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Praised, Yet Awful: A Review of Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace?

June 9, 2020
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In my discussion earlier in this series of Paul’s seminal statement, Ye are not under the law, but under grace I mentioned Philip Yancey’s influential book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” I alluded to the fact that it, along with a few other original works and a whole bunch of copycats, have twisted much of American Christianity’s concept of grace into something wholly unrecognizable to our forefathers. In so saying, I am not overstating its influence.

For example, it is praised by religious leaders as diverse as Larry Crabb, Brennan Manning (no surprise there), J. I. Packer, Jill Briscoe, Jim Wallis, Gordon MacDonald, Charles Colson, and the Irish rocker Bono. Tony Campolo said, “There are huge amounts of sermon material here.” (No surprise there either.) Robert Seiple said, “This is beyond a doubt the very best book I have read from a Christian author in my life.” Robert Jeffress said that it “did a valuable service by rescuing the doctrine of grace from the legalists.” It was awarded Book of the Year by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association in 1998, and in 2006 was named as the seventeenth most influential book on Christianity Today’s list of works that have shaped evangelicalism the most. Never mind the dizzying array of contradictory theological positions held by those listed in this paragraph, and how ashamed I would be if all of them praised any work of mine, let us simply agree that selling more than 15 million copies of any religious book in ten years, as this book did, qualifies as influential.

If it is so praised why do I assert that it is awful? Let us start with the fact that for a book that purports to bring us back to a scriptural view of grace there is an appalling paucity of Scripture in it. Yancey unabashedly emphasizes this in his own introduction. “I have just read a thirteen-page treatise on grace in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, which has cured me of any desire to dissect grace and display its innards. I do not want the thing to die. For this reason, I will rely more on stories than syllogisms. In sum, I would far rather display grace than explain it.”

In choosing this course Yancey does two things. First, he makes his book much more readable and thus popular. Second, and far more importantly, he writes a book almost entirely untethered from the Word of God. Yancey does an emotionally entertaining job of telling us what he wants grace to be, and a spiritually wretched job of telling us what God said grace actually is and does. It takes him forty-two pages to quote the first Bible verse. In the entirety of the book he never takes a verse, let alone a passage, and systematically explores its words, context, and flow of thought to tell us what God says about grace. Needless to say, he does not examine contrasting thoughts either. He examines nothing and reveals less of God’s Word on the subject.

Curiously enough, while studiously avoiding the Scriptures, he manages to favorably quote any number of theologically sketchy characters. Roman Catholic theologians such as Romano Guardini and Brennan Manning? Check. Mystics such as John of the Cross and Bernard? Check. Intellectuals such as Mark Twain and Anthony Hecht? Check. Neo-orthodox Europeans such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Check. To add insult to injury, he purposely chooses to use both Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa as wonderful examples of grace.

The previous paragraph does not mark Yancey as wicked. It does, however, mark him as severely lacking in discernment and seriously doctrinally deficient. Why conservative Christians let alone independent Baptists would look to such a man to explain and expound the Word of God is a mystery to me.

If his book does not come from Scripture where does it come from? I believe it was birthed out of a reaction to his own conservative/fundamentalist Southern upbringing. He mentions it often in the book and makes no bones that he found his home church experience wretched. In some sense Yancey is right to be appalled. The deacons of his home church patrolled the entrances to ensure no African-Americans made their way in. But in reacting against error Yancey makes the same mistake I have seen numerous acquaintances of mine make – he throws the baby out with the bathwater. At a dead run, he heads from the ditch of a harsh, racist religious upbringing to the ditch of license on the other side of the road. In the process he is highly critical of rules of any kind, and especially those of his youth forbidding rock music, alcohol, short skirts, and long hair. Those are, in his words, “pettiness”, signs of a religion with no grace.

Do you begin to see his influence? The problem with Yancey, however, is much worse than that, much worse. It is not just about where Yancey was when he wrote the book, and how your friends use its arguments to overthrow their own long-held beliefs, it is even more about where Yancey’s concept of grace leads, about what it produces years down the road. For example, the church here in Chicago where he served as an assistant so long believes nothing, is against nothing but taking a stand. But even more egregiously, Yancey’s embrace of “grace” toward homosexuality is revelatory indeed.

In the book, now twenty years old, he unabashedly promotes the homosexual Mel White as a wonderful example of Christian grace and love vs the evil, intolerant Christians who insist on shouting about doctrine. An emphasis on doctrine is “hatred” while Mel, on the other hand, evidences “a graceful spirit.” Yancey likens preaching against homosexuality to the preaching against social drinking he heard in his youth, preaching that he clearly views as petty, legalistic, and beneath the spirit of Christ.

Remember, though, it is not just about where Yancey is when he writes this book, though that is bad enough. It is about where his concept of grace is going, and where it is going to take you.On his own website today on a page discussing his views of homosexuality he gives us these little gems. “In my relationship with Mel White, I have to remind myself that it’s not my job to present the absolutely proper, balanced viewpoint of the church.” Somehow, after reading his book, I do not think Yancey even balances his checkbook. But I digress. Or there is this: “I intentionally don’t take sides on this issue.” And this: “I feel no need to represent a balanced viewpoint myself. So I don’t take an official position. I simply try to love the gay individuals I know and bring a little grace and mercy to a church that puts this particular sin – if indeed it is that – in a special category.” And this: “When it gets to particular matters of policy, like ordaining gay and lesbian minsters, I’m confused, like a lot of people.”

I could go on in the same vein but I risk you thinking this blog post is about homosexuality. It is not. It is about where the wrong view of grace leads. It leads to repentance eliminated in favor of tolerance and forgiveness cheapened into permission. In a word, it leads to grace no longer being grace but rather being acceptance. Yancey can deny it all he wants, and your now-contemporary-used-to-be-fundamentalist friends can do the same. Their denials fade to the echoes of a whisper when confronted with their actions. What you believe changes how you live, and what you read changes what you believe.

You might want to think long and hard about that before ingesting what passes for classic discussions of grace in our day. No matter how many copies the guy has sold or how many famous religious leaders recommend it.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at Concerning Jesus Blog. Used by permission.


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