Grace in Practice by Paul F. M. Zahl

 Yesterday I finished Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life.  This book is Zahl’s attempt to lay out the message of grace in a systematic way, “and to do this in the face of the chronic criticism grace receives. …How does grace work?  That is the theme of this book” (p. ix).  In around 250 pages, Zahl explains the difference between law and grace.  He also explains the “four pillars of a theology of grace,” which are anthropology (sin), soteriology (salvation), Christ (Christology), and the Holy Trinity.  Zahl spends the last half of the book writing about grace in families, societies, the church, and “grace in everything.”  Basically, Zahl shows how grace applies to all areas of life.

The book sounds outstanding, but I do have mixed feelings about it.  Before I critique it, let me mention the strong points of Grace in Practice.  First of all, Zahl does understand the truth that the law does not save nor help in salvation.  Instead, the gospel saves.  He understands that the gospel doesn’t demand, but gives.  He upholds a distinction between law and gospel.  I also appreciated how Zahl kept pointing out that humans are typically law-heavy people who let the law reign far too much.  For instance, many Christian families are places of much law and little grace.  This is something I’ve thought about since reading the book.  Zahl also explained depravity and bondage of the will quite well (he calls it an “un-free will”).

However, the book has its weaknesses.  First, I didn’t appreciate Zahl’s writing style.  At times I couldn’t tell if Zahl was being sarcastic, speaking in hyperbole, or just saying something in a purposefully startling and edgy way.  I wondered several times, “Is that what he meant by saying that?”  To be honest, I still don’t know for sure what he was trying to get at in a few places (and I tried to read it carefully!).  My copy of this book has tons of question marks in the margins.

Also, Zahl made so many references to popular culture I was weary of them by the end.  On every other page he quotes from obscure movies, music, and plays.  Most of the time I simply didn’t get the illustration because I had no idea of his referent (i.e. John Meek singing “Happy Valley” or the movie “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” from 1964).  Though some may appreciate his writing style, I did not.

Second, I disagreed with some theology in this book.  Zahl said that the story of the Bible is the story of the “perpetual war between law and grace” (p. 1).  Though I affirm a law/gospel distinction, I’d say the main story of the Bible is based on Genesis 3:15 and God versus Satan/sin.  In other words, the main story of the Bible has to do with redemptive history, not the law/gospel distinction.  Zahl also made statements that seemed to be out of step with Scripture.  For example, several times he said “the law is a curse” and is no longer needed for the Christian.   However, Paul said the law is good and holy (Rom 7), and it brings a curse for disobedience (Gal 3), but the law itself is not a curse.

At one point Zahl even said there “are pieces of semi-Pelagian thinking in a few sections” of the minor prophets because they are so law focused (p. 64).  I don’t think he was being catty in that language; I think he meant it.  Probably what this critique of mine boils down to is that Zahl has an entirely negative view of God’s law.  He doesn’t really have a third use of the law which the Reformers typically spoke of – the law as a guide for gratitude (as is found in the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions).  He even goes beyond Luther in this  aspect. One more thing here: Zahl said that ecclesiology is unimportant because grace is against ecclesiology (p. 225-226).  I disagree; this chapter on grace in the church was disappointing.

Third, I disagreed with some of the practical sections of this book.  In Zahl’s grace-filled ethic, there is little or no discipline for disobedience and sin. However, God disciplines his children out of love (Heb 12) and fathers are called to discipline their children when they sin (Eph 6:4).  Though Zahl is right that we shouldn’t be law-centered families, this doesn’t mean discipline is gone.  To be sure, if one of my boys disrespect authority, they will receive discipline.  (As a side, I dare seminary students to tell their professors to correct their exams and papers based on grace alone!)

In Zahl’s grace-filled society there is no such thing as just war, two-kingdom thinking, retributive justice, or rehabilitative justice.  Again, this isn’t overly biblical since God himself ordains governments to bear the sword against the lawbreakers (Rom 13).  I hope the police officer who arrested the child molester in town doesn’t show him grace and let him go!  I also hope the judge shows no grace to someone who was certainly guilty of triple homicide.   I hope that our military shows little grace to a foreign army that is hell-bent on destroying every man, woman, and child in our cities.

In short, I don’t really recommend this book.  It is provocative and there are spots that are very helpful and interesting.  I will read and refer to some sections of this book again; some of you might thoroughly enjoy parts of this book.  Perhaps I’m even being a bit too critical!  However, because of the writing style and sections of poor theology, I’d recommend other resources on this topic.  If you want more of a Reformed or Lutheran discussion of the law/gospel distinction, check out the works of  J. Colquhoun, C. F. W. Walther, P. Dathenus, or M. Horton (to name a few).  The law/gospel distinction is important, but it is also important to be biblical and balanced in our law/gospel distinction.  It shouldn’t become the lens by which we view everything in theology and life.  We shouldn’t do with God’s grace what Rob Bell did with God’s love in Love Wins.

shane lems

2 thoughts on “Grace in Practice by Paul F. M. Zahl”

  1. Thank you for another good review. I don’t know how you read so much.

    Zahl seems to have an antinomian streak which I suspect is not uncommon in Lutherans. (He’s Lutheran if I’m not mistaken.) I once heard a Missouri Synod Lutheran minister asked about a pastor being a one woman man (1 Tim 3). He basically said grace triumphs over law so we aren’t concerned with that. The law-gospel distinction does not do away with ethics. Rather, grace is the root of piety (Titus 2:11ff)… that’s why the Reformed speak of the qualifications in 1 Tim 3 as ‘graces.’

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  2. Dante, Zahl is actually an Episcopalian minister/rector. And most of the confessional Lutheran brothers I know aren’t antinomian. It is probably safe to say, though, that some types of antinomians are found in all Christian circles.

    You’re right: the law/gospel distinction does not do away with ethics!

    Thanks for the comments,
    shane

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