What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Philip YanceyBy Philip Yancey9 Minutes

Excerpt taken from What’s So Amazing About Grace?: Revised and Updated by Philip Yancey


I know nothing, except what everyone knows—
if there when Grace dances, I should dance.
W.H. Auden


Chapter 1

The Last Best Word

Author Stephen Brown notes that a veterinarian can learn a lot about a dog owner he has never met just by observing the dog. What does the world learn about God by watching us, God’s followers on earth? Trace the roots of charis in Greek, often translated “grace” in English Bibles, and you will find a verb that means “I rejoice, I am glad.” In my experience, rejoicing and gladness are not the first images that come to mind when people think of the church. They think of holier-than-thous. They think of church as a place to go after you have cleaned up your act, not before. They think of morality, not grace. “Church!” said the prostitute, “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

Such an attitude comes partly from a misconception, or bias, by outsiders. I have visited soup kitchens, homeless shelters, hospices, and prison ministries staffed by Christian volunteers generous with grace. And yet the prostitute’s comment stings because she has found a weak spot in the church. Some of us seem so anxious about avoiding hell that we forget to celebrate our journey toward heaven. Others of us, rightly concerned about issues in a modern “culture war,” neglect the church’s mission as a haven of grace in this world of ungrace.

“Grace is everywhere,” said the dying priest in Georges Bernanos’s novel The Diary of a Country Priest¹. Yes, but how easily we pass by, deaf to the euphony.

I attended a Bible college. Years later, when I was sitting next to the president of that school on an airplane, he asked me to assess my education. “Some good, some bad,” I replied. “I met many godly people there. In fact, I met God there. Who can place a value on that? And yet I later realized that in four years I learned almost nothing about grace. It may be the most important word in the Bible, the heart of the gospel. How could I have missed it?”

I related our conversation in a subsequent chapel address at that school and, in doing so, offended the faculty. Some suggested I not be invited back to speak. One gentle soul asked whether I should have phrased things differently. Shouldn’t I have said that as a student I lacked the receptors to receive the grace that was all around me? Because I respect and love this man, I thought long and hard about his question. Ultimately, however, I concluded that I had experienced as much ungrace on the campus of a Bible college as I had anywhere else in life.

A counselor, David Seamands², summed up his career this way:

Many years ago I was driven to the conclusion that the two major causes of most emotional problems among evangelical Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people. … We read, we hear, we believe a good theology of grace. But that’s not the way we live. The good news of the Gospel of grace has not penetrated the level of our emotions.

“The world can do almost anything as well as or better than the church,” says Gordon MacDonald³. “You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.” MacDonald has put his finger on the church’s single most important contribution. Where else can the world go to find grace?

The Italian novelist Ignazio Silone wrote about a revolutionary hunted by the police. In order to hide him, his comrades dressed him in the garb of a priest and sent him to a remote village in the foothills of the Alps. Word got out, and soon a long line of peasants appeared at his door, full of stories of their sins and broken lives. The “priest” protested and tried to turn them away, to no avail. He had no recourse but to sit and listen to the stories of people starving for grace.

I sense, in fact, that is why any person goes to church: out of hunger for grace. The book Growing Up Fundamentalist4 tells of a reunion of students from a missionary academy in Japan. “With one or two exceptions, all had left the faith and come back,” one of the students reported. “And those of us who had come back had one thing in common: we had all discovered grace.”

As I look back on my own pilgrimage, marked by wanderings, detours, and dead ends, I see now that what pulled me along was my search for grace. I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.

I have barely tasted of grace myself, have rendered less than I have received, and am in no way an “expert” on grace. These are, in fact, the very reasons that impel me to write. I want to know more, to understand more, to experience more grace. I dare not—and the danger is very real—write an ungracious book about grace. Accept then, here at the beginning, that I write as a pilgrim qualified only by my craving for grace.

Grace does not offer an easy subject for a writer. To borrow E. B. White’s comment about humor, “[Grace] can be dissected, as a frog, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” 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 on syllogisms.

In sum, I would far rather convey grace than explain it.

1Bernanos: Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday/Image, 1974, p.233.

2Seamands: David Seamands, “Perfectionism: Fraught with Fruits of Self-Destruction,” in Christianity Today, April 10, 1981, pp.24–25.

3MacDonald: From a private conversation.

4“Growing Up Fundamentalist”: Stefan Ulstein, Growing Up Fundamentalist. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995, p.72.

Taken from What’s So Amazing About Grace?: Revised and Updated by Philip Yancey. Copyright © October 2023 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan, www.zondervan.com.

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