Book Review: John B. Wallace, Starting at the Finish Line
John B. Wallace, Starting at the Finish Line: The Gospel of Grace for Mormons (Pomona House Publishing, LLC, 2014). Reviewed by John Divito
As a former Mormon, I was excited to hear about Starting at the Finish Line: The Gospel of Grace for Mormons. John B. Wallace, a fellow former Mormon saved by Christ’s grace, wrote this book for Mormons to read as they consider the teaching and beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the formal name of the Mormon Church). He desires to clearly share the biblical gospel with those who believe that they belong to the “one true church” which alone has the “restored gospel.”
To accomplish this goal, Wallace begins by establishing the truthfulness, accuracy, and sufficiency of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity. The LDS Church undermines confidence in the Bible as God’s Word by declaring: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly….” (Eighth Article of Faith), claiming that it has been corrupted. So we need additional scripture to correctly understand God’s revelation. Wallace seeks to refute this belief by providing evidence confirming the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible.
Accepting the Bible as God’s complete revelation to us, he turns to studying it so that we can hear with fresh ears the gospel of grace. Wallace begins with an explanation of the Law of God, showing us our condemnation under the law for our disobedience and sin. It is only once we recognize that there is no hope in ourselves that the cross of Christ makes sense. Next, he looks to Jesus and His redeeming work of substitution for us. Wallace writes:
This very concept of God’s completed work of redemption through the cross of Jesus is the single most important truth discussed in this entire book. Every single word I’ve written up to this point has been a preparation for this very moment, and everything I’ll write going forward only further explains this glorious, eternal, life-saving truth: Christ on the cross, dying for our sins, is our salvation. This is the good news of the gospel. Our debt to a holy God is paid in full. All praise and all glory to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the Redeemer of our souls (82).
From here, Wallace summarizes our response to this gospel message. According to the Bible, we must believe, repent, receive, abide, and endure. Then the author considers the relationship between grace and works, contrasting the biblical gospel with the LDS view which requires works in order for God’s grace to be sufficient. His book concludes by explaining the Christian life as one where our good works are the result of gratitude for all that Christ has accomplished and secured for us. Thus, Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit to walk faithfully, bringing our Savior glory.
Let me begin by stating my appreciation for Wallace’s valuable presentation of the gospel of grace. With his background in Mormonism, he has a good understanding of LDS teaching which leads to an effective communication of biblical truths. I also welcome Wallace’s loving, conversational tone. In reading his book, I almost feel as if we are casually sitting at a table together discussing what the Bible teaches about salvation.
Additionally, Wallace interweaves his own testimony of coming out of Mormonism and into biblical Christianity, which makes what he is teaching personal and relevant. The reader gets an inside look at the author’s own struggles as he wrestles through comprehending and believing the gospel of grace. Wallace’s many stories, illustrations, and analogies further help us to understand biblical teaching on the gospel.
At the same time, I would like to see improvements made in certain areas. First, I am surprised that Wallace barely touched on the Mormon testimony. With many LDS falling back on their testimony when confronted with challenges to their faith, I expected to read more than “This isn’t a burning in the bosom. This is a wildfire that will burn totally out of control within you. I know because I’ve experienced both the burning and the wild fire” (7). Frankly, I am not even sure what this means, and it seems somewhat problematic at face value.
Second, I observed a lack of precision in Wallace’s theological teaching throughout his book. Now I recognize that he is not a trained theologian—Wallace is a practicing dentist. But this should not excuse him from a careful presentation of biblical truths (see James 3:1). To give the most severe example, he writes: “Naturally, this leads us to the biblical definition of the triune nature of God, commonly referred to as the Trinity. God is one and yet manifests Himself as three distinct beings” (62). This definition would not be acceptable to anyone with a basic familiarity of the biblical and historical teaching on the Trinity. To be fair, reading carefully through this section leads me to believe that Wallace upholds the doctrine of the Trinity. But his presentation is unclear and could even be misleading. Examples of such imprecision could be multiplied, but they would take us beyond a brief review of this book.
Third, Wallace and I come from very different theological perspectives. I picked up elements of dispensational, Arminian, Keswick, and presumably charismatic theology. This leads to a presentation of evidences that I sometimes found unhelpful and arguable. I would also differ with Wallace in areas of his gospel presentation. Please don’t misunderstand me here, we believe and proclaim the same gospel of grace. But I see some of his biblical teaching to be questionable and even problematic without critical interaction.
Nevertheless, I still see Wallace’s book as a helpful tool to share the gospel with Mormons. Ideally, Christians should read this book together with their LDS friends, discussing what is written in light of the Bible as God’s revealed Word. I know that the author would love to hear of many reading his book in one hand with an open Bible in the other. May we all come to believe and treasure God’s wonderful gospel of grace in Jesus Christ!