Book Review: Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey

Vanishing

Philip Yancey’s new book, Vanishing Grace, answers the question, “How can Christians present truly Good News amid the changing landscapes of our time?” It is in response to the issue of why the reputation of Christians how been going so bad over the years. Yancey issues a call for Christians to be “grace-filled” in their behavior as they are in declaring their beliefs. He asks why “Christians continue to lose respect, influence, and reputation in our modern culture?

In many ways, Vanishing Grace explores similar themes to Yancey’s most renowned book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? This new book speaks about the Christians need to be dispensers of grace in a world thirsting, searching, or needing it, and how many believers have failed to live up to the task. The author does so by dividing the book into four sections: A World Athirst, Grace Dispensers, Is it Really Good News?, and Faith and Culture.

This book has both strengths and weaknesses. I say this not so much from a literary point of view, but from a biblical and theological one. This book is insightful in how it tackles the obvious trends of increasing antagonism against the Christian faith. This begins in Chapter 1, which states that popular opinion regarding the church was mostly favorable in the 1990s, and now only 16 percent has a favorable view of Christianity. What caused this downfall? It is based on many reasons, one of which is the church’s apparent failure to be dispensers of grace. Instead, they are deemed as judgmental, harsh, and untactful when dealing with major social and political issues.

Yancey is correct when he states that the church needs to be salt and light to the world. They need to be conduits of gentleness, meekness, forgiveness, and mercy. To that end, this book is pretty inspirational and convicting. As usual, Yancey masterfully includes many illustrations and stories from history, and from his own life’s observations, in support of the many themes that he talks about in the book.

As well-written, insightful, and convicting as this piece is, it is not without its flaws. The first one I’ll begin with is Yancey’s theme of “communicating faith in an appealing way to future generations.” Even though I agree that Christians are not called to be a stumbling block or add offense to an already offensive message of the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:18-31), this is not the same as toning or watering down the message itself. There are many instances in the book where Yancey seems to imply that the Christian message of the gospel is not suppose to be offensive to a watching world as long as it is presented with tolerance and gentleness. There are even times when the author seems to say that direct evangelism is not tactful, or is even too forced. On page 115, using the example of a Buddhist Soho Machida, Yancey quotes, “If they (Christians) have the slightest consciousness of themselves as the superior helping the inferior, or the faithful saving the unfaithful, they immediately lose their Christian dignity.”

So evangelizing those who are on their way to God’s end times judgment and hell is apparently something that is without dignity? I don’t know where Yancey was going with this comment, but it is an obvious sign that unbelievers (whether Buddhist or atheist) are offended by the gospel message because it is meant to be offense (1 Cor 1:18-31). Jesus didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10:34). The whole point of the gospel is that it will offend and bring division between people, which is why Christians have been widely persecuted, from Stephen (Acts 7:60) all the way to our present day. There is no way, no matter how one presents the message, will it always seem agreeable, or give Christians a better standing, in front of the secular world.

Another issue that is somewhat troubling about the book is the author’s definition of “grace.” What exactly is this grace that he talks about and where does its inspiration come from? From Christ obviously. But Yancey seems to define this grace as showing mercy and high tolerance towards others of different beliefs and lifestyles, with no room to confront sin or wrong doctrine when necessary. However well intentioned this sounds, it is not the biblical definition of grace. The Bible’s definition of grace is showing unmerited favor towards others, but not compromising the gospel or righteousness. It is based on the sacrificial death of Christ, in which He shows us grace by giving us the eternal life (and salvation from eternal hell), which we didn’t deserve. That is why we preach the gospel. Yet it seems that the author’s definition of “grace” is so pliable that it could make it seem like he is advocating for Christians to accept homosexuality, or even the fact that people of other religions will not be eternally damned for their actions. He blames the church so much for being intolerant and judgmental. Although it is true that some churches have indeed preached false doctrine and been harsh in their approach of sinners, preaching the gospel as it is (even if analyzing and confronting sin) is not being intolerant or judgmental. It is biblical (Rom 3:20; Gal 3:24).

Another somewhat troubling issue has to do with the gospel itself, this good news that we Christians are suppose to change the world with? What does Yancey think the gospel is? On page 253, the author says that the good news of the gospel is that “Christ died to save sinners, to free us from guilt and shame so that we can thrive in the way God intended.” A decent definition, but very general. The author never really sets out to define the “good news” and why we should care about it. There is no mention of depravity, final judgment, or even the issues of the substitution atonement, resurrection, or justification by faith. Without clearly defining this gospel, we not lose sight or even the definition of “grace” to an unbelieving world, but we have a misguided goal of what the Christian mission is. This good news that Yancey talks about fits very close to a social gospel/liberation theology, and we signs of it everywhere in the book. He quotes Rick Warren on page 125, which says, “The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what the church believes, but about what the church is doing.”

This seems to be the meat of the whole book, a “gospel” that represents deeds, social transformation, and healing of others, although there is never much mention of preaching the gospel (evangelism) that saves sinners positionally before saving them in the practical sense. That is why to the author, it is not such a big deal whether others don’t believe the same thing that Christians belief. Because it doesn’t seem to be about death and the afterlife, but about the here and now. It is helping people remove their guilt feelings and giving them a purpose as healers and restorers of the current world.

On page 190, we see a troubling statement. After famous pastor Bill Hybel invited a Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, and Hindu to the church he pastors at for an interfaith dialogue, he concluded, “We live in a very diverse world, and we have to learn to get along with and respect and show deference and kindness to people who represent different religions. I hope as we leave, you will leave with the words of Jesus on your mind: the highest kingdom law or value is the law of love. While we may disagree about where we drive our stake of conviction and belief, we are called to be compassionate, understanding, and respectful to those who believe differently.”

Seriously, did Bill Hybel (a Christian pastor) actually say this?! I don’t have to sit here and analyze everything that was unbiblical about this approach or statement, but Hybel’s words (and Yancey’s use of this quote) seems to suggest that people of other religions will find favor with God and salvation when it is all said and down. What it seems to suggest is that the highest priority for the church is not about the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20; Mk 16:15), but showing tolerant love towards others, no matter their religion and lifestyle. Christianity seems to be more about lifestyle and deeds, and not about seeking and saving the lost, which was Jesus’ passion on earth, and why He died on the cross (Lk 19:10).

In conclusion, I must say that I have mixed feelings about this book. Like I said earlier, it is a well-written piece that is gives great insight, at times, into the theme of unbeliever’s feelings towards Christianity and the proper Christian attitude in response. However, the book’s main flaw is that it does not do justice to the book’s main intent, which is to make the Christian “grace” appeal to the unbelieving world? There is really no way that this can be done unless the central message of the gospel is changed, which is for Christianity to be ecumenical. I am not saying that there is no place for good deeds in the Christian faith (since that is what we are called to show as an act of worship to God and as a testimony to the world in evangelism). However, this is different from saying that this is the good news, or the Christian’s main mission in life. Yancey’s intentions with the themes of deeds and behavior are noble and well intentioned, but he does not seem to realize that the Protestant Reformation didn’t happen because of Christians’ showing tolerance or city deeds. Rather, it happened because of the faithful exposition of the inerrant word of God and the direct evangelization of people, which the Holy Spirit uses to save and transform (sanctify) sinners. That is the good news of the gospel, to which not only Jesus and the apostles held to, but also Augustine, Irenaeus, John Calvin, Martin Luther, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, John Owen, Martin Lloyd-Jones, John MacArthur, John Piper, and R.C. Sproul.

Note: I received this book as a complimentary review copy from Booklookbloggers.com. I was not obligated to give a good or bad review, but only my honest evaluation.

 

Book reviewed by Steve Cha, author of Hollywood Mission: Possible: