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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What’s So Amazing About Grace?

What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Upon the advice of a friend, I read Philip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan 1997).  Yes, I realize the book has been out for quite some time, but I’m a little behind on my reading.

As the dustcover blurb says, this is a “provocative book.”  I knew before I opened it that I would not agree with everything within the covers of this book because my friend said something to the effect, “This is one of the best books I have ever read, but I don’t agree with all of Yancey’s conclusions.”  And then, before reading the book, I read this “endorsement” in the front of the book by my favorite Christian writer, Chuck Colson, “Philip Yancey is one of the most engaging and convicting writers in the Christian world.  Once again he has produced a work with something in it to make everyone mad.”  Yikes.  I had to ask myself, paraphrasing the book title, “What’s so irritating about Philip Yancey?”

Before I quickly cover the irritating things I found in this book, let me say that in spite of my differences with Yancey, this is a powerful book that gave me a deeper understanding of grace.  It was fully worth the read.  And hopefully I will continue to understand grace more deeply thanks to this book.

Really, my complaints about Yancey are limited.  The Bible was written primarily to explain God’s relationship to man and man’s relationship to God.  Man’s relationship to government is covered in Romans 13 where Paul says that believers should obey the government and pay taxes because government was established by God.  Paul goes on to say that God gave the power of the sword to punish evildoers.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke relate the story of the Pharisees who tried to trick Jesus by asking Him if it was right to pay taxes to Rome.  Jesus responded by asking for a coin then asking them whose image was on the coin.  They replied, “The emperor’s.”  Upon hearing their response, Jesus stated, “Very well, give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give God what belongs to God.”

What does all this have to do with Philip Yancey and his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?  Just this, after providing insight into the power of God’s grace in our lives and its ability to soften even the hardest heart, Yancey makes the quantum jump to assert that it was the power of grace that brought down the Soviet empire.  Yes, by the Grace of God, prayers were answered and the Soviet Union collapsed.  It didn’t happen because the Soviet bosses softened their hearts.  But according to this passage on page 262, that’s apparently what Yancey thinks, “In Poland the Catholics marched past government buildings shouting, ‘We forgive you!’  In East Germany, Christians lit candles, prayed, and marched in the streets until one night the Berlin Wall collapsed like a rotten dam.”  

Really?  So it wasn’t an evil empire like Ronald Reagan said?  It didn’t fall because of the pressure exerted on it by the Pope, by Margaret Thatcher and by Ronald Reagan?  Grace is about people.

Yancey also uses his book as a forum to write about a thinly disguised complaint that the article he wrote in Christianity Today about the Clintons was really true.  The gist of the story is that he met with Bill and Hillary Clinton and found them to be committed Christians.  Perhaps, because no one can look into the hearts of another person, but more likely, Yancey was “rolled” as he was accused of at the time.  Yancey says in his book, “… I found it almost impossible to understand the Clintons apart from their religious faith.”  

Yancey also relates a story of a 1991 meeting, along with other Christians, in the infamous Lubyanka prison with General Nikolai Stolyarov, Vice Chairman of the KGB.  The General apparently wept and repented.  Yancey and others in his group bought it, but the Russian photographer who had accompanied them later told them, “It was all an act.”  Yancey demurred.

And yet, this is a powerful, important book that is well worth reading because the naiveté of Yancey on the world scene doesn’t diminish his understanding of the power of God’s grace in individuals’ lives.

Yancey is a great story teller and his ability to relate incredible stories of grace changing hardened hearts is both compelling and powerful.

Yancey clearly understands God’s greatest grace, “… grace does not depend on what we have done for God but rather what God has done for us.”  Jesus “… was the shepherd who left the safety of the fold for the dark and dangerous night outside.  To His banquets He welcomed tax collectors and reprobates and whores.  He came for the sick and not the well, for the unrighteous and not the righteous.”

About Jesus’ parable of the workers who were paid equal amounts even though some worked just an hour compared to others who worked 12 hours, Yancey sums it up correctly, “God dispenses gifts, not wages.”

He talks about “… a humble awareness that God has already forgiven us a debt so mountainous that beside it any person’s wrongs against us shrink to the size of anthills.  How can we not forgive each other in light of all God has forgiven us?”

Yancey quotes C.S. Lewis, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”  Yancey summarizes again, “… grace means there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less.”

And Yancey includes this quote by Charles Williams in regard to the Lord’s Prayer, “No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word ‘as’ in that clause.”  Yancey observes, “What makes the ‘as’ so terrifying?  The fact that Jesus plainly links our forgiven-ness by the Father with our forgiving-ness of fellow human beings.  Jesus’ next remark could not be more explicit:  “If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

I think you are probably beginning to see why, in spite of my differences with Yancey, I liked this book so much.  Quickly, here are a few more succinct blurbs from Yancey:
  1. The gospel of grace begins and ends with forgiveness.  People write songs with titles like “Amazing Grace” for one reason: Grace is the only force in the universe powerful enough to break the chains that enslave generations.  Grace alone melts ungrace.
  2. … forgiveness is an act of faith.
  3. A cease-fire between human beings depends upon a cease-fire with God.
  4. Forgiveness offers a way out.  It does not settle all questions of blame and fairness—often it pointedly evades those questions—but it does allow a relationship to start over.
  5. You can know the law by heart without knowing the heart of it.
  6. … the proof of spiritual maturity is not how “pure” you are but rather the awareness of your impurity.
  7. Repentance, not proper behavior or even holiness, is the doorway to grace.
  8. The solution to sin is not to impose an ever-stricter code of behavior.  It is to know God.
  9. Moralism apart from grace solves little.
  10. Our founders thought religious faith essential for a democracy to work: In John Adams’ words, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
  11. It was Christianity, and only Christianity, that brought an end to slavery…
  12. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said: …“Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
  13. The Christian knows to serve the weak not because they deserve it but because God extended His love to us when we deserved the opposite.
  14. The desire to “be as gods,” after all, led Adam and Eve to rebel.
  15. I escape the force of spiritual “gravity” when I begin to see myself as a sinner who cannot please God by any method of self-improvement or self-enlargement.

Yes, please read this book.  Yancey does indeed see the problems of this world in the light of God’s grace.  He quotes Lesslie Newbigin, “The project of bringing heaven down to earth always results in bringing hell up from below.”  How true.  The imperfection of man is cured only by repentance granted, without merit, by God’s grace.


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