Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happended to the Good News by Philip Yancey

Summary: The central message of the gospel is grace. If the world around us understands the central message of the church to be judgement, then we have messed up the message that Christ came to give.

There are four parts to this book and even in the introduction Yancey says that this is essentially four different books. I just wish he had tried to do less.

The first part is all about the vanishing of grace from the message of the church. This part is five stars and I would like virtually all Christians to read it. He calls on Christians to not only recover grace as the central message of Christ and the church, but also to remember that the method of the message has to be in love. I really don’t think that basic message can be emphasized too much in Christianity because the natural temptation of Christians is to change the message of the gospel to one that is about earning our salvation through moralism or tradition. After all, a gospel of moralism or tradition is easy for Christians who tend to be already familiar with tradition and fairly good at presenting a moral facade to the world around them. But that changing of the gospel away from grace fundamentally changes the message of the gospel.

Part two of the book is also good. Because we are in a post-Christian world, there are some people that can speak to the world more effectively than others. Yancey talks about the effectiveness of Pilgrims, Activists and Artists to communicate the mystery and beauty of Christianity. Traditional apologetics or door to door witnessing, while occasionally still effective, are less effective when there is not a shared cultural language. So evangelism needs to be more about longer term relationships and the communication of our art or deeds.

Part three was a miss for me. After a wonderful introduction about the need for grace and communication of the mystery of Christianity in part three Yancey wants to lay out a personal theology of evangelism and mission. But for some reason he returns to standard focus on apologetics and against complete relativism. This general apologetic did not work for me and maybe it is just me. (I might have been more receptive to part 3 if I had not read Unapologetic, which I think does everything that Yancey wants to do in setting out a personal theology, but better.)

Part three is build around the question ‘Does Faith Matter?’ which Yancey splits into three parts, Is there another way to God?, What is our Purpose? and How should we Live? This basic idea could have worked, but the underlying assumption of part three is that the world is getting worse and needs to be changed by the words and work of the gospel. And of course I do believe that the world needs to be changed by the gospel. The problem is what that means. I think by focusing on the problems of the world, Yancey misses that the world needs to be changed regardless of whether things happen to be getting better or worse at any particular time or in any particular place.

In many ways the world is not getting worse and Yancey’s point in the third part really fails if this assumption fails. Crime is near 50 year lows. Yes, out of wedlock births are up, but abortions are lower than in 1973, divorce is way down among most populations, rates of education is up (despite what you may have understood from the news), life expectancies continue to rise, world-wide absolute poverty is the lowest in history, and in spite of threats of global terrorism and problems of Syria and other hotspots, deaths from violence and war are lower in the last 20 years than nearly any time in the last 150 years and by some estimations the rates of death by violence may be the lowest in human history.

So the basic assumptions of this section seem to be wrong, if the reader believes as I do, that while the world could be a lot better, it is not on a fundamentally downward slide. (On the other hand, if you are someone that believes that the world really is on a downward slide then this section maybe your favorite part, as it was for at least one Amazon reviewer.)

What is right about this section is that we do need to listen to others. God does want us to flourish and a complete relativism is not a valid method of approaching the world (although outside of Yancey’s reading group example I really don’t hear many people calling for complete relativism.) I think the book as a whole would have been better without the third section. In a book written to Christians about recovering the message of Grace, I felt like this section was more about evangelizing me as a reader than laying out a personal theology of evangelism and mission. Maybe there are readers that need evangelism, but not every Christian book needs to evangelize the reader. Sometimes it is ok to just assume that the reader is evangelized already.  (This point is somewhat ironic because Yancey makes basically the same point in part four about the general weakness of Christian books.)

Part four is back to the general message of part one, but focused on how Christians can better interact with the world than we have recently. And he is back to the method of part two by focusing on the advantages of the Artist, Activist and Pilgrim. Much of part four is giving specific examples of how Artist, Activist and Pilgrim are actually already doing a good job of interacting with the world.

On the whole, this is a book worth reading. If I were Yancey’s editor, I would have pushed back hard on part three. I think the idea of part three is valid and could have been a real contribution to the book, but the execution of it was problematic, although maybe more for me than the average Evangelical reader. That being said, I would be thrilled if more books being written for a Christian audience were focused on pushing the church toward being a church for the world as this one is, instead of what is is often (as Christian Smith coined the phrase) a church focused on convoluted gospel of ‘therapeutic, moralistic, deism’.

Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News by Philip Yancey Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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