The biblical concept of grace is one thing the world cannot duplicate while also being the one thing it craves above all else. How are Christians doing at lavishing the grace on a world that knows far more of cruelty and unforgiveness than it does of mercy? The Bible portrays true grace in shocking and scandalous terms: God does not excuse sin but always treasures the sinner. God always extends his grace to individuals regardless of what they’ve done; no one is unforgiveable in his eyes.
Bible Gateway interviewed Philip Yancey (@philipyancey) about his award-winning book and video curriculum, What’s So Amazing About Grace? Participant’s Guide with DVD, Updated Edition (Zondervan, 2021).
What IS so amazing about grace?
Philip Yancey: Grace breaks all the rules. Most people live with a sense of life that’s akin to karma. Do good, get rewarded; do bad, get punished. Along comes this incredible good news that God loves us not because of who we are but because of who God is. No matter what we’ve done, forgiveness is there for the asking. We expect the worst, and get the best. That’s rather amazing, no?
You’ve said that your role as an author is to be a storyteller. Why do you think stories are such a powerful way to communicate truth?
Philip Yancey: First, they’re engaging. I do a lot of public speaking, and when I begin a story, people quiet down, stop moving around, and pay attention. We’re beings of time, and when action starts we want to know what happens next. I’ve listened to hundreds of sermons with three-point outlines, and I can’t remember any of them. I do, however, remember stories told during those sermons.
Also, stories reflect raw life. When someone asked Jesus a direct question, they probably expected a direct answer. They rarely got one. Jesus understood that life involves complexity and mystery. For example, a person asked him, Who is my neighbor? Jesus responded with the compelling story of the Good Samaritan. You can’t legalistically define the appropriate objects of love and compassion—no, we become the neighboring ones in the way we behave. His convicting story makes that point.
Jesus was the ultimate storyteller. Do you have a favorite of his parables?
Philip Yancey: I read the other day that The Prodigal Son is preached on more than any other passage from the Gospels, and I’d have to vote for that one. It encapsulates grace: the father’s lavish love going to the worthless scumbag of a son who deserved exactly the opposite. How scandalous. How irrational. How comforting, for the prodigal in all of us.
In What’s So Amazing About Grace? I retell that story, setting it in Traverse City, Michigan with a young woman featured as the prodigal. I’ve tried writing parables, and it’s hard work! Yet Jesus spun off parable after parable, seemingly off-the-cuff, and they speak poignantly to us some two thousand years later.
Why is the message of grace so important right now?
Philip Yancey: We know that the U.S. is a deeply divided nation. It concerns me greatly that the church reflects those same divisions. White evangelicals are the group most likely to believe QAnon conspiracy theories and to oppose COVID vaccinations. They were among the leaders of the gang that invaded the Capitol building, waving Christian flags and slogans. Do we forget that Jesus’ most urgent prayer in John 17 centered on love and unity? In a divided, hostile world, Christians should offer a “sign of contradiction” that it’s possible to disagree on issues without dehumanizing and demeaning our opponents. We should be showing the watching world what that looks like.
Martin Luther King Jr. used to say that we must fight injustice, though with a different arsenal, the “weapons of grace.” Once, he heard that the Ku Klux Klan planned to march through the neighborhood of his church, and he met with associates to discuss how to respond. In the end, they called on church members to show up in their best Sunday clothes, stand on the church steps, and applaud the KKK marchers. The Klan was completely befuddled. They marched a few blocks in their white hoods and then melted away, disarmed by grace. We need more of that kind of creative response today.
What’s So Amazing About Grace? was published over 20 years ago. Why is the book still so relevant?
Philip Yancey: The themes are timeless. How can I relate to a holy God? How can I get along with family members on the one hand and enemies on the other hand? What in my life needs forgiving, and whom do I need to forgive? Is there a way through the mess we tend to make of our lives? Circumstances change, but the underlying dilemmas don’t.
Twenty or 30 years ago, Christians weren’t as aligned politically as they are now. We have an entirely new set of questions to ask ourselves, and to seek biblical guidance on. How can Christians hold to their values in a society that is becoming more pluralistic and more secular? And can we do that in a grace-filled way?
As the updated What’s So Amazing About Grace? video study is being released, how do you hope people are impacted by the material?
Philip Yancey: Grace gets down-to-earth and personal, and is best encountered in a group setting. So often I’ve seen long-buried feuds come to the surface. I’ve attended recovery groups based on the 12-step model, where raw humanity gets confessed and dealt with in a spirit of honesty and support. I wish church demonstrated that same kind of radical honesty. Instead, we tend to put on a false front that “everything’s just fine, thank you.” Everything is not fine, and we need a safe place to deal with the assaults of life.
You say Christians are meant to be “dispensers of grace.” What does that term mean, and what would it look like for Christians to live like that?
Philip Yancey: The word evangelical means, simply, good news. Jesus gave us an example of someone who was morally perfect, and yet sinners flocked to him rather than feeling judged by him. They sensed he had something that would fill a desperate need. That’s what I long for in the modern church. When I ask people, What first comes to mind when I say the word Christian? I get responses like, “holier than thou,” or “self-righteous.” You’d never think of applying those words to Jesus. People grasped that he represented freedom, joy, and abundant life—Living Water, he called it. I yearn for us to be dispensers of Living Water to a thirsty world.
In a recent blog post you say, “It’s possible to understand and respect another person without condoning their beliefs or compromising your own. In the process, you just may change their outlook—or expand yours.” How would conversations about divisive issues change if this was our attitude?
Philip Yancey: I wrote that after listening to a TED talk in which the speaker asked the audience, “Raise your hand if you have a close relative who voted for someone in 2020 that you could not possibly comprehend?” Everyone raised their hands. Then he asked, “Do you still have a relationship with that person?” and most people again raised their hands. If we can manage that tolerance with relatives, why not colleagues and neighbors and “the other”?
I realized that as a journalist, I have to be respectful and cordial, even when I’m interviewing someone with whom I profoundly disagree. I approach them not as someone to convert to my way of thinking—that’s not going to happen. Rather, my goal is to get them to explain their point of view in a way that my readers can comprehend and judge for themselves. I’ve been trying to put that into practice even with friends and neighbors. My goal is not to win them over, or defeat their arguments, but rather to listen carefully so that I can articulate their position fairly.
In the introduction to What’s So Amazing About Grace? you close by saying “I would far rather convey grace than explain it.” What do you mean by that?
Philip Yancey: I recently came across a quote from the philosopher James K.A. Smith that answers your question better than I could. Here’s what he said in The Christian Century magazine: “As a young Christian philosopher, I wanted to be the confident, heresy-hunting Augustine, vanquishing the pagans with brilliance, fending off the Manichaeans and Pelagians with ironclad arguments. As a middle-aged man, I dream of being Mr. Rogers. When you’re young, it’s easy to confuse strength with dominance; when you’re older, you realize the feat of character it takes to be meek. I used to imagine my calling was to defend the Truth. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to love.”
In the final chapter of What’s So Amazing About Grace? you say, “Grace teaches us that God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are.” How should this truth impact the way we treat others?
Philip Yancey: Jesus dealt with this issue in the Sermon on the Mount. It doesn’t take much grace to love your family or your neighbors, he implied (well, depends on the family and the neighbors!), but we’re called to love the unlovely, even to love our enemies. When the disciples recoiled at such a notion, Jesus gave the reason: God causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. That’s who God is. And the only way the world will believe in that God is if we demonstrate the same pattern of persistent, overpowering love.
I live by a mountain stream that begins at the top of a 14,000-foot peak in the Rockies. That stream has become for me a picture of God’s grace, always flowing to the lowest part. Jesus demonstrated the pattern by ministering to the “undeserving”: prostitutes, prodigals, the sick and disabled, the poor and marginalized.
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What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Philip Yancey: I’d have to go with Romans 8—the whole chapter. Paul steps back and gives us the cosmic view of a “groaning” planet. He’s absolutely honest about our messed-up planet. Those of us who have the Spirit still are subject to the effects of the Fall, he says. Yet those very groans intimate something new will come, much like the pains of childbirth. In the meantime, the children of God can trust that everything that happens can be an instrument of grace that fosters growth in our lives. Paul mentions some of the difficulties of his own life, and yet concludes with that magnificent benediction declaring that nothing in time or space or in the universe itself can separate us from the love of God. Dallas Willard paraphrases Paul by saying that for the one in God’s hands, nothing irredeemable can happen to you. That promise we can count on.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Philip Yancey: I marvel that we have so many resources available for study these days—and many of them are free! I think back over centuries when Bibles were chained to the pulpit for use by professionals only, or hidden under kitchen stools to be opened surreptitiously for family devotions. Now the insights of great scholars are freely available to anyone just by clicking a few keys. It’s unprecedented, and wonderful.
What’s So Amazing About Grace? is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Philip Yancey has written 12 Gold Medallion Award–winning books and won two ECPA Book of the Year awards for What’s So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew. Four of his books have sold over one million copies. He lives with his wife in Colorado. Learn more at philipyancey.com.
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