A Jagged Contention: A License to Sin?

Grace has the power of the mallet. Every other prong and heavy-lifting device that seeks to change people is an expression of law and accomplishes the opposite of what it intends. People fear that grace will give permission to be bad. This is the classic fear: that grace will issue in a license—“007”—to do whatever you want, without consequences.

Yet that never happens! In fact, the opposite happens. When you treat people gracefully, they always end up doing the right thing. It comes naturally. Their righteousness grows like fruit, as Jesus predicted. (Mark 4:20; Luke 6:43-45; 8:15; John 15:5)

– Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. pg. 73


What do you make of Zahl’s analysis? Is it always true that when you treat people gracefully they will end up doing the right thing? Or, do sinner/saints have times in which they sin in response to grace?

Share your thoughts in the comments below


6 thoughts on “A Jagged Contention: A License to Sin?

  1. I think he’s nuts. People sin, always. The only thing that changes anything in a human being is when God does it, and he has announced that he’s doing it by his Holy Spirit working through the message of grace in Christ (and by the Sacraments). We make the announcement and God does whatever his purpose is for that moment of his word. It might be what we think, and it might not. It’s entirely up to God. There ain’t no magic words.


  2. Well, I appreciate a lot of what Paul Zahl says and has written, but on reading this, he sounds like he has a really underdeveloped view of the fall. Because I’ve heard him hammer on Pelagianism strongly, I think if you pushed him on the “people always doing the right thing if treated with grace” statement, he’d walk it back. If what he said was true, life would be so much easier and simpler. Raising teenagers pops this balloon pretty quickly.

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  3. The results are of course in God’s hands but when treat people with a little bit of grace something unnoticed by us may take root. In any case we are commanded to love & forbidden to judge.


  4. Isaiah 26:10 reads, “If favor is shown to the wicked, he does not learn righteousness; in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly and does not see the majesty of the LORD”.

    There is no magic formula for ensuring people “always do the right thing”, but with the Gospel we always have a strong hope that anyone can find redemption in Christ.


  5. I don’t think it’s true at all. After all, as Christians we’ve received God’s ultimate grace: Jesus Christ through whom we have forgiveness of sins. Yet we still sin even though we are simultaneously saints. So then, by extending grace toward others, that doesn’t always guarantee they’ll do the right thing. They might, but it’s not definite.


  6. Grace doesn’t give permission to be bad, and it is true that the Holy Spirit, through the proclamation of the gospel, changes our hearts and gives us a new desire, but it seems like this can be overly simplified.

    The Law is still important in the Christian life, because it is the Law that kills the Old Adam in us, and it is the Law that guides us in the path we are to travel. If we over-emphasize grace, we run the risk of refusing to call sinners to repentance, which does them a dis-service by leaving them in their sin. We fail to love our brothers and sisters who wander from the truth if we only give them grace and never give them law.

    The Law must be applied to those who are in sin but refuse to repent. The Gospel must be given to those who repent and trust in Christ. We must not turn the Gospel into a new Law, but we also must not refuse to preach the Law.

    Isn’t this what Luther battled against with Agricola? Or am I confusing my church history lessons?


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