Book Reviews

Book Review: What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey Pinpoints What’s Missing From Christianity in the U.S.A.

For our Sunday morning Bible Study, which takes place for the adults while the kids are in Sunday School, we took a vote between several different options. I hadn’t heard of the book What’s So Amazing About Grace? before the title appeared on that list. Since I was struggling with issues of forgiveness in my own life (and within my own family) the title immediately intrigued me. I voted for it, and apparently so did a majority of the other people who participate in the class.

Philip Yancey writes a column for Christianity Today magazine and serves as editor-at-large. He has written many books on religious/Christian topics, such as The Jesus I Never Knew, Disappointed With God, and Where Is God When It Hurts? He grew up in a racist Georgian Southern Baptist congregation and attended a biblical university.

The book zeroes in on something that seems to be missing from the message that many Christian denominations disseminate each week: the message of God’s undying love for us and limitless grace. To quote the book: There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.

In the first part of the novel, How Sweet The Sound, Yancey defines grace and discusses the various ways it has been present in our society. He cites stories from the bible as well as giving real-life examples of grace and forgiveness. This is important because so often people ask how the bible relates to us in our modern time. Too often the grace we receive from God is taken for granted, and we accept his grace and then do not extend the same to those around us.

The second part, Breaking the Cycle of Ungrace he talks a great deal about the act of forgiveness, why it is important, and the fact that it really is something unnatural to humans. He talks a great deal about topics such as Nazi Germany, and how difficult it is to forgive what some feel is the unforgivable. He cites the story of The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal as an example of how not forgiving something – no matter how reprehensible the crime – becomes a burden on those who cannot forgive the perpetrator. He also cites examples in South Africa, the former Soviet Republic, and our own South before the Civil Rights Era.

The third part of the book, Scent of Scandal will make quite a few people uncomfortable. We like to think of things in terms of good and bad, and are often quite comfortable in our “good guys go to heaven, bad guys go to hell” way of thinking. However, he takes those lines and essentially blows them all away. Basically, we are all sinners and equal in God’s eyes. Grace is not always fair, he explains, as in the story of the prodigal son.

That’s not to say that we can behave as we want and just expect to be forgiven in the end. He devotes an entire chapter to what he terms “cheap grace”. Then there is also an extensive discussion of “legalism”, or focusing on things in the church that are not as important as Jesus’ message.

The fourth and final part of the book, Grace Notes for a Deaf World gives a big swipe at many prominent contemporary Christians. In particular, what stuck out to me was when Yancey spoke of a very prominent Christian leader who wrote in a letter that President Clinton was “not worthy of God’s grace” because of his actions. Too many Christian leaders in the U.S. are getting religion and politics mixed, and it is clouding their judgment and message. He blames the changing of the message from God’s love and grace toward us to a message of judgment and finger-pointing as one of the biggest problems facing Christianity in this country today. It’s something I agree with completely.

My thoughts on this book are complicated, but for the most part positive. For me, personally, it has helped me at least see what path I have to take to forgive someone I love. The more I read of God’s grace, the more I want to dispense that the same way God grants that to me. Yancey makes it clear that it’s not something easy to do, like turning on a faucet. I pray for God’s help in this area, and I know the time will come when my prayers are answered and I will truly forgive. That’s not to say we forget, as Yancey makes clear, but forgiveness and letting go of the desire for revenge are some of the healthiest steps we can take for our own spirit.

I also felt that the book makes me think a bit more about my role in the world. Everyone has moments when we get heated about something, and when I think about this book, it helps me in how I react. Yancey shows how Jesus reacted to challenges presented to him; he showed grace every time, even on the cross. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do… was the ultimate petition for grace for all humankind – shouldn’t we be more graceful to each other? Christians have gotten a very poor reputation recently in the area of grace, and Yancey’s words will help people take a good, hard (and in my opinion, very necessary) look at the way we behave as Christians in a world that is already quite cruel and unforgiving.

Many people (no matter which side of the argument you fall on) will object to the last part of the book where Yancey gets a bit more political. There were parts I didn’t like there, but I at least have an understanding of where he is coming from and I respect that. I did like how he showed how good Christians can be corrupted by a desire for power – a sin that is present everywhere, even in the church where I wish it wasn’t.

Should you be interested in the book as part of a group study as we used it, there are study guides, participant and leader guides available from as well as a complete kit including a video. I do recommend the video for group discussion.

Anyone who considers themselves a Christian would do themselves a favor by reading this book. Even if you don’t agree with what he says, to all but the most close-minded he will challenge your views and make you think a bit more. How can anything that helps us grow in our love for our fellow man be anything less than excellent?

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