The Reformers and sola gratia

We often think of the Protestant Reformation, begun by Luther in 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, as being only about justification by faith. Sola fide, faith alone. This principle stood over against the works-righteousness that the Church had slidden into. However, as J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston argue,

The doctrine of justification by faith was important to them [early Reformers] because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace; but it actually expressed for them only one aspect of this principle, and that not its deepest aspect. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a profounder level still, in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration….To the Reformers, the crucial question was not simply, whether God justifies believers without works of law. It was the broader question, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christ’s sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith.
J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, “Historical and Theological Introduction” in Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, p. 58-59

Indeed, the Reformation was not only about sola fide (faith alone), but more foundationally sola gratia (grace alone).

We often think of grace as a descriptive principle, merely describing salvation as a gracious and free gift that we don’t deserve. But biblically, grace is seen as an operative principle, a word that describes God’s operative work in saving people.

We commonly view the term “grace” in a merely descriptive sense. We often define grace as God’s unmerited favor, and so think of “salvation by grace” as expressing the idea of it being underserved and unmerited. This is certainly true, but it doesn’t go far enough.

When we read in Ephesian 2:8, “by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul is not simply employing the word “grace” in a descriptive sense. The grammatical structure of this statement points to grace as being the active agent in salvation. “You have been saved” is in the passive sense, turning the focus on the recipient of the action (saving). “Through faith” points us to the means by which salvation is appropriated, but faith is not the basis for salvation. That short phrase “by grace” identifies for us the basis and the active agent in salvation. If we turned the sentence around to an active sense, it would rightly read, “Grace has saved you through faith.”

In this context, Paul’s use of the word “grace” is a kind of short hand for the work of God he describes in 1:3-14, that great doxology of God’s sovereign, saving work. This redeeming work is proclaimed “to the praise of his glorious grace” (v. 6), which he “lavished upon us” (v. 8) in Christ, in whom we have “redemption through his blood” (v. 7). Paul is using the term grace in an operative sense, not just a descriptive sense.

He does this also even more explicitly in Titus 2:11-12: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” Here we see grace active and personified, “bringing salvation” and “teaching us.”

We speak of grace in this way when we talk of it as an enabling power. We talk of “dying grace,” that enables us to remain faithful and calm when facing imminent death. “He gives more grace” (James 4:6). “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,” we sing, echoing this gospel truth. In so doing, we are speaking of grace in its operative sense, the same sense by which grace saves us.

So then, the Reformers sought to return the Church to the biblical teaching of the necessity of God’s sovereign work in salvation. Salvation by grace alone (sola gratia).

The crux of the matter is this: is fallen humanity capable of self-generating a free-will choice of salvation that could be described as an undeserved gift? Or, are we in such dire need of God’s grace operatively working in us, that we are utterly hopeless unless God sovereignly works? As Packer and Johnston ask, “Is our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves?”

The problem with Semi-Pelagianism (and therefore Arminianism) is that the onus of a person being saved is on the person himself. In this way, it is easy to see how we might regard faith as meritorious and not much different from the Roman Catholic understanding that the Reformers fought against. They recognized this and lived and taught and suffered that they might convince the Church of these truths.

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