Grace is for all of us
- Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew
I’m reading a book called, The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey, and in it, he tells the stories of two famous Russian novelists, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Yancey explains how these two men helped him better understand what Jesus was saying when he preached the Sermon on the Mount. I highly recommend Yancey’s book, and encourage anyone to read it for themselves, but I will give you a brief synopsis, because I’m excited to share what I’m learning about grace and who God is. This is good stuff!
(This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you click on and buy through one of these links, I do receive a small percentage. Thank you.)
A little background first- the Sermon on the Mount, found in Mathew 5-7, includes the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. It says things like “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”, and it has the Golden Rule.
Yancey explains, the ideals and principles outlined in this sermon are offensive to many- because nobody can live up to them. The Sermon on the Mount sets forth God’s standard of holiness, and we are all found lacking.
The story of Tolstoy is impressive, and ultimately, very sad. He strove to follow the Sermon on the Mount with great zeal. He did much good in his attempts to do so, freeing serfs and a giving away his vast estate and money. He financed the emigration of the Anabaptists from Russia to Canada, after persecution from the Tsar, with the proceeds of his final novel, Resurrection. Yet, he was miserable. By his wife's accounts, he was a man of principles, but they were not from the heart- there was no warmth or kindness shown towards his family. He was always aware of his failure to live up to the ideals he held so highly. He was suicidal, and when he died, he was homeless and alone. He had great insight into God’s Ideal and he never ceased trying to obey, but he never found peace.
A.N. Wilson, a biographer of Tolstoy, said Tolstoy suffered from a, “fundamental theological inability to understand the Incarnation. His religion was ultimately a thing of Law rather then Grace, a scheme for human betterment rather than a vision of God penetrating a fallen world.”
Dostoevsky, the author of novels such as Crime and Punishment, and a contemporary of Tolstoy’s, also shared strong Christian convictions, but he contrasted sharply with Tolstoy in most other ways. Early in his life, he was arrested and sentenced to death for treason. A mock execution was held. When Dostoevsky thought he was to be shot, instead, a message was delivered that he would be sent to Siberia for hard labor. On his way, he was given a New Testament. He said that his life was changed, as he came to believe that God had given him a second chance. In prison, Dostoevsky, up close with thieves and murderers, changed his view on the inherent goodness of humanity, but he also came to believe that humans are only capable of loving, by being loved. He said that he was able to see the image of God in the lowest of prisoners. The themes of grace and forgiveness, humanity and redemption are communicated throughout his novels in powerful ways.
These two men’s stories are used in Yancey’s writing to demonstrate the absolute ideals and the absolute grace that are at the center of the Gospel.
-Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew
The Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the great distance between God and us. God’s Ideal is perfection. We should strive for these ideals out of love for God, who loved us first, because it brings him glory. But the point is not legalism. None of us will reach that Ideal. It shows us how desperately we need absolute grace. There is no need for despair, as Tolstoy experienced, because through Christ, we can find grace. He is the one who brings us close to God and covers our sin with His perfection. We come empty handed, acknowledging our need for him, accepting his forgiveness, and turning away from our sins. This is how to become one with Christ. This is how we receive his grace.
“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” Romans 5:20
"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Romans 8:1