Volume 11.3 – Book Review: Grace in practice – A theology of everyday life – Paul FM Zahl

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Reviewed by Sally Orwin

Grace in Practice represents a lifetime of Paul Zahl’s captivation with the message of God’s oneway love. Zahl is Dean and President of Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry in Pennsylvania and has over thirty years experience of teaching and preaching.

To begin with a practical note, the book does not cover everyday life in its entirety and Zahl’s aim to explore the connection of grace to ‘some’ contemporary issues sits uncomfortably with the ‘everyday’ of the title which suggests a broader sweep than is actually covered. The thread of personal reflection that is woven through the narrative is richer in those areas with which Zahl as pastor and theologian is more familiar. The nature of relationships particularly within the nuclear family and the church, for example, receives more in-depth treatment than political life. Economic life, including business and work generally, is barely discussed at all. The clear message that does come through, however, and which readers can take away to apply in all spheres of life, is that of applying a theology of grace – grace which engenders what the law demands but is incapable of delivering of itself because law provokes rebellion.

Zahl begins the book by unpacking the theology of grace. The ‘big idea’ in the Bible, he says, is the relationship of God’s law to the self-absorption of the human being. Whilst the law is upright and beautiful, Moses came down from the mountain ‘with the truth but not the means with which to apply it’ (p. 7). As a result, scripture’s meta-narrative is that of human conflict with the divine requirement. Although the law itself is perfectly good and describes the ideal human social environment it consistently produces its opposite.
The Old Testament, Zahl argues, ends in defeat with the prophets ‘forced into the corner of speaking grace’ (p.9).

Zahl is concerned to counter accusations of antinomianism (lawlessness). Jesus himself did not cast off the law as ‘one big and needless inhibitor of human potential’ (p. 12) but he recognised the inability of the law to provide its own fulfilment. As a result, it was Jesus who took on God’s requirement to answer personally to the law. His death was the victory of substitution, necessary given the total inability of the people oppressed by the law to effect their own freedom.

It is only through the outworkings of this theology of grace that we can effect what looks like the fruit of the law but which the law itself is incapable of delivering. The common theme through chapters 3 and 4 is the exercise of grace in relationships. Zahl looks at grace in families, incorporating singleness, marriage, children…

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