I wrote What’s So Amazing About Grace? more than twenty-five years ago, at the close of the twentieth century. I feared that some parts of the church were growing so shrill and divisive that bystanders no longer heard the gospel as good news.
In fact, I submitted the book to my publisher with the proposed title What’s So Amazing About Grace and Why Don’t Christians Show More of It? A wise and gentle editor persuaded me to shorten it. “That title’s a bit in-your-face for a book buyer, don’t you think?” he said. “Besides, we can’t fit that many words on a book’s spine.”
I remember standing in the kitchen as I stuffed the thick bundle of my manuscript pages into a mailing envelope—this back in an era when editors preferred hard copy to digital files. “It’s probably the last book I’ll write for Christian readers, especially evangelicals,” I said to my wife. “After all, I have a chapter on Mel White, now an LGBTQ activist, and another chapter on Bill Clinton, a favorite target of evangelicals. I’ll likely be blackballed.” I was wrong. The book went on to sell more copies and provoke more responses than anything else in my writing career.
I have been working on the revised and updated edition of What’s So Amazing About Grace?, and it will be released on October 3. As I reflect on the past twenty-five years, it seems clear to me that the world needs grace more than ever.
At the time of the book’s first publication, President Bill Clinton was halfway through his second term in office. Historians were ranking those years as among the most peaceful and prosperous in U.S. history. Unemployment hit historic lows and, astonishingly, the federal budget produced a surplus four years in a row. Congress passed bills with bipartisan support on major issues such as welfare reform and crime prevention. All this happened because Democrats and Republicans worked together—though not without strife—rather than automatically opposing whatever the other side proposed.
At the same time, international tensions had greatly eased from Cold War days. The Soviet Union had broken apart into sovereign republics. Russia was reveling in its newfound freedom and looking to the West for help in managing a chaotic economy (at least until Vladimir Putin became prime minister). China’s economy was booming, lifting millions out of poverty. The political scholar Francis Fukuyama proposed that human development had reached “the end of history,” a triumph for liberal democracy.
Fukuyama spoke too soon. In the years since, wars have broken out in Africa, the Middle East, and Ukraine; and autocrats have risen to power around the world. A new Cold War is taking shape between the U.S. and its old adversaries, China and Russia.
On the domestic front, U.S. elections now show a sharp divide between blue states on the coasts and red states in the middle. Some politicians seriously advocate for their states to secede from the nation; others speak darkly of a potential civil war.
Much has changed culturally as well in twenty-five years, including the country’s religious makeup. Church membership has fallen from 69 percent to below 50 percent, a historic low. According to the Pew Research Center, currently about three in ten U.S. adults describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. These “nones” vote overwhelmingly Democratic, widening the political divide.
I wrote for Christianity Today magazine during the Clinton presidency, and in that role I was twice invited to the White House. The concept of “culture wars” had recently entered politics, and President Clinton seemed baffled by it. A Southern Baptist himself, he couldn’t understand evangelicals’ outrage when he permitted gays to serve in the military under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Back then, no country had yet legalized same-sex marriage, and transgender issues were barely mentioned.
Both sides have hardened over the past few decades. A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute reveals that eight in ten Republicans believe the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, while eight in ten Democrats believe the Republican Party has been taken over by racists. Almost half of all U.S. adults report that they’ve stopped discussing political news when they disagree with a close friend or family member, and one in six have simply broken off the relationship.
Often it seems that two sides are standing on opposite banks, shouting at each other across a canyon. In such a climate we can choose to withdraw, hunkering down with like-minded people. Or we can choose the Jesus way, seeing schism and antagonism as a testing ground for grace.
What’s So Amazing About Grace? has been in print for twenty-five years. In that time I have received several thousand letters of response. Mostly, they tell stories. The man who shot John Lennon, now studying the Bible in a New York prison. Former president Jimmy Carter, spending his post-presidency bringing grace to less fortunate countries. An Emmy-winning actress working to heal wounds from childhood. Members of the rock band U2, who studied the book together.
I have made changes throughout, mainly by updating old examples and references. This edition also includes a Reflection Guide consisting of questions that make the application more personal. I hope that a new generation of readers, not even alive when I wrote this book, discover for themselves what’s so amazing about grace. A quarter-century later, I am more convinced than ever that the United States and the world need a massive infusion of it.
(Adapted from the Preface to the revised and updated edition)
Header photo: Jessica da Rosa, unsplash
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