Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: Letters to a Young Calvinist by James K. A. Smith



James K. A. Smith, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 160pp, $14.99. Paper.

James K. A. Smith’s, Letters to a Young Calvinist exposes the overemphasis of TULIP among “new Calvinism,” and encourages young Calvinists to avoid pride and arrogance that often accompanies theological exercise.  The format of this book is straightforward.  Each chapter is a letter to “Jesse,” (the name is unimportant; think of yourself as the addressee) from an experienced Reformed mentor, who pastorally shows concern and counsel.

There is wisdom to glean from this book, especially in the area of humility.  In addition, Smith’s critique of the misuse of Calvinism by merely focusing on the doctrine of salvation and missing the wider Reformed system will be helpful to the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd.  In effect, Smith encourages the new Calvinist to continue to study our doctrine, but only if it leads to understanding our confessions, worship, and the nature of the church as well. 

There is much to take away from this book but also some to leave behind.  For instance, Smith believes that God has given “friends as sacraments—means of grace given to us as indices of God’s presence as conduits for our sanctification” (13). The Bible and the Reformed confessions only allow for two sacraments.  Once we open the door to more, who will close it?  History shows that the door will remain opened and the ordinary means of grace will be pushed aside. 

Smith wants to present the wider Reformed tradition, “a sprawling mansion with many rooms,” (xii) yet overemphasizes a single room of the Reformed mansion that insists salvation is the restoration of the image of God to save culture and the original creation mandate.  This tradition teaches that the chief end of man is to redeem culture from the secular world.  Smith rightly emphasizes God’s glory in the entire world, and that no “secular” sphere of life is neutral.  Yet, he does not allow for common grace with common cultural activities. 

There is another older and larger Reformed room never mentioned that believes God grounded the cultural realm in the creation order.  As Creator and Sustainer, all life is responsible to God, and He has given a moral law that places all in subjection to God.  In addition, made in God’s own image, all men have a natural law that allows them to live and operate in the common realm to the glory of God.  The image of God remains after the fall (Gen. 9:6; 1Cor. 11:7; James 3:9), therefore, those who do not belong to the covenant of grace can do “civic righteousness.”  Because of common grace, culture is true and legitimate without being Christian. To be Christian is to be saved by Jesus Christ, this is to be emphasized.  To emphasis redemption of culture, misses the point of the one who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).  Christians belong to Christ as redeemed people through the covenant of grace.  Christ died for sinners, not culture.

Reading this book will reward any young Calvinist.  In addition, new Calvinists out in the foyer looking in through the door of TULIP will be encouraged to come through into the mansion that is the Reformed Faith. 

Jared Beaird

MDiv Candidate