Monday, December 20, 2010

The Grace of God book review

“Grace is understood best within the context of relationship. After all, it is only within the mystery and complexity of relationships that grace is experienced. So it seemed to me that the best way to approach this subject would be to simply tell the story of grace. It is a story that begins in the beginning. It is a story that traces its way through every book of the Old and New Testaments.” –Andy Stanley, p. xv

And so Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, GA writes The Grace of God, published by Thomas Nelson this year. He writes about the “story of grace” by dropping in on the life of a different Bible character in each chapter and seeing how God’s grace impacted their future. In the process, we, the reader, are taken on a journey that challenges the core of our faith.

Stanley delivers his typically engaging content, while maintaining his approachable style. I am personally used to listening to Stanley speak (live at Catalyst (www.catalystconference.com) or via one of his many podcasts through iTunes. (North Point Community Church podcast is his weekly sermon while North Point Ministries include select past series which are more popular and in demand. He also does the Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast which I don’t miss on iTunes) So I confess a bias towards valuing Stanley’s work. (I also got this book free through Booksneeze.com for blogging about it. So there are my disclaimers!)

I admit, however, that I prefer his auditory skills to his writing. (I would love to listen to him read the audio book…wonder if he did it) I say this not because his writing isn’t good (it is, actually) but because it’s not as much Andy-esque as I’m used to. In other words, it’s more polished. You can tell many others have edited and reworked it (as all publishers tend to do) and thus you miss some of the spontaneity and bit of irreverence that can slip out in a live message. Perhaps next time there could be less editing Sir Nelson…

But that is mostly just relevant to Stanley’s fans. This is an important book. Few subjects are more significant to the advance of the gospel than grace. And few problems are greater in the life and health of the church. So I applaud him for taking on this writing project.

After his brief introduction, Stanley launches into his Bible starting with creation and marches through it and the New Testament. Here’s what I love about his preaching and teaching: He takes the stories and passages we’re all so familiar with (if you’ve grown up studying the Bible) and he peels away the layers of tradition and assumptions that have accumulated. It’s like he doesn’t know any better than to think for himself as he reads Scripture! (How novel!). It has changed the way I read, study, teach and preach.

Stanley is also a master at pulling out the pearl of a passage. He by-passes a lot of good stuff. Instead, he focuses on the best. A good principle to live by.

Much like Rick Warren, Stanley crafts statements of truth and principle in memorable ways. For example, he writes in his chapter on creation, “Whereas God’s expressions of grace were innumerable, his requirements were minimal” and “A declaration of thirst is an invitation for God to quench your thirst.” (p. 10) Why publishers don’t allow this kind of formatting more often amazes me. It’s bad enough there are no pictures in books today…(don’t get me started).

Chapter 4 “Redeemed by God’s Grace” was particularly insightful as Stanley explained law and grace. He emphasized that they are not opposites because the law was actually a work of grace for us.

Probably the paragraph in this chapter rocked me more than any other. It wasn’t so much what he said but that what he said bothered me so much. Stanley writes,

“I’ve heard plenty of preachers and evangelists argue that if a person isn’t consistently keeping God’s law, he isn’t really a Christian!” (Note: I’VE said this before!) He continues, “This take on law and grace implies that keeping the law is proof of salvation by grace.” (Said that too) “In other words, real Christians will obey God’s law (at least most of the time).” (p. 52)

Perhaps this bothers you too. I believe we’re, “Saved by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8-9) too. But I also read that those who are truly in Christ will not practice a pattern of disobedience. (1 John) So this rocked me a bit. But I know I am vulnerable to a lack of grace in an attempt to challenge those not walking obediently with Christ. So I guess I’m saying that this was a bit of a wakeup call for me.

Stanley’s last chapter moves beyond his characters of Scripture. “Commissioned for Grace” is his attempt to awaken the American church, as he sees it, to be for the un-churched. He believes the problem in the church today is that it’s just for church people. This controversial statement is at the core of how his own church operates. They exist to be a church that “un-churched people love to attend”. This being a church for the un-churched is the statement that I wrestle with quite a bit.

In the end, I believe this book keeps an important conversation going. The story of grace should never end in our churches. This would be a great book for small groups, although it would be better if it had a few discussion questions included. Ah, but we saved some paper! A DVD curriculum with Andy Stanley preaching messages on this would be awesome.

In sum, I hope you’ll read this and then encourage others to read it as you write about it on your blog or Facebook page. Well-done, Andy!