Amazing Smurfiness, how sweet the sound

February 24, 2007    By: Geoff J @ 7:17 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices

One of our readers, CEF, asked me to read and review a book by Philip Yancey called “What’s So Amazing About Grace?“. In fact, CEF even sent me a copy of the book. I have been promising to review it for months now so I figured I had better get to it. I am admittedly only five chapters in at this point but I figured that if I started reviewing the book I’d have more motivation to finish it. (I have a dozen or more books that I have started but not finished — I’m not sure what that reveals about me…) Anyway, in this post I will give some general impressions about the book so far and address some issues about the word grace that have been on my mind in recent months.

First, about the title of this post. I discovered very early on in this book that Yancey uses the word grace as a sort of roll-up word to encompass a lot of good things. Yancey says that to him the word grace means at least these things: charity (aka the pure love of Christ), forgiveness, mercy, humility, and the all of the “fruits of the spirit” like peace and joy. A lack of these things he likes to call “ungrace”. The book then goes on (at least in the first five chapters) to explain that what the world needs is more grace (as he defines it). Of course I agree with him that the world needs more charity, mercy, forgiveness, etc; but I am not convinced that defining “grace” as a roll-up of all good things in the world is particularly useful. It reminds me of how The Smurfs used to call all good things “smurfy” things no matter what specific good thing they actually meant. Basically, it seems to me that Yancey might as well be saying grace=smurfiness and ungrace=unsmurfiness. I guess it works (if one buys his definition) but it seems counterproductive to me to use such roll-up words because I believe we need some level of precision to comprehend these virtues well enough to discuss and comprehend and internalize them.

But the way Yancey uses the word grace does make me wonder how widespread the use of this definition of the word is among non-Mormon Christians. It is not rare on the blogs to see Mormons and non-Mormons alike griping that Mormons don’t talk about grace nearly enough in church talks, lessons, and among one another. But if “grace” is just a roll-up word that means charity, forgiveness, mercy, humility, and the fruits of the spirit then apparently grace is what we talk about in church more than anything else — we just talk about the specifics of such grace.

I have been enjoying this book generally and have found myself mostly nodding in agreement so far. I’ll get into more specifics from the book in future posts. But for now, I wanted to see what y’all thought of this observation of mine — is the word grace often used as the Christian version of “smurfy” or is this something unique to Mr. Yancey?


  1. I quite like that book; I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying it. I agree with you about the vagueness of the term “grace” (though in Yancey’s defense, I don’t think he’s attempting to write a theological treatise so much as talk about the subject in an everyday kind of way, and technical theological definitions of grace can be a bit, umm, dry).

    I was at a Catholic university for a year before I realized that the way I was talking about grace didn’t correspond all that well to the way many of my fellow (mostly Catholic) students were using the term. Protestants are likely to talk about grace in the context of sin, to focus on how grace overcomes sin. (My impression is that this is true of Mormons as well–at least on those rare occasions when we use the term–though I could be wrong.) Catholics, on the other hand, have been debating for centuries about just how grace relates to nature, which is a somewhat different question.

    I notice that when Latter-day Saints want to talk about things like the healing of sin and estrangement, or the power of God to transform us into better people, we’re likely to bring up the atonement; and while we don’t use the word “grace” much, we do talk a lot about the power of the atonement. It would be interesting to explore to what extent we’re getting at the same thing.

    Comment by Lynnette — February 25, 2007 @ 2:14 am

  2. I think Lynette is right. Mormons tend to use the term the atonement in most contexts where others would us the term grace.

    I believe the most accurate general translation for the scriptural usage of the term grace is gift or gift of God. That (or a close derivative) seems to work almost everywhere.

    Comment by Mark Butler — February 25, 2007 @ 6:16 am

  3. I am glad you are reading this book. It is one of my favorites. And I am always trying to get fellow Morms to read it (much like CEF it seems!). While it might be a tad dramatic to say it changed my life, it definetly altered my perspective, and added clarity to my soul.

    I think Lynette is right in that Yancey is not trying to define grace so much as touch on some of its implications for our lives. And to expound on, well, just how amazing it is.

    I think perhaps you will like it more as you continue to read. It really gets good starting in Chapter 7, where he starts to talk about grace and forgiveness. He makes some powerful points. Other good points include passages on loving the sinner, and the benefit of keeping politics and religion separate (although the latter is a bit tangential to grace).

    If you do end up liking it, I also recommend Yancey’s “The Jesus I Never Knew.” Also good stuff.

    Comment by Katie — February 25, 2007 @ 1:44 pm

  4. Lynnete and Mark,

    Good point about Mormons using the word atonement as a catch-all as well. Just to show I am an equal-opportunity critic of roll-up words: I posted on the problems with making “atonement” a catch-all word and tried to suggest a way to separate the word into at least three segments in this post (which is part of our atonement and soteriology category here at the Thang).

    Comment by Geoff J — February 25, 2007 @ 4:35 pm

  5. Katie,

    Thanks for the note. I feel more inspired to dive back into the book already.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 25, 2007 @ 4:36 pm

  6. Hello Geoff,

    Thank you for taking the time to read some of the book and post about it here at the Thang. I am surprised to hear that others have already read the book and am glad that they had something positive to say about it. I would agree with Katie about “The Jesus I Never Knew.” I cannot remember if that was the first Yancey book I read or if it was “The Bible Jesus Read.” Anyway, those books got me started on the road of being a Yancey fan. And I can say, that his book on grace literally changed my life. But only after I also read “Believing Christ” by Robinson. I read Robinson’s book within a month of reading Yancey’s book, and the two together, I think, is what really made grace so real and personal for me. My wife would be the first to say that I am a MUCH nicer and kinder person now than anyone would have ever thought possible for one such as I am.

    Just last night I was watching the BYU channel, and Jay (I think) Perry was giving a talk on grace. I am not sure who he is, but it was actually a good talk about grace. He even got 2Nephi 25:23 correct. If he hadn’t of gotten that one part right, then it really makes no difference about how much of the rest he would get correct, because couching grace in an “after all you can do” paradigm, totally destroys the idea of grace. Something you receive that you do not earn and therefore deserve.

    The interesting thing about his talk, was that he spoke of grace a lot like Yancey does. That is, all of the gifts of the spirit are gifts of grace. So Geoff, you are probably correct in your assessment of the way Yancey talks about grace. I know after reading the book, I now see the world in terms of everything is either grace or ungrace. I mean, everything brakes down to being kind to one another or not. Either being willing to forgive someone, or not and so on.

    Lynnette and Katie are correct in saying that Yancey did not write the book to try and explain grace. He said after reading a 13 page treatise from the Catholic encyclopedia about grace, he decided to just try and convey grace through stories. I think in doing so, he has captured the essence of grace better than anyone ever has before and probably will again. It is considered in the evangelical world the “gold standard” of books about grace.

    The fact that most other Christians never speak of the atonement, ( at least not like we do) I really do think it would be a good thing if we as LDS become more comfortable with the word grace and used it more often in our own dialog with each other. I think that would go along way to ease the tension between us and them.

    Thanks again Geoff, I will look forward to further discussion of the book. Such as, do you think we are really saved by grace no matter what kingdom we go to, or do we really have to “earn” the Celestial Kingdom. And please do not think I am trying to say that works are not important, not at all, but I do think grace should come first and then works will be a natural corollary that will make all the works being done, done for all the right reasons.

    Comment by CEF — February 26, 2007 @ 2:20 pm

  7. Geoff, (just off the cuff and if I am remembering correctly) I had read a book by Michael Horton, called Put the Amazing Back Into Grace. I would recommend him hands down over Yancey. Much more specific than what you are currently reading.

    Comment by Todd Wood — February 26, 2007 @ 8:49 pm

  8. I have not read the Yancey book and cannot even say that I am familiar with this author. However, on the topic of grace, I love this talk by Elder Bednar (given before he was called to be an apostle):

    Elder Bednar clearly defines grace and its relationship to the Atonement. If you are not familiar with this talk, it is definitely worthwhile.

    Comment by Jim — February 27, 2007 @ 11:30 am

  9. Hello Todd,

    I can only speak for myself, but I am not impressed with someone that believes in infant baptism. However, I do like to learn new things and get different perspectives on a variety of subjects, so I might read Michael Horton’s book on grace, but not anything I feel to be in a hurry about.

    Jim, That is a very good talk by Elder Bednar, but I have two gripes that I have with most talks about grace by LDS folks. First, as long as we feel a need to use different words for grace, instead of just using grace itself, we will continue to have a dialog problem with other Christians. Second, he has yet to understand 2Nephi 25:23 in its proper context, which would be, “after all is said and done, it is still by grace that we are saved” or something along those lines. Other wise, if we have to earn the grace we freely receive, it is no longer grace, but a wage.

    I would have a question for Elder Bednar. How does grace enable one in the first place? What is the enabling power of grace? I would like to think he would say, “By the mighty change of heart one receives through grace, making one more Christ centered, therefore more “willing” to try and keep the commandments.” Obviously, not something we need to spend a lifetime trying to achieve before it can take place in our lives. At least, that has been my experience of grace.

    Comment by CEF — February 27, 2007 @ 4:06 pm

  10. CEF,

    On the other hand most Protestants focus on the Santa Claus version of grace. “Eat, drink, and be merry. nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God”

    In most Protestant thought the Atonement is an afterthought – Jesus Christ neither needed to come, nor set an example, nor suffer or anything else. Nor does anyone else need to repent or change their character or follow his example to be saved. It tends to be all magic wand theology from beginning to end.

    It is as if God was a Santa Claus with an infinite supply of grace that he can dispense at no personal cost to him or anyone else. So whence the evil in the world? Why the suffering, starvation, and death? To the greater glory of God is the only answer a Calvinist can give.

    Comment by Mark Butler — February 28, 2007 @ 8:21 am

  11. Hello Mark,

    It is nice to talk to you again. Mark, it would seem that our experiences with non-Mormons are a little different. I have met a few other Christians that believe the way you described, but the vast majority I have talked to, do not believe one can do anything they want and it is okay.

    In “What’s So Amazing About Grace” Yancey makes it very clear that the one catch to grace, is that one does have to repent. And I have heard one preacher in particular say, “if you can go out and sin, and your conscience not bother you, you are not saved.” I really believe that is the way most people believe. Of course there are always odd balls wherever you go, we even have a few in our own church. I am thinking of myself. :)

    Comment by CEF — February 28, 2007 @ 9:46 am

  12. Yancey makes it very clear that the one catch to grace, is that one does have to repent.

    Don’t forget that “repentance” in Mormonism has been defined as a life-long six-step process that isn’t completed until one has successfully abandoned sin and reached a point of keeping all the commandments.

    Repentance in traditional Christianity is much simpler than that. That’s why we can speak so comfortably about Christians having, immediately at conversion, the forgiveness of all their sins.

    Comment by Aaron — February 28, 2007 @ 10:56 am

  13. Hello Aaron,

    There seems to be a generally misunderstood idea about other Christians, that is just not true. One of the stories in Yancey’s book, is one about a friend of his, that has come to Philip to seek his advice about his(the friend) wanting to leave his wife. He asks Philip if he thinks God can forgive him for leaving his wife for a younger woman. Philip struggles to find an answer for his friend, but tells him that in the act of sinning, a person changes in the process, and who is to say that he would even want to repent later. Philip said that his friend, at the time of writing the book, had not come back to church yet.

    So I think it is wrong to believe that other Christians just do not believe something close to what we do about grace. Even though I have never heard one of them say we have to endure to the end, they do believe something similar, but of course for a somewhat different reason, which has nothing to do with being saved.

    Comment by CEF — February 28, 2007 @ 12:48 pm

  14. CEF,

    The ‘cheap grace’ doctrine so prominent in Protestant denominations in the 70s and 80s is definitely on the decline, fortunately. It is not required by traditional Calvinism, though the latter has its own paradoxes – notoriously due to its denial of free will.

    The issue to me is where does grace come from? In LDS belief, there is no atonement made (and thus no grace) without sacrifice. One might well say that the sacrifice of the Son of God involved considerable suffering on his part. No magic wand.

    Thus is it not the case that the grace we receive via the Atonement is directly traceable to works (voluntary suffering) on the part of another?

    In any case, whether external evidence of an inward conversion or not, it seems to me that there is hardly a more effective way to discourage good works than to propagate the doctrine that when all is said and done, they don’t matter anyway.

    Comment by Mark Butler — February 28, 2007 @ 2:18 pm

  15. Mark,

    I don’t pretend to be much of a scholar, so I am not someone that should be trying to defend grace to those of you that have a lot more education than I do. But I will do my best to try and answer your questions.

    You ask where does grace come from? According to Blake, and I agree with him, (I am sure that makes him a little nervous) grace is prevenient, meaning that grace was offered before any human action ever took place. And of course, grace was something that was taught in the old testament, long before the atonement was ever accomplished. So to answer your question, grace was part of the plan in heaven before we ever came here, God knowing that we would never make it back without it.

    As to your last statement, you are trying to get to the heart of grace/works that have been in tension since the beginning. Paul struggled with this as did James and as we do today. James was not satisfied with someone saying I am saved, but wanted something more evident such as showing what kind of works one had done. Paul on the other hand, understood the problem with stressing works over grace.

    It creates a system much like the Jews had at the time of Christ, praying for all the world to see just how righteous they were. All kinds of laws to make sure one was living correctly. Christ was not impressed with such things. I really think Paul said it best in Eph. 2:8-9. Other wise we get a system that creates an environment where one can think one can “earn” his way to heaven on his own, don’t need no stinkin grace. :)

    To make the point more clear, I will ask this question. If you are baptized, pay your tithing, go to the temple every week, in short do all the things we are supposes to do, but there is no grace, will your good works be enough to get you to heaven? I am glad for the atonement, but I am more glad that I do not have to earn it.

    Actually, your concern is the very same one the GA’s have about teaching that we really do not have to earn our way to heaven. It is talked about in “The Broken Heart” by Elder Hafen. The brethren seem to be afraid that if they teach grace the way it is in the scriptures, (outside of 2Nephi :25-23) then the members might take it as a license to not do anything. I am sad they see it that way.

    Comment by CEF — February 28, 2007 @ 4:01 pm

  16. Geoff, love the picture.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 28, 2007 @ 10:33 pm

  17. CEF,

    Good comments. I think you have a pretty good feel for grace. I certainly am a believer in previent grace and even think that much of what we Mormons call the atonement (the overall process of at-one-ment rather that the Christ Event portion) would be better described as grace. Having said that, it seems obvious to me that many creedal Christian do go overboard as Mark has described. I think the key issue is our personal relationship with God — being a works-crazed pharisaic person won’t help that relation ship but neither will being slothful and of low character because we expect a free ride from grace.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 28, 2007 @ 11:25 pm

  18. Hi Geoff,

    I could not agree more. I am sorry that some Christians say that even the acceptance of grace is a work, therefore, not something we can do on our own. I do believe in free will and that we can fall from grace, although I do admit it gets a little complicated because of the tension in the scriptures on the subject. We might call it, having your calling and election made sure.

    I have found that trying to share grace to those not steeped in the vocabulary, is like trying to tell someone what salt tastes like that has never tasted it. It is not easy. So I have tried to share Yancey’s book with everyone I can. I have give away many copies of the book. Few members of the Church can read it. One response I got was, he used the word grace too much. But I believe what makes the book so wonderfully profound, are the stories in the book. They literally soften ones heart to the point of allowing grace to inter in creating the mighty change of heart we in the Church talk about all the time. How is that a bad thing?

    Thanks again Geoff, I hope we can eventually get to the point in the Church of enjoying grace as much as other Christians. And I don’t really see any more complacency in their churches as I do our own.

    I would be interested in hearing what you think Yancey might have wrong about grace, I really want to be opened minded about this.

    Comment by CEF — March 1, 2007 @ 10:05 am

  19. I just got through reading the book Finding God in Unexpected Places by Yancey and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a collection of essays, and he’s quite insightful and definitely not of the cheap-grace school. Actually in quite a few places he sounded somewhat LDS, and his quoting of C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare and various classical authors reminded me of some General Conference speakers.

    The story mentioned in #13 above is at the heart of one of the essays in this book. A few sentences in that essay stood out: “But because of Christ, forgiveness is now our problem, not God’s. … God took a great risk by announcing forgiveness in advance. It occurs to me, though, that the scandal of grace involves a transfer of that risk to us. As George MacDonald put it, we are not condemned for the wicked things we’ve done, but not for leaving them.”

    Thanks for the original post. I’m going to have to check out that book next.

    Comment by Eric — March 1, 2007 @ 11:22 am

  20. Hi Eric,

    I have read, I think, all of Yancey’s books, and if I remember correctly, the one you read has a really neat story about Philip going with one of his friends that works with some kind of world org. that helps administer to prisoners in third world countries. To me, that one story alone was worth the price of the book.

    I like the way Yancey thinks and writes, some of his struggles with his faith are some of the same kind I have struggled with. I am reading his newest book now, on prayer. I would not hesitate to recommend any book by Yancey, and of course “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” is in a class all by itself.

    Comment by CEF — March 1, 2007 @ 2:48 pm