In recognition of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Reformed Margins will be reflecting on the five solas this October. The five solas are regarded by many as the five pillars of the Reformation, and we at Reformed Margins are proud to uphold these Reformed principles. For sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) powerfully encapsulate the essence of our Protestant identity.
While we recognize that much ink has already been spilt expounding upon the five solas, the aim of our brief series is to reflect on them as people of color. For centuries, the five solas have served as unifying principles for the Reformed community to rally around. And yet, far from creating a cold and static uniformity, they have inspired unique and dynamic expressions of faithfulness across various cultures worldwide. Hence, Reformed Margins would like to recognize the Reformation’s 500th anniversary by celebrating and sharing some of these diverse expressions to the glory of God.
Previous articles in our series:
Part One: Sola Scriptura (in Chinese American Perspective) by Andrew Ong
Part Two: I Will Teach Her “Solus Christus” by Marcos Ortega
Part Three: Sola Fide: Faith and Faithfulness by Joe Kim
“Grace” is one of those words in the Christian lexicon that we use a lot like “love” in English. Just as we may say in the same breath “I love you” and “I love ice-cream,” we use “grace” in different ways varying in context. We name our children, churches, and ministries “grace,” we say grace before dinner, and we post pictures hashtagged “grace.”
There’s nothing wrong with using “grace” to refer to a prayer before a meal, when talking about earthly blessings from God, or “showing grace” to someone who makes a minor mistake. But with all these uses of the same word, if we are not consciously rooting ourselves in the Biblical understanding of God’s grace, we can begin to see grace as an abstract concept with no clear meaning or a sentimental, spiritualized concept of niceness. So it is that in light of our frequent usage of “grace,” it may be necessary for us to heed the words of Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride) who said, “You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.”
As we remember the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation and explore sola gratia, in our Solas series, I want to consider what the grace of God means to the Christian today.
The Reformation & Sola Gratia
In order to appreciate our indebtedness to the Reformation and to those who taught and wrote about the doctrine of grace before them, it’s helpful to know what the Reformers were responding to in their articulation of sola gratia. This will also help us to understand what an affirmation of grace alone means for us today.
The key word to understanding the difference between what the Reformers taught about salvation versus the teaching of the Catholic church is sola, or “alone.” Although the Catholic Church affirms that salvation is because of God’s grace, it denies that it is by God’s grace alone, apart from any actions of man.
Theologian Michael Horton explains the Catholic Church’s understanding of justification in The Christian Faith as the process of being “actually and intrinsically righteous” (what Protestants would understand to be justification and sanctification). He explains of the Catholic Church’s teachings,
The first justification occurs at baptism, which eradicates both the guilt and corruption of original sin. Entirely by God’s grace, this initial justification infuses the habit (or principle) of grace into the recipient. By cooperating with this inherent grace, one merits an increase of grace and, one hopes, final justification. So while initial justification is by grace alone, final justification depends also on the works of the believer, which God graciously accepts as meritorious. Since the believer’s progress in holiness is never adequate to cancel the guilt of actual sins, he or she must be refined in purgatory before being welcomed into heaven.1
In opposition to Rome, Luther and the Reformers, in the tradition of Augustine, expounded the clear Biblical teaching of justification resting on Christ’s work alone, by faith alone. They underscored God’s grace as his unmerited favor toward spiritually dead sinners through making them alive and declaring them righteous in Christ. This righteousness is given to them apart from any good to be found in them, including any good works that God foresees they will do, and is received by faith. The Reformers understood this faith to be a gift from God, given to the believer by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit and founded on the gracious election of God in Christ (predestination).
Salvation in Christ alone, by faith alone, and by grace alone continues to be the position of orthodox Protestant churches today. As Christians, we believe and proclaim the gospel as the good news of Christ’s atoning death for our sins, and deny that any good works, even those produced by God in his grace, are the basis of our standing before God now and on judgement day.
So in light of the Reformer’s foundational declaration of sola gratia, here are a few thoughts (not comprehensive by any means) on what this “grace” in “grace alone” looks like.
Grace is humbling.
A simple definition of grace as we understand it in sola gratia is “God’s unmerited favor toward ill-deserving sinners. The Reformers understood the Scriptures’ teachings that the fallen sinful condition of man renders us at enmity with God. Grace, as God’s unmerited favor toward us, only makes sense in light of our being destined for and deserving of God’s wrath. Thus, we cannot understand what grace is without understanding the holiness of the God we have offended and rebel against continually.
Our sins are not merely mistakes made in ignorance but with the best of intentions; they are flagrant acts of cosmic rebellion against a righteous God who has claim upon our lives as Creator and King of the Universe. Our need for grace presupposes our sinfulness which renders us not only undeserving of God’s favor, but deserving of eternal damnation.
The Reformers affirmed the Scriptures’ teaching that there is nothing lovely within us which causes God to move toward us in love and salvation, only the grace of God rooted in himself and his eternal will. And they taught, as Jesus did, that only those who see their profound need and cry out to him, desperate for mercy, will receive grace. As AW Pink powerfully explains in The Attributes of God,
The Gospel contemplates every descendant of Adam as a fallen, polluted, hell-deserving, and helpless sinner. The grace which the Gospel publishes is his only hope. All stand before God convicted as transgressors of His holy Law, as guilty and condemned criminals; awaiting not sentence, but the execution of sentence already passed on them (John 3:18; Romans 3:19). To complain against the partiality of grace is suicidal. If the sinner insists upon bare justice, then the lake of fire must be his eternal portion. His only hope lies in bowing to the sentence which divine justice has passed upon him, owning the absolute righteousness of it, casting himself on the mercy of God, and stretching forth empty hands to avail himself of the grace of God made known to him in the Gospel.
Thus, every Christian must be brought by God to know his own sinfulness, not just mentally but experientially, in order to receive and experience the grace of God. Luther understood the impossibility of standing before a holy God on the basis of his works. His own subjective crisis of faith— in lacking assurance of salvation no matter how much good he did— led him to search for objective theological truth in the Scriptures. He came to understand that not only does sinful man need forgiveness of sins, but freedom from the bondage of the will to sin.
For the Christian who believes in sola gratia, there is absolutely no grounds for boasting before the Lord and men. Salvation is not a result of good works, “so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). God rejects the prayer of the person who is confident in his own goodness (even when he attributes this goodness to the work of God) but receives the repentant sinner. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:11-14).
The Christian understanding of grace is profoundly humbling because it denies any possibility of good within me to merit God’s love of salvation, and teaches that even the ability to know my own sin and turn to Christ in faith is completely dependent upon him.
Grace is offensive.
Church historian Carl Trueman writes in a book about sola gratia, “Sin is violent, lethal rebellion against God; and biblical grace is God’s violent, raw, and bloody response.”2 Biblical grace is necessarily tethered to the cross of Jesus Christ. We cannot speak about the grace of God without the cross because the death of Christ is God’s ultimate display of grace toward sinners. At the cross, is where we see the wonderful exchange the Reformers understood as central to Christianity– our sins are given to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us. But while the Christian sings of the cross of Christ in wonder and gratitude, in every culture it is presented, those who do not believe will take offense to it.
In America, as our culture emphasizes each person’s need for personal affirmation and positive self-image, Christians sing of being wretched, helpless, sinners. We speak of each person being depraved, needy, standing condemned before a holy God— and people are offended that God would call their actions sinful and reel at the fact that he does not “just forgive.” It is thought to be unhealthy to have such a low view of self and there are those who would speak of the cross and atonement as “cosmic child abuse.” The grace of God offered at the cross of Christ is foolishness to them.
In other cultures, grace and forgiveness are not seen as rights, but a violation. In these cultures, the original shock factor of Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son remains. I’ve shared the story of Prodigal Son in Asia to hear young people respond incredulously to the “injustice” of the generous and forgiving Father. To the idea that God would receive sinners over those who are more righteous, they protest, “it’s not fair!” And to the idea of being helpless to change, they bristle and scoff. One time, again overseas, as I shared my testimony of God’s grace at work to change me, the student listening got visibly angrier and angrier until she almost shouted at me, “You changed yourself!” The grace of God offered at the cross of Christ is a stumbling block.
Grace is relevant.
Though humbling for the believer and offensive for opponents of the cross, the doctrine of Sola Gratia is the basis for all Christian comfort. Far from being an abstraction, it is weighty grounds for hope even, and especially in, the face of the most terrible realities.
For those serving in the church, holding onto sola gratia means we work from a place of peace and assurance having been received in his presence as righteous, accepted by God not because of the ministry we do but because we are loved in Christ.3 It means we believe for him to do the eternal work of changing hearts and lives, to bring people to himself and to save to the uttermost those who trust in him, even as they stumble and fall in their sanctification.
For those who are grieving over believers who have died, knowing God’s grace means we do not mourn without hope. Our hope comes not from our own wishful thinking, but because of the infallible promises of God that those who call upon his name will be saved and will be kept both in life and in death. We have confidence that those we love who have trusted in him are in his presence not because of their ability to do good, but because of their gracious Savior who continues to be and do good for them even now.
For those hurting for prodigals, believing in the grace of God means we continue to plead for the salvation of our beloved children and friends with hope, knowing that the depth of their sin does not render them out of the reach of God. We know that where sin abounds, grace can abound all the more and believe he is willing and able to change even the most hardest of hearts.
For those broken by what we see around us in our nation and world, believing in the grace of God means we enter into dark places with hope. This is because Christians who understand grace do not need to deny the reality of the deeply twisted and evil nature of sin and the devastation it brings. And in a culture that tirades against the idea of responding to tragedies with prayer, grace is relevant because prayer isn’t just “sending good thoughts,” but a recognition that the problems we face are deeper than those that can be solved by human actions alone. Our prayers are not just good wishes, but access to the throne room of Almighty God— access obtained at the price of his battered, bloodied Son.
And lastly, for you who are still in bondage to sin and live in fear of death, the grace of God means there is freedom from sin, forgiveness, and a new life of holiness to be found in Christ through his death and resurrection. It means that you no longer need to avoid thinking about your mortality, numbing yourself with trivialities, because Christ is able to secure your eternity with God based on his work alone. It means that the cross of Christ no longer needs to be offensive to you, but will become the awesome and beautiful means of your redemption. And his grace means that by faith, you can take hold of his promise of salvation today.
Sola Gratia. Salvation by grace alone. In light of the Reformation 500, let us sense anew the weightiness and preciousness of the grace we’ve been given in Christ. And may our gratitude and wonder overflow in our use of “grace,” in wonder, and in praise.
1. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 622
2. Carl R. Truman, Grace Alone, p. 31.
3. Borrowed from Matt Perman’s use of phrase “working from peace rather than for peace” in What’s Best Next, p 120.