Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

A Critical Review by Robert Brow   1997

What's So Amazing About Grace has been acclaimed as "the crown jewel of all his books, a marvelously important book, beyond doubt the very best book I have read from a Christian author in my life," etc. And thousands who felt they were failures, tainted, too bad ever to be part of the Christian family, have found this book just what they needed. How dare I offer the least word of criticism in this second reading of such great writing?

Yancey certainly offers a wonderful profusion of quotes and stories about forgiveness and acceptance into God's family. Here are some gems. "I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else" (chapter 1). " For many, romantic love is the closest experience of pure grace. Someone at last feels that I am the most desirable, attractive, companionable creature on the planet?" (Chapter 2).

"Jesus' stories of extravagant grace include no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God's love" (Chapter 3). "Grace is not about finishing last or first; it is about not counting" (Chapter 5). "By forgiving, I release my own right to get even and leave all issues of fairness for God to work out" (Chapter 7). "The strongest argument in favor of grace is the alternative, a world of ungrace." (Chapter 9) Such nuggets alone are worth the price of the paperback (US $12.99, CAN $18.99). What more do I want?

My complaint is that Yancey has perpetuated the evangelical model in which our good news is mainly about being forgiven, becoming children of God, having a guaranteed place in heaven. That aspect of grace is rightly celebrated in John Newton's "Amazing Grace." But it is a meager thirty-three per cent of the assurance we need. The rope that pulls us graciously into the perfect love of heaven is an intertwining of three equally important strands of grace.

The good news is that the fatherly (or motherly) grace of God is like a loving parent. At great cost, and with huge patience, good parents keep setting up the environment for our freedom. Happy children know that their parents will be there for them whatever happens. So Paul got it right when he said "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8:38-39). A modern hymn prays "Father God, fill this place with your love, with your grace" (Dave Bilbrough). It is not that the Father has to be persuaded to love us. We can rely on his grace.

Many Christians know that by grace they are forgiven, and will end up in heaven. But they spend their lives without any assurance that God the Father will be there for them in the here and now. They have to struggle to fight their own battles, keep worrying about their job, their money, their children, their marriage, their health, old age, parents, cancer, and everything else. That means they are rejecting Jesus's command to look at the birds of the air because "your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things" (Matthew 6:32). Faithful people imagine that such a degree of faith is only for Francis of Assisi, George Muller, Hudson Taylor, Brother Andrew, Mother Theresa, and a few spiritual athletes. They cannot believe that the Father's loving concern for each of us is totally gracious. There must be some pleading, or cost, or commitment, or superhuman sacrifice. But the grace of God the Father is that there is nothing we have to pay, or do, or give up, to be loved and cared for every moment of our lives.

The grace of the Holy Spirit is equally important. "Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost" was a hymn written by Friedrich Filitz (1804-1876). There is just as much costly grace in the work of the Holy Spirit as in the continual work of the Father and the Son in every changing scene of our lives. Harriet Auber (1773-1862) grasped that the Spirit is "a gracious willing guest . . . And every virtue we possess, and every thought of holiness, are his alone." That means that all the resources of the Holy Spirit are freely available to us without us having to agonize, pay, or earn, or plead, or struggle for His grace. All the inspiration is free for anyone who looks in the right direction.

As Paul said "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" (Romans 8:6). The flesh is all we think we have to do by our own efforts, dedication, surrender, and sacrifice. Looking to the Spirit costs absolutely nothing. Not even repentance is demanded of us. By grace we can receive illumination, strength, wisdom, the fruit and gifts of the Holy Spirit, prayer according to the mind of God, and much else free and without strings of any kind.

The idea that the good news is limited to the grace of being forgiven and assured of a place in heaven produces anaemic miserable Christians. Without a total assurance of the unconditional grace of the Father and the power of the Spirit most so called believers in Jesus are trying to keep going on just one of three grace cylinders. It is a total dependence on the Fatherly care of God and the multifaceted inspiration of the Holy Spirit that saves us from works righteousness. Without the three intertwining strands of grace we have self-righteous Christians who are "good in the worst sense of the word" (Mark Twain, as quoted by Yancey). It is too easy to imagine our goodness is a personal achievement.

The grace of all three Persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are included in the supreme declaration : "By grace you are in a state of having been saved through faith, and this is not by your own efforts, it is the free gift of God - not the result of human performance, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-10 free translation).

Why then did Paul give us the familiar ending for our services : "The grace of our Lord Jesus Messiah, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all?" Perhaps that was the sequence in which Paul experienced the three strands of grace. First he experienced grace on the Damascus Road as he discovered he was forgiven and accepted by the Son who strangely wanted his -koinonia- friendship. He slowly discovered the Father's grace that would keep caring about his needs, and delighted in him as his little child. Later he realized that, in spite of grieving Him, the Spirit would still keep loving him. . He could rely on His multifaceted grace for every step of the tough journey as an apostle to the nations. An in spite of his frailty he would on the way be transformed from glory to glory for the perfect love of heaven (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Regardless of the sequence of our own experience, all three Persons of the Trinity love us unconditionally, offer us their unlimited grace without payment, and all three long for our -koinonia- fellowship. That is very good news. Perhaps to clarify this, Paul in the Pastoral Epistles changed his ending to "The grace be with you" (1 Timothy 6:21, 2 Timothy 4:22, Titus 3:15 - in all three cases the Greek word for grace has the definite article). "The grace" is the grace of all three Persons of the Trinity.

My ungracious picky criticism is that Yancey has perpetuated a one strand evangelical theology of grace. His next book should be What's So Amazing about the Trinity? He is supremely gifted to do it, and it would be his masterpiece.

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