What is Sola Gratia?

Sola Gratia is the Latin phrase meaning ‘grace alone’ and one of the key driving forces behind the Protestant Reformation, alongside faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone and to God’s glory alone. 

Grace can be defined as ‘unmerited favor towards the undeserving’. Though the Catholic view affirms that we need God’s grace in order to be saved, the crux of the matter is not so much the need for His grace but rather the extent of His grace. As a litmus test, one must simply ask ‘What does an individual contribute to his or her salvation?’. 

The crucial distinction between the Roman Catholic and Reformation understanding lies in the term grace ‘alone’. The Reformers asserted that salvation is the free gift of God through Jesus Christ, given purely by His grace. This means that no works or cooperation from the sinner could ever merit any favour before God. While these theological nuances may seem pedantic, the implications are monumental.

Historical Developments

God’s grace in salvation has long been an area of contention throughout church history. In the 5th century, British monk Pelagius and his followers held the belief that man was unaffected by the Fall, and therefore were still able to choose between what was morally good and evil. His teachings reduced the role of Christ as Saviour to a mere good teacher and flew in the face of core biblical truths. Through the staunch efforts of St Augustine of Hippo, Pelagianism was condemned for heresy in 431 at the Council of Ephesus. 

Despite this, these teachings would continue to survive all the way through to the emergence of Semi-Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism conceded that the Fall had grievously impacted our moral ability, but not yet to the point in which we were unable to choose God. This allowance made for the fact that by cooperating with God’s prevenient grace, we are naturally both able to seek Him and come to true faith. Subsequently, this middle-ground approach also was dismissed as heretical at the Second Council of Orange in 529.

As the Reformation swept through the nations, the rediscovery of biblical teaching led to a strong resurgence of ‘Augustinian’ theology. Hallmarked by an emphasis on man’s sinful nature and need for God’s grace, it was quickly adopted by prominent theologians of the time, namely Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox. Many of the issues debated at the time would later contribute to the development of Calvinism and the doctrines of grace.

Total Inability

Before we can begin to properly understand grace, we must first consider the fallen state of humanity and man’s standing before God. 

Contemporary secular thought tends to either imagine humankind as fundamentally neutral when it comes to morality or outright reject the notion by declaring morality relative. However, the Bible is quite clear in what it teaches about our natural state; we have ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23). Sin is not merely doing ‘bad’ things; it is rebellion against God by rejecting Him in our hearts and minds. As a result of this, we stand guilty before the ultimate Judge and must face death and God’s righteous wrath. The apostle Paul continues further by claiming that mankind, who inherit sinful flesh, is hostile to God and does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so (Rom 8:7). 

This idea is built upon in one of Augustine’s most prominent teachings: the doctrine of total depravity. It holds that mankind is so affected by the Fall that they are unable to avoid sinning. ‘Total’ refers to the fact that sin is present in every aspect of man’s nature. Even their very wills are not ‘free’, but held in bondage to sin (John 8:34). Consequently, without divine intervention, we cannot naturally respond to God. This echoes the words of Jesus in John 6:44, where he clearly expresses ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them…’

Since we are unable to choose God, we must recognise that sin has rendered us utterly helpless and hopeless. As it is, saving faith in Jesus Christ could not be produced from our unregenerate hearts and our sinful human nature. The Reformers maintained that regeneration precedes faith. That is, one must first be born again by the Holy Spirit before they can respond in any way towards God (John 3:3-5). We don’t simply need to invite Jesus into our heart; we need him to altogether grant us a new heart [1]. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of God’s promises in the Old Testament, calling the exiled Israelites to look forward to the day when the Lord shall redeem them: 

‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:26)

Our only hope is that the sovereign Lord will remain faithful to His Word and carry out for us this spiritual heart transplant. Believing otherwise would be akin to one believing that they could perform open heart surgery on themselves, which is at best, folly and at worst, fatal.

Amazing Grace

Nowhere clearer do we see God’s faithfulness to His promises than in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul perfectly captures God’s expression of undeserved love and kindness on the cross in his letter to the church in Ephesus.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For 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 2:1-8)

Paul begins by addressing the Ephesian believers and reminding them of their previous condition. He describes them as being ‘dead’ in their sins, having broken God’s law and fully ‘deserving of wrath’ (verse 1). In addition to this, they are described as being slaves to the world, the flesh and the devil. This is not only true for the Ephesians but Paul clarifies that this is the way in which ‘we all once lived’, extending it to himself and us today (verse 3). If left at this point, despair and pessimism would be an appropriate response. 

But what we read instead is true cause for joy – because of His great love for us, God made us alive with Christ and raised us up with him! On the cross, Jesus bears the penalty of sin that we deserve. He willingly takes our sin, which separates us from God, and allows us to instead draw near to Him. Repeated twice amidst the passage is the confident declaration that ‘by grace you have been saved’. Where we deserved condemnation, God treats us with mercy; no one can boast or claim any part for Christ has paid it all.

The heart of the Gospel is that while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6). Grace is not only essential to the message of the Gospel but is also consistently encountered throughout the entirety of Scripture. This mercy we receive is purely by God’s grace; it is not something we can earn, choose or ever deserve. Furthermore, Ephesians 1:4 informs us that He chose us before the creation of the world to be in Christ. Before we could ever respond and without consideration to any merited works we may have performed, God has  unconditionally adopted us into His family.

This is highlighted in Article 1.9 of the Canons of Dort, on God’s election:

This election is not based on foreseen faith, the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition, as a cause or condition in man required for being chosen, but men are chosen to faith, the obedience of faith, holiness, and so on” [2]

What happens if we reject Sola Gratia?

You may still be wondering whether it really matters if I believe God’s grace is his work and none of mine? I would argue that it makes all the difference. It is what distinguishes between monergism and synergism. Monergism is the view that God alone effects our salvation, whereas Synergism contends that it is both God and our cooperation. 

To use an analogy to articulate the synergistic view, let’s imagine that we are all shipwrecked sailors who are drowning in the sea of sin. Jesus arrives in the scene with his rescue boat and he extends his hand to free you from the treacherous currents. All you need to do is reach out for his hand if you want to be saved from drowning. 

But frankly, this is not very biblical. If we were to paint the analogy in the language of Ephesians 2, we are not in a state of drowning because we are already dead. Dead people cannot reach out to God, and so we need Him to administer some real life-changing spiritual CPR.

In essence, sola gratia puts forth the question of who the active agent in the role of man’s salvation is. If we hold to the synergistic argument, Christ has died to make salvation possible for the sinner but the responsibility is still on them to place faith in him. Ultimately, the determining factor in salvation is our choice.

However, if we hold to the monergistic argument, then Christ’s death has atoned for their sins, draws them into new life to live according to the Spirit and will preserve them until the end. From start to finish, God is sovereign and glorified. I find the latter option to be more scripturally sound as well as an exceeding comfort; to know that my salvation does not rest in my hands, but in the hands that were pierced at Calvary.

What does Sola Gratia mean for us?

Grace is not an abstract concept displayed only at the cross but one to be lived out practically. Having been freed from bondage to sin and enabled by the Spirit, the Bible continually calls us to a life marked by holiness. 

God’s grace allows us to be loving and gracious towards one another, building up the body of Christ’s church as we do so. The primary call of discipleship is to live out the truth of the Gospel in love towards one another, to the circumstances God has called you to. We are called to offer our lives as living sacrifices to God, not aiming to earn any merit but aiming to please the One with utmost gratitude for delivering us from our sins. 

God’s grace in justification is the fuel by which the Christian life is energised. Not only does it enable us to live holy and set apart, but it also provides us with abiding joy and humble confidence. In Christ, we find more than mere fleeting happiness, which so often eludes our chasing. Instead having known peace with God through our Saviour Jesus, we can be ‘filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’ (1 Pet 1:8) that no longer rests on emotion or circumstance. This is what emboldened Paul to rejoice in the face of trials and suffering, declaring God’s grace to be sufficient. Being saved apart from works is also a cause for confidence! This security is not grounded on anything that we accomplish for ourselves but the full assurance that comes from faith. The foundation of this hope is God’s faithfulness to his promises, realised in Christ Jesus.

Moreover, understanding grace frees us to evangelise to non-Christians. How so, you might ask? 

Firstly, a sober understanding of sin removes the burden of needing to ‘sugarcoat’ or ‘sell’ the Gospel. Knowing that the message of the cross is by nature offensive to people, we don’t have to rely on our eloquent words, lest the cross be emptied of its power (1 Cor 1:17). Rather we pray that God can cure their spiritual blindness by opening their eyes to see the glories of the Gospel. If we, the undeserving, have freely received God’s gift of grace in Christ, how much more should we be ready to offer this to those who do not know God?

The doctrine of sola gratia proves to be rich biblical truth that has fueled generations upon generations of Christians with tremendous joy to give praises to God’s name. Not by our efforts, not by our works, not by our choice but purely by God’s grace are we saved – His grace alone!


References

1 Smith, S (2015) 31 August. Available at: https://twitter.com/ScottyWardSmith/status/638345433463549952 (Accessed 16/7/19)

2 Canons of Dort 1.9

Further Reading

R.C Sproul, Willing to Believe (Baker Books 1997)

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