Sola Gratia: By Grace Alone!
Topic: Protestant Reformation Passage: John 1:14–1:18, Romans 3:23–3:26, Ephesians 2:4–2:9, James 4:6, Psalm 51:1–51:5, Romans 6:1, Hebrews 4:16
“THE 5 SOLAS OF THE REFORMATION
SOLA GRATIA: GRACE ALONE”
John 1:14-18, Romans 3:23-26, Ephesians 2:4-9, James 4:6, Psalm 51:1-5, Romans 6:1, Hebrew 4:16
As we continue our month-long recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we have been considering the essential statements which have defined that historic movement as well as provided for us the foundational statements of biblical Christianity.
So far, we have looked at “Sola Scriptura” and “Solus Christus”...or the affirmation that “Scripture alone” is the authoritative and sufficient source for our knowledge and understanding of God, and that “Christ alone” is the only way of salvation. We come this morning to the next of the “solas”...“Sola Gratia,” “grace alone.” Like a clarion call which awakened Europe from a deep spiritual slumber, the Reformers rediscovered the biblical truth and boldly proclaimed that salvation was “By grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.”
It was a proclamation that began with the growing discontent of a people held spiritually captive to a Church that had lost its way. In a day when the papacy exercised autocratic authority over men’s lives, a movement began to reform the church of its corruption and restore it to its apostolic origins. As late as 529 AD, the Church Council at Orange had affirmed that salvation came to believers solely by the grace of God, and not on the basis of any human merit. But the ensuing thousand years had brought about a system of penance, sacraments, and indulgences that resulted in people living not by faith but by fear.
When Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg, things began to change. A revolution—and that’s what it was, more than reformation—was unleashed like a firestorm that would blaze its way across Europe and, in time, around the world. With the dust having been blown off of the Apostle Paul’s liberating statement—“By grace are you saved” (cf. Ephesians 2:5 and 8)—it was left to the Reformers to define what that meant. Surely it challenged the prevailing doctrine of the Catholic Church, but it is unlikely that any could have foreseen what would occur.
Perhaps the best place to begin our discussion of “grace” would be to read a passage of Scripture that addresses the fountain and source of this “grace” which so captured the hearts and minds of the Reformers, just as it should continue to capture ours today. The passage is found in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John. Beginning with verse 14, we read, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Now go to verse 16: “For from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14, 16-17).
Hone in on that last statement for just a moment: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Last week we saw how the Reformers declared “Solus Christus,” “Christ alone;” and now in this passage we are able to see why they could make such a claim. Jesus Christ is the One who brings “grace” to those who are to become the heirs of salvation. As we attempt to wade into the deep topic of “Sola Gratia” today, there are at least three concepts of grace that the Reformation emphasized, and which we must continue to preach today.
In the first place, grace is the prerogative of God...in other words, it is dispensed at His good pleasure. Secondly, grace is the provision of God...meaning that it is given in order to meet our need and which cannot be met any other way. And third, grace is the power of God...it involves much more than the forgiveness of sin, it brings with it an energizing and empowering potential.
So, let’s begin by affirming that...
Grace is the prerogative of God (Romans 3:23-26, Ephesians 2:4-9).
The basic idea of “grace” is that it is something that is freely given. Theologically, it refers to God’s “unmerited favor.” While brief definitions and descriptions may be memorable, rarely are they sufficient to satisfactorily explain the nature of a theological concept. So let’s try and “flesh out” that definition a little more.
In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, refers to grace as “God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment.” Similarly, Benjamin Warfield, the President of Princeton Seminary at the end of the 19th-century, defined grace as God’s “free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving.” Both of those statements reject any notion that the recipient of grace deserves favor. Martin Luther drew a close parallel between the New Testament concept of “grace (“χαριs”) and the Old Testament term for the steadfast, covenant-keeping love (“hesed”) of God toward His people. In other words, grace is based solely on God’s good pleasure and cannot be coerced in any way by man. That is why we can speak of it as “sovereign grace.”
It is important to realize that the Catholic Church of Luther’s day did not deny the grace of God, but believed that a person must “add his part” to it in order to make it personally efficacious. In other words, God’s grace is necessary, but not sufficient by itself for attaining right standing with God. The Church, in fact, taught that “God will not deny grace to those who do what is in their power to do.”
As kind and generous as that would be on God’s part, were it to be true, it nevertheless suggests that man in some way can and must contribute something in order to obtain salvation. Or, as the old saying goes, “Heaven helps those who help themselves.” But to cling to such a notion is a denial of the Gospel of grace. As John Piper has written, “Grace is the pleasure of God to magnify the worth of God by giving sinners the right and power to delight in God without obscuring the glory of God.”
Once again we are brought face-to-face with the wide chasm that separates the sinfulness of even the best of men from the holy and righteous character of God. It is in his Epistle to the Romans where Paul speaks of “grace” more than in any other single place. In chapter 3, verses 23 through 26, he writes these words:
“For 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, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
That thought is further reinforced in Ephesians 2, verses 4 through 9, where we read:
“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. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Both of these passages refer to grace as a “gift” given by a benevolent God to those whose faith is in Him. In this latter passage, Paul speaks of “mercy,” which is the natural corollary to grace. If grace is God granting to believing sinners what they do not deserve, then “mercy” is withholding from them what they do deserve...namely, the wrath of God.
You and I must come to a complete understanding that the grace of God is completely undeserved. It cannot be earned or merited in any way. If it could, it would not be grace. Rather, grace is given freely by God...at His prerogative. He is in no way obligated or required to give it. Without any prompting, God gives it to repentant and believing sinners solely at His good pleasure.
What would motivate a holy and righteous God to act with grace toward those who have impugned His character and blasphemed His name? There are a number of ways to answer that question, but the one with which the Reformers seem to have been most concerned was the crying need of sinful man.
People in every age fear the prospect of death. It posed a constant threat to those living in the Middle Ages, where disease, famine, and wars were constant reminders of its impending inevitability. The Catholic Church played upon those fears to its own advantage. The prospect of heaven for the right payment or act of penance brought hoped-for, but false assurance to the masses. Luther and the other Reformers recognized the fallacy of the indulgence and sacramental systems, and had the courage to challenge it. When they spoke out against it, with the Bible as their testimony, it was often at the cost of their lives.
Through their serious and studious investigation of the Scriptures, and their critique of the prevailing religious culture, they came to see that...
Grace is the provision of God (James 4:6, Psalm 51:1-5).
Grace cannot be earned or supplemented by any act on the part of man...no matter what the Church might say, and no matter how contrite the supplicant may be. There is an interesting phrase in James 4:6 which tells us that God “gives more grace.” More literally, it reads that God gives “greater grace.” The comparative term there is “μεγαs.” In English, when we attach the prefix “mega” to a word, it implies that the original term is made “bigger,” “greater,” and “more powerful.” So the question is “Grace is greater than what?”
And there are several possible answers, including “greater than the strength of my depravity”...“greater than the power of sin to tempt me”...“greater than all forms of envy and worldliness.” But also “greater than our wills, our selfishness, and our inability to relinquish control.” No doubt, this is what Paul was referring to when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Add to that what the same writer says in 2 Corinthians 12:9 and 10, when in times of weakness, we are reminded that God’s “grace is sufficient.” If you are like me, then you are probably thinking: “If that is the case, then why do I keep yielding to temptation?” The answer may lie in what the rest of James 4:6 says. Here he employs a quotation taken from Proverbs 3:34. In fact, Peter borrowed this same quote when writing his first epistle (cf. 1 Peter 5:5). The quote from Proverbs reads, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Grace brings with it both a comfort and a challenge. And that challenge is in exchanging our pride for humility. You see, any true understanding of grace changes us at our very core. The Scriptures tell us that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25). We know this perhaps instinctively, and yet we will continue to struggle with it for the rest of our lives. Occasionally we may catch glimpses of it, and every now and then we may be struck with its stark reality.
At some point, if we are to become recipients of God’s grace, we must heed the words of the psalmist, who wrote, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Some versions read, “Cease striving” (NASV). And when we do, we become candidates for grace. As long as we strive for grace, we will not find it. Any and all of our attempts to come to God on our own initiative or by our own effort are but reflections of the pride of humanity first displayed in the Garden of Eden. What an insult to God for us to imagine that we can earn or add to the work that His Son has already accomplished and now offers freely to us.
Grace is entirely the provision of God. When Benjamin Warfield studied Martin Luther’s “Ninety Five Theses,” he concluded that “The center of the controversy for Luther lay...in the article in which asserts the sole efficacy of grace in salvation.” This is why theologians of the Reformed tradition speak of “the doctrines of grace.”
The sad reality in many churches today is that while we speak and sing of “grace,” there is often a deviation and even a distortion of the biblical meaning of the term. In its place is substituted what may be best described as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” That was a term coined a decade ago, but it is something that has infected the church for much longer. Tragically, it has made inroads into many, if not most, evangelical churches today, and is likely being preached from many pulpits at this very hour. Richard Niebuhr, in his 1950’s book The Kingdom of God in America, called it the message of “a God without wrath bringing men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
In other words, “Be nice. Do good. Don’t offend others. Live life the best you can. If you mess up, God will understand.” My friends, that is not grace! That is not the Gospel! In fact, it is a “false gospel” and must be exposed, with as much conviction and passion as the Reformers spoke out against the “false gospels” of their day.
John Locke was British philosopher who lived in the 17th-century and was one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment period. Among his theories was the notion that we each enter the world as “tabula rasas,” or “blank slates.” Locke was a Deist who denied original sin, and believed that what each of us becomes is the product of our environment, upbringing, and experience. Because such a theory denies the fall, it rejects “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). And while educators value Locke’s contribution to academia, that theory remains an utter denial of man’s most basic problem, which is that we are sinners from the moment of conception. As has often been said, “We are not sinners because we sin; but we sin because we are sinners.”
Our need is great. But God’s provision is greater! In order for God’s provision to be applied to our need, that need must admitted and owned by us.
A few moments ago, we heard read for us Psalm 51, which was David’s contrite prayer following his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murderous plot against her husband. As great as those acts of sin were, David was keenly aware that the depths of his depravity and his debt toward God went deeper still. Look again those first five verses, where the tearful David cries,
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
What thoughtful and spiritually-minded person among us cannot identify with those words? What we are told here is that our sin and depravity are worthy of damnation. But we are also reminded that salvation is solely dependent on God’s generous grace and forgiving mercy. It is this grace for which David pled...and which he found by the end of this prayer.
Psalm 51 has been called “the Reformation martyr’s psalm,” because it compelled a number of martyrs in that day to their deaths and comforted martyrs in their deaths. They rediscovered the Gospel of God’s saving grace—“Sola gratia,” and nothing on this earth—not even the executioner’s sword or flame—was able to ply it from their hearts.
In 1555, as Nicholas Ridley was being marched to the place where he would be burned at the stake for publicly preaching his Protestant beliefs, he repeatedly recited the words of Psalm 51. When given one last opportunity to recant, he was given grace to respond, “I will seal what I have preached with my blood.” And with that, the fire was lit.
The 51st Psalm remains for us a testimony of our need for God’s gracious provision. In fact, if we are unable to pray this psalm from the heart, something is woefully wrong with our practical theology.
That brings us to the third concept of grace that the Reformers recognized and emphasized:
Grace is the power of God (Romans 6:1, Hebrews 4:16).
The debate between the Protestant concept of grace and that held by the Roman Catholic Church is over “infusion” versus “imputation.” Grace, in the medieval mind, was akin to a substance that was infused or “poured into” believers in order to transform them as they cooperated with it. The Reformers, however, challenged such a notion inasmuch as it weakened grace by placing the onus of its efficacy upon the performance of man. What was needed, so Luther and others declared, was an imputed grace—an “alien righteousness”—credited to their account. And this, they discovered, is what the Scriptures taught.
We are reminded again of Paul’s words in Ephesians 2(:1 and 5) that we were all “dead in our trespasses and sins.” And because we are dead, we have no capacity, inclination, or ability to respond to God. In fact, not only are we dead, we are defiant and doomed. We need to be empowered...to be given life. Grace is, therefore, the saving prerogative and provision of God...and it is more.
It is also the power of God. Power not only for salvation, but power to live all of life for the glory of God. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace,” the writer of Hebrews (4:16) encourages us, “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” That includes...
- grace to be saved (Ephesians 2:8-9)
- grace to serve (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)
- grace to sacrifice (2 Corinthians 8:1-2)
- grace to suffer (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
- grace to sing (Colossians 3:16)
- grace to speak (Colossians 4:6)
- grace for strength (2 Timothy 2:1)
- and grace to succumb, or die (Acts 7:59)
In all of these things, God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Lest we think otherwise, grace is not mere leniency for when we sin. Grace is the gift of God which empowers and enables us not to sin. In Romans 6:1, Paul asked rhetorically, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” To which he emphatically replied, “By no means!” The fact that grace is offered “freely,” should not lead us to “cheapen” it or “devalue” it in any way. We must never forget that while grace costs us nothing, it cost God everything. It came at an infinite cost to God, through the death of His beloved Son.
Four hundred years after Luther, another German named Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a modern-day Christian martyr—expressed this truth as well as could be said. In a lengthy quote from his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer left us with these words:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves...the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift that must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought with a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us with a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Regarding the power of grace to overcome sin, J.I. Packer has commented,
No Christian can go on sinning as before, for union with Christ has changed his nature so that now his inner man desires righteousness as before it desired sin, and only obedience to God can satisfy his deepest inner craving. He hates the sin that he finds in himself, and he gets no pleasure from lapsing into it...he loves holiness because he loves his Savior-God, and would not contemplate reverting to the days when, as sin’s slave, he loved neither. He knows that freedom has ennobled him and brought him both the desire and the strength for right living, and for this he is endlessly thankful.
We have seen that grace is the prerogative of God. In addition, it comes to us as the provision of God. And what’s more, it provides for us the power of God.
God does not owe us anything. He is not obligated to show favor to the beneficiaries of His grace. If He were obligated to be gracious, grace would no longer be grace. Salvation would, at least in some measure, be based on human merit rather than by “grace alone.”
The grace of God that brings salvation (cf. Titus 2:11) is the work of God “from first to last” (cf. Romans 1:17, NIV), “from start to finish” (cf. Romans 1:17, NLT). It was authored by God the Father, achieved by God the Son, and applied by God the Holy Spirit.
The Reformers came to realize that grace is not an impersonal energy that can be switched on through prayers and sacraments, but rather by the heart and hand of the living God. Grace is certainly found in the church, for it is grace that creates the church. But grace is in no sense subject to the church’s control, as Catholicism has insisted since the Middle Ages.
Grace brings freedom to the Christian from the hopeless necessity of trying to commend oneself to God. Grace further brings freedom from the bondage of sin and its penalty. “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).
John Bunyan was born a century after the Protestant Reformation swept through Europe. The persecution of Protestants had again become entrenched in England. Bunyan was arrested and imprisoned several times for preaching the Gospel. During one of his incarcerations he wrote his spiritual autobiography, which was appropriately titled Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Among the more memorable quotes from that book Bunyan left for us these words of comfort and challenge:
Great sins do draw out great grace; and where guilt is most terrible and fierce, there the mercy of God in Christ, when showed to the soul, appears most high and mighty...
Oh, the remembrance of my great sins, of my great temptations, and of my great fears of perishing forever! They bring afresh into my mind the remembrance of my great help, my great support from Heaven, and the great grace that God extended to such as wretch as I.
Only a sinner who has experienced such grace can identify with those words. And only such a sinner can say from the heart, “Sola Gratia!” “Grace alone!”