This year (2017) is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther and others set about reforming the church according to God’s word. To mark the anniversary, I decided to write about some of the great doctrines of the Reformation. In my first letter this year I wrote about how sinners are justified (pardoned and accepted by God) through faith alone. In the second letter I wrote about how the Bible alone is the only infallible rule of faith and practice for the church.
The use of the word ‘alone’ in two places in the paragraph above is the telltale sign that what I’m writing about in these letters are the five great ‘solas’ of the Reformation. Sola is the Latin word for ‘alone’ and theologians speak of sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone) and soli Deo gloria (God’s glory alone). So, the Bible alone is the only infallible rule of faith and practice for the church. In the Bible we discover that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and all for God’s glory alone. These are the five most basic doctrines of the Reformation.
In this letter I want to say something about the third of the five solas: sola gratia or grace alone. Sinners are justified (pardoned and accepted) by grace alone.
Grace in the Bible has a twofold meaning. First of all, it refers to God’s kindness towards sinners. His kindness towards sinners is demonstrated in his willingness to pardon his people and to give us eternal life even though we do not deserve it. We don’t deserve it because we’re sinners who deserve to be eternally condemned. However, since the Lord is gracious, he does not treat us as our sins deserve, but for the sake of Christ who died for sinners, he pardons us and accepts us and gives us the free gift of eternal life.
Grace therefore is related to sin, salvation and the Saviour. We need God to be gracious towards us because we’re guilty sinners who are liable to God’s wrath and curse. However, because God is gracious, he is willing to save us from the condemnation we deserve and to give us life. Finally, he’s able to pardon us and give us life because Jesus Christ the Saviour has paid for our sins in full.
That’s the first meaning of grace in the Bible. Secondly, it refers to the way God works in his people. For instance, when we talk about ‘the means of grace’, we’re referring to the way God works through the preaching of his word, and through the sacraments, and through prayer to help believers grow in faith and love. Or the Apostle Paul wrote to Titus about God’s grace which teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives.
The first meaning of grace refers to God’s kindness towards sinners. The second meaning of grace refers to the way God works in our lives. Much, much more can be said about what the Bible teaches us about grace. However, I need to move on to explain why grace alone became one of the basic doctrines of the Reformation.
Grace alone became an important doctrine at the time of the Reformation because the Reformers wanted to remove any hint that our salvation depends in any way whatsoever on human merit. They wanted to make clear that, when God justifies a sinner, it is not because the sinner merited or earned or deserved salvation. We don’t earn the right to be justified by our good deeds. After all, since even our best deeds are spoiled by sin, there is nothing we can do to earn salvation from God.
Furthermore, not even faith should be regarded as a good deed which deserves to be rewarded, because faith itself is a gift from God which he produces in his people through the preaching of his word and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Left to our own devices, every one of us would perish. However, the good news is that God is gracious and kind and does not treat his people as our sins deserve. Instead he comes to us and graciously gives us the faith we need, so that we’re united with Christ through faith and receive from him everything we need for salvation.
But why does God give his people saving faith? Did his people do something to deserve God’s gift of saving faith? Not according to the Bible, because the Bible makes clear that God’s willingness to pardon us cannot be explained by what we do, but is due entirely to God’s free and gracious decision (see Ephesians 2:8). In fact, in Romans 9:11 we’re told that God’s decision to save Isaac’s younger son Jacob was made before the boy was born. In other words, before Jacob had time to do anything at all, whether good or bad, God graciously chose to give him salvation.
This means there is no room for boasting, because our salvation is God’s work from beginning to end and it’s due entirely to his grace, his kindness to sinners. Because God is gracious, he sent his only Son to die for sinners. Because God is gracious, he gives us the faith we need to believe. Because God is gracious, he helps us to persevere in the faith so that God’s people will not wander away from the narrow way that leads to everlasting life in God’s presence. There’s no room for boasting, because we owe our salvation to the Lord. Therefore, soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone).