Philip Yancey

Scandalous Grace

For a Canadian kid, Atlanta is hot in July. Like opening the oven door and poking your head in to see if the bread is done. As my plane touches down, I pack up Philip Yancey's book, What's So Amazing About Grace, and step into the Georgia night. A taxi driver talks of weather and baseball's Braves, but my mind is haunted by a question Yancey has raised: "If grace is so amazing, why don't Christians show more of it?"

In many ways, Philip Yancey's spiritual journey parallels my own. Raised in a "Southern fundamentalist" home in Atlanta, he was exposed early to a message of ungrace. Like "Shabat" elevators in Israel which stop at every floor so Orthodox Jews can avoid pushing buttons on the Sabbath, he was taught that Christianity is much ado about externals, about the buttons you push--or avoid pushing. "I grew up with the strong impression that a person became spiritual by attending to gray-area rules," he writes, "that you gain the church's, and presumably God's, approval by following the prescribed pattern....As a child, I put on my best behavior for Sunday mornings, dressing up for God and for the Christians around me. It never occurred to me that church was a place to be honest." I can relate. Today, several of my friends no longer have use for God because of His children. Sometimes my heart aches that they would know grace as I am starting to.

Years after attending a Bible college, Yancey admits he experienced "as much ungrace there as I had anywhere else in life."

Again I wonder, "If grace is so amazing...."

It is midnight when I arrive at my hotel, looking for a cool room before a busy schedule at the annual Christian Bookseller's Association convention. A smiling lady informs me that my "guaranteed room reservation" is no longer guaranteed. It seems some guests have stayed longer than expected. "We're sending you to another hotel," she apologizes, handing me $15 for the taxi. My response is anything but graceful.

The bill comes to $10, and I pocket what's left, small consolation for the fact that I'm now in a darker area of town. I keep the curtains shut tight against beggars and bums, push my luggage against the door, and open Yancey's book again. "As I look back on my own pilgrimage," he writes, "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."

The next day I meet Philip Yancey to talk about his new book. Its stories have touched me deeply and I tell him so. "Thank you," he says. "You don't think it will get me in too much trouble?" I tell him it probably will and ask why one of Christianity's brightest pens would choose to write on the topic of grace.

"Grace comes free of charge to people who don't deserve it," he responds, slowly, thoughtfully. "I am one of those people. I think back to who I was--resentful, wound tight with anger, a link in a long chain of ungrace learned from family and church. Now I am trying in my own small way to pipe the tune of grace. I know that any forgiveness or goodness I have ever felt comes solely from the grace of God. I long for the church to become a culture of grace."

Yet the word, he believes, hardly characterizes today's church. To illustrate, he tells of a friend who asked a Chicago prostitute if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. "Church!" she cried, "Why would I ever go there?"

"What struck me about my friend's story is that women like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from Him. The down-and-out no longer feel welcome among His followers.

"A graceful church has room for people who don't know how they feel about it. They're not defining the church or leading the church, but they're not excluded. A graceful church knows how to welcome failure and rewards vulnerability so that a person automatically thinks of the church when they need help."

While researching the project, Yancey began asking non-Christians what comes to mind when they hear the words "evangelical Christian." Mostly he heard political descriptions: of pro-life activists, or gay-rights opponents. "Not once," he says, "have I heard a description of grace. I know many gracious Christians, but too often the world doesn't see us that way. But shouldn't a church exist for those who need its help, not those who by their own profession are so good already that it is they who help the church?"

"Aren't you being a little hard on us?" I ask. He smiles. "I'm picking on Christians because I am one. I see no reason to pretend we are better than we are. But we don't have a corner on ungrace. Our culture is all about appearance. Body shape. Money. Walk into a drugstore and look at the magazine rack and you see our values. Only one percent of women would look good in those bathing suits. That's a form of ungrace. "You get what you deserve." "There's no free lunch." The gospel says "there's not only a free lunch, it's a banquet!"

"By instinct I still feel I must do something in order to be accepted. Grace sounds a startling note of contradiction, of liberation. The notion of God's love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, the Muslim code of law--each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God's love unconditional.

"I had the clear impression growing up that the more flaws I had the farther I was from God. What I've found in grace is the opposite. Our defects are the very cracks through which grace can pass. If we're so concerned about blocking up all those little flaws we may find that there's no place for grace to get in. I haven't met anyone who can even meet the first commandment."

His last book The Jesus I Never Knew sold more than 100,000 copies and was voted ECPA's Book Of The Year, yet he seems most impressed with the lessons he learned writing it. "I found out that Jesus preferred to be around sinners. I think it's because they were deeply aware of their need for God. The Pharisees spent their whole lives trying to prove that they didn't need Him."

In What's So Amazing About Grace Yancey tells the story of Mel White, one of his best friends, who made the startling admission that he was gay. White, a ghostwriter for Billy Graham, Francis Schaeffer, and Jerry Falwell, had a loving and devoted wife and two children, taught at Fuller Seminary, and served as a pastor. "I thought, Mel, gay? Is the Pope Muslim?" Yancey recalls. "We began having agonizing discussions during which our friendship hung by a thread because he wanted so much for me to approve. I couldn't approve. But all Mel hears from Christians is judgment--the most vile things you can imagine. My study of Jesus' life convinces me that whatever barriers we must overcome in treating 'different' people cannot compare to what a holy God overcame when he descended to join us on planet Earth."

While the book centers on amazing grace, Yancey also talks about "grace abuse." "We are to try to fathom, not exploit, God's grace," he writes. "But I worry that Christians used to be like perfume atomizers, and now we're like the spray apparatus used by insect exterminators. There's a spot of evil! Pump, spray, pump, spray. Some Christians I know have taken on the task of "moral exterminator" for the evil-infested society around them. But how will we feel if historians look back on the evangelical church of this era and write, 'They fought bravely on the moral fronts but did little to fulfill the Great Commission?'"

Describing himself as a "recovering legalist", Yancey believes that legalism in North America is changing its focus. "In a thoroughly secular culture, the church is more likely to show ungrace in its sense of moral superiority or in its fierce attitude toward opponents in the 'culture war.' The fact is, true saints never lose sight of their own sinfulness."

On the way back to my hotel, his final words play through my mind. "God is in the business of dispensing gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God's requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell....I deserved punishment and got forgiveness. I deserved wrath and got love. I deserved debtor's prison and got instead a clean credit history. I deserved stern lectures and crawl-on-your-knees repentance; I got a banquet...spread for me."

Back at my hotel, I finish the last chapter of What's So Amazing About Grace and close the book, thankful afresh for God's grace, and challenged to live a life reflecting it. Minutes later, I walk outside, past a homeless man who sits, calling for my attention: "Hey, man, why you walk on by? Why you treat me like garbage." I stop. Perhaps unwisely. "I'm sorry," I say. "I didn't mean to." He holds out a free pass to "The Gentleman's Club," a nude show just down the street. I show him my wedding ring. "I'm a Christian," I say, "and it's tough enough on business trips without you tempting me, man." We laugh together. He can't stop apologizing. "I'm a Christian, too," he says, tossing his cigarette. "I don't need this." For the next half hour I listen to his story. Drugs. Alcohol. Depression. Attempted suicide. Loss of job. "Last night I slept behind that tree," he points, his breath causing me to inch away. "A rat bit me in the knuckle...right here."

Not knowing what to believe, I ask him, "So what would Jesus say to you." "Oh man...He'd say that He loves me. It's the only thing that's got me through." I pray with him and pull the $5 from my pocket. "I don't know how you'll spend this," I say, "but that's not up to me." And after teaching me a series of handshakes, he listens as I urge him to try to get his job back. Then we part ways. Two sinners. Saved by amazing grace. His words echo in my ears: "It's the only thing that's got me through."

This award-winning article is condensed from a chapter in Phil's bestseller Making Life Rich Without Any Money.



Read more Interviews.

Like to see Phil's article syndicated in your magazine or newspaper? Email us for info. 2012 Phil Callaway. Read more of Phil's articles.