“Wherever you have sinned and continue to sin, he has obeyed in your place. That means that you are free to struggle and fail; you are free to grow slowly; you are free at times not to grow at all; you are free to cast yourself on the mercy of God for a lifetime.” Extravagant Grace Ch 9 pg 153
Do you believe that sanctification progresses in the measure you cooperate with God’s work in you? Do you believe that you should sin less, and be perfect more, the longer you’ve been a Christian? Do you believe experiencing addictive, habitual sin means there is something wrong with your Christianity? Barbara Duguid, in her book Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed In Our Weakness (P&R, 2013) (Amazon) answers with a resounding and shocking “NO!”. Instead, she re-defines what is typically understood by the “victorious christian life”. Painfully transparent pastor’s wife and counselor, Duguid imploys the writings of John Newton (former slave trader, pastor, and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”) to argue that joy in Christ is not about growing in perfection, but recognizing that God’s purposes and sovereignty include even the Christian’s continuous failure in the face of sin. She argues that sanctification is not about sinning less, but depending on Christ more, and urges us to relinquish the delusion that we can move towards perfection through our own efforts.
Growing up Protestant, surrounded by a Protestant culture that constantly mantras grace not works, if there is anything I ought to understand about God and me it’s that our relationship is not merit-based. However, despite all of the books and messages on grace, I have realized more and more that though well-versed in the big picture concept, grace has not met the nitty gritty of my life. I suspect I am not the only one. Daily plagued by guilt, fear, and the image of a disappointed God—my heart needs grace to hit home. Duguid’s book exposes assumptions of God and self that are so natural they hide in plain sight. This will likely be the most important book I read all year.
Duguid speaks from a Reformed conviction, taking the most all-encompassing view of God’s sovereignty, and thereby leaving little room for traditional free will. Still, she is adamant that our inability to progress in our own sanctification is no excuse for apathy about sin. She spends several chapters clarifying that the true Christian will bear the fruit of striving firmly against sin, and praying boldly for God’s mercy and help, even while recognizing that only God can produce the desired change. The Christian, with Paul, laments that he does the very thing that he hates (Romans 7:15), while praying for deliverance and running the race with all his might.
Duguid also explains that understanding God’s sovereignty over our weaknesses is not only for personal freedom, but if believed, would radically change our expectations of others. We would not look down on others for their weakness of faith, for the measure of faith each is given is a gift (Romans 12:3). We would not be discouraged by the lack of progress or “backsliding” in those we love, for their growth is on par with God’s purpose for them. We would not be shocked when our heroes make huge mistakes; we would expect that each of us are equally dependent on mercy for anything but huge mistakes. In fact, we would have joy and confidence in the future of every member of God’s flock, as they are as much a “trophy of grace” as we.
I’m torn. On the one hand I want to jump up and down for joy at the radical freedom that would come if I believed that even my sin is God’s intension, and that He does not expect me to be farther along the path of goodness than I am. On the other hand, I feel an eruption of resistance. There must be something I can do, there must be something I can lay claim to to make God proud that I’ve worked so hard. Silly me, resisting the gift of not having to perform in a losing battle. Duguid’s perspective paints God as much bigger and me as much smaller than more common descriptions of sanctification. That is good theology. If there is one book I could influence people to read this year it would be Extravagant Grace.
What is your initial reaction to hearing that struggling and failing is part of God’s plan for you?