Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness

Written by Barbara R. Duguid Reviewed By Dane C. Ortlund

What a remarkable book Barbara Duguid has given us. Lots of books are being written on the gospel and on God’s grace in recent years. Some of these are well and good but lack penetration—one is reminded but not arrested; the book is true but frothy. Others rehash the gospel formulations by others better known (Tim Keller, for example). The book therefore lacks freshness. Others are rich in exploring the gospel but feel a bit formulaic. The word of grace is reflected on but not the Man of grace. Ironically similar to the Roman Catholicism with which such book are otherwise in stark contrast, “grace” becomes almost a substance, a thing, a stockpile, that is lavishly given to us. And still others exult in the gospel in such a way that one is given the impression that the demands of the New Testament are somehow out of sync with the gospel of grace. The indicatives of the gospel are presented not as naturally and necessarily leading into, but as trumping, the glad responsibility of the imperatives.

And then along comes Barbara Duguid’s delightful book Extravagant Grace. What is so striking about this book is the way rich reflection on the grace of the gospel is blended with utter realism about ongoing Christian struggle, as well as personal honesty from the author. At one point Duguid dares to admit: “I have eating problems. . . . Although I have grown substantially in this area, I am still a glutton and still prone to medicating myself with food. Today I ate many things sinfully—two bowls of cereal when one would have done; an entire, huge Cadbury chocolate bar; a lunch I didn’t need; and the list goes on” (p. 204; see also pp. 162–63). Many otherwise eloquent articulations of the gospel today are presented with a kind of de-personalized slickness, not with the raw honesty we find here. This transparency gives weight to the grace being commended.

Duguid builds her book on the letters of John Newton. This is a unique and useful strategy, for Newton himself is a wise and steady guide for us all, who avoids the truncated presentations of the gospel articulated in the first paragraph above. Time and again Newton wrote to fellow strugglers and drew their eyes not mainly inward into personal improvement but rather upward to Christ and the infinite mercy of the gospel.

If Newton avoids those errors, Duguid almost avoids them. I must raise a few questions below about the portrait of Christian growth she paints. But the book is so unusually rich and hope-giving that I want to be appropriately circumspect in my criticism lest I send the wrong impression. This book helps us. No matter how widely believers may have read in the ever-burgeoning corpus of gospel-exulting literature coming off the presses in our generation, Extravagant Grace will add something fresh and enriching. Why? Because of the central burden of the book, which is also a recurring theme across Newton’s correspondence: dealing with Christian sin. Why do believers still sin so much? Duguid’s thesis is that Christian growth is not essentially about improving morally but rather increasing in reliance upon Christ for our identity, however we are doing in terms of obedience. In the opening pages she provocatively writes, “What if growing in grace is more about humility, dependence, and exalting Christ than it is about defeating sin?” (p. 18). Duguid articulates a profound and neglected point in this rhetorical question and effectively draws it out throughout the book.

Individual chapters address the superiority of the heart over mere behavior in growth (ch. 1); the naiveté of newly converted Christians about how much sinfulness will remain in them throughout their lives (ch. 2); what true Christian maturity looks like (ch. 3); the crucial importance of humility in Christian growth (ch. 4); the unrealistic optimism about growth in many of our churches and the paradox of strength through weakness throughout the Christian life (ch. 5); the sovereignty of God over even our sin (ch. 6); the role of adversity in revealing to us our ongoing depravity (ch. 6); the unilateral work of God to sustain us in sanctification (chs. 8–9); the importance of patience and compassion toward sin, both ours and others’ (ch. 10); the transforming nature of God’s kindness and love (ch. 11); the implications of the grace of the gospel and the advantages of remaining sin (ch. 12); and the means of grace as we journey through this life to heaven (ch. 13).

Throughout, Duguid wants to free up Christians. It is in their weakness and messiness, not beyond it, that Christ and his grace are theirs. This insight is crucial because of the ineradicable proclivity even among believers to doubt God’s love in light of repeated moral failure. Yet while the New Testament does occasionally call for self-examination, the emphasis is not self-assessment but looking outside oneself to Christ (Heb 12:2), resting in the provisions of a grace that comes to us wholly from outside us. John Newton and his disciple Barbara Duguid capture this counter-instinctual biblical truth and drive it home.

Three questions arose in my mind as I read, however, which could fall under the headings regeneration, divine anger, and hyper-Calvinism.

First, the main reason I wonder if the book succeeds in avoiding imbalance is that it seems as if regeneration and the new spiritual taste buds granted in the new birth get unhelpfully sidelined. Duguid does mention in a few places regeneration and the new impulse toward holiness that comes when the Holy Spirit sets up permanent residence within the believer (e.g., pp. 97, 129). But the general message is that the regenerate are no more capable of obeying God than the unregenerate. The mature Christian, we read, “is just as incapable of performing spiritual acts or resisting temptation on his own as he was on the day he was saved” (p. 63). Or: “at the moment of conversion [God] frees us from the spiritual power that our sin had to condemn us, but he leaves us with a sinful nature that will wage war against our new nature for the remainder of our lives” (p. 60). To be sure, we remain sinners in need of grace our whole lives long. Yet one wonders if Duguid overly mutes the decisive transformation wrought in the new birth and the animating power of the Holy Spirit, who grants both the desire and the ability to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Col 1:10; cf. Phil 1:27; Eph 4:11; 1 Thess 2:12). One further wonders if Duguid has accurately presented the fullness of Newton’s own teaching at this point.

Another question: is it unequivocally true that “God cannot be angry with us” (p. 210)? Duguid makes this statement in the context of rejoicing in the exhaustion of divine wrath at the cross. In this eternity-determining sense, the most ultimate one, she is surely right. But it is (in part, at least) my love for my children that causes fatherly anger to rise when I see them acting waywardly and inviting misery into their lives. Is there not a displeasure from our heavenly Father that is not only appropriate but even testifies to his great care for us as his children? The New Testament seems to say “yes” (Heb 12:6, for example), while the message of this book appears to be “no.” This question has been hashed out in previous centuries, such as during the antinomian controversies of the seventeenth century, about which Mark Jones has recently written (Antinomianism [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013]). Jones reminds us that theologians have rightly distinguished between a love of benevolence, which cannot wax or wane, and a love of complacency, which can. Such nuance would have strengthened Duguid’s overall presentation.

Yet another question: is it possible to so emphasize God’s sovereignty even over sin (a truth clearly taught in the Bible) that we begin to sideline unhelpfully our own culpability in sin? I wondered at several points whether Duguid’s portrait of Christian growth may at times veer into hyper-Calvinism—by which I don’t mean a view that is really, really Calvinistic, but rather an emphasis on divine sovereignty to the neglect of human responsibility (Arminianism being the opposite error: an emphasis on human responsibility to the neglect of divine sovereignty). Repeatedly Duguid drives home the divine ordaining of our sins (e.g., pp. 101–6). This is liberating, and rarely taught today, so I am reluctant to draw attention to the potential imbalance here. But after numerous statements that God ordains all our sins one begins to feel as if something is getting lost—namely, full human responsibility. Duguid refutes the idea that sanctification is partly up to us; rather, it is 100% up to God (pp. 139–40). But it seems to me that it is better to say sanctification is 100% up to God and also 100% up to us in light of the way the Bible speaks of sanctification (1 Cor 15:10; Phil 2:12–13; Col 1:29). As Jonathan Edwards said, in sanctification “God does all, and we do all.”

I have reflected at length on this delightful book to make a broader point: broadly Reformed evangelicals have not yet settled into wide agreement about how progressive sanctification works, and specifically how sanctification relates to the gospel. Duguid’s book moves the conversation forward, and largely in the right direction, even if it is not the full-orbed answer we are looking for. Nor does Duguid present the book as such. She has a particular point to make, and makes it well: Christians still sin, and that is to be expected, and grace exists for this.

We still await, then, a truly synthesizing treatment of the gospel and sanctification—a gospel scandalous in its mercy and yet possessing a fullness that weds the gratuity of grace to realities such as regeneration and the stringent summons of Christ. In any case, Extravagant Grace is an important voice in the conversation. Even if a few things may be out of balance, the book as a whole should not be held at arm’s length or unduly scrutinized. The heart of what Barbara Duguid is trying to get across is ever a word in season for weak, sin-prone Christians—that is, for all of us. The great secret at the heart of the universe is divine grace: a truly extravagant grace that calms us down, gets underneath all our failures, and nestles us into wholehearted dependence on Christ not after we get better but before we ever are.

Dane C. Ortlund

Dane Ortlund is executive vice president for Bible publishing and Bible publisher at Crossway in Wheaton, Illinois, USA.

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