Paul F. M Zahl’s book, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life – Part 5: On why the world and religious people have​ a hard time with grace

2 min read

It is not only the world that detests grace. The Christian world also finds the absolution of grace to be a bitter pill. Every time you preach or embody grace, some Christians will accuse you of “antinomianism,” the idea that you are against the law.

At the root of the finger pointing is the fear that if grace is given to a sinner, the sinner is going to take advantage of the amnesty and do a bad thing. This is the fear of antinomianism, the conviction that grace equals permissiveness. On this view, grace is against the law.

Why do religious people have a hard time with grace?

Why do religious people have a hard time with grace? People come to faith during times of trouble. Even if they grew up in church or had a religious experience as a teenager, they usually come to faith during a period of trouble. A specific problem in life leads them to question or to look at God in a new way. Sometimes it prompts them to read something or go to church or talk to somebody they respect. A time of trouble leads them toward the grace of God. But right after they receive this grace, they get punished with the law again. The church punishes them with the law. Here lies the problem, an unburied one. You could put it this way: The law, the stress of life driving you to a breakdown, reduces you to a walking question mark. The question is answered, amazingly, by God’s one-way love. Grace changes everything. 

You then enter some form of church or community. At this point, the iron curtain of the law comes down. You are told you need to be “discipled” or “mentored” or “coached”: held “accountable.” Sermons contain lists of things to do, “disciplines” to take up, a “Christian worldview” to embrace. The law is reimposed. People become semi-Pelagians the day (after) they become Christians. This is the heart of it.

People in the world, including Christians, are Pelagians by nature. They want to do it for themselves. “Control” is the key word and concept. But control fails massively at some specific, vulnerable point of opening. When this happens, people are undone and they open up to grace. The grace of God makes its appearance, usually in the form of compassionate one-way love from another person. But the moment things are patched up a bit, life morphs back toward control, into semi-Pelagianism.

Semi-Pelagianism is the compromise Christians force between the grace that saved them and the Pelagianism inherent in their human nature. It is the Achilles’ heel that besets Christians and all the Christian churches. People become semi-Pelagians the day (after) they become Christians. This is the heart of it.

Semi-Pelagianism, which acknowledges grace but insists upon an effort or response from the pained human side, defeats Christians just as wholly as Pelagianism defeats the world. Semi-Pelagianism dies hard. It is the old “control” theme in a new and sanctified form. It is not grace. This control hates grace.

World’s criticism of grace

The problem with the world’s criticism of grace, that grace is unfair, lies in its worldview. The world wants to think that there are good people and bad people, good countries and bad countries. The world wants to think that innocence exists over against guilt. The world also wants to think that innocence and guilt can be established in the context of law. This is not how Christianity sees things. Christians see every person as guilty before God, subconsciously guilty at all times. External actions, as Jesus said, are not as important as internal motives. And internal motives are the most compromised of all data (Mark 7:20, 23). The world’s problem with grace is that it is unfair. But all you need to do is turn the tables and observe people on the defensive against law. 

My issue with the world’s problem with grace is that it fails to have compassion when it is on the wrong side of the law. Jesus said he had not come to call “the righteous,” by which he meant the people who seem to be on the “right” side of the law. Implicit in Christ’s statement is the idea that everyone is on the wrong side of the law. Therefore Christ came to call everyone.

When you are an accused person, you always turn in the direction of grace. You never think for a minute to turn in the direction of the law. The law will only spit at you. The human condition is forever on the wrong side of law, and therefore, in the “wee hours” (Frank Sinatra), it always tilts toward grace.

Is grace the refuge of scoundrels? Absolutely.

That’s what grace looks like