From the Forgiveness Issue: A Q&A with Philip Yancey

For this fifth issue of the magazine, we had the privilege of talking to author […]

Ethan Richardson / 7.15.15

For this fifth issue of the magazine, we had the privilege of talking to author and journalist Philip Yancey about the message of grace in today’s churches. We also got a chance to re-print a small sample of his most recent book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?.

To order a copy of The Forgiveness Issue, look no further than here. There’s more where this comes from. 

In May of 2015, the Pew Research Center released its latest findings on the “changing religious landscape” of the United States. According to the survey, 70% of Americans identified as Christian in 2014, down from 78% in 2007, with the majority of that 7% moving in the “unaffiliated” or “none” direction. But the majority of new “nones” are not in fact disenfranchised Evangelicals (those numbers have held solid), but former mainliners, Protestant and Catholic alike. While the findings are most pronounced in young adults, the trend is true across age groups and demographics.

empty-churchBased on these changing tides, it is hard not to feel the sense of alarm in American Christianity. “Is the Church dying?” While many Christian leaders and ministers have made aim to bolster the faithful, to continue to fortify the Christian faith against its “cultured despisers,” other Christian communities are finding ways to justify their own findings—that this age is weeding out the nominal Christians from the real ones; or that this is further evidence that the church needs to better accommodate contemporary culture; or that the mainline church is on its way out and the Evangelical church is here to stay. Regardless of the merits of any of these justifications, one thing cannot be denied: “Christian” is no longer a neutral or assumedly positive self-description. As Ed Stetzer of Christianity Today wrote, in reference to the Pew findings,

…the cultural cost of calling yourself “Christian” is starting to outweigh the cultural benefit, so those who do not identify as a “Christian” according to their convictions are starting to identify as “nones” because it’s more culturally savvy.[1]

Many would add that the content of Christian belief stands in conflict with much of the world we tend to see and hear every day. This isn’t just because we live in a multicultural and pluralistic society; it is because so many Christian claims about God and morality seem judgmental and archaic to secular ears. Religious terms like “sin” and “righteousness” and “sacrifice” don’t seem to have much footing in today’s contexts; they are simply church words, words whose negative associations quickly take a backseat to our more necessary and forward-thinking interests.

And yet, we believe these words do have lasting power, that their meaning can withstand and supersede the cultures where they dwell. Sadly, though, the most powerful word of all is the one which seems to be vanishing most—even from its own churches. This word, which was the identifying mark of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, is also the word that seems least to identify his Church. This word, grace, flows from the same source as forgiveness—from Jesus Christ himself. Grace is Christianity’s thesis statement, what has been heralded as the Good News: the unmerited, no-strings-attached love of God for all people.

For over twenty years, Philip Yancey has been writing as a journalist about this word in the world. His landmark first book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, was a clarion call for grace-centered believing over morality-based living. It positioned grace—not good behavior—as Christianity’s distinctive feature. And Yancey is still at it. His most recent book, Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News?, asks how grace can “bridge the gap between Christian faith and a world increasingly suspicious of it.” In a world growing more and more exhausted by persuasion tactics and guilt mongering, grace may be the only thing inexhaustible enough to make any inroads.

The following passage comes from a section of Vanishing Grace about forgiveness, and we were lucky enough to get Philip to answer some questions on the subject afterward.


As the year 2013 came to a close, Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of such bestsellers as Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, spoke out publicly about his own rediscovery of faith. He credits a visit with a Mennonite couple in Winnipeg, Canada, who lost their daughter to a sexual predator. After the largest manhunt in the city’s history, police officers found the teenager’s body in a shed, frozen, her hands and feet bound. At a news conference just after her funeral the father said, “We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.” The mother added, “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” stressing the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”

51H1o2uSCkL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The response of this couple, so different from a normal response of rage and revenge, pulled Gladwell back toward his own Mennonite roots. As he says, “Something happened to me when I sat in Wilma Derksen’s garden. It is one thing to read in a history book about people empowered by their faith. But it is quite another to meet an otherwise very ordinary person, in the backyard of a very ordinary house, who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary. Their daughter was murdered. And the first thing the Derksens did was to stand up at the press conference and talk about the path to forgiveness.” He adds, “Maybe we have difficulty seeing the weapons of the spirit because we don’t know where to look, or because we are distracted by the louder claims of material advantage. But I’ve seen them now, and I will never be the same.”

Somehow Christians have gotten the reputation of being morally superior when in fact we turn to God only when we have recognized our moral inferiority. As the recovery movement teaches, naked honesty and helplessness are what drive us to God. The truth, about ourselves and about our need for outside help, sets us free. We don’t need to pretend that things are fine or that goodness comes easily. We admit we are needy and look to God for both vision and strength to subvert the world.

In his introduction to the book of James, Eugene Peterson explains this unsettling truth:

When Christian believers gather in churches, everything that can go wrong sooner or later does. Outsiders, on observing this, conclude that there is nothing to the religion business except, perhaps, business—and dishonest business at that. Insiders see it differently. Just as a hospital collects the sick under one roof and labels them as such, the church collects sinners. Many of the people outside the hospital are every bit as sick as the ones inside, but their illnesses are either undiagnosed or disguised. It’s similar with sinners outside the church.

So Christian churches are not, as a rule, model communities of good behavior. They are, rather, places where human misbehavior is brought out in the open, faced and dealt with.

Herein is grace: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christians are simply pilgrims who acknowledge their lostness and their desire for help in finding the way. Or, in Peterson’s analogy, we are sick patients who have found a remedy and want to introduce it to others.


Your most recent book, Vanishing Grace, deals with a message that’s gone missing in much of the church today. What message is that, and what message do you think has tried to replace it?

I believe the church in the U.S. has lost sight of how to relate to the wider society, which is growing more hostile. We’re the outlier in the world, with a Christian majority, and as culture changes we’re not responding well. To borrow words from Amy Sherman, the church responds either by Fortification (hunkering down among like-minded Christians) or Domination (wanting to beat those secularists and get our country back). I don’t see either of those approaches recommended in the New Testament, even though it was written in a much more hostile environment.

Christian organizations adopt the mission of converting the entire world or cleaning up the society around us—good goals, but never really anticipated by Jesus or Paul. There is one clear command we can follow, though, in Hebrews 12:15: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God.” That one, I can get my mind around. And if we do that, I believe we will indeed get the world’s attention.

Why do you think the message of grace and forgiveness has lost favor in the pulpits of so many churches?

AmyBennettSmokeSignalsFear is one main factor. Look at the fundraising appeals: most are based on guilt or fear. Again, the U.S. has a tradition of Christians being viewed with respect even by those who disagree with them. No longer. Interviews show that Christians are viewed as uptight, judgmental, controlling, antagonistic. Those are the reactions of people who are used to getting their way but now feel threatened.

Grace and forgiveness are harder messages than appeals to morality. An easy parallel would be the most religious people in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees. These were devout, upright people. And how did they respond to the message of grace and forgiveness? Not eagerly, to say the least. Yet those in deep need—those who had messed up their lives, the poor, the marginalized—flocked to Jesus.

Much of your journalistic work looks into the lives of ordinary people who live as “grace dispensers” and do some extraordinary things. Of non-churchy things that are around today, what comes to mind when you think of examples the church can learn from?

In the book I mention three categories of people who seem able to communicate the Good News in a grace-full way. Activists extend a hand of mercy which in turn touches someone’s heart, who then wants to know why they cared? I’ve seen this all over the world, and believe activists may be our best evangelists today.

Artists express faith in creative, unexpected ways that disarm. Think of your own reaction when someone comes to your door and says, “I want to tell you about my faith.” How I respond to a cult missionary is how many people respond to sincere Christians. Artists find another way.

Pilgrims—we’re all pilgrims. And the more we come across as ordinary people stumbling along with the same problems and temptations, the more we lower barriers and build bridges. We’re not on a pedestal, some species of super-humans. We have two advantages: we have a clear destination for this journey on earth, and we have a resource in God’s Spirit who helps along the way.

Here in your book you are drawing some connections between suffering and grace. What is the connection here? Can you talk about that some?

As unwelcome as it is, suffering opens up opportunities for grace. As I mentioned, activists pour into suffering places after a tragedy like a flood, earthquake, tsunami, or hurricane, and express in tangible ways the compassion of God. And all of us experience times when we feel absolutely helpless and vulnerable—again providing an opportunity for grace. The recovery movement teaches us that often it’s only when we hit bottom that we turn for help to God and others. In the words of a Leonard Cohen song, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” 

Nearly twenty years ago you wrote a book entitled What’s So Amazing About Grace? You are now back on the topic. Has anything changed? Why return to it?

Much has changed. Our country has become more polarized and divided. The church has become more politicized and scared. Society has become more profane and self-indulgent. The church is in danger of becoming an irrelevant, cloistered minority. For so many people, the gospel no longer sounds like Good News. Thirst has not gone away; we need to relearn from Jesus how to present Living Water.

[1] “Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways from Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey,” Ed Stetzer. May 12, 2015.