I only just got around to reading Philip Yancey’s 1997, award winning book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? When a friend gave me this book several years ago I mistook it for another book I thought I had already read it. But a few weeks ago I picked it up, got whacked in the guts by the story at the start of chapter 1, and realized I hadn’t. Better late than never.
What’s So Amazing About Grace? must be one of the most popular books on grace. There are hundreds of reviews of this book on Amazon, and I have little desire to add to this mountain of generally positive, and richly deserved, feedback. But for the benefit of those of you who haven’t read Yancey’s book, here’s my brief summary:
What’s So Amazing about Grace? is a collection of stories about supernatural grace versus worldly ungrace. Stories are drawn from history (the Clapham Sect, Hitler) to events that were current at the time of writing (Bill Clinton and the Balkan crisis), and from classic fiction (Babette’s Feast, Les Miserables) to everyday family dramas. We learn about the founding of the modern hospice movement, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, and Prison Fellowship. We get sound-bites from a diverse ensemble of characters ranging from the gracious (Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa) to the godless (Bertrand Russell, John Dillinger). It is such a colorful book that if they turned it into a series on the Discovery Channel it would be a winner! As you would expect in a book coming from an American evangelical writer there is a heavy emphasis on politics. But my favorite part is found in the final chapter, when Yancey writes about serving communion to the imperfect people in his church. This part inspired me to ask the question, who can take communion? So all in all, it’s a good book that succeeds in its goal of conveying grace. Read it and be blessed.
That said, I have three concerns with Yancey’s theology. I list these here not to criticize his work but to build upon it in the hope that we might advance towards our shared goal of seeing the church become a place where grace is found “on tap.” I wholeheartedly agree with Yancey when he says that a Christian’s main contribution to society is dispensing God’s grace. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that.
1. Forgiveness doesn’t start with us
Yancey argues forcefully that the human race needs forgiveness if we are to break the chains of ungrace. But he over-steps when he says, “In some mysterious way, divine forgiveness depends on us” (p.88). The context of this comment is the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew 6:15 Jesus said if we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us. Yancey wishes these words weren’t in the Bible for they seem to turn grace into law. He frets that if we think others are unworthy of forgiveness, we make ourselves unworthy of it too.
Yancey need not fret. These words of Jesus were spoken to people living under the law and not to us. To the law-conscious Jews, Jesus made forgiveness conditional in order to silence the self-righteous and reveal our need for a Savior (Gal 3:24). Thankfully the cross changed everything. We are not under law but grace (Rms 6:14) and forgiveness really does start with God (Col 2:13). As Yancey says elsewhere, forgiveness is a gift. You cannot earn it or qualify for it. You can only receive it.
2. We’re not sinful saints
Yancey is clearly impressed with the grace-dispensing practices of Alcoholics Anonymous. He seems to think that the church will be better off if we adopt AA’s principles of radical honesty and utter dependence on God. I agree. But radical honesty for Yancey means standing up, like an AA member, and declaring that one is still a sinner – even if one has been born again. I would say this radical dishonesty for it denies the transforming power of God’s grace.
For someone who is concerned with the original meaning of words like grace and charity, it is puzzling that Yancey uses the word saint pejoratively, usually to describe someone who is self-righteous and religious. Yancey clarifies that “true saints never lose sight of their sinfulness” (p.273). I guess there is a logic to this. If you know you are sinful and impure, you will be receptive to God’s grace. But give God a little credit! His grace turns sinners into saints. As the song says, I once was lost, but now I am found. It would be foolish of me to pretend I’m still lost or that I’m blind now that I can see. When you come to Jesus you get a new nature and it’s His nature. Would you call Jesus a sinner? I’m not denying the reality of our imperfections; I’m declaring faith in a higher reality which is Christ in me the hope of glory (Col 1:27). Yancey says that spiritual maturity is being aware of your own impurities (p.88). But the Bible challenges us to grow in the grace and knowledge of Him (2 Pe 3:18). Real maturity comes from knowing Jesus and appreciating what He has accomplished on your behalf (Eph 4:18).
Telling saints to pretend that they’re still sinners is the wrong way to release grace. It’ll get you asking for something you already have. The Bible says that he who is in Christ is a new creation (2 Co 5:17). Do you know what’s new about you? It’s true that we remain works-in-progress, but there will be no progress unless we learn to see ourselves as God sees us.
3. Trying harder is not the secret to Christian living
As I said I am completely in agreement with Yancey’s desire to see the church become a place where grace is dispensed. He is right on the money when it comes to the what. But he misses the mark when it comes to the how. How are we to forgive when forgiveness is so often hard to do? You must just try, says Yancey, for even though forgiveness is hard, the alternative is harder still. In other words, it’s up to us.
As an exemplar of this self-centered approach, Yancey describes Martin Luther King’s constant struggle to meet physical force with grace: “King had to fast for several days to achieve the spiritual discipline necessary for him to forgive his enemies” (p.132). What an achievement! But what does this have to do with grace? Nothing. This is walking after the flesh. It’s willpower not Spirit-power. I think Martin Luther King had an amazing revelation of grace but I have little faith in “soul force” or any other fleshly manifestation. The kind of grace that changes men comes from above, not within.
The choice is simple: You can try or you can trust. Perhaps you’ve achieved some successes in your own strength, but how will this help you when life hands you an impossible challenge? How will you forgive the unforgiveable? How do you love your enemies and those who spitefully use you? Yancey readily acknowledges that we all have limits and that we will likely fail. We should not pretend to be perfect – that’s hypocrisy. Far better to repent and resolve to do better next time. But this leads to yo-yo Christianity. You’ll be up one day but down the next. There’s a reason it doesn’t work: it’s a flesh trip and God won’t bless it.
The Christian life is not just hard, it’s impossible. No one can live the Christian life except Christ. The key to succeeding is not to try harder, but to see your self as crucified with Christ. Sometimes the best thing you can say is, “Lord I can’t do it!” Wonderful! Now stand aside and watch Him do it through you. Some of the people Yancey writes about illustrate this truth. He quotes a Polish Christian who could not forgive the Germans for their WWII atrocities: “Humanly speaking, I cannot do it, but God will give us his strength!” (p.123). That’s where grace is found – in saying, “Lord, I cannot, but You can!”
What is the secret to living the Christian life? Paul tells us:
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
Grace truly is amazing and Yancey does a good job of telling stories about it. But grace is even more amazing than Yancey describes, for Grace forgives us even before we have forgiven others, He makes us new, and He empowers us to reign in life supernaturally.
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