[Pre-emptive note: this might be my longest blog post ever. Scratch that, it’s definitely my longest blog post ever, which is why I’ve broken it into pieces. It’s not intended as a casual review, but it’s rather trying to root out what I believe are confusing and unhelpful subtleties related to why I disagree with the overwhelmingly positive opinion toward this book, an opinion that is shared by multiple minds much greater than my own. This is a hard book review to write. I’ve written and deleted so many paragraphs, I could probably fill a book with them. Well, at least a Curious George-length book, which is my normal reading material these days.]
When our women’s Bible Study decided to read Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid for our spring study, we did so based on resounding endorsements from all the right people. If books can have pedigrees, this one knocks the ball out of the park. So part of the reason this is a strange review to be writing is that I find myself disagreeing with these glowing reviews, some even from my own respected teachers.
I missed the first two weeks of the study, but by then, murmurs were getting back to me that some ladies disagreed with some of the content presented at the beginning of the book. “She seems imbalanced.” “She hasn’t talked at all about the Holy Spirit or repentance.” “I feel like she’s telling me to stop trying to obey and just relax and be okay with my sin.” Then I read and felt like it gave me and the other gals some validation in our misgivings.
There are a million (or thereabouts) good reviews of the book, but for the sake of “sandwiching,” let me point out a few things that I appreciated about Extravagant Grace. First of all, I believe the book speaks very well to its target audience, which is Christians who have genuinely tried to walk in obedience and grow in holiness and who find themselves continually stumbling. They believe themselves to be failures and live under a shroud of guilt that they should be better (in both God’s eyes and in the eyes of other believers) than they are. For a person like this who is reading the book, to be told (essentially), “God designed your sanctification process! He knows that you are ‘but dust,’ and he knows exactly how deep your sin problem is, even more than you do. Therefore, he doesn’t expect you to be more sanctified than you are; he is working out his plan in and through you, so you don’t need to fear his disapproval or condemnation because you are not better than you are.” I have personally talked to people who have benefited enormously from this message in the book.
Second, and related, I think Duguid does a great job of drawing attention to the struggles all of us have to be more Christ-like. In her examples, she brings conviction to both the “elder brother” types and to the “prodigals.” We all need to see the depth of the sin in our hearts, and we all need to be encouraged to find our security in Christ alone rather than our performance. An added benefit of this emphasis is the community aspect. We are encouraged to view one another through the lens of Christ’s love rather than our weaknesses, and we are called to especially show that love and consideration to “weaker brothers.” There are some excellent sections of the book on this. An example: “It is a devastatingly painful thing to be a weak Christian in the American evangelical church today. So much emphasis is put on reading, praying, growing, and victory that there isn’t much room left for those God is holding on to with a strong arm, but who may know little of the joy of full assurance of faith and the satisfaction of growth in grace and obedience – at least in this life” (p 150).
Third, I believe that Duguid rightly senses an impulse on the part of Christians who want to be serious about holiness to be too serious about it, which can be counter-productive. We’re working so hard to be holy that we are caught off guard when we fall. Evaluating ourselves for the sake of rooting out sin, without a Christ-centered perspective on both our sin and his holiness becomes mere naval-gazing and has the impact of turning us even further inward on ourselves. Think of Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s famous saying, “For every one look at self, take ten looks at Christ.” Or, Jack Miller: “Cheer up! You’re worse than you think!” Holiness for the sake of holiness becomes joyless drudgery. We become filled with unhealthy fear of God’s wrath, burdened with guilt, or, when we feel like we are being holy enough, we become angry at God for not treating us in the way we think we deserve for all our holiness (think of the elder brother’s response to his father). This is what happened to the Galatians, right? They went from joyful freedom in Christ to the bondage of rules, and Paul called them perfect fools for it. Extravagant Grace has been written to remind us that because of Christ’s perfect obedience on our behalf we are free from the burdens of trying to obey in order to earn God’s favor, not only before we were saved, but also once we’ve been counted among God’s children.