Sola Gratia: Grace Alone
This October 31st will mark five hundred and four years since Martin Luther famously nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door of Wittenberg in 1517. People often look back on this date as the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and so October 31st has come to be celebrated as “Reformation Day.” This October, we are going to spend some time looking at the five “solas” of the Reformation—emblematic phrases standing for five important biblical teachings that the sixteenth-century reformers wanted to recover and clarify in contrast to the teachings and practices of the medieval church: Sola Gratia (grace alone), Sola Fide (faith alone), Solo Christo (in Christ alone), Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone). Each of these five solas can be used as a lens for seeing how Christianity is different from other religions, how Protestantism is different from Roman Catholicism, and for how Reformed and Presbyterian theology is different from other kinds of Protestantism.
The first of the five “solas” of the Reformation is sola gratia, which stands for the Bible’s teaching that salvation is “by grace alone.” “Grace” means “undeserved favor”; it indicates that any kindness, help, or blessing God shows towards sinful people is a free gift that comes from God’s initiative, not something we earn. God’s grace is an expression of His character, so it doesn’t depend on anything in us; one theologian (Herman Bavinck) defines grace as “God’s goodness when it is shown to those who only deserve evil.” Grace means that when God is good to us, He is not responding to something good He sees in us; rather, He is compassionately moving toward our ugly guilt and brokenness to bring about a forgiveness and healing that can only come from Him. As Luther once wrote, “The love of God does not find, but creates, what is pleasing to it.”
The Bible’s teaching about grace distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Every other world religion offers hope to people fundamentally on the basis of human effort. In some religions, this means working hard to appease a malevolent and unpredictable god, never sure if you’ve done enough. In others, it means doing just enough to ensure that in the end the good in your life outweighs the bad. For some religions, the goal is to get rid of desire or achieve a higher level of consciousness—again, difficult objectives to be attained through strenuous work with little certainty of success. Christianity is different because it offers God’s grandest blessings as a gift simply to be received.
The medieval church talked a lot about grace, but the reformers saw that grace had become mixed with human effort in the church’s teaching and life. Yes, salvation was by grace, but that grace was said to be dispensed through the sacramental system of the Roman church. The need to cooperate in that sacramental system meant that salvation now required some combination of divine gift and human effort. Rather than resting in Christ’s gracious once-for-all sacrifice on the cross, priests had to re-present that sacrifice to God over and over in the Mass. Rather than simply repenting and receiving God’s free and full forgiveness, you had to go through acts of penance to deal fully with your sin. You might even be able to pay money (“indulgences”) to help deal with sin’s consequences. In response, the reformers rightly sought to bring the church back to the pure, simple good news that salvation is a free gift that no human effort can earn or supplement—that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Today, churches like Resurrection cherish the biblical teaching of sola gratia and are keen to emphasize the priority and sovereignty of God’s grace in the salvation of sinners. While all Bible-believing Protestants affirm that salvation is a free gift of God, the strand of Reformation teaching we stand in carries this idea all the way through, applying sola gratia to our whole experience of salvation from start to finish. Where others elevate the role of human choice in freely accepting or rejecting God’s free gift, the Scriptures emphasize God’s initiative even in giving the gift of faith in the first place to sinners who never would choose to accept His grace unless He graciously opened our hearts. 2 Timothy 1:9 says that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” In other words, our salvation is rooted in God’s ancient gracious plan, established before He even created the world. This means that all the initiative belongs with God, and we depend on Him even for our faith that receives the Gospel promises. We can take no credit for our salvation—not even for the choice to embrace it—because salvation is sola gratia—by grace alone.
Grace-Based Action Point
I like the way some people have used the word “grace” as an acronym: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. This is the heart of the Gospel, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). Take a moment to thank God for the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life that He has given you in Jesus, and live today in the freedom that comes from knowing your hope in life depends not on what you can do for God, but on what God has freely done for you.
Yours in Christ,