In the tradition of the reformation, followers of Christ for centuries have used the phrase “Sola Gratia” or “grace alone” to describe the salvation purchased by Christ for all who believe. This belief is that salvation, from beginning to end, is based in the free gift of God’s grace to undeserving sinners. In the cross of Christ we see a salvation that is offered, provided, and sustained by grace alone. The truth that our salvation is by grace alone, not even slightly of some concoction of grace and our own goodness, is part of what Paul describes as “folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18).
For many years, this truth was unwelcome in my own life; I indeed thought it folly. I grew up in the church. My parents were involved in parachurch ministry. I knew all of the answers in Sunday School. I went to every church’s Vacation Bible School during the summer. And much of what I gained from these experiences was the feeling that I needed to do all the right things, or at least look like I was, in order for God to accept me. I felt the weight of my sin, but I was trying to transform myself instead of letting the grace of God transform me. I would lie in bed at night, thinking back through the 10 commandments, realizing how many I had broken even in the span of a day. I felt crushed under the weight of my sin, and instead of seeking grace, I adopted the Pharisaical lifestyle and began focusing on looking good, creating new boundaries for “goodness” and “righteousness.” In some way, I thought I was above grace. The grace of God was for the really bad people. I had just dug myself a hole, and I thought surely I could dig my way out.
To the “learned” mind, a salvation offered apart from any merit in the one being saved seems folly indeed. Should I not bring something to the table? Am I not able, in some way to help in the salvific process? I have counseled friends through these very thoughts in the past. It does not seem right that our good works merit nothing before God. Can we really do nothing at all?
Grace Alone can Save
The best passage of Scripture to understand the meaning of “Sola Gratia” is Ephesians 2:1-10. In the passage, Paul begins by reminding the church at Ephesus of their previous condition. The verse starts, “And you were dead.” Dead. I still remember when this verse came alive (no pun intended) to me. The image of a corpse dead in the grave confirms that apart from Christ there is nothing we could have done to will ourselves to life. Thus, we see that even the beginning of our salvation is grace. Before Christ we reveled in our spiritual death. We were not only unable to have life; we were unwilling. We must understand our previous condition because it prevents us from thinking we could earn any kind of merit from God. Even our good works apart from Christ are filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
In verse 4 of Ephesians 2, the subject of the sentence changes from “You,” to “God.” In this glorious verse, Paul reminds the Ephesian church that God “made us alive together with Christ,” and follows up that good news with the reminder, “by grace you have been saved.” The weight of our spiritual death demands that someone else provide the spiritual life, for we are unable. Paul not only names grace as the means of our salvation; he goes on to say that this grace is “the gift of God.” Grace, then, not only is God’s unmerited favor, but it is also freely given as a gift. The grace by which we are saved is not offered because we asked for it, for we were dead. It is not offered because we deserved it, for we were walking in trespasses and sins. It was freely offered strictly on the basis of the goodness of God and the finished work of Christ.
This is a “folly” to those who are perishing because this is not how the rest of the world works. When we go to work, we expect a fair wage based on the work we do. When we hear of a crime, we expect the offender to receive a fair sentence. How can God be different? The reality is that He is not, for His unmerited favor freely offered to those who believe was not in fact given without cost. God’s justice and mercy met at the cross of Christ when “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness, the only One with no need for grace, took the wrath of God on our behalf, and therefore we have His righteousness–grace.
Grace Alone can Keep
And yet, sola gratia does not stop there. In the Roman Catholic tradition, members understand that salvation is by grace plus works, and evangelicals often malign Roman Catholics for such beliefs while believing in a covert version of this falsehood themselves. Often, people who claim salvation by grace alone actually just mean conversion by grace alone. They have created a false dichotomy between conversion and salvation. They believe Jesus saves us by His grace alone, that it is only in the unmerited favor of God that we are brought from death to life, but they turn around and claim that in order to be sanctified we must “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” or keep our heads down and grind out godliness. And yet, this is not the picture of grace Scripture gives. God has not saved us by His grace to leave us to our own devices to become like Him. We are no more able to make ourselves like Christ than we were able to bring ourselves to Christ.
In Philippians, Paul writes, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12b-13). It seems that in some ways we have ignored the second half of that statement. We can work out our own salvation since it is Christ working within us. Even looking back to Ephesians 2, Paul says the church is Christ’s “workmanship” which He created for good works. In other words, Christ created us (in salvation) to be made like Him, and since He did the creating it only follows that He would supply the means for the sanctification–His grace. We can proclaim with John Newton, “Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Grace Alone in the End
This grace offered at conversion and in sanctification truly will bring us home. Jesus promises that no amount of good works will gain entrance into the kingdom (Matt. 7:21-23). The only acceptable plea on judgment day is “the grace of God given in Christ.” There is this underlying assumption that somehow, even in my Christian life, by good works, I can attain or increase the favor of God in my life, so that one day I can present my “spiritual résumé” to the Father on judgment day, but the overwhelming witness of Scripture is that the only standing we have before the Father is His grace on our behalf.
This understanding of grace kills our doubts about who can be saved. Christ is not giving preferential treatment to the people who are already trying to live a moral life; He has saved each of us in our dead state as militant rebels. There is no one outside the reach of this grace, and we are discounting the grace of God to assume that the gospel cannot reach certain sinners.
Furthermore, If all of salvation is truly given by grace alone we must fight the twin sins we are tempted toward as a result. In light of the great salvation he had written about for the first five chapters of Romans, Paul opens Romans 6 with, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Apparently someone had sinfully recommended using the marvelous grace as an excuse to go on sinning. Thus we must proclaim that the abundant grace of God is not license to sin. A grace-empowered sanctification is not a lazy sanctification. We fight for godliness, knowing that His power is sustaining us. We preach sola gratia to ourselves because it proves to us that only grace can make us like Christ, and therefore, grace abounding in our hearts will be evidenced by our continued obedience, albeit not perfect obedience.
Conversely, we need to preach sola gratia to ourselves because we are tempted toward legalism. As former Pharisees it seems natural to believe that looking good or being good will somehow gain us more merit with God. We feel better about ourselves on days when we are more obedient, and yet sola gratia reminds us that we were only made alive by the grace of God and it is that same grace that is sustaining us and conforming us to His image.
Finally, sola gratia should cause us to marvel. How rich is the kindness of our God? How undeserving are we? How great a chasm had our sin created between us and our Creator? How great a grace offered to cover our sin? How great a grace to make us like Christ? How great a grace to see us to the end? We proclaim with the hymn writer,
Oh, to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee:
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
seal it for thy courts above.