“What’s So Amazing About Grace?” book review

Posted: January 12, 2011 in Book Reviews

I recently spoke on the topic of grace. In preparation for my talk, I tried to read some good books on the subject. I came across a book I had in my library that I hadn’t read before called “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” by Philip Yancey. Here is a quick review and recommendation for this book for whoever is interested in reading more about the subject.

Perhaps what I like most about Yancey is his transparent writing style. He is a journalist who has seen the world and possesses a wide range of experiences, which he draws on throughout the book. He has spent time everywhere from the inner rooms of the Whitehouse to the hopeless ghettos of Russia. When you read Yancey’s writing, you get drawn in to these many experiences.

This book is actually the result of haunting story related to him by a friend. His friend in Chicago told him a story of meeting a prostitute looking for help. She had nothing: no food, no money, and no shelter. She was in desperate need for her and her two-year daughter. Then he learned a horrible reality. She had been prostituting her two-year old daughter! Apparently she made more money from her daughter than she did from her own services. When the shocked friend asked the woman if she had gone to a church for help, she replied, “Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

In this book, Yancey asks why Christians today look so different from the Jesus they claim to follow. Indeed, Jesus spent his time around prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, and others that the religious leaders deemed “unclean.” But sadly, “Grace” is not the first word that comes to peoples’ minds when they think of “Christians.” In fact, it’s not likely in the top ten.

Yancey notes how Christians have become more concerned with political power and moral reform than they are about showing grace. This can be seen at any number of anti-abortion or anti-gay demonstrations. The “Culture Wars” have become increasingly more intense and ugly, with both sides mounting insults and criticisms upon their enemies. Yancey experienced this when he wrote an article on the faith of former president Clinton. After an extensive interview, he came to the conclusion that Clinton’s faith (while not perfect in practice) was a fundamental and genuine part of who he was. The backlash he received from Christians was unlike anything he had ever experienced! The hate-mail of those that claimed to follow a man who once said “love your enemies” was demoralizing.

However, Jesus himself didn’t seem too interested in political reform—he was concerned about people. In everything we do, Yancey says, we have the opportunity to show either grace or “ungrace.” The world desperately needs grace, and it is the job of the church to live it. He says, “I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.” He reminds us of the grace of God, which is free for us, but which cost the giver His only Son. This kind of grace is completely counter-cultural to our world. In fact, our world is a “dog-eat-dog” world not a “dog-forgive-dog” world. But it is only forgiveness that can halt the cycle of “ungrace.” Yancey claims, “The strongest argument in favor of grace is the alternative, a world of ungrace. The strongest argument for forgiveness is the alternative, a permanent state of unforgiveness.” One does not need to look hard to see what the world looks like without grace. Simply turn on the news or flip through any history book. Yancey relates a story from a Holocaust victim who comes face to face with a dying S.S. Nazi soldier asking for forgiveness from his deathbed. Could there be a more difficult test of forgiveness?

It is not Yancey’s goal to simply set his sights on where the church has messed up. However, if we are to learn from our mistakes, we must open our eyes to what is wrong. He notes how the church has learned to see past the sin of divorce and accept the individual, and yet it has reserved its most hateful and vindictive comments for homosexuals or those who’ve had an abortion. Can we live by this double-standard, where greed and gluttony are practically celebrated in church but a pregnant teenager would rather run away than enter a church building? Perhaps if Christians were more honest with each other about confessing their own sins, they would be more willing to show grace to others. As C.S. Lewis noted, we all show grace to ourselves. While we hate the sin in our lives, it certainly does not mean we stop loving ourselves! What would happen if we turned this selfishness into outward grace?

If you are interested in hearing thoughts on grace from a man who has seen both grace and ungrace around the globe, I recommend this book for you. It is written in the style of a journalist, chronicling his many experiences, interviews, and readings. He draws from a wide array of sources, including Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Hitler, and Tony Campolo. Here is compiled the thoughts of a man seeking answers to some of life’s toughest questions, and you will be rewarded by his findings. At times equally shocking and heartbreaking, this book will challenge you. Yancey reminds us that, “In the end it was the saints, not the sinners, who arrested Jesus.” What do our lives show a watching world in need of grace? Will this world be changed by our lobbying? By our criticism? By our moral policing? Or will is change person by person, as we become embodiments of grace? In the words of Philip Yancey, “A renewal of spirituality in the United States will not descend from the top down; if it occurs at all, it will start at the grass roots and grow from the bottom up.”

Also recommended by Philip Yancey: “The Jesus I Never Knew” Yancey looks at the life of Jesus from a journalist’s perspective, and you may be surprised at what he discovers.

Also recommended on the topic of grace: “Putting a Face on Grace: Living a Life Worth Passing On” by Richard Blackaby, for a story-driven insight into the living out of grace in our personal, everyday lives. Lots of laughs, some tears, but most of all the gripping challenge of Scriptural truth that will not leave you unchanged.

  1. Thank you for your insightful review. I’ve never read the book, but heard a the title being thrown around a lot. Maybe now, I wiill finally read it. In our Church, we are taught that grace is what satan hates the most. It’s when we get something we don’t deserve, where as mercy is when we don’t get what we do deserve. I am reminded of a time when the Anglican Bishop of Rwanda came to visit the States and spoke in another church about how he was responsible for about 60 Anglican churches and went around to all of them in the months after the massacres, and preached the same message to each one- “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.” Well, we can all say we heard that before and can probably even quote the verse: Luke 23:34 (hey, I did it!), but after preaching it over and over quite a few times, God gave him a tiny little insight into that verse- that they do not (we do not) know the consequences of what they do. I’ll never forget that word, and I’ve never read or heard it quoted since. There was hardly a family in all those Anglican churches (as well as elsewhere), he said, with a family that was not touched tragically by the Tootsie/Hutu conflict. Everyone had a family member who was either killed, or , even more…. were the killers themselves- sitting in the pews. They had no capacity to hear any other message, he said. Father, Forgive them, for they know not the consequences of what they do. Let that be our prayer, too.

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