony Lane should need no introduction – long time Professor of Historical Theology at LST, prolific author (including of the frankly marvellous Readers Guide to Calvin’s Institutes) and all-round good egg, it was a privilege to interact with him when I worked for a year at LST. It’s been even more of a privilege to work on marketing this new book, published by Apollos, IVP’s academic imprint.

Whilst this is, and has been marketed as an academic book (it’s based on lectures, has plentiful footnotes, and will repay careful study) it really is extraordinarily readable. Lane has written something that is simultaneously a gracious engagement with different theological positions, and a very readable survey of the myriad of doctrines and practices that come under the deceptively short words ‘sin’ and ‘grace’. Early on in the book he writes “Those who have a low view of sin tend to have a correspondingly low view of Christ and grace”. I think that is absolutely true – and Lane evidences that having a high view of sin leads to an even higher view of grace, not to mention a helpful, biblical and ecumenically sensitive view of the sacraments. On the latter note, his presentation of the various historic Christian views on baptism and the Lord’s Supper is very helpful – as is the generous way he interacts with Roman Catholic theology. 

This book is ultimately a book about the gospel, and how the gospel is both good news, and something that does some things. As Lane pithily puts it, “the good news presupposes the bad news“, and Sin and Grace is a vital book for missionally-minded church leaders: showing (sin) what is so bad that God provides and inspires such a good solution (grace). I enjoyed Lane’s careful presentation of different discussions of the gospel – and particularly his clear summary of the differences between Protestant theology and Roman Catholic understandings. For example, on Justification, he writes “the waters are muddied by the fact that words have different meanings from those found in Protestant theology. Trent follows Catholic usage of viewing faith as intellectual head knowledge. The Reformers never thought that such a faith could save.” Why is this? Well, simply put, “the heart of the Christian life in Catholicism is not justification but the sacramental system”. This observation is helpful – and gives real context as well as missional and pastoral food for thought to this long and comprehensive book. Whilst this book will be helpful to pastors and church leaders thinking through soteriological issues generally, I think it will be particularly helpful for those seeking to winsomely explain the differences between theological traditions.

There are parts of this book that will raise eyebrows in certain quarters. That is an echo of why Lane is such a good teacher – by and large, his own opinion is not front and centre. One thing that particularly got me thinking was his observation about what doctrine is and how it functions:

Doctrine is not like arithmetic, where there is only one correct answer. Doctrines are better understood as descriptive models. They are not purely subjective (like abstract art), but nor are they like the laws of gravity, for example. A better analogy would be different portraits of the same person. These will all be different and in principle may each be true, although it is possible to produce a portrait that is untrue. All representations are limited, while some can actually misrepresent. The four Gospels are four different portraits of Jesus, but complementary to each other. Different doctrines can also be compared to different world maps, different attempts to represent a three-dimensional reality in two-dimensional form. While maps can simply be erroneous, different maps can also be complementary rather than contradictory. Again, light can be described both as particles and as waves, and physicists regard these two models as complementary, not contradictory

This may challenge those who think that doctrine is more like maths. I think it is important to note that Lane is correct: doctrines describe truth, they aren’t themselves the truth. Why is that important? Ultimately, it is important because of the limitations of human language, and an important part of what it means to be a disciple. Paul famously writes in 1 Cor. 13:12 that “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” – I think there is a resonance with Lane’s discussion of doctrine, here. Yet this apparent nuance – which may perhaps be raising the hackles of readers convinced that studying theology leads to a dead faith, that seminary is ‘cemetery’ – must be read alongside Lane’s wonderfully holistic understanding of the Christian life. He is up front about the problem of sin, and how it affects us: “We need to come to terms with the fact that we are sinners, and to stop thinking of ourselves as better than we really are“; clear about what repentance looks like: “Repentance involves accepting the lordship of Christ over the whole of our life; and standing heartily in the tradition of the reformation when he writes “The Reformers saw faith as more than mere mental assent, which on its own does not justify. Saving faith is a personal trust in Christ, involving the heart as well as the head… The heart of sanctification is being transformed into the likeness of Christ“. At moments like that – and myriad other moments in my two read-throughs (one fast, one slow) I found myself being moved to pray, and occasionally disturbing the peace of my home office with a ‘yes!’, ‘amen!’ and ‘absolutely!’. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

Overall, then, I hope it is clear that I very much enjoyed this book. I think it is a strong entry into the lively discussion of sin and grace, with value to both the student and the scholar, the pastor and the interested reader. Whilst some of its sections might perhaps have worked better in a series of short books, overall I think this is a remarkable book, offering solid value, and deserves a wide readership. Obviously, working for IVP, you might expect me to say that – but I can say it about Sin and Grace wholeheartedly!

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