Grace in Practice: One-Way Love Made Visible

This is not an easy book to read. It takes awhile to get going. The first half alternates from tedious to infuriating. But the payoff in the second half is more than worth it.

If you allow God to speak through Paul Zahl, it's a thrilling, life-changing ride. He defines grace as one-way love. Zahl is rigorously insistent and comprehensive on this definition and its application throughout the course of the book. I highly respect that because I find that I'm inconsistent about grace. I preach the importance of unconditional love but there are vast swaths of heart landscape that lay untouched by grace.

Zahl's style is unique. The dude is old and he constantly makes movie references from the 1960s and earlier. He acts as if you should know what he's talking about. That's the infuriating part. At certain points, I had no idea what he was talking about. If that happens to you, give him the benefit of the doubt and keep going.

The book is organized like the book of Ephesians. The first half is the theology and the second half is the practice. The second cannot exist without the first. It's tempting to skip the first half of the book in favor of getting to the application. If you did, you would find it easy to critique the application without understanding how he got there. He talks about familiar theological concepts like original sin and total depravity. One idea that got me was the concept of the un-free will. We act like people freely make choices but the reality is we all have sin patterns where we feel completely helpless. In those situations, our will is un-free. It is constrained. Zahl gives an example in the area of anxiety. How often have you been helped in a moment of worry by someone telling you to relax? He writes:
The more the other person tells me to relax, the more jumpy I become. If I had "free will", I would be able to switch from high-intensity to easygoing in a heartbeat. But I cannot. I cannot. (pg. 107)
Zahl quotes from Romans 7 the idea of the un-free will. I would do the same.  What I appreciate most about the book is Zahl is showing how the theology of grace is not some abstract concept that has no relevant application to daily life. Grace changes everything. Grace affects our relationships. Grace changes how we interact with our parents, our kids, our coworkers, our neighbors, our spouses, everyone.

Zahl's point is once one understands un-free will, he is free to exhibit compassion on others. Zahl argues, on one hand, the thing that drives people away from Christianity is judgment and ironically, on the other hand, it's the absence of judgment (grace) that drives people towards Christianity. Therefore, let us understand Christianity correctly - that we have been set free from judgment by the grace of Jesus Christ. 

Of course there are minor things I disagreed with. He says sermons should be ten to twenty minutes in duration and any longer is narcissistic on the part of the preacher. He says the role of the pastor in counseling is to listen and not judge. Which I agree because most people are terrible listeners and yet I believe our role is greater than that. He gives some hilarious advice that grace destroys shopping malls and if you can't destroy the mall, then you should stay away. I agree but it feels like a weird application. 

Zahl has a section for grandparents that I found absolutely stunning. He tells them not to focus on their grandchildren but to minister to their adult children in grace. He gives one example that he has found so often true: When a family arrive at the airport for a visit home, the grandparents greet the arriving grandchildren with hugs, kisses, presents, and abundant affection. The adult daughter receives a warm tap on the arm. The son-in-law, lagging behind, does not yet even receive a nod of acknowledgment. Zahl's point is grandparents can focus on exhibiting grace to their adult children and not solely to the grandchildren. After all, it's natural and easy for grandparents to love their grandkids and yet it's the grown children that most need their parents' support. it's the grown children that are struggling with work, with a strained marriage, with the stress of parenting young children. And of course grandparents can help by watching the grandkids. 

And yet it's grace exhibited by the absence of unsolicited feedback and judgment and the presence of emotional support that adult children crave most. As a parent of young children, I certainly value my parents for their ability to watch my kids but I value them so much more for their wisdom, counsel, and compassion. And in that area, the gospel of grace has changed them most and I am so grateful. Anyone can watch my kids but my parents occupy a unique role in knowing and loving me and my wife. God has given them a unique opportunity to exhibit grace to me and Zahl understands so well with decades of experience in pastoral counseling. His real-life examples are heart-rending cautionary tales of the destructiveness of law in the absence of grace.

His stuff on parenting teenagers is golden. For young children, grace is about the mother being present. For teenagers, it's about the dad. Zahl writes:
Saying it more concretely, the role of the father for teenagers is to embody grace by simply not leaving. The father must stay involved, emotionally and not detachedly, in the tempestuous emotions of his teenage children. They are begging you to leave so that you will stay! . . . One the surface, adolescents are asking for the law precisely so they can break it. At a deeper level, adolescents are asking for grace, again and again, so they can return to the love that always gives thanks.
So so good. There's much more than all this and it was helpful for me to take my time going through the book to savor the insights that are most relevant to my life stage. I definitely found myself fighting him at the beginning but his insight into Christ, scripture, and people eventually won me over, as grace is wont to do. I wait with eager expectancy the harvest to be reaped as my heart's fields are sown in grace. 


  1. I agree that as a young child, we need our mothers, but as a teenager growing into adulthood (especially for a boy), we need our fathers. The absence of an engaged and emotionally present father figure is often the cause of dysfunction in an adult life, be it addictions, dependency relationships, or arrested emotional development. I like the part about grandparents focusing more on giving grace to the grandchild than their adult children. It is so true that the adult child needs the emotional support and love of the gradnparent way more than the grandchild. It will be interesting to observe how my parents treat me and the relationships dynamic once I have kids. Enjoyed the post!


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