'What's So Amazing About Grace?' Is Good, But Not Great...

A Look Back at a 1997 Philip Yancey Book

This is review of an older Christian book. We usually review new Christian-related books; this one dates to 1997, but it remains popular. The actual book version I read is the 1997 Zondervan paperback; ISBN: 0-310-24565-6.

I found it interesting to look back on this popular book of 1997 by Philip Yancey. Overall, however, I found that my first impressions of this book are substantially unchanged.

Saving Grace, then, is the unmerited and undeserved free favour of God, taken to its final conclusion, which is Eternal Life in God's Kingdom.

The book is a 'read' of 282 pages (in my paperback form, at any rate). It contains numerous stories and anecdotes, many of which would serve really well for sermon illustrations and the like, indeed, Philip's book really excels in this area. The book contains twenty chapters, most of them really short and quite punchy. Yancey sets out to look at the church today, especially within the United States, and offers many criticisms - most of them entirely fair and just, and - for sure - little seems to have changed since 1997 (the first year of publishing).

Philip Yancey's targets include the 'ungrace' (a favourite word of his) within modern American Christianity, the lack of forgiveness, the legalism, the immediate prejudice against specific groups (homosexuals, for instance), but the comparative tolerance of other 'sinner groups.' He sweeps his sword quite broadly and few of us would disagree with many of his targets, such as the modern US-based 'evangelists' who are suddenly far more interested in politics than in Scripture.

However, I think that my two big problems with this book remain unchanged:

1. Grace, as a biblical teaching, amazingly, in a book of almost 300 pages, is never theologically defined.

2. The book is too emotional. Much more attention to logical and cohesive argument was called for. I think that fewer, tighter, chapters might well have assisted in this.

Regarding the first point, one is surprised to get through the first few chapters with no thoroughgoing definition of grace - as a vital New Testament doctrine - ever appearing, but then one relaxes, even enjoying the very loose writing style, yet the lack is still felt. My feeling was that Yancey was using a planned 'delaying tactic' in which, after firing many broadsides at modern Christianity, especially within his own country, he would finally carefully outline a correct Christian understanding of grace in a final chapter. Alas, I was quite wrong, it never happens. I still feel that many will read this book but still come back with the question,

"Yes, I agree with all of that, but - in contrast to our shortcomings - can you, then, define grace according to New Testament/Christian understanding?"

Philip Yancey never does that. Okay, let us attempt to do that right here:

Grace as a Vital New Testament Teaching

The teaching of grace is not confined to the New Testament but here we are primarily concerning ourselves with the particular Pauline teaching on grace. Firstly, the New Testament points out that the New Covenant would be an administration of grace, just as the Old Covenant was concerned with law. The full dimension of grace is only understood in and through Christ:

17. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17).

It is mainly Paul the Apostle who explains this vital New Testament teaching. He uses the Greek word charis ('grace') to write of the entirely unmerited favour which God grants to us, that is, His 'called and chosen,' in allowing us to appropriate His Son, the Lord Jesus, as our Saviour and our only pathway to eternal salvation. In the sacrificed and resurrected Christ, our debts are cancelled out in a most supreme act of unmerited divine generosity, that is, grace. Even more, we are then placed under ongoing grace, for we will never be free from sin in this life but the 'divine umbrella' of grace will continue to cover us. This is why death becomes meaningless for the true Christian, no more than a brief interval.

The sense of 'Grace' had abundant use, even among the secular Greeks, in the sense of unmerited and undeserved favour, and Paul seizes on this meaning of the word to express a most fundamental and pivotal teaching of Christianity. In fact, it has been said that, without grace, Christianity would not be seriously different to other philosophies. It is the grace which comes through the Divine Favour of God and Christ which makes Christianity utterly unique.

5. So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.
6. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:5-6).

Romans 4 also states,

4. Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.
5. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
6. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
7. “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
8. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them." (Romans 4:5-8, NIV throughout).

So those who are covered by grace (the unmerited free favour of God due to divine election) no longer stand under the law, but under grace:

14. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. (Romans 6:14).

In Romans 7, Paul spends many verses bemoaning the fact that, even as a true Christian believer, he still slipped and sinned, but his conclusion is:

1. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,
2. because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2).

If salvation were available on the basis of what a man has done, then salvation would be given by God as the payment of a debt. But such can never be. God can never have a debt to pay to man; rather, when God gives, He only gives freely, generously, and in a spirit of grace. There is divine grace in many things which God gives to man, even in the very air which we breathe, but Grace reaches its highest moral and spiritual peak in the Saving Grace without which men and women could not be saved. Grace then, whilst somewhat similar to mercy, goes much further, although it always includes the full sense of mercy. Saving Grace, then, is the unmerited and undeserved free favour of God, taken to its final conclusion which is Eternal Life in God's Kingdom.

8. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—
9. not by works, so that no one can boast.
10. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10).

This understanding of grace places responsibilities on us to be always prepared to forgive others, just as God has so abundantly forgiven us, and it is this aspect which is the chief focus of Yancey.

Just one word of warning: Saving Grace has nothing to do with some of the strange doctrines of the 'health, wealth and prosperity' merchants! This grace does not mean that you and I can lead a 'charmed life' - a life free from illness, disease, persecution and money problems; Scripture never ever promises such a thing. Saving Grace is an entirely spiritual matter, indeed, some of God's truest servants have been poor and very much lacking in wealth, yet they have been rich in faith!

In taking this opportunity to define the New Testament teaching on Grace during a book review, I am in no way intending to be disrespectful or patronising towards Philip Yancey. His book remains quite good and often very readable, although it could be 'logically tighter,' but unfortunately, he never stops to carefully define exactly what the actual biblical teaching on grace is and I thought I might as well do that right here.
Robin A. Brace. February 23rd, 2011.