The Sovereignity of Grace by Arthur C. Custance

Custance, Arthur C. The Sovereignty of Grace. Grand Rapids, Mich: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co. with Baker Book House, 1979 [2nd ed., on-line. Corrected, edited, and reformatted.] 
Arthur Custance (1910-1985) was a name foreign to me until only recently.  None of his books were required reading in seminary; never did his name appear in a citation.  While The Sovereignty of Grace is now available to read for free on-line, it appears in few public libraries, if any.  It's basically out of print and out of circulation.  Yet, when a respected friend told me Custance was among his favorite authors and he had two copies of this particular book but couldn't bring himself to read it for fear of being convinced of his argument, my interest in Custance was born. 

As it turns out, Author Custance has written a few books on a wide range of topics.  Some of his other titles include Two Men Called Adam, Seed of the Woman, Without Form and Void, Journey Out of Time, and Mysterious Matter of MindThe Doorway Papers is a 10-volume collection of other scholarly writings on science and religion.  Redeemer University College is home to the Arthur Custance Centre and a website, is dedicated to preserving his memory and selling his books.  Some are available to be read on-line, which is how I journeyed through The Sovereignty of Grace.

While many of Custance's titles appear to hold a strong scientific-theological marriage, The Sovereignty of Grace is far from that relationship.  Instead, Custance explores the theological topic of the order of salvation through a historical and biblical trek, the likes few have of done so thoroughly.  Rather than beginning from a foundation of the more recent 'Armenianism v. Calvinism' debates, he begins with Scripture.  Then he revisits Scripture with serious examination and the theology associated with it through a historical path starting with Paul, moving through the ideas of Augustin, and then on by way of many, many theologians, eventually getting to John Calvin.  By the time Calvin is reached, one is left with the impression that Calvinism is mistakenly credited to the wrong man.

The Sovereignty of Grace Abstract opens with the line, "In this study ELECTION and PREDESTINATION are not cold, austere doctrines but the vibrant heart of the Gospel."[1] Everything that follows stands in complete agreement with this opening proclamation.  While many who disagree with Custance's detailed argument may find offense and the mastery of his thesis and the bold stand which he takes upon his convictions of Scripture, there is nothing in Custance's words that intentionally attack his opponents themselves or demonstrate a lack of respect.  His target remains keenly focused on the theological matter before him and his convictions are clearly demonstrated.  Yet, even I who agree with his argument on the order of salvation and understanding of election and predestination at one point felt offended by his boldness, feeling sympathy for my Christian brothers and sisters holding the very theological position being utterly destroyed by the evidence.  However, as I continued to read and grew even more convinced by Scripture, I began to wonder why we don't feel this same sympathy for those to stand with Pelagius and works-based salvation, or for those who claim that Jesus is but one way to salvation? (Rather than the only way.)  It is a complicated matter, but through Custance thorough handling of Scripture as well as his research though history, I believe it is okay to take a stand against what Custance argues is an unbiblical position, without being mean or disrespectful to those who hold the position.  After all, Custance's overarching point of the entire book is that we must depend upon God's Word to dictate the truth rather than our desired outcomes driven from deep within our hope to hold on to misunderstood 'freedoms.'

Custance structures his book in six parts although Part VI is really more of a single-chapter conclusion and could have been set up as such, like the introduction was. Part I is an extensive journey from the New Testament writing to the Reformation.  Chapter-after-chapter this section is loaded with Scripture and lengthy quotes from the Church Fathers, philosophers, and various theologians.  The reader should greatly appreciate the size of the quotes, leaving the reader feeling that the primary matter was not taken out of context.  Some block quotes ran for an entire page or more.  Additionally, Custance did not shy away from the Scriptures that could be used to argue against his thesis or an examination of how these biblical passages have been understood throughout pre-reformation and reformation history.  His historical starting point is informative and enjoyable, but it also helps provide remarkable background before he ever introduces the infamous "TULIP."  And while it wasn't actually Calvin that articulated this acronym he did articulated the theological position as he saw it in the Bible.  That being said, it is clear that the doctrine was articulated long before Calvin, and had not Calvin been the front-man, Custance's historical survey makes it obvious that surely there would have been another championing this doctrine.  Part I, in and of itself is so convincing, one may not need to venture into Part II.  

Part II is a lengthy examination of the theology of grace.  It works through TULIP in structure but most points get multiple chapters.  While Part I likely could have been a stand-alone monogram, surely Part II would have been more than sufficient to stand alone as a book on the shelf.  It is extremely detailed, sometimes getting too bogged down in the minutia of the human condition, sin, and theological philosophy.  Part II is equally as loaded with Scripture as Part I, if not more so; and it may be that the extensive material was included for those who found doubt in what Custance so clearly presented from Scripture.  Custance is clear but gracious as he works through each of the 5-points of Calvinism.  He concedes the more difficult areas and confesses that the point of limited atonement depends less on Scripture than do the other points (although he does argue that with the Scripture of the other points, logic suggests that the atonement of Christ must be limited).    Parts I and II together could rival any book of the many I have on my shelf that cover this topic, some from very respected theologians.  By the conclusion of Part II, Custance's brilliance and wisdom clearly shine.

Parts III, IV, and V run a little shorter in length but serve to answer the practical questions that logically must come after Parts I and II.  Part III deals with the practical life application of this doctrine.  Significantly, one should find comfort in understanding this doctrine and see God's grace even more magnificently in light of it.  What then becomes or responsibility?  Custance dedicates and entire chapter to this question.  He also examines how we are to understand our Spiritual gifts within the Church in light of God's will.  Part V tackles the sticky questions of election and evangelism.  While Custance quotes extensively from J. I. Packer's little book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, I feel Custance answered this question better than Packer, and in greater detail (although he may have also used more pages to do so).  Part V deals with the fate of the non-elect.  In three chapters, Custance deals with hell and punishment.

My greatest criticism of The Sovereignty of Grace is Part V.  Custance concedes that he had very little conviction in this area and was still working it out himself.  As a result however, a book that stands so firmly on Scripture and bold proclamation all but concludes something that almost nearly explains away an eternal hell and punishment with the use of lexicons rather than Scripture.  What should catch the reader's attention immediately is how little Scripture appears in Part V compared to the previous four parts.  It was almost as if some biblical texts were intentionally avoided.  While I deeply respect Custance's desire to work this out, I am disappointed by Part V based on what I read in the previous four parts.  It should have been entirely left out of the work until Custance could stand as firmly on his argument and as boldly on his convictions as he does with the rest of the book, even if he would have come to positions and convictions I might disagree with.  (It is not his soft conclusions I am disappointed with, but the fact that he did not work through Part V with the same methodology as he did in the remainder of the work.)

A second criticism I have has nothing to do with Custance, but with the delivery method and marketing of the "out of print" work.  It can be purchased on the website and even read and quasi-downloaded for reading electronically, yet is is hidden away in a dusty corner of the internet and available in antiquated technology.  Had it not been for the caliber and wisdom of the man who introduced me to Aurthur Custance, I would not have searched him out and I certainly would not have got through the effort to read this book electronically as I did.  As easy and cheap as print-on-demand is today, as well as it's availability, this book should, no, this book must be made available by these means and maybe available on Kindle too.

This is a remarkable book and well worth the read if you can get your hands on a hard copy.  I highly recommend it!     

1. The abnormal way this book was made available on-line makes it difficult to cite properly. Therefore, the reference may only point the reader to the 2001 edition of the on-line material title heading.