Ryan M. McGraw’s Review of REFORMED SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY: VOLUME 3: SPIRIT AND SALVATION, by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley

Published on February 8, 2022 by Eugene Ho

Crossway, 2021 | 1184 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Ryan M. McGraw


Systematic theology is one of the most challenging theological disciplines. Encompassing biblical exegesis, biblical theology, historical theology, and practical uses, systematic theology draws together the teaching of the whole Bible in conversation with the church of all ages. If systematic theology connects the teaching of the whole Bible interacting with the teaching of the church, then systematic theology should also be for the church. Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley have produced a remarkable achievement in balancing these emphases in their Reformed Systematic Theology. This volume, on the Spirit’s work in applying redemption, does not disappoint. With an astonishing breadth of historical sources, solid biblical and exegetical theology, and a decidedly practical bent, these volumes should serve the church well for some time to come.

The scope of this volume largely stresses the Spirit’s work in redemption. It encompasses the fifth part of Beeke and Smalley’s project, presenting the Holy Spirit and the history of salvation, the Holy Spirit and the order of salvation, and the Holy Spirit and the experience of salvation. Even though the work highlights the Holy Spirit, the authors maintain their consistent and self-conscious Trinitarian tone that marked the earlier volumes in the series. They set their characteristic experimental tone at the outset of this volume stating, “We need the work of the Holy Spirit if we are going to successfully study the Holy Spirit” (50).

Most of the topics in this volume are broken into several chapters each (e.g., 3 chapters on general calling, 2 on effectual calling, 3 on sanctification, 4 on obedience to the law, etc.). The advantage of this structure is that each individual chapter becomes smaller and easily digestible. The first part includes several vital topics, such as the special role of the Spirit in the new covenant and, his relation to the plan and work of salvation, the redemptive-historical significance of Pentecost, and the baptism and indwelling of the Spirit. Challenging modern conceptions on all of these things, they present them in a way that is both faithful to historic Reformed confessional theology and, more importantly, that is biblically robust and practically satisfying.

Section B drives to the heart of the volume by examining the Holy Spirit’s work in the application and order of salvation. Appropriately, this section begins with union with Christ in chapters 9-10. The authors rightly shy away from deification language, which has become in vogue in modern theology, to describe union with Christ (259). They also rightly place union with Christ at the front and center of the Bible’s teaching on the application of redemption. Union with Christ, however, does not preclude order in benefits flowing to believers from union and communion with Christ.

Chapters 11-  treat the logical order of these benefits one by one in a logical progression, showcasing the interrelationship between Christ’s benefits. They rightly distinguish between the order in the application of redemption (ordo salutis) and causation (279), making Jesus Christ and union with him the heart of the gospel throughout. Too often modern authors require us to choose between union with Christ and no logical order of benefits through that union on the one side, and a causal relationship between the several benefits of union with Christ on the other. I have urged elsewhere (and been categorized as holding my own version of the ordo salutis!), that retaining logical order within the centrality of union with Christ best represents mature expressions of historic Reformed Christianity, and that this structure is faithful to the teaching of Scripture.

The authors take a break between sanctification and glorification in the ordo salutis in order to treat experimental aspects of the Christian life in section C, including the assurance of salvation, indwelling sin, watchfulness, self-denial, prayer, and many other topics that are central to Jesus’ teaching on the Christian life in the New Testament. After doing so, they circle back to seeing Christ in glory as the fuel of Christian hope, concluding with the hope of glorification in Christ in the end. The three sections in this book are well-balanced theologically, and they set the right tone and emphasis for theology as the doctrine of living to God, through Christ, by the Spirit.

While there are too many high points in this book to list adequately, a few examples will give readers a feel for the character of the authors’ careful discussions. Chapter 13 on the preparatory convicting grace of the Holy Spirit apart from conversion is particularly interesting and off the beaten path for contemporary systematic theology. Preparatory grace refers to the non-saving work of the Spirit in people prior to conversion, which sometimes leads to conversion and sometimes does not.  Recognizing that the Spirit’s work in people’s hearts does not always follow the same pattern, this is an interesting chapter that gives attention to biblical material that is often neglected today. It shows how this volume brings fresh perspectives to bear on modern discussions by drawing from older sources as they interact thoroughly with the biblical text.

Solid examples of the author’s careful attention to exegesis and biblical theology include chapter 7 (“The Holy Spirit and the New Creation”), which traces the theme of new creation throughout the Bible, examining the progression of this theme throughout Isaiah. Likewise, chapter 9 unfolds various biblical metaphors for union with Christ, drawing parallels between each and the Garden of Eden. Doing so not only pulls readers deep into the narrative of Scripture in a way that unifies both Testaments, but it builds nicely on the Spirit’s work in new creation from chapters 1-8.

The authors maintain their consistent emphasis on citing authors from every age of church history, primarily from original texts in original languages. This feature stands out particularly in chapter 23 (Justification Part 2), in which they trace this doctrine through the early church, the Middle Ages, and the Reformation, spanning into post-Reformation and modern Roman Catholic theology. The following chapter expands this careful attention to historical sources by singling out more modern reformulations of the Protestant doctrine of justification, including Karl Barth and the New Perspective on Paul, wedding a historical emphasis to issues with contemporary relevance.

Given the subject matter of volume 3, John Owen’s massive and profound work on the Holy Spirit looms large throughout its pages. Owen’s self-estimation of his two large volumes on the Holy Spirit was that none before him had attempted such a comprehensive view of the Spirit’s person and work. This assessment was likely true in the seventeenth century and remains so to this day. Owen is a must for anyone interested in a biblically faithful, historically sensitive, and practically oriented doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

Beeke and Smalley do not disappoint on this score, drawing profound insights from Owen and presenting useful ideas in a more palatable and digestible format. However, the authors continue to interact heavily with early church and medieval sources as well, especially Augustine and Aquinas, among an impressive list of many other resources. This feature promotes a healthy sense of catholicity by tacitly demonstrating how Christ preserved the truth in his church in all ages. Readers thus learn to develop a proper view of Christian tradition via a distinctly Protestant model and alternative to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox viewpoints.

In addition, the authors tackle difficult theological themes with humility and clarity. One area in which this quality shines clearly is their treatment of regeneration and effectual calling. While some authors collapse these two doctrines into one, and others make regeneration precede effectual calling (436-438), Beeke and Smalley treat them as two perspectives on “the same act of God” (439). Their concern is to explain how regeneration/effectual calling is an immediate act of God on the soul, without human cooperation, while God at the same time enlightens our minds and renews our wills to exercise faith in Christ. Their proposal is that in regeneration, God works mediately in the mind through the Word, but that he immediately acts on the will, enabling it to “believe, love, and obey the Word” (434). Retaining an element of mystery, they recognize the complexity of this topic. Beeke and Smalley humbly illustrate theological sensitivity and exegetical care as they seek to guide readers through such potentially thorny questions.

Their treatment of adoption in relation to union with Christ, justification, and all other benefits of redemption in chapter 27 is masterful as well. Illustrating that adoption both follows justification logically, and excels in blessings, they guide readers carefully through the persistent question of adoption’s relationship to the order of salvation. They argue that “Christ’s tested and perfected human sonship to God is the foundation of our sonship” (592). Christ cannot have human sonship, since he is not a human person. He is the person of God the Son in human flesh. In this respect, Christ cannot have adopted sonship due to the natural Sonship woven into his divine identity.

Accordingly, the authors affirm that Christ is not the adopted son in any sense, because it “obscures the Christ’s eternal identity as the Son of the Father in the Trinity” (604). They add the qualification that Christ’s eternal Sonship “as exercised and experienced in his human nature, is the ground of our sonship” (611). This position is a needed corrective to some modern authors, who building their doctrine of adoption on a faulty Christology, have presented Christ as both the natural and adopted Son of God in a misguided attempt to do justice to the reality of Christ’s human nature. Instead of guarding Christ’s true humanity, Beeke and Smalley show that such authors have unintentionally treated Christ as two persons, divine and human, instead of the person of the divine Son with a true human nature.

This reviewer’s “criticisms” of this volume are more methodological than substantial. All of the material in volume is useful, but much of it is repetitive with earlier volumes. For example, chapter seven treats signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit, arguing for the cessation of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit (184). Yet volume one included a masterful treatment of this topic, spanning more than sixty pages, in relationship to the doctrine of Scripture. The size of these volumes means that readers may not always remember everything from earlier volumes. However, repeating material, or expanding on the same topics, regularly only makes the total size of the four-volume set larger. Whether such overlap and potential repetition is the right way to approach the material is a judgment call that will appeal to some readers and not to others. All of the material is solid and useful, but this reviewer believes that reducing the size of each volume and of the set as a whole would expand the usefulness of these outstanding books. This is more a criticism of form than of content.

Other issues in this volume do not so much raise points of criticism as much as they foster discussion over questions that admit room for disagreement among Reformed people. For example, the authors’ arguments for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the OT will prove controversial to an extent (106-109). This is admittedly a difficult topic, especially since the consistent witness of the NT is that the indwelling of the Spirit constitutes our union with Christ. More a Christological rather than a Pneumatological problem, it is clearer that the Spirit authored the new birth in the OT than it is that he indwelt believers. If the external works of the Triune God are undivided and indivisible, then we should expect the Spirit to exercise a peculiar work after Christ’s resurrection and ascension that corresponds to and flows from his actual incarnation. Indwelling seems to fit this category best.

It is hard for us to understand how the OT saints could obey God from the new birth without the indwelling Spirit and union with Christ as well. Yet this seems to match best the Trinitarian character and realities surrounding the work of the incarnate Christ. The Spirit did the same kind of work in the OT, but not to the same extent and in the same manner. Admittedly, it is hard to give a definitive answer to this question. The issue of the Spirit’s indwelling in the OT is not a wide point of difference within Reformed theology, so long as we uphold continuity in the Spirit’s work in salvation and in his relation to the eternal Son. None should deny the Spirit’s sanctifying influence in the OT; the question is how he exercised his sanctifying influence, and how this work relates to the pre-incarnate Son.

One other minor point arises in their treatment of sanctification. With regard to sanctification, the authors opt for John Murray’s commonly adopted distinction between definitive and progressive sanctification. In definitive sanctification, believers die to the power of sin, and in progressive sanctification, they pursue holy lives. While this construction has become common, some components appear to be missing, which other historical alternatives can supply. Instead of a twofold sanctification, we may be better off teaching a threefold sanctification. First, there is an external holiness, by which God sets people apart as members of the visible church under the administration of the covenant of grace. Second, older authors referred to habitual sanctification, the Spirit creating a new bent or disposition in the soul towards God and righteousness. This is more than breaking sin’s power through death in that it indicates that the seeds of all obedience are already rooted in believers’ hearts.

Third, actual sanctification flows from habitual sanctification, in that the new birth works itself out in practical Christian living by active dependence on the Spirit for every act of obedience. The authors later imply the need to add the first category in this list when treating apostasy, since Heb. 10:29 refers to apostate people being “sanctified” by Christ’s blood, even though they were not born again or true believers (716). Adding this category and recovering classic medieval and Reformed terminology of habits and acts both nuances more clearly and provides more historical continuity to an otherwise excellent treatment of sanctification.

The virtues of this volume, together with the first two in this set, are too numerous to list. One of Beeke and Smalley’s statements in their concluding chapter encapsulates the tone of the whole, when they write, “All systematic theology, rightly applied, is a theology of prayer” (1000). These volumes teach us to do systematic theology on our knees, as an act of devotion to the Triune God as we look towards seeing him in glory. The daunting size of these volumes should not distract readers from the fact that this work is eminently readable, full of spiritual nourishment, filling us with excitement to glorify God and enjoy him forever. If you want a solid and reliable systematic theology that picks up the devotional and doxological tone of Scripture itself, then you can do no better than Reformed Systematic Theology.


Ryan M. McGraw

Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

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Crossway, 2021 | 1184 pages

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