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
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
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
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."
award-winning article is condensed from a chapter in Phil's bestseller
Making Life Rich Without Any Money.
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Phil Callaway. Read more of Phil's