Bruce and Sue Hollister
Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011, xxx + 178 pages, $13.49, paper.
How are Christians to understand their ongoing struggle with remaining sin? In Extravagant Grace, Barbara Duguid brings an answer from John Newton, as she summarizes his teaching on the nature of sanctification. In particular, Duguid demonstrates the emphasis this eighteenth-century pastor brought to those he pastored: biblical sanctification is more about humility, dependence, and loving Christ, than about securing a seamless victory over besetting sin.
How are humility, dependence, and love for Christ produced? Duguid’s answer may surprise some modern day believers who assume that Christians are always able to have victory over sin, if only they believe the right doctrine, faithfully apply the right principles, and pray. According to Newton, although new believers may enjoy a measure of victory over sin, early victory may lead to false self-confidence. New believers commonly conclude that their victory over sin is due in some measure to their own efforts. They have yet to understand the depravity of their own hearts.
At some point, says Newton, Christians enter into the second phase of Christian growth. Rather than granting a uniform victory over sin, God allows maturing Christians to struggle with sin. They now learn humility in a new way—from their experience of failure to obey God from the heart.
Duguid is brutally honest about her own struggle with sin as she seeks to illustrate the biblical concepts discussed. She thus demonstrates how God uses painful experiences of failure in order to produce inward humility and dependence upon Christ for victory over sin. While her transparency is to be commended, and is actually a strength of the book, some stories may not be helpful to all readers.
Some readers may grow impatient, as Duguid lingers on the inability of the Christian in the matter of victory over sin. They may (rightly) ask, “What, then, is the proper activity of the Christian in sanctification?” However, because Duguid believes Christians today suffer from a lack of clarity about sanctification, she does not rush to answer that question. Rather, she emphasizes that though Christians are commanded to live righteously, they are helpless in themselves to do so. God gives victory in his own time; he is entirely sovereign in the matter of our sanctification.
Ironically, learning that God is sovereign over our struggles with sin does not produce laziness; it rather energizes Christians to fuller obedience. In the latter chapters, Duguid describes how God leads Christians to maturity as they faithfully utilize the means of grace, public and private. The preaching of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and the fellowship of believers are instrumental as Christians learn dependence upon and love for Christ in an ever increasing way.
Readers may react to some perceived theological imprecision early in the book, particularly as the author endeavors to flesh out the inward/outward dynamic of sin. However, Duguid’s emphasis is insightful and her meaning becomes clear. Outward sins comprise only one dimension of indwelling sin; inward sin is a deep and complex abyss. Read the book all the way through, and then read it again! The careful reader will be richly rewarded.
Bruce Hollister serves as the pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in New Lenox, Illinois, where his wife Sue is a member. Ordained Servant Online, March 2014.