A Review of Divine Generosity. By Richard Mouw.

Eerdmans, 2024.

What actually makes a person a Christian?

When you have a lot of jokes about something, that is probably because they contain a fair amount of truth. Sectarianism and division in Protestantism certainly exists, and in some denominations even more than others. Reformed churches have seen plenty of splits, and Dutch Reformed churches can especially be known for this.

As one joke about the Dutch Reformed goes: “If you have one German, you have a philosopher; a Dutchman, a theologian; two Germans, an army; two Dutchmen, a church; three Germans, a war; three Dutchmen, a divided church.”

I do not consider myself to be in the Dutch Reformed camp, even though my theological leanings are mainly Reformed and Puritan, and I lived in Holland for five years. But I am aware of how contrarian, pugilistic and feisty some of these folks can be!

Two theologians I quite like – but who are not fully liked by all Calvinists – are Abraham Kuyper and Richard Mouw. I have a number of the latter’s books, and most of them in one way or another deal with Kuyper. So Mouw can be described as a Kuyperian Calvinist, while I, more loosely, might be called a Mouwian Kuyperian.

For those not familiar with Mouw, perhaps simply listing the other eight books of his that I do have will give you a bit more of an idea where the theology and philosophy professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in California is coming from:

Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011)
All That God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight (Brazos, 2020)
Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport: Making Connections in Today’s World (Zondervan, 2004)
The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper (Eerdmans, 2012)
He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2001)
How To Be a Patriotic Christian: Love of Country as Love of Neighbor (IVP, 2022)
Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP, 1992)
When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 2002)

As can be seen, all are published by solid evangelical publishing houses. And his newest book has just come out: Divine Generosity: The Scope of Salvation in Reformed Theology (Eerdmans, 2024). In this book he teases out a question asked back in 1915 by the great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield: “Are they few that be saved?”

Of course others have asked such questions, and last year I examined the biblical and theological material on this subject. See here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/04/01/are-there-only-a-few-who-will-be-saved/

Image of Divine Generosity: The Scope of Salvation in Reformed Theology
Divine Generosity: The Scope of Salvation in Reformed Theology by Mouw, Richard J. (Author) Amazon logo

In this rather short book Mouw looks at a number of important figures such as John Calvin, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, Jonathan Edwards, Herman Bavinck, B. B. Warfield, Herman Hoeksema, W. G. T. Shedd, Robert Dabney, Geerhardus Vos, Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth and others.

Its main theme is that contrary to what some Christians might think, the case for many people being saved is certainly found in Reformed thought. He begins by stating categorically that he is NOT a universalist. He says he does not even WANT to be one. The biblical data does not allow for it.

He writes: “The ultimate lost-ness of hell is real. Many of us who affirm that, however, still have questions about who will end up there.” He says he does not have clear answers on all this, but sides with Spurgeon who said, “there is to be a multitude that no man can number in heaven.” (p. 7)

He looks at some of the older Princeton theologians who had a more expansive view of those who will in the end be saved: “While Warfield, A. A. Hodge, and Shedd certainly disagreed among themselves about some theological specifics, they clearly shared a common desire to advocate for a Calvinism that was guided by a spirit of salvific generosity.” (p. 74)

Those who have the essay by Warfield mentioned above can go back and read it, but Mouw says this about his view:

The fact is, Warfield observes, Jesus is fond of imagery where the few become many and the small becomes large. The mustard seed and leaven images illustrate this, and Warfield thinks it is significant that those examples sit in the Gospels “side by side” with the numbers of those who are saved—thus pointing along with the mustard seed and leaven images to how a small beginning “opens out the widest process for the reach of the saving process as time flows on; so wide a prospect as quite to reverse the implications with respect to the ultimate proportions of the saved and the lost.”


In the light of these considerations, says Warfield, the case for the small-number perspective “crumbles when subjected to scrutiny”. We can be confident, then, that the saving work of Christ “shall embrace the immensely greater part of the human race.” (pp. 52-53)

Of real interest, when discussing the Protestant and Catholic differences on justification by faith, Mouw shares this quote from Bavinck:

“We must remind ourselves that the Catholic righteousness by good works is vastly preferable to a protestant righteousness by good doctrine. At least righteousness by good works benefits one’s neighbor, whereas righteousness by good doctrine only produces lovelessness and pride. Furthermore, we must not blind ourselves to the tremendous faith, genuine repentance, complete surrender and the fervent love for God and neighbor evident in the lives and work of many Catholic Christians.”


The doctrine of justification by faith was foundational to Bavinck’s soteriology. In this observation, however, he was acknowledging that we should recognize the legitimacy of some Catholic qualms about how the Protestant emphasis on the doctrine can play out in practice. He also goes out of his way to commend some of the genuine strengths that he has observed in Catholic life and thought. I was pleased to find Charles Hodge making a similar conciliatory move in dealing with a theological opponent [Schliermacher]…. (pp. 62-63)

He also offers a very telling quote by Shedd in this regard as well (p. 64). None of these three theologians could be accused of being weak in their Reformed theology, but they did allow a bit of room to move in regards to how some other sorts of believers might still be those we can fellowship with.

In my article yesterday where I also quoted from this book, I spoke of those who may well be on a differing journey from us, and think somewhat differently from us, but we should cut a little slack to some of these folks. Their doctrinal understanding might be all rather fuzzy, but they may well have had a saving encounter with the living Christ. We should help them and pray for them as they grow in theological maturity: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2024/05/07/evangelical-pharisees-and-the-god-we-serve/

As Mouw puts it:

Here is my basic take on this kind of case. The person may have a genuine experience of the love of Christ without properly understanding what it is about Jesus’s person and ministry that makes that love possible. In such an instance, the Christian response would not be to express doubt about the person’s testimony about learning forgiveness and love from Jesus. Rather, the focus should be on how to best understand who Jesus is and what he accomplished in his earthly mission.


This is the spiritual journey for many of us: going from being ontologically grounded without epistemic access to gradually grasping the full claims of the gospel. As a Kuyperian, I remain agnostic about when the mystery of regeneration took place in my life, but I do have a vivid memory of Mrs. VandeVusse, my first Sunday school teacher at First Holland Reformed Church in Passaic, New Jersey, teaching us four-year-olds to sing: “Into my heart / into my heart / come into my heart, Lord Jesus. / Come in today / come into stay / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” I remember singing those words with a deep sincerity and then feeling assured afterward that Jesus had done exactly what I had asked him to do. At that time I had no understanding yet of what Jesus had accomplished on my behalf that made it possible for him to be a loving and abiding presence in my life. Mrs. VandeVusse had not prepared us for his entrance into our hearts by teaching us about the substitutionary atonement. But I had the ontological grounding in Christ – I knew his loving embrace – even though I did not yet have the epistemic access to what makes that grounding possible.


None of this is intended to discount the crucial importance of detailed theological understanding of our salvific status…. (pp. 66-67)

Mouw discusses how one can and should be firm in theology yet gracious in dealing with others, and where they might be at in their spiritual journey. He offers some more examples and then says this:

I find Kuyper doing this with liberal theologians as he nears the end of his Stone lectures. Like Hodge on Schliermacher, Kuyper was often aggressive in pointing out the dangers of modernist theology. But as he concludes his presentations at Princeton Seminary, he takes on a gentler tone about modernists….


These kinds of cases confirmed the old saw that a person’s actual faith may be better than the person’s theology. That saying, however, applies more often to individuals than to communities. . . . Solid theology – formulated with careful attention to heresies that deceive and confuse – is essential to sustaining a shared vibrant faith. (pp. 68-69)

And once again: “A person can be genuinely grounded in Christ ontologically without having adequate epistemic access to the truth claims that provide the explanatory basis for that grounding.” (p. 72) He closes his book with these words:


In the Calvinist community that formed me, I did sometimes hear things that pointed in the direction of a large-number scenario without actually arriving there theologically. This typically occurred for me on family occasions when someone would raise a question about a specific person. I remember my Dutch Reformed aunt speaking glowingly about her neighbor. “We have great conversations about things, and we often agree. It makes me wonder because she is a Polish Catholic—but often she actually sounds Christian!” Then someone else would remark (and this would usually end the conversation with heads nodding in agreement), “Well, you never know. Sometimes I think that when we get to heaven we will be surprised by who else is there!”


At its heart Calvinism is a theology of surprises. This is why even its gloomier expressions can serve to celebrate in our souls the wonders of sovereign grace:


Alas, and did my Savior bleed

And did my Sov’reign die?

Would He devote that sacred head

For such a worm as I?


And this experience of surprise in our deep places prepares us to be open to see God’s mercies reaching into the deep places of others—and even to more cosmic surprises. God so loved the world—the kosmos, the creation that in the beginning God declared to be good—that he sent the Son into our midst so that the whole creation could be saved and renewed through his redemptive mission. Then the risen and ascended Lord sent his Spirit to call an elect people into being, to bring divine blessings to all the nations of the earth. What the final nature and scope of those blessings will be brings the promise that great surprises are yet to come, by the power of the Spirit, who “worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth.” (pp. 124-125)

Some years ago when I was teaching students theology, I asked them two questions, with their answers put up on the white board. “What do you need to do to become a Christian?” and “What do you need to believe to become a Christian?”

It was quite interesting to see all the different replies, and the quite long lists we got to both questions. These are of course very important matters, but I do like what Mouw said above: “a person’s actual faith may be better than the person’s theology”.

In my piece from yesterday I spoke of Evangelical Pharisees who were so very quick to judge and condemn others if their experiences and beliefs differed in the slightest from their own. Some of these folks try to sit in the place of God, informing us who is and who is not a Christian.

Thankfully it is God who at the end of the day is the sole and perfect judge of such matters. As such, I do quite appreciate this new volume by Mouw. Yes, some readers are now ready to tar and feather me, but all I can do is urge them to read the volume for themselves before going on the warpath!

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6 Replies to “A Review of Divine Generosity. By Richard Mouw.”

  1. Thank you, Bill, for your very uplifting review of Richard J. Mouw’s recent book, Divine Generosity: The Scope of Salvation in Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2024)

    I’m very taken by that wise observation, quoted above, by the Dutch Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) on Roman Catholicism.

    I’ve tracked down the source for the benefit of your readers. Bavinck wrote:

    “[W]e must remind ourselves that the Catholic righteousness by good works is vastly preferable to a protestant righteousness by good doctrine. At least righteousness by good works benefits one’s neighbor, whereas righteousness by good doctrine only produces lovelessness and pride. Furthermore, we must not blind ourselves to the tremendous faith, genuine repentance, complete surrender and the fervent love for God and neighbor evident in the lives and work of many Catholic Christians.”

    Source: Herman Bavinck, The Certainty of Faith [1891], English translation (St Catharines, Ontario, Canada: Paideia Press, 1980), pp. 36–37.

    A PDF copy of Bavinck’s 95-page book may be downloaded free of charge, courtesy of the Cántaro Institute Digital Library, from: https://cantaroinstitute.org/the-certainty-of-faith/

  2. I like the comment made by John.
    That stirred me too. However, as long as they don’t put their faith and trust in their good works as we believe that good works are done in thankfulness as result of faith.
    Hopefully our faith is based on the fact that Christ has done it all for us.
    And in this way, our good works is based on good doctrine.
    However our good works should be based and flow out of good doctrine.
    Anyway, that’s one side of it which John and everybody probably agrees with.
    However, that other bit Is scary, and sadly those people do exist that take pride in the fact that they think they have the right doctrine. And pride is the greatest enemy of a true Christian.
    Thanks for posting Bill. Very interesting read.
    You have given me an appetite to read the whole book.
    Hope you’re doing well and are Experiencing and feeling Gods love and care in your new circumstances. Mettina

  3. Very important write up ….Mouw’s quotes are great additions to the conversation about salvation. Thankful the Gospel is very simple that children can come into salvation as I can testify regarding myself and family . Sunday School and parents home devotions and singing and prayers are vital, But also I certainly don’t discount sound theology to keep from going astray because of the challenges of those who expose heresy, or Universalism or Syncretism. We have our lifetimes to explore the depth of salvation through the Work of the Cross of Christ and the Grace of God offered and available to be received.

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