Book Review: The Grace of God by Andy Stanley
Grace is the bread and butter of pastoral ministry and Pastor Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church of Atlanta, Georgia, seeks to display that grace in all its grandeur in The Grace of God (2010). Stanley has a passion to communicate that Christ is the embodiment of grace and truth (xiv), and that if the church is to be centered on Christ then it is to be centered on grace. Thus, when grace is front and center in the life of God’s people, the church thrives. Seeking to lay out a fresh vision of this grace, Stanley writes thirteen chapters devoted to grace as refracted through the lives of various biblical characters.
In each chapter Stanley highlights the undeserved and bountiful grace that God displayed to each sinner. Stanley’s warm pastoral heart shines through as he essentially seeks to show three features of grace. First, he seeks to highlight that mankind is utterly devoid of any right to grace. In fact, Stanley points out the obvious fact that the moment grace is “deserved,” it ceases to be grace. This principle comes out pretty clearly in chapter one where Stanley gives much thought to things that many take for granted today like light, intimate male/female relationships, mountains, rivers, springs, valleys, and the cool breeze. The honest reader immediately resonates with Stanley’s observations that we deserve none of these simple, and often times overlooked, gifts from God.
The second thing that Stanley seeks to highlight is that grace has no other prerequisite than faith. For example, in the case of Rahab the harlot, Stanley points out that “grace doesn’t require people with embarrassing labels to shed those labels as a prerequisite. Grace is what empowers us do so” (89). Stanley has a very healthy view of grace in this respect. His focus is on the action of God and not the action (works) of man. God takes center stage in his miraculous, heart-changing, soul-redeeming, salvation-securing feats while man is the recipient. But Stanley is by no means a pusher of a sort “cheap-grace” that doesn’t expect grace to transform lives. Though Stanley puts the onus of salvation on God’s redeeming acts in the life of the believer, he is equally convinced that this grace shown will transform the recipient of grace. That transforming activity is a life-long process though, and Stanley is quick to encourage the readers of this reality. Seeing things this way, according to Stanley, also resolves the ostensible tension between “law and grace.” They are not opposed to each other, but one is the expression of the other (69). By this Stanley means that it was gracious of God to gives us laws to protect us from the consequences of sin and give us guidance in the will of our holy God. Though Stanley doesn’t state it is so many words, it is clear that by “law” he is speaking of the “third use” of the law. Yet, at the same time, he also speaks of the second use of the law as he shows that it was gracious of God, through the law, to show us our sin and need of a savior (see Rom. 3:20; cf. Formula of Concord, Article VI).
The third feature of grace is that it isn’t fair. If the gospel of grace were about fairness, no one would be saved and grace wouldn’t be grace. Stanley forcefully illustrates this point with the parable of the landowner who gave the same pay to workers who worked varying numbers of hours (Matt. 20:1-16) and the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). “Grace is not ours to earn; but it is God’s to give” (179). Stanley is not merely concerned to write about grace so as to encourage and edify the church, he is also concerned that the church proclaims that message of grace to a watching world. He reminds readers that the “church is most appealing when the message of grace is most apparent” (193). It is here that Stanley’s ecclesiology and philosophy of ministry appear. Alluding to Jew/Gentile struggles in the early church, Stanley cites the decision of the Jerusalem council that the Jews “should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). Stanley uses this decision in the early life of the church to argue that church should not be designed for “church people” i.e., Christians, but for “un-churched people” (205). Organized around the Great commission, the church should seek to “expose our neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, and world to the grace of God” (208). Stanley’s idea is that church should be so designed, planned, and set up for “non-church” people that when they come they feel comfortable. Stanley’s sentiment is no doubt felt by many a pastor. That is, I’m sure most pastors desire that people visiting their church don’t feel intimidated by clicks, snobbery, favoritism, and general unkindness. But Stanley seems to imply something more than this. Yet one is left wondering: is the church to be solely organized around the Great Commission? Our Lord’s instructions for church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20) weren’t part of the Great Commission, per se, but are integral to the life of the church. Surely a church that practices discipline, as per our Lord’s instructions would offend “non-church people.” Would Stanley include church discipline then despite its “offense?” He is ambiguous on this point. In general Stanley’s treatment of grace is superb, yet his attempt to hitch that vision of grace to his particular “philosophy of ministry” might cause some to wince.
One final observation concerns Stanley’s eager attempt to find and illustrate grace. He “finds” grace in places where some would not see grace at all. For example, Stanley speaks of the command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as “much grace and little command.” Additionally he speaks of the prohibition as a gracious bestowal of responsibility on Adam and Eve. While I doubt that Stanley was trying to score points for the Federal Vision theology or the New Perspective on Paul, it would still be good to be careful how one speaks of “grace” before the fall. He is just ambiguous enough in speaking of grace before the fall as to cause some to impugn him with denying some form of the covenant of works; a move that certainly has devastating consequences to the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone by the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.
Joshua B. Henson