Grace Alone (Sola Gratia)


We have been looking at the Five Solas of the Reformation. These are five slogans that encapsulated the main theological points of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. In previous articles, we looked as Faith Alone (Sola Fide) and Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura). Today, we're looking at Grace Alone, or Sola Gratia. What do we mean when we say "grace alone?" The classical biblical passage that speaks on this is Ephesians 2:1-10; in particular, verses 8-9:
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 2:8-9)
Let's break this passage down a bit. First, notice that the instrument of our salvation is grace – God's grace! Second, we see that this saving grace is given to us through faith; faith is the conduit through which God's grace flows. Third, none of this is our own doing, not even the faith to believe! It is all a gift from God (hence grace alone). Finally, we, who are saved by God's grace, have no room to boast. There will be no one in heaven who can say, "I got here by my own efforts."

Now, in that last paragraph, I said something that some of you might find controversial; namely, the faith to believe is not of our own doing, it is the gift of God. This is demonstrated two ways from this passage. First, a little grammar review. Look at the phrase, "And this is not of your own doing." What is the pronoun "this" referring to? The nearest antecedent noun is the word "faith." Therefore, it is faith that is not of our own doing, rather it is the gift of God. Some argue that the "this" refers to everything mentioned before it – i.e., salvation as a whole. OK, that's fine, because everything prior to the "this" includes the faith to believe. Either way, grammatically speaking, the faith to believe the gospel is a gift from God.

Secondly, if you consider the larger context (Ephesians 2:1-10), you will notice that we were all – every single one of us – dead in sin and trespasses (v. 1). We followed the "prince of the power of the air" (Satan) and we were by nature "children of wrath" (vv. 2-3). It was God, being rich in mercy, who made us alive in Christ (vv. 4-6). The bible uses very poignant images to describe our sinful state: We are slaves to sin (Romans 6:17); we are hard of heart (Romans 2:5); we are spiritually blind and in darkness (John 9:39; 1 John 2:11); and, as mentioned here, we are spiritually dead in sin. Each of these images speaks to the truth that the sinner is unable of his own accord to come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for his salvation. That is why the Reformers espoused the doctrine grace alone. It is only by God's grace alone that the slave can be set free, the blind man see, and the dead man come to life. This doctrine also goes by the name Monergism, which means "God works alone in the salvation of men."

The opposing view to grace alone is the view called Synergism, which means "God and man work together for salvation." This is the view of Roman Catholicism as well as many Protestant Evangelicals today. They will not deny the role that God's grace plays in salvation, but they will say that man must do his part – either take part in the sacraments (if you're Roman Catholic), or repent and believe the gospel (if you're an Evangelical). In other words, grace is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

The problem I see with Synergism is twofold. First, it fails to take into account the severity of the biblical metaphors for our state of sin (e.g., slave, blind, dead). How can a slave set himself free? How can a blind man regain his sight? How can a dead man come back to life? Even if God does 99% of the work, is that enough to raise the spiritually dead man to spiritual life? Did Jesus raise Lazarus 99% of the way and let Lazarus do the final 1%? This is absurd! The second problem I have with the Synergistic view is that it gives room for human boasting. Again, assuming God does 99% of the work of salvation, we aren't saved until we perform our crucial 1%. That means that those who are saved can say that they were able to finish the work of their salvation, and they can boast over those who weren't able to complete their necessary 1%. This is also absurd as it flies in the face of Ephesians 2:8-9, which says we cannot boast.

So what does role does man have in his salvation? Do we not do anything? What about all of the bible passages that call for people to repent and believe? Consider this verse from John's gospel: "And [Jesus] said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father'" (John 6:65). Remember, the Apostle Paul says we are "dead in our sin and trespasses," and that we can do nothing unless God "makes us alive in Christ." This is the doctrine of regeneration, or as it is also known, being "born again" (John 3:3). The man who is dead in sin is hostile toward God and has no desire for the things of God. When the spiritually dead man is raised to "newness of life" (Romans 6:4), he now has a new heart and new desires and seeks after God (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is in the process of spiritual regeneration that God grants a person the necessary faith and repentance to believe the gospel. Our repentance and faith is a response to all that God has done for us, not a work that we do to "get saved."

The Reformers were compelled by the testimony of Scripture to assert that we are saved by grace alone! Any other view of salvation robs God of his rightful glory, and gives man room to boast.

Soli Deo Gloria!


The Series:
Faith Alone (Sola Fide): Rome calls "faith alone" a legal fiction; is it something more?
Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura): Is Scripture really the sole source of inspired authority?
Grace Alone (Sola Gratia): What does God do and what does man do in salvation?
Christ Alone (Solus Christus): Is Christ or the church mediator between God and man?
The Glory of God Alone (Soli Deo Gloria): Does man do nothing to merit his salvation?

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Republished 5-20-2013