Law and Grace

Author Philip Yancey describes himself as, “a pilgrim, still 'in recovery' from a bad church upbringing, searching for the possibility of a faith rooted in grace instead of fear.”

In his memoir, Where the Light Fell, he recounts his surprising journey from a strict fundamentalist upbringing to a life of compassion and grace. 

He grew up in Georgia in a culture of Southern, Bible-belt fundamentalism with the mounting social pressures of the 60’s. He yearned for freedom—and redemption.

He and his brother Marshall lost their dad when they were just toddlers. To say their widowed mother, a renown local Bible teacher, was hard on them, would be an understatement. She held to a view of Christianity that said a believer can—and should—rise to a plane of victorious living where he no longer sins. Imagine the impact.   

Philip was surrounded by rules, laws, commandments, boundaries, and codes—all somehow connected to being close to God. And yet, he felt so far away from God. He writes, “I have always thought of God as an arm-twister, a cosmic bully who schemes to break anyone who dares resist.…I fully expect God to crush me someday—the threat Mother has held over us.”

He went off to a Bible college whose 66 pages of rules would make you cringe. They were discouraged from reading C.S. Lewis because he smoked a pipe. You can probably fill in the blanks. No secular music. No long hair. No dancing. No kidding.   

Yancey writes: “God hangs like a mist over the Bible-college campus—sung to, testified about, studied, feared. Yet for me, whether in family, church, or college, the motions of faith have always proved unreliable.” 

He was familiar with the Bible but it held no meaning or power over him. He grew to resent God. But during his junior year, something happened that changed him forever.

He had a troubling class assignment: “Write an essay about a time when God spoke to you through a passage of the Bible.” He had no idea what to write. To his knowledge, God has never spoken to him, let alone through the Bible. 

But weeks later, in a prayer gathering at a local secular university where they were required to visit and evangelize lost students, light fell. To everyone’s surprise—most of all his own—he began to pray out loud for the first time. He reflects on his words: 

“God, here we are, supposed to be concerned about those ten thousand students at the university who are gong to Hell. Well, you know that I don’t care if they all go to Hell, if there is one. I don’t care if I go to hell. We’re supposed to feel the same concern for university students as the good Samaritan felt for the bloodied Jew lying in the ditch. I feel no such concern. I feel nothing…” And then it happens. In the middle of my prayer, as I am admitting my lack of care for our designated targets of compassion, the parable of the Good Samaritan comes to me in a new light. I visualize the scene: The image unnerves me—the apostate who doesn’t believe in visions or in biblical parables. I am rendered speechless. Abruptly, I stop praying, rise, and leave the room. 

I can’t put the scene out of my mind. In a single stroke my cockiness has been shattered…I have caught a new and humbling glimpse of myself. In my arrogant and mocking condescension, maybe I’m the neediest one of all.

What happened? In his own words, when Yancey got honest with God and told him how much he hated people and didn’t care if the whole university went to Hell, when he told God that he didn’t love him, that he never had, that he never knew how—clarity came. 

God didn’t slam the door in his face. He writes: “I was asking God to somehow, even though I didn’t want him to, give me the love of the Good Samaritan—who loved irrationally, with no reason. Who loved a repulsive, filthy tramp. Then it hit me. I was the tramp and God was trying to help me. Every time he leaned over I spit in his face. What’s more, I wanted to remain a tramp. An intelligent, sophisticated tramp by choice.” 

It took him by surprise, a gift of grace he neither sought nor desired. He says, “I felt chosen…I cannot begin to answer for God. I can only accept the free gift of grace with open hands. I realized that winter night in a college dorm room: Someone is there who loves me.” 

What happened to Philip Yancey? Simple. He found grace. As he wrote in another place, “grace seems to go against every instinct of humanity.” That’s right. Grace not only goes against human instinct. It overcomes it. In Romans 5, Paul wrote, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Romans 5:20).

Where sin increased, grace abounded. Grace outperforms the law—every time. All the laws, rules, prohibitions, and commandments could not and did not change Philip Yancey. And they won’t change us either. They provoked but have no power. It was God’s grace that unleashed a changing power into Philip’s life. He was never the same. Five decades later, he still dates that prayer meeting as the moment of his conversion. 

When Yancey opened up and got honest with God, grace fell on him. And when we stop pretending and get raw and honest with God, grace will fall on us, too. 

We are changed, not by being told what we need to do for God but by being told what God in Christ had already done for us. That’s the good news about how God rescues hopeless sinners. Do you believe it?