Paul Zahl on Law and Grace in Everyday Life

“In life there are two governing principles that are at war with one another. The first is law; the second is grace…. The law crushes the human spirit; grace lifts it” (1).

“Law is hell on earth. It is rigidly fixed as the lot of every person who has ever lived. Grace, on the other hand, is what everyone desires. One-way love is the object of all human craving” (80).

For my third post on Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology for Everyday Life I here lift up a few quotations from Zahl that I believe capture the essence of his “theology for everyday life” with respect to law and grace. I will allow Zahl to speak for himself, but as you read these quotations do keep in mind that Zahl is attempting to capture an accurate description of “how Christianity works” (27) on the plain of human experience. I have found these insights regarding law and grace to be both theologically challenging and homiletically helpful. All emphasis is Zahl’s.

What is Law?
Any judgment, any evaluation – even if it approves and speaks a blessing – will be heard as a negation. This is an absolute first principle of this book. Law is an attack. It is heard as a negation by its recipient. All laws are negation. God’s law is the negation (6).
Law is true. It is also impotent and counterproductive. It produces its opposite (9).
What I am saying, and what the Bible teaches and demonstrates, is that the law cannot deliver what it promises. We are made in such a way that we instinctually rebut and act against the law in all its forms. If someone tells me to do something, I immediately oppose it. It is my nature to do so (13).

What is Grace?
Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unloveable…. Grace is one-way love. That is the definition for this book. Grace is one-way love (35-36).
Grace as one-way love is thus the opposite of law. Law depresses and incites. Grace enlivens and enables (36).
God’s one-way loves is a love that acts independent of all response to it yet at the same time elicits a response. ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). That is the premise of this book. Grace works independent of its response, but typically engenders it (38).
The dead end of the law succumbs to absolution. This is the continual note in Paul’s voice. Grace, which is absolution, is the second and defining word from God, after the first word of judgment. It is not a word that is said just once or even twice or three times. It is said every hour. The absolving word never fails and never halts. The ‘eternal return’ of Romans 7, by which men and women always go back to square one of their bound repetition-compulsion to sin, is allied with its grace-full replay: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation’ (47).

What is the Relation between Law and Grace?
If we separate grace and law, which life experience does for us, it has the result paradoxically of reunifying the two. When grace is heard and received, when it is not confounded in any degree by the law, it paints a masterpiece: a person unconditionally affirmed who becomes instantaneously the expresser of love, joy, peace, meekness, kindness, and creativity. This graced human being becomes the flesh-and-blood example of the thing the law had wanted of him. Yet the law is gone from his or her mind. Grace produces the appearance of what the law says it wants, but only when grace is able to act unilaterally. Looking at this man or woman, who has been given grace unconditionally, we see established in him or her the very faithfulness and chastity and hopeful spirit that the law had sought to pound into that person (87).
I have emphasized that grace and law are opposite forces resolved in the crucifixion of Christ. Grace and law are separate in experience. There is either grace in love or law in judgment. But law always destroys love in its reception. No exception to this exists within human experience. Either grace is entirely grace or it possesses not a drop of creative worth. There are no double messages in grace. Grace in this sense is against the law. The irony is that grace always produces the sterling character that the law intends. But that promise can never be stated within the initial offer of grace. It cannot even be thought. It cannot even be hoped. If we think this or hope for it, our grace has strings attached. Grace must be tied to nothing. This is the key to its being effective in practice in everyday life. Grace is against the law. Nevertheless, in the twilight zone of the ‘back story’ that operates behind all human beings throughout all of time, grace fulfills the law (92).

An Example: Grace in Raising Children

Over half of Zahl’s book consists of concrete examples of what law and grace look like in various everyday life scenarios. I present here a general comment made by Zahl on law and grace in relation to children because, as Zahl says, “In a systematic theology of grace in relation to everyday life, the relation of parents to children plays the most important role of all” (163):
Law mars and destroys this relationship [between parents and child], even when it is offered in the name of love. Grace, on the other hand, creates lifelong response of love. Every parent I know who has ‘lost’ his or her children sees the effects of the law. If only you could go back and reorder the relationship from the top down, to instantiate one-way love. Every parent I know who has the attentive love of his or her children is watching the effects of grace. Although there is neither a perfect correlation between grace-full parenting and the flourishing of adult children nor a one-to-one correlation between parents as law-bearers and adult children as fleeing hippies, there is still a close link between accepting love and its fruit, which his freed love in response, and stinting ‘love’ and its result, which is half-love, or quarter-love, back the other way (163).
The list of everyday life scenarios treated by Zahl in Grace in Practice includes, among others, the following: grace with parents and siblings, in politics and criminal justice, at the mall, and even in the church.

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