Extravagant Grace

“But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20):

There can be a wide divergence of opinion in the Christian community on all sorts of things, including how best to live the Christian life. Hopefully all believers want to grow, become more Christlike, deal with indwelling sin, become more holy, and so on. Basically this is what we describe as the process of sanctification.

We are told to become like Christ, even to move toward perfection. But we all fall short, we all still sin, we all can be disappointed with our Christian growth – or lack of it – and we all can desire to do so much better in this regard. Some believers are in fact deeply concerned about all this, while some others might not be all that much.

As with most matters dealing with the Christian faith, there can be a spectrum of various views. At one extreme might be the ‘let go and let God’ mindset. This view can emphasise the fact that it is all of God, and there is really nothing we have to do in growth and development.

At the other extreme there can be a real works-orientated legalism where we forever strive and try and seek to improve, but usually by our own efforts. And we find that we keep failing, we keep blowing it, we keep struggling. Many believers might just want to give up after going through this time and time again.

So which way forward? The truth is, both extremes do indeed contain elements of truth. The trouble is, we can so emphasise some key biblical truths that we ignore or downplay other vital biblical truths. So yes, in one sense, we do trust God and let him work in us. But at the same time, there are literally hundreds of imperatives (commands) found in the New Testament.

We are told so often that we must do certain things: deny self, take up our cross, say no to sin, resist the devil, put off the old man, flee temptation, and so on. And often the sorts of emphases or even extremes we might latch onto and run with can simply reflect who we are, what is our personality, what we have gone through, and so on.

Thus someone who might have been brought up in a rather strict and legalistic Christian environment might run to the opposite, which often can be a type of cheap grace teaching. They have long viewed God as a harsh judge, and they may have long felt that they never measure up. So if a hyper-grace sort of teaching comes along (even one that says we no longer need to repent as Christians), they will jump at it.

And some who have lived a rather careless and reckless life as a believer, when confronted with a more biblical emphasis on obedience, holiness and repentance may – if they are not careful – go too far in the other direction. As I keep saying, trying to get the biblical balance right is always something we must strive for.

With all this in mind, I want to look at one book that many might find to be of some help in all this. The book was actually released a dozen years ago (OK, I am a bit slow). But given that I have often quoted from the expository sermons by her husband Iain, I was interested to recently learn of this volume.

I refer to Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness by Barbara Duguid (P&R, 2013). I take it that the folks who will most find a book like this to be helpful will be those I already mentioned: those who really want to grow in grace and please God, but find themselves still sinning, still falling, and getting ever more discouraged about it all.

In this book the author says that her views have been largely shaped by John Newton and his writings. She mentions how Tim Keller had steered her to the letters of the former slave ship captain and author of “Amazing Grace.” She speaks of how his letters were such an inspiration and epiphany for her.

Duguid says she is constantly meeting despairing and despondent Christians who “suffer from this relentless cycle of conviction, repentance, efforts to change, and complete defeat.” In what might sound a bit heretical (if pushed too far in one direction only), she says this:

Perhaps our greatest problem is not the reality of our sin, but our unbiblical expectations of what Christian growth should look like. What if growing in grace is more about humility, dependence, and exalting Christ than it is about defeating sin? . . . This eighteenth-century pastor outlined a theology of sinful failure that humbles weak sinners, magnifies the finished work of Jesus Christ, and comforts people who just can’t seem to stop sinning by pointing them to Christ in their worst moments of defeat. (p. 18)

Image of Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness
Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness by Barbara Duguid (Author), Iain Duguid (Foreword) Amazon logo

She mentions an encounter with a friend that left her spiritually shattered, as the friend pointed out to her some hard truths about her proud and Pharisaical self as a Christian:

Gradually, however, another thought dawned on me. Instead of feeling despair and rejection, I began to feel lavishly cherished. God was not at all surprised by my glory-loving, attention-seeking soul. I had been blind to the truth about myself, but Jesus had hung on that cross for me, for this specific sin. As I envisioned myself standing before a bleeding Jesus, naked, ashamed, and exposed, I expected and deserved rebuke, disappointment, and rejection from my Savior. But this was not what I was receiving. Instead, he extended love, compassion, and infinite patience with my brokenness and weakness. I felt loved and treasured by God even though nothing had yet changed in me….


Until that time I had always believed that God was lucky to have me on his side. Now I finally saw myself as a bitter enemy whom God had chosen to love and welcome as a precious child. For the first time in my life, grace looked and felt amazing, completely unexpected in light of my rebellious behavior toward God. (pp. 24-25)

A main point she seeks to make in the book is to realise that we are indeed weak, selfish and sinful creatures, and God is NOT surprised by that! Those are the only sorts of people Christ came to deal with – ‘the well have no need of a doctor’. So realising who we are and knowing that God has loved us even in spite of ourselves is a good place to begin:

Along with the hymn writer, each one of us can say that we are “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”


You may not hear much teaching on this problem in our churches. Few people, and perhaps especially few pastors, are willing or able to open up their lives and hearts for public exposure and scrutiny. Most of us prefer to hide our sin and weakness instead of revealing ourselves and experiencing shame and humiliation. As a result, our churches have become places where we perform well for others and speak far more about our victories than our struggles. In consequence, many Christians wrestle with the agony of sinful failure in isolation and desperation. The silent message is deafening: Christians are people who quickly grow and change, and if you are weak and struggling you must not be a believer, or perhaps worse, you are a particularly bad Christian in whom God is very, very disappointed. (pp. 26-27)

Again, it was Newton who really opened her eyes to all this:

Excellent books have been written on the subject of sanctification, yet Newton’s work stands above the rest for one simple and (to us) shocking reason. He was open about the fact that he was still a wretched sinner long after he became a Christian. Many believers are willing and eager to talk about what big sinners they were before they were saved, but few invite you into their hearts to see what huge sinners they still are now. This is risky stuff. People might look down on you and reject you if you do that. They might not come to your church or listen to your sermons. They might trash your reputation and gossip about you. These dangers are indeed real. However, Newton had such great confidence in the love of God for him and such a great love for those he counseled that he refused to participate in the conspiracy of silence. He would not allow other believers to think more highly of him than they ought to think. (p. 28)

These few quotes might be a welcome tonic to many readers here. But again, care is needed. As I read the book I wondered at times if she was pushing things too far in one extreme. For example, she even speaks about the “myth of the victorious Christian life.” (p. 18)

But if one grasps the entirety of the case she is trying to make, one can see some sense to it – some biblical sense. We know for example that spiritual pride is one of the things Jesus condemned the most – certainly in the religious leaders he encountered.

So much of what we get from the pulpit or from Christian TV is a sort of triumphalism, where believers appear as having it altogether. Yet those who still struggle in so many ways can feel like they may not be a Christian at all, so why not just give up and quit?

Make no mistake: God does indeed want us to grow, to become more like the Son, and less enslaved to sin and self. But what if some of our weaknesses might even have a role to play in how God works with us? Again, that was the insight of Newton – one that Duguid keeps turning back to:

God could have saved us and made us instantly perfect. Instead, he chose to save us and leave indwelling sin in our hearts and bodies to wage war against the new and blossoming desires to please God that accompany salvation. This is a raging battle that we often lose, and that often leaves us feeling defeated and joyless in our walk with God. Yet Newton also points out that since we know God does all things for his own glory and the good of his people, his decision to leave Christians with many struggles with sin must also somehow serve to glorify him and benefit his people. This is shocking news, isn’t it?


Think of what this means. God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin. This makes sense out of our experience as Christians. If the job of the Holy Spirit is to make you more humble and dependent on Christ, more grateful for his sacrifice and more adoring of him as a wonderful Savior, then he might be doing a very, very good job even though you still sin every day. (pp. 30-31)

We are told to test all things. As I was reading this book I sometimes squirmed just a bit, wondering if she was getting a bit off balance. But as I kept reading I did see various mid-course corrections (if I can call them that). She does of course acknowledge the various commands to go on to holiness, to deny self, and so on. As she says, her message should not make us “passive or uncaring about our spiritual progress.” (p. 49)

But here she is trying to stress another side of the equation – one that many believers may not hear much of – and may indeed need to hear. I for one tend to think that a major problem of the Western church is not too much legalism but too much licence.

However I could be amiss in this assessment. And if some people do need a real kick in the pants to start doing what they know is right (including resisting sin and avoiding known temptation points), there would also be many folks who need to hear more of the ‘grace’ message, properly presented.

I think Duguid does get the balance right here, even though, as I say, some folks will find this book much more appealing and helpful than others, depending on where they are at in their Christian journey, And bear in mind that you cannot rely solely on this short review and the few quotes that I make use of here. You really need to read the whole book yourself to get the bigger picture she is trying to present.

One concluding quote can be offered here. Near the end of her book she looks at the story of the prodigal son. In part she says this:

The Bible does use the language “grieve the Holy Spirit” to describe how God feels about us in our sin (Eph. 4:30). Once again, the parable of the prodigal son may illuminate this language. Though good human parents may feel angry when their children woefully rebel, the father in the story is not described with even a hint of anger. Rather there’s sorrow and longing, combined with enormous joy when the son is spotted on the horizon (Luke 15:20-24). Not only is there no anger on the part of the father, there are also no recriminations upon the son’s return. The anger and righteous indignation belong to the elder brother instead. (p. 210)

And that is good news indeed for all of us. We dare not be cavalier and presumptuous about our sin. But we also must understand that God knows everything about us, and thankfully he can be far more patient with us than we can be with ourselves.

Getting the biblical balance right here is what really matters.

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6 Replies to “Extravagant Grace”

  1. Bill, though this has been shared in the public domain, I have no attributes. I found the following to be complimentary to your commentary today.

    “The devil appeared to three monks and said to them: “If I gave you the power to change something in the past, what would you change?”
    The first of them, with great apostolic fervor, replied: “I would like to prevent you from leading Adam and Eve to sin, so that humanity does not separate from God.”
    The second, a man full of mercy, said to him: “I will prevent you from straying from God and condemning you forever.”
    The third of them was the simplest and instead of answering the tempter, he knelt down, made the sign of the cross, and prayed: “Lord, deliver me from the temptation of what might have been and what was not.”
    The demon, screaming and trembling with pain, fled.
    The other two were surprised and said to him: “Brother, why did you react like this?”
    And he answered them: “First, we should never talk to the enemy.”
    “Secondly, no one in the world has the power to change the past.”
    “Third: Satan’s interest was not to prove our virtue, but to trap us in the past, so that we neglect the present, the only time God gives us His grace and we can cooperate with Him to fulfill His will.”
    Of all the demons, the one that most holds men back and prevents them from being happy is “what could have been and was not.” The past is left to the mercy of God and the future to His providence. Only the present is in our hands. Live today loving God with all your heart.”

  2. Bill, there is no need to for you to apologise for reviewing a book published 11 years ago if it’s a good one!

    From what you’ve said in your review, Barbara Duguid’s book, Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness (2013), contains an incredibly comforting and uplifting message for those of us who still struggle to overcome sin and to become more Christ-like.

    The life of the English evangelical preacher and former slave-trader, John Newton (1725–1807), whose letters she quotes, is an inspiring example of how willing God is to forgive and love those who know deep in their hearts that they fall short of the glory of God.

    You quote Barbara Duguid as saying about Newton: “He would not allow other believers to think more highly of him than they ought to think.”

    I’ve read elsewhere that when Newton lay dying at the age of 82, he whispered to a friend: “My memory is nearly gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” [John Pollock, Amazing Grace: John Newton’s Story (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 182.]

    Three passages in the Gospel of Luke reinforce not only the importance of our acknowledging our poverty before God, but also the incredibly good news of God’s grace towards sinners.

    Luke 5:1–11 describes the occasion when Jesus called the first disciples. We read how Simon Peter, after having spent a whole night fishing and catching nothing, was told by Jesus: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon and his companions thereupon caught such a large haul of fish that the nets were breaking and the two boats on which they stowed the fish started to sink. Then follows one of the most touching moments in the Bible, when Simon Peter, upon beholding this mighty miracle, “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’.”

    In Luke 15:11–32, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son. The younger of two brothers, who squanders his inheritance on reckless living, falls into poverty and wretchedness; but he eventually comes to his senses. He says: “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants’.”

    In Luke 18:9–14, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector — a message aimed at those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt”. Jesus said: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”

    If any of your readers are unfamiliar with the above three Luke passages, they should grab a Bible, read each of the passages to the end, and discover for themselves in each instance the incredible unmerited love and acceptance God shows towards the truly penitent.

    Thank you, Bill, for your review of Barbara Duguid’s book.

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