As we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, we are considering five of the great principles that lie at the heart of the Reformation. These are the five ‘solas’ – the five ‘alones’ – that sum up some of the central emphases of this great time of theological and spiritual revival. Last month we considered ‘Christ Alone’. This month we turn to ‘Grace Alone’ – ‘Sola Gratia’.
A vital emphasis of the Reformation was that salvation is by God’s grace alone, drawing on texts such as Ephesians 2:8-9 ‘by grace you have been saved through faith’. ‘Grace’ is to be thought of as the favour of God to those who deserved only condemnation and it is this grace that is the source as well as the guarantee of the sinner’s salvation.
We need to notice that the pre-Reformation church did speak about salvation ‘by grace’ – it is a caricature to say that the theologians of that period taught salvation by works. The problem was, however, that they tried to combine an element of grace and an element of works. They believed that God gave grace to assist those who made their best effort towards salvation. The ‘grace’ they believed in was thought of as a kind of substance that God infused into people to strengthen their efforts, like a kind of spiritual energy drink.
The Reformers, however, realised that a consistently biblical view of salvation meant that it is ‘by grace alone’. There is no contribution that the sinner makes, and indeed none he could make. With reference to salvation, grace excludes works entirely. One among many significant texts is Romans 11:6 ‘But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace’. Not only does salvation begin by grace, it also continues by grace. That is so despite the attitude of some Christians who seem to think that having had past sins forgiven by the grace of God, they must then stay in God’s good books by their own spiritual efforts. That is a deadly misunderstanding.
The grace of God provides everything required for salvation. God’s amazing love for a sinful world led to the provision of a Saviour, as the familiar words of John 3:16 remind us. That Saviour by his life of perfect obedience, his atoning death and triumphant resurrection, all as the Substitute for his people, provides full salvation for all who belong to him by the divine decree of predestination. Christ gives new life to sinners, so that Paul can say that God ‘made us alive together with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:5). In saving union with Christ we have justification, adoption, sanctification and eventually glorification. Romans 3:24, for example, tells us that we are ‘justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’. At every point the explanation for what we have as Christians is the grace of God.
Such an understanding of salvation is profoundly humbling. There is nothing left in relation to salvation for which we can take credit. It is, however, also wonderfully liberating. Salvation by grace alone lifts a crushing burden from our shoulders, a burden we in fact cannot bear. We realise now that we cannot contribute to a salvation that is all by grace alone – and we do not have to. We do not have to do the impossible, and so we are set free from the bondage of trying to establish our own righteousness before God by our own efforts.
This was one of Luther’s great (re)discoveries. When he read a text like Romans 1:17, with its reference to ‘the righteousness of God’, he at first thought of a righteousness by which God judges sinners and a righteousness which he demands of them. In his mind this was a righteousness which he had to produce and which he could not, despite having tried everything that the church recommended. Then the Lord graciously opened Luther’s eyes to the wonderful truth that texts like Romans 1:17 actually refer to a righteousness that God gives as a free gift of grace, the very righteousness of Christ. In the Preface to his Latin writings this is how he describes the discovery: ‘Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.’ He was free at last!
The truth of ‘grace alone’ flows from the sovereignty of God in salvation. He did not have to save any, yet he has fully provided for the salvation of a vast multitude of sinners (note Revelation 7:9). This Reformation assertion of ‘grace alone’ echoes the truth of Jonah 2:9 ‘Salvation belongs to the Lord’. It is a truth that exalts God and humbles men and women.
A further consequence of the sovereignty of God in salvation which should delight the heart of every believer is the certainty we have that the work that God has begun will certainly be completed. As Paul expressed it, ‘I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:6). Such certainty strengthens our assurance of salvation and fills our hearts with joy – ‘by grace alone’.