Books: Vanishing Grace

Almost twenty years ago I read a new book by Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace? It was one of the best Christian books I had ever read, and I wrote a review on the website of an internet bookseller I had recently discovered (but most people had probably not heard of), amazon.com. Since then I have enthusiastically recommended the book to others.

So when I saw recently that Yancey had written a follow-up, Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?, I was eager to read it. I chose to request it from the library, however, rather than order my own copy, as few books have turned out to live up to their glowing reviews as well as What’s So Amazing about Grace?

And while I wanted Yancey’s new book to be as good as the other, I just didn’t find it nearly as compelling. It asks some good questions, and could start some good discussions. But if I wanted to help someone understand grace I’d still recommend the first book. And if I wanted to lead a discussion I’d recommend the first book, and then ask some of the questions raised in this book, without necessarily spending a lot of time on Yancey’s answers.

I’ve struggled with the question Yancey poses in Vanishing Grace about as long as I’ve been a Christian. How can Christians present the message of Christ with both truth and grace, and is the negative reaction of many people to the Gospel itself or to the way it is presented?

When I was a teenager and a fairly new Christian, attending a fundamentalist church (not where either of my parents attended), one Tuesday during the church’s weekly visitation evening, men from the church came to try to present the Gospel to my mother. She was very offended by what she perceived as their condemnation of her, and, listening to them, I frankly felt embarrassed at their heavy-handed approach.

That church emphasized, in its teaching on “soul-winning,” that it was necessary to first confront people with the bad news and get their agreement that they were sinners headed for hell before going on to the good news of grace. Most people, they felt, were complacent about their sin and had no genuine desire to find God until convinced that they were presently lost without Him.

Philip Yancey, on the other hand, describes people as being for the most part thirsty for God. They know they are sinners and they don’t need to be beaten over the head with it. They may not recognize the thirst as being for God, but they are thirsty for grace, and he wants the church to present a message that begins with grace rather than condemnation.

My mother certainly admitted her moral failings, but she did not believe in original sin. Both my parents believed that people are good by nature, and they saw sin more as immaturity than as rebellion against a holy God.They believed that eventually everyone would be reconciled with God, and did not believe that chances for salvation ended with physical death.

My mother desperately wanted to believe that God loved her, but did not think that she deserved God’s love. She did not believe in grace, however. She believed that each person must bear the punishment for their own sins, not by suffering in hell but by being reincarnated and dealing with the same spiritual/moral issues in one lifetime after another until they grew past them. She rejected the doctrine that an innocent person could die in another’s place as the worst idea ever invented by man.

The doctrine of grace is at the heart of Christianity, and What’s So Amazing about Grace? explores this in depth. Yancey’s new book, however, seems to assume that people know what grace is, and concentrates on why, too often, Christians present a message of judgmentalism instead of grace – or, at any rate, that non-Christians perceive the message that way.

I think Yancey does a good job of describing some of the reasons that non-Christians are turned off by what they perceive as the Christian message so that they never actually hear it. Many Christians spend a lot of time talking about sin in the society as a whole,  spend much time and money promoting conservative politics, and seem to have an “us-vs-them” mentality with regard to the world.

Rightly or wrongly, Christians are often perceived as being self-righteous, considering themselves morally superior to non-Christians. I know that my friends at the fundamentalist church recognized their own sinfulness before God, and I do not think they were self-righteous, but to my mother they always sounded that way. To her, and I think to many people, it was impossible to hear “I’m going to heaven, but you will not unless you accept Jesus as Savior” as anything but “I’m better than you are, so God will welcome me but not you.”

Yancey really does not address this at all in Vanishing Grace. This book is focused on how Christians can create an opening to present their message where people will be receptive to it, not what kind of message they will present at that point. Some readers may wonder whether Yancey even thinks there is a message to present beyond “You are loved.” One review accuses Yancey of presenting the Social Gospel, and while I don’t think he is, it’s hard to say from this book just what the Gospel is.

One book doesn’t have to address everything. Yancey says that this is really four mini-books in one. None of the four themes is as fully developed as it would be if it were an entire book. I don’t know whether this is a flaw in the book’s design, or just a limitation in how it can be used. As I said, I think Yancey asks good questions and can get people thinking about how we relate to the world and are perceived by the world.

On the subject of political activism, Yancey contrasts the current urge among many conservative evangelicals to support Biblical morality by means of legislation with the situation of the early Christians in a hostile culture. They didn’t try to tell non-Christians how to live morally, they simply lived moral lives themselves and did a great deal of good for those in need, whether those they helped were Christians or not.

I think there are good lessons in that, but it doesn’t address the question of what is appropriate for Christians to do in a democracy where they do have the opportunity, and in fact the responsibility as citizens, to support laws and political leaders that they believe are best for the country. I have often heard conservatives point out that every law is promoting one moral stance or another. The question is whose moral stance they will represent, and whether it is an abdication of responsibility to leave it to people hostile to the Christian faith to promote their own moral stance in legislation that everyone must live by.

I would have liked Yancey to address this issue, but he does not. He merely points out that Christians have done best when they are a minority and have no opportunity to wield political power. When they have the opportunity, they have too often used the power badly. Yancey points out positive examples where Christians have opposed unjust laws. But if Christians should find themselves in a majority, he doesn’t seem to have any guidance on what they should do then, unless it is simply to act as though they were still a minority.

Yancey also has a section on how Christians can use the arts. He gives a few examples, but the whole section is too short to be very helpful. Whole books have been written on this issue that treat the subject in the depth required.

I applaud Yancey for raising the questions that he does. Perhaps in some Christian circles these questions are fairly new and will get people thinking in new directions. It has been a long time since I left the fundamentalist church of my teenage years, and the attitudes Yancey describes are less true of churches I have attended in more recent years.

The best approach to evangelism I have heard, I think, was at a Baptist church we attended several years ago. They did not advocate either trying to present every person with an explicit salvation message, nor stick to just being a good friend and a good example and wait for people to ask about our faith. They presented a range of degrees of receptivity to the Gospel, ranging from closed to mildly curious to ready to hear and believe.

Each degree of receptivity required a slightly different approach. To those closed to the message of Christ, the focus was on friendship and meeting people’s needs without any expectation that it would lead to an opportunity to present the Gospel. But with those more open to hear it, the appropriate approach would include testimonies of God’s work in our own lives, answers to questions about God and faith, and eventually a clear presentation of the Gospel of salvation through Christ.

Yancey only talks about “pre-Christians” who are open to the message of Christ, and “post-Christians” who are not, whether because they have personally had bad experiences in the Church or only absorbed similarly negative views from others. To the extent that Yancey book focuses on those closed to the Gospel, I would probably agree on much of Yancey’s approach to them. But it’s equally important to be ready to share God’s grace with those who are open to hearing about Jesus – and to be guided by the Spirit who knows what people are ready to receive.

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