First of all, I would just like to publicly thank Barbara Duguid for writing this book. It must have taken a strong passion for God’s people and an enormous humility on her own part. The title is perfect, and yet didn’t prepare me for how I would wrestle with its contents. While affirming and expounding on the great doctrines of grace that I uphold, Duguid hashes out the implications of this grace that we often either avoid or even deny.
Using John Newton’s teaching on sanctification, Duguid gets into the nitty-gritty of God’s sovereignty over sin. If God really is all-powerful, then we have to admit that he could have made our struggle with sin a lot easier after our conversion. He could have ordained it so that we sin less and less as we grow in sanctification. But every Christian can attest to the fact that this isn’t the case. Instead, the more I grow in grace the more deplorable I find my sinful state to be, and the more drawn I am to the foot of the cross. I have to face this troubling truth that my sovereign, holy, loving God allows me to continue in my sin when he could prevent me from it. In fact, my obedience is also granted by God. While he does prevent me from much sin, sometimes he continues to let me struggle and even fail with sin that I desperately wish I could “slay.”
Duguid asks the question, “What if growing in grace is more about humility, dependence, and exalting Christ than it is about defeating sin?” (loc. 99). Does that question make you mad? I think people get scared when they hear this kind of grace being taught. I mean, sin is evil! And we know that God hates it. The fear is that this knowledge that God is even sovereign over our obedience and sin would lead us to sin presumptuously and have no desire for holiness. But Duguid explains how the opposite is true. Here are a few great quotes in dealing with this matter:
Many Christians have never heard of grace that is sufficient to survive brutal failure in our performance and nonetheless enables us to find deep joy and peace in the righteousness of Christ. (loc 1389)
As much as [God] hates sin, there must be something else he values so highly that it is worth the cost of sin’s destructiveness. Newton argues that this greater goal is the fashioning of humble and contrite hearts in God’s chosen people as, through their ongoing weakness and sin, they come to trust in themselves less and less and to trust and delight in Christ more and more. (loc 1420)
If we don’t try hard and still fail, we might delude ourselves into thinking that we could obey God if we chose to make the effort. Yet when we try hard and fail, and try hard and fail again, we truly learn to ascribe our entire salvation to the work of Christ alone. (loc 1623)
Duguid explains how some of her worst sins were committed in the context of outward obedience. This is how depraved our hearts are. Our pride can spin our so-called obedience into a scenario where we think God owes us. We may think we are doing a very good job climbing the sanctification ladder when we are really just reveling in our own pride. If our obedience is only a matter of will power, we want all the glory and we lose compassion for our fellow saints.
Duguid is embarrassingly honest about her own struggles with sin and desire for sanctification. It’s one thing to use John Newton’s powerful teachings and his notorious life as an example. It is quite another to put yourself under the microscope. In doing this, Duguid is not only putting her own reputation on the line. Her husband is a pretty well-known pastor, writer, and professor of Old Testament and religion. But she is more concerned about the reputation of Christ, which is why Duguid can be painfully vulnerable before the reader about her continuing struggles with pride, anger, and food. In her own bitter battles with sin and obedience, she has realized that “God is not captivated by our attempts to please him; he is riveted by the obedience of his Son and delighted by the goodness of Jesus Christ” (loc 950).
It made me wonder, if I really believe this, how does this truth change my prayer life for both myself and others? Sure, we want to be obedient for the glory of God, and we hope for others to prevail in their ongoing struggle with sin. But do we ask God to reveal to us why he is still allowing us to fail in these areas? Do we meditate on why he has not given us the strength to overcome certain battles when we so desperately desire to? Do we write other Christians off when they fail to perform the way we think they should? Are we merely praying for them to get their act together, or do we seek God’s wisdom in the struggle?
To put it frankly, grace is messy. But God has done more than get his hands dirty in our sin. He has done the unthinkable. He has sent his Son to be cursed for our sin and replace it with his very own righteousness. Even in our sanctification, God lovingly allows us to come to the end of ourselves, every fighting effort we give, so that we can see Christ’s glory and our unending need for him.
Duguid doesn’t even wrap up the book with a clean ending. I was left wondering about her struggle to forgive and how she will overcome her latest problem with chicken nuggets. Of course God will lead her in his righteousness, but she leaves us with the struggle.
Sometimes we think that we are just not utilizing God’s gift of the Holy Sprit enough in our own striving with sin. But “the Holy Spirit is not a switch you can turn on or off; he is not a tool you can use to apply or ignore; he is not a copilot sitting beside you, ready to help if you really need him. He is the holy, powerful, active Spirit of the Living God, and he will always have his way with you” (loc 1167). Praise God for this truth! Thankfully, I do not get my own way even in obedience, but God is lovingly working his will to transform me in the likeness of his Son. Grace is messy because it reveals the stench of our depravity. But it also reveals a God that is more loving than we could ever imagine. In the face of this kind of extravagant grace, we all the more long to please our Savior and walk in obedience.
*Thanks to Netgalley and P&R for a free digital copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.