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Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.


Habits of the Heartless

It's hard to be full of grace when you're full of fear.

In church the other Sunday," said the humorist Erma Bombeck,

I was intent on a small child who was turning around smiling at everyone. He wasn't gurgling, spitting, humming, kicking, tearing the hymnals, or rummaging through his mother's handbag. He was just smiling. Finally his mother jerked him around and in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theatre off Broadway said, "Stop that grinning! You're in church!" With that, she gave him a belt and as the tears rolled down his cheeks added, "That's better," and returned to her prayers.

Early in his new book on grace, Philip Yancey quotes Bombeck to illustrate a troubling anomaly, namely, that while the Christian church's treasure is the gospel of grace, church people don't seem very happy about it. It's not as if they haven't encountered grace. Church people encounter grace all the time. They get their sins forgiven by grace and their lives regenerated. They hear of grace in sermons and receive it by means of sacraments. Their preachers greet and dismiss them with fine little bursts of grace. In between, people in church sing of grace: "Amazing grace," they sing, "how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me."

What's amazing, says Yancey, is that, with all this grace abounding, we Christian people are often pretty graceless. We entangle ourselves in fussy legalisms that almost guarantee hypocrisy. We major in relatively minor matters of law and miss the weighty demands of justice (Yancey quotes a church official who, upon his return from Germany in 1934, reported with admiration that Hitler didn't drink or smoke and that he liked to have women dress modestly). Moreover, we are ungenerous in our judgments and sometimes downright nasty. We write appalling letters to people with whom we disagree, demonstrating a combination of resentment and self-righteousness (the elder brother syndrome) that disqualifies us both to receive God's love and also to pass it along to others.

Isn't this odd? If grace is the church's ...

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