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Review: What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Category Book Reviews
Date August 22, 2001


by Philip Yancey, (Zondervan, 1997)

“Grace [is] ‘the last best word,’ the only unsullied theological word remaining in our language.” (p.232) So writes Philip Yancey in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Other words, like love and charity, for instance, have all but lost their original theological meaning, but grace has managed even through years of usage in common parlance grace has managed to retain the deep and profound meaning that it had in the days of Jesus and the apostles. What is that meaning? Grace, writes Yancey, means . . . well, I looked through the book in vain, really, for some succinct and quotable definition of the word. Yancey gives none. His reason lies at the end of chapter one, a single sentence in a paragraph all its own: “In sum, I would far rather convey grace than explain it.” (p.16) In other words, Yancey would rather his readers feel grace than define it, experience it rather than study it. His book is a collection of stories that illustrate what Yancey means by “grace,” interspersed here and there with some political commentary and light scriptural exegesis.

The book opens in Part One with a description of our world as a place full of what Yancey calls “ungrace.” The cure for this is grace, which is often anti-mathematical and against the rules of tight logic. Part Two is a plea for the world to forgive. For the most part, it is a collection of stories of some people who forgave, some who did not, and the results of both. “Forgiveness,” Yancey writes, “breaks the cycle of blame and loosens the stranglehold of guilt.” (p.104) Next, he tells several stories of how one person or another apologizes for the actions of a nation, and another man, on behalf of another nation, accepts the apology and forgives. If forgiveness can be a healing force in the lives of individuals, then “The same principle applies to nations.” (p.120) The book continues in Part Three with a chapter about the ungraciousness of Christians toward homosexuals, and Yancey’s admiration of homosexuals for their own graciousness toward others. A chapter on repentance follows, and then Yancey writes a chapter inveighing against the legalism he experienced in a Christian college.

The final few chapters of the book are essentially Yancey’s manifesto on the separation between church and state, the Clinton presidency, and the work of Christian political action groups. In Galatians chapter 5, Paul lists love and kindness as two of the fruits that should be seen in a believer’s life through the influence of the Holy Spirit. Kindness, mercy, and love are part of what it means to be a Christian; they are part of the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in a person’s life. This is Yancey’s indictment of the Christian church that it too little embodies these kinds of virtues. The church needs to be less judgmental, less negative, more loving.

We should pause here to admit that it is exceedingly dangerous to say anything in opposition to an argument like that. One cross word about it, and the reviewer unwittingly condemns himself as a judgmental, unloving negativist, and legitimizes the complaint of the book. So I suppose we must begin with the premise that pointing out error, and that even with some gusto, is not necessarily a bad thing. Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and even Philip Yancey all do it quite frequently.

So far as I can tell, there is no rhyme or reason to Yancey’s definition of grace or lacking that, his description of graciousness other than that which may be described as “nice” or “kind” or even “pleasant.” Granted, Yancey never uses those precise words to define “grace,” but that meaning becomes clear as one reads the book. For example, on page 13 of the book, Yancey describes grace: “The Berlin Wall falls in a night of euphoria;

South Africans queue up . . . to cast their first votes ever; Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands in the Rose Garden for a moment grace descends.” These are all wonderful and life-changing events, but would the Bible really define grace by them? In another place (p.36), Yancey laments that in our world, “Test papers come back with errors ‘not correct answers’ highlighted.” Unacceptable “ungrace,” in Yancey’s mind.

Again, he tells of his secret nighttime rendezvous with a Steinway grand piano (p.41), and of the joy he felt as he played Beethoven, Chopin, and Schubert in the secrecy of night. “Here I sensed a hidden world of beauty, grace, and wonder light as a cloud and startling as a butterfly wing.” I personally have been trying to educate myself lately in classical music, and I can agree that it is beautiful art. Yet as nice and pleasant as a piano sonata can be, one wonders how Yancey can write such a paragraph and walk away exulting that “grace” is “one grand theological word that has not spoiled.” (p.12)

The definition of grace, implicit though it may be, as “pleasantness” and “niceness” is unchanged through the book. It is interesting to look through it and pinpoint whom exactly Yancey saddles with the label “ungrace,” and whom he praises and defends as a model of grace. The pattern emerges that everyone whom Yancey would define as kind or nice is gracious, and everyone who is mean and unkind is “ungrace.” Sometimes he gets it right. Nazis and murderers are condemned, while those who forgive Nazis and murderers are praised. Racists are condemned; Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who minister to racists are praised. There are some profound reasons for saying thanks to a man like Martin Luther King, Jr. and for condemning the likes of Adolf Hitler. Those reasons have to do with sin and righteousness.

Yancey’s judgments at first seem to have that depth of insight, at least until one realizes the pattern of those he praises and condemns. Yancey’s criticisms turn out to pivot not at all on sin, but on pleasantness and niceness abortion protestors, people who would call homosexuality a sin, and anyone who writes a negative review of a Yancey book are all “angry,” “vicious,” and “vituperative.” (p.227-228) By contrast, Bill Clinton, homosexuals, and even divorcees are lauded and pitied as people who have been the targets of Christian “hatred” (p.226) and “judgment.” (p.11 and 31). Perhaps the closest thing to a succinct definition Yancey gives is on p.231 when he defines his word “ungrace” as, quite simply, “meanness and inflexibility.” It may sound less than profound, but that is precisely the dividing line between the good and evil in Yancey’s world, between the “grace” and the “ungrace” in his mind. Certainly he praises and criticizes the right people at various times in the book, but it is hardly worth much if that judgment is little more than a summary pronouncement of “nice” or “mean.”

Yancey gives little countenance at all to conviction or justice. In the first few pages of the book, he tells the story of a woman who was approached by a pastor’s wife and told that she could not follow Jesus and divorce her husband. “If she had just put her arms around [the woman] and said, ‘I’m so sorry'” In another place (p.278), he writes of how he lovingly gave communion to a woman who had just begun her fourth marriage. “This one will be different, I just know,” she had said. Yancey has no wariness at all about talking about homosexuality, so long as he doesn’t have to call it a sin. Homosexuals are just “different” people (p.163). They are “sinners” only in the mouths of those vituperative and vicious people who will lambaste Yancey and accuse him of “coddling” them.

For his part, Yancey is impressed that he can attend a gay-rights march (though I’m sure he would argue that such is not condoning the sin) and hear the “poignant” chant of the marchers: “Jesus loves us, this we know, for the Bible tells us so!” (p.166) Yancey writes, and I agree with him the scene is ironic. Here are people in open and flagrant violation of the Scriptures, and Yancey is more impressed that they can say the words “Jesus loves me” than he is disturbed by their sin. Grace is not simply an acceptance of everyone for the sake of acceptance and harmony. There is something in the world called sin, and God hates it. Homosexuals are not merely “different,” however Yancey may protest. They are sinners. Their behavior is sinful. Yes, we are all sinners, but the difference between a Christian and those marchers is that the Christian cowers under the judgment of God and repents of his sin. Those marchers revel in their sin, celebrate it, and arrogantly sing “Jesus loves me.” And Yancey can hardly find enough words to express his admiration for them.

One chorus that sounds repeatedly through Yancey’s book is the story of a prostitute whom he invited to church. (p.11) Her response was, “Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.” Yancey heralds that pronouncement as an indictment of the church’s judgmental and negative attitude. I agree whole-heartedly that the church is to love sinners and tell them the gospel of Christ, but did Yancey never stop to think that maybe the church is supposed to make that prostitute feel bad? Perhaps conviction of sin is not categorically a bad thing, and perhaps it is actually loving to make someone feel uncomfortable about their sin. Paul didn’t have any problem at all telling the whole world that they were “worthless,” “deceitful,” and had the poison of vipers on their lips.” (Rom. 3:12-13) He has no problem telling them that they are sinners and that they will therefore die. (Rom. 6:23) Jesus Himself says that it is the very work of the Holy Spirit to “convict the world of guilt in regard to sin.” (John 16:8) Imagine that! “The Holy Spirit! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. He’d just make me feel worse!”

I also believe that in discussing forgiveness, a noble virtue, Yancey ends up slighting justice. He writes two chapters arguing that nations should simply forgive one another for atrocities in the past. He tells of a book called The Sunflower in which a Jewish rabbi is called to see a dying Nazi. The Nazi tells him a horrific story of how he and his troop rounded up three hundred Jews, locked them in a three-story house, doused it with gasoline, and set fire to it, sticking around long enough to shoot those who dared try to jump from the upper windows. The Nazi asks the rabbi to forgive him for his actions, but the rabbi, overcome, cannot speak and walks out without a word. The second half of the book contains letters, some from Christians, who write that perhaps the rabbi had some reason not to embrace the man. Yancey’s reaction? “I was struck by the terrible, crystalline logic of unforgiveness.” (p.112)

It is unclear to me whether it is the falseness or naiveté of that statement that is more striking. What would Yancey have had this Jewish rabbi to do? I am convinced that it is not a bad thing for people to cry out for justice. It is not ungodly for Christians to wish for God’s intervention and judgment on the atrocities that fill our world. It is a fundamental part of our nature as God has created us, and a testimony to our faith in Him and in His goodness that we believe finally, when all is done, it will all be made right. Justice will be vindicated. Not very surprisingly, Yancey himself doesn’t hold the line for long. How would he have responded in the Jewish rabbi’s case? “I don’t know . . . the Holocaust creates special conditions.” (p.114) But for our world, he says, for the atrocities in the Balkans, the killing of Serbs and Croats, the persecuted minorities in China, the survivors of despotic Communist regimes those people should simply forgive. Anything else is just “the terrible logic of unforgiveness.” (p.114) I am not sure it is realistic or even biblical for Yancey to call these nations to forgive and forget injustice. Certainly they should not seek vengeance at the edge of their own swords, but neither should they simply sweep those atrocities under the rug and forget them (as if that were possible). Part of our faith in God rests on the fact that He has promised to correct injustice. He has promised that justice will be executed. It is no bad thing for Christians to cry out and wait and even hope for God to balance the scales.

As one reads through the Old Testament, what is Israel’s comfort as they are overrun by enemies? Does God ever tell them to forgive and forget the whole affair? No, the Israelites were to take comfort in God’s promise that He would finally exact justice, that he would repay those nations for their evil. Not only that, but they were to hope for that day. It does sound strange, but the Israelites were to take joy in the fact that God would destroy those people! How many times in the Bible does our God promise that injustice will finally be set right, that those who do evil will be punished? Was it a mere desire for revenge that made David cry for God to remember the sins of his enemies and punish them? (Psalm 109:15) Was it mere vengefulness in God when He promised to fill the streets of Babylon with the dead for her wicked acts against Israel? (Jer. 50:29-30 and innumerable others) I don’t think so. I think that all of those were cries for justice that are shared by all human beings. They were cries for God to carry out His own promise of avenging injustice.

I think that Jewish rabbi was probably correct to walk away from the Nazi in silence. He didn’t try to get revenge on the man, but neither was he able to embrace him and tell him it was all forgiven. I imagine that with whatever “faith” the man had in his God, he was crying out for justice to be done. And that is no bad thing, whether for that man or any other suffering injustice.

In the end, Yancey’s conception of grace is inadequate at best. It evacuates the word of any meaning other than “niceness,” which will eventually evacuate the gospel itself of any meaning. If sin is defined by “niceness” and evil by “meanness,” then indeed it is not surprising that Yancey might have some confusion about whether Christians or homosexual militants are more “grace-full.” And while we are taught to forgive because we have been forgiven, we would do well to recognize God’s promises, on almost every page of the Bible, that justice will be done. Our faith rests precisely on that truth, that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.” (Psa. 97:2) So what’s so amazing about grace? What is so amazing about grace is that this righteous God, who has sworn that He will punish sin and execute justice, has nevertheless seen fit to extend it to a sinner like me.

Greg Gilbert

Pastoral Assistant to Dr. Mark Dever, Capitol Hill Baptist Church Washington, D.C..

Fellow, Center for Church Reform

By permission

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