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God at work when we’re at our worst

Books | An excerpt from Barbara Duguid’s Extravagant Grace, a contender for WORLD’s Book of the Year

WORLD’s annual Books Issue goes to press in mid-June, so our committee of five Worldlings is reading through Book of the Year possibilities. One of the 10 books on our short list is Barbara Duguid’s Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in our Weakness (P&R Publishing, 2013). 

The author—a pastor’s wife, counselor, and mother of six children—uses the writings of John Newton to help us focus on God’s glory rather than our own performance. Her preface begins, “Everywhere I go I meet Christians who are depressed, anxious, and discouraged because they still sin. … They pray and fast, they memorize Scripture and attend accountability groups, they write in journals [and] their old sin creeps back in and once again wins the day. … They read about the joyful, victorious Christian life and think that God must be so disappointed in them because it does not describe their experience.”

Then come the key questions and proposals: “Why do real Christians still sin so much, even after they have been saved for decades. … What is God up to in allowing so much disobedience and disgrace to remain in the lives and churches of his beloved people? … 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. … It is a radical and almost frightening thought to see that God is actually as much at work in our worst moments of sin and defeat as he is in our best moments of shining obedience.”

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If you’re not afraid of being frightened, take a look at the first chapter of Extravagant Grace. —Marvin Olasky

Chapter One: Welcome to your heart

The spirit of bondage is gradually departing, and the hour of liberty, which he longs for, is approaching. —John Newton[1]

I fidgeted restlessly as I sat in the church sanctuary and waited for my big moment to arrive. Thoughts were racing through my mind and my heart was beating rapidly with excitement as I listened to the speaker drone on and on. I was interested in only one thing, and I was having a difficult time waiting for it.

The speaker was a good friend of mine, a young woman who I had befriended at work, and I was thrilled that she’d been asked to give her testimony at church. Heather’s testimony was an exceptional story of transformation, and I had been a large part of it. When I first met Heather as a coworker in the laboratory of a big city hospital, she was almost invisible. She spoke hesitantly and quietly, her facial expressions flat and unresponsive in conversation. Heather moved slowly, every step drawn out, every action painfully sluggish as though the simplest tasks in life were a heavy burden. I felt sorry for her. She was gossiped about by other workers and mistreated by some. Since she had moved to town to take this job, she had no friends and her life seemed sad and lonely. Heather needed help: she needed Jesus, and quite clearly, she needed me!

Having grown up in a strong and enthusiastic missionary household, I knew exactly what God wanted me to do. He wanted me to love Heather, to become her friend, and to share the gospel with her. I got to work immediately. I had just moved back to the United States after working as a missionary in Africa and was newly married to a man who was called to the ministry and attending seminary.

Evangelism topped the list of things that I knew God required of me, and to be honest, Africa hadn’t gone too well in that department. I had worked for two years in a hospital laboratory and tried hard to witness to people and disciple them, but I hadn’t led anyone to the Lord. In fact, I had behaved quite badly as a young, immature twenty-one-year-old missionary and had a nagging suspicion that lots of good people had wasted a great deal of money on me. No one else knew that I thought these things about myself, but I was tormented by my failure to be a good missionary. Ministering to Heather was my chance to redeem my reputation.

Heather turned out to be an even better project than I could have imagined. She responded beautifully to all my attempts to befriend her. Soon she was a fixture in our home and began coming to church with my husband and me. When I took a new job, she followed and moved to live near us and the church we attended. She made a profession of faith and seemed to come alive before our very eyes.


1. John Newton, “Grace in the Blade,” Select Letters of John Newton (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 6.

2. Robert Robinson, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” 1758.


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