Book Review

A Place for Grace

Denise M. Malagari
Paul F. M. Zahl
Thursday, May 1st 2008
May/Jun 2008

It has been a long time since I have read a book that has portrayed such an important topic in such a progressive manor. I found myself stopping numerous times through the first 50 pages wondering if I had understood what the author was saying-not because this is a hard book to read, but because it was so refreshing. I found myself reflecting on the truthful yet raw way Paul Zahl articulates his points on the law, grace, and practical living. With edgy and un-conventional terminology, Zahl's straightforward approach to explaining the origin and application of the law and grace are both informative and invigorating. Context is key with this book. This work operates as a cohesive unit, and each chapter builds upon the other forming a thesis on grace that is long overdue. Therefore, it is exceedingly important that the reader explores the entire piece.

Zahl's first and most lengthy chapter sets the foundational stage in which we not only define the law, but we see a more vivid picture as to why we need grace. Zahl spends much of the first chapter hashing out the difficulties of the law/grace relationship. The law, which is a perfect gift from God, was not the solution that man needed. Zahl reminds us that there is nothing inherently wrong with the law; it is our sinful inability to adhere to the law that drives us toward something more. "Jesus recognized the inability of the law, which shows us exactly who we ought to be, to provide its own fulfillment. Christ did not say the law is bad. He said instead the law is wholly good. But most importantly, he said that the law is no skilled mechanic. It cannot fix what is broken" (12).

In our brokenness we innately desire to be comforted and loved. In our desire for love we find insufficiency. In our insufficiency we find a deep need. Zahl stirs up these reminders as he sets forth the healing to our brokenness, the one who is sufficient, and the love we long for. "I believe the New Testament sees Jesus as the offender of custom and tradition and the embodiment of forgiveness to all who have broken the law. He comes to fulfill the law (Matthew 5.17) by quenching the attack on the human spirit that the law unleashes through the ferocity of its diagnosis….Only the atonement could make the death of Christ understandable and palatable to his students and followers….The climax of Paul's thought on the law and its relation to Christ occurs in Romans 10.4: Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. What Paul means is that Christ's death signals the end of the law in its power to accuse" (15).

Zahl proceeds to take his readers through a tour of the law as it unfolds in society. Comparing and expounding on the law and society, motivation of loss, everyday life, and its curse, he demonstrates the very depth and presence of the law. He leaves the reader in a state of understanding and defeat as we juxtapose the human condition and the law. After unleashing the law that "reduces its object, the human spirit, to despair" (29), Zahl subtly begins to introduce the transforming concept of grace. Carrying the reader through the traditional definitions of grace and then in his practical undertones resting on the foundational truth that grace is one-way love (1 John 4:9), he notes that grace is independent of its response but often begets it. Grace is not just in the title of this book, it saturates every concept in every chapter: "This book is an attempt to let the grace-word of the New Testament, and of Paul, be heard again. The center of Paul's idea is grace; it meets a need that never changes, and in itself never changes" (47-48).

With a foundational understanding laid out, Zahl then goes on to explore four rich theological pillars of grace: anthropology, soteriology, Christology, and the Holy Spirit and the Holy Trinity. With each pillar, Zahl pulls both the theological and practical implications of grace to the forefront. He emphasizes the necessity of Christ's substitutionary atonement and our total depravity. He also promotes the unpopular view of man having an un-free will. He defends his position stating that "a theology of everyday life depends on the un-free will. If the will is free, then we do not need someone to save us. We may need a helper, but we do not need a savior" (104).

After building a theological foundation, Zahl turns his attention-and the rest of the book-to a pastoral, practical, and real life approach to grace. Chapters 3 through 6 are filled with exposition on grace in families, society, the church, and the culmination of grace in everything. Whether it is a political philosophy, the family structure, or the church universal, we can ask the question "Where does grace fit in?" Zahl sheds light toward the answers and candidly expresses frustration with our current society. It does not take long to understand that embracing a grace-filled life is something that scares both the church and the world. Zahl wraps up by pointing out that "neither environment (church or the world) is safe. This is why I wish to stand in only one specific place, even if it continually moves. This is the place of God's one-way love and its imputing accuracy, which rescues the human situation in every case where it is given play. It witnesses no sector of human affairs immune to the disease, but also none immune to the cure" (257). This book is rich, practical, challenging, and encouraging. It breathes new life into the timeless truth of grace. Most importantly, this book is honest and upfront on a crucial issue.

Thursday, May 1st 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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