R. C. Sproul’s Saved From What was originally published in 2002 but was recently republished in 2021 after Dr. Sproul’s death in 2017. In this succinct work, Sproul answers the question prevalent in 20th century American evangelical circles: “Are you saved?” He breaks the book into three logical parts under three sub-questions: “Saved From What?” (chapters 1-2), “Saved By What?” (chapters 3-7), and “Saved For What?” (chapter 8). In the opening paragraphs, Dr. Sproul lays out the book’s purpose: for multiple reasons, Sproul had grown more and more dismayed that the very idea of “salvation” had simply become Christian jargon, unknown even among American evangelicals.
After surveying some associated words and passages in Scripture that refer to “saved” and noting how they do not always uniformly refer to the essence of the biblical doctrine of salvation (being reconciled to God), Sproul presents a basic definition of how God speaks about salvation in his word: “The broad meaning of salvation in Scripture is the saving from calamity, such as war, disease, death, or other perils” (11, italics original). Sproul naturally moves to address the objection—“But I don’t feel that I need a savior/salvation”—by demonstrating that the greatest problem human beings face is the righteous wrath of God, and not kidney stones, war, famine, or other such evils we face in this good world twisted by sin.
In the second part of the book, Sproul addresses many commonplace cultural aphorisms in Western civilization in the 20th century which downplay sin—aphorisms like “To err is human; to forgive is divine,” and “boys will be boys; girls will be girls.” Sproul clearly redirects the reader to the stark reality—our great problem of sin should not be swept under the rug, but better understood as debt, enmity, and crime. These are no peccadillos, and the perfectly righteous Judge is not obliged to wink at sin (in fact, he is obliged not to wink at sin!). In chapter 5, Sproul considers Christ as our substitutionary atonement and ransom (not paid to Satan, but to the Father as the propitiation for sins), and in chapters 6-7, Sproul explains how Christ was made to be accursed (according to the word of the Lord in Galatians and Deuteronomy) for our sake, so we might be declared righteous. Throughout, in his familiar conversational tone, Sproul defines terms and phrases familiar to Reformed theology, terms such as: forensic justification, expiation, propitiation, Christus Victor, covenant, blessing/curse, total depravity (juxtaposed with utter depravity), foreign righteousness, and double imputation.
His final portion of the book is but a single chapter long, headed with the title “Adoption and the Beatific Vision.” Drawing mainly on Philippians 1:19-24 and John 14, Sproul directs the reader’s mind heavenward, towards the believer’s home. He unpacks the doctrine of adoption, which encourages and redirects even the most discouraged believer to consider the great love of God who gathers his children to himself. Sproul describes the Beatific Vision as “the ultimate prize, the ultimate goal for the Christian,” and “a vision of supreme blessedness, the blessedness we will experience when we see God face to face” (112).
The penultimate sentence of the book is the eerie question asked by the author of Hebrews: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Heb 2:3). This question must have been firmly on Sproul’s mind (he also cites and asks the same question at the end of chapter 7, the penultimate page of part II), and it is a good example of the alarming tone of the book. Although Sproul is generally quite clear and easy to understand throughout the book and clearly wants his reader to come to the knowledge of the truth which accords with godliness (cf. Titus 1:1), he does not well portray God as lovely or loving. One such example comes when Sproul explains the biblical teaching of propitiation: as an illustration, he points to the European politics of appeasement in the years leading up to WWII. Although Sproul expressly condemned this as “ungodly,” the comparison of God to Hitler as a “rambunctious world conqueror on the loose rattling the sword” and needing to be appeased (read: propitiated) does not lead the reader to greater faith and repentance and rejoicing in the mercies of God in Christ applied by his present Spirit, but rather calls God’s goodness into question (61).
As a believer who has grown up in the Reformed church, Sproul’s definitions and illustrations were familiar and not novel. Many of the same ideas he had already fleshed out in greater length in his other works, like The Holiness of God (1985). The logic of this book makes sense, and Sproul blatantly spoils the answers to his questions—we are saved from God, by God, and for God, though Sproul has a seeming emphasis on being saved from God’s wrath.
The final portion of the book is the most lacking in content and focus. Sproul muddied this final chapter with speculation about the posthumous words of a patron of the Renewing Your Mind live radio recordings with recalling a dream he had of his father (a departed saint), and with arguments that Christians will see God in his essence (Sproul specifically uses the Latin in se est, see 1 John 3:2-3). This is not an uncontroversial choice of words.
This book is a quick read, has memorable lines and illustrations, and serves as a decent primer on the biblical doctrine of salvation. This book seems to be directed mainly at American evangelicals and is written at an accessible level quite within the grasp of young adults. I would recommend it for book clubs/studies with the reservations I mentioned above. I would not recommend it as a gift to an unbeliever, since the book assumes and does not well communicate a certain knowledge of the tender heart of God towards sinners.
Sproul insightfully identified the rightful need to reacquaint Christ’s Church in the 21st century with the fundamental and essential aspects of the gospel message of salvation (including an honest evaluation of sin and a sober consideration of the wrath of God). Sproul could have done better to extol and highlight the superlative beauty of Christ and the attractively fragrant aroma of the good news of God’s love for the lost, culminating with God’s restoration of human beings to himself in the light of his presence. To borrow the words of the Revelator, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away… I saw no temple in the city [the Bride, the new Jerusalem], for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb… No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Revelation 21:3-4, 22-23; 22:3-4).
© Joseph Pollard. All Rights Reserved.
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You said at the end of the article that you wouldn’t recommend it for an unbeliever. What would you recommend in its place?
Dakota, even if Dr Clark can answer your question, he wasn’t the author of this article; but I am grateful to him for reproduciing such a balanced critique of R.C.Sproul’s book.
Thanks for the comment, Dakota!
Depending on the person and your ability to follow up and read these books alongside them, I would probably suggest one of two types of books: (1) a simple theology book introducing and coaxing the reader towards opening the Word of God, like Keele & Brown’s Sacred Bond, a study of the outline and structure of how God has planned, promised, and accomplished salvation in his Word. Or Keele’s Bible survey book, The Unfolding Word. Or some simpler, addressed-to-unbelievers apologetic book like C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, or Lee Strobel’s Case for Christianity, or the like. Tim Keller’s commentary on the gospel of Mark and some of his other works (The Reason for God) for this mold also.
The other type of book recommendation is one I’m still working on developing even for myself, and that would be (2) a novel or poem or other nonfiction (not explicitly theological or working with systematic categories) work that beckons the reader to consider God in a new light. I suggest this not to be underhanded or sneaky, but because many of the unbelievers for whom I intercede in prayer to our Lord – they aren’t really the type to entertain a theology book. So I would suggest a novel like C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, or N. D. Wilson’s apologetic work Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, or… (will update when my memory improves with caffeine)
You might try What is Faith by J. Gresham Machen. You can find an audio version of his book What is Christianity on YouTube that only about 20 minutes to listen to.
The plain truth is that God does not love you because you are you. Since Adam broke the covenant of works, there is a curse of eternal condemnation on every person. There is no such thing as a God that simply loves you because He is good. Because He is perfectly good and righteous, He condemns all that do not conform to His good and righteous standard. There is no hope for any person, under the curse brought through the first Adam, except through the imputed righteousness of the second Adam, earned by his perfect obedience and sacrificial death to propitiate the just wrath of God. That shows us the breathtaking, incomprehensible love of God that He sacrificed His willing Son for us. The most blatant lie of Satan is that God is simply loving and kind and everyone goes to a better place someday. God loves us for the sake of His Son alone.
As we know, that in our former unregenerate self, we were “storing up wrath”, I’d like to posit the thought that it’s not what we are saved from, but whom. I think I remember Dr. Sproul at some time making this very point?