This year is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. In honor of this anniversary I am dedicating five blog-posts from myself to summarizing the five central theological tenets of the Reformation. This is the third of those five. (See previous posts HERE and HERE.)
Ask any Bible or seminary student how to define “grace” and they’ll univocally give you the standard response: “Grace is God’s unmerited favor.” For a simplistic, easily remembered definition, it works. However, as so often happens in our churches, the more we say something, the more we take it for granted. Far too often we’re aware of God’s grace but fail to be amazed by it as deeply as we should.
Periodically we all need to stop and reconsider the wonders of God’s grace, to ponder the Reformation doctrine of sola gratia – grace alone. For grace to be truly amazing we need to be humbled by how truly unmerited it is.
God gracefully blesses humans, regardless of their faith, in many areas of their lives. Theologians refer to this as “common grace” as it is offered to all humans in common. Jesus taught God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. God restrains evil. God grants the privilege of marriage to all men and women. Even the government, Paul told the Romans, is a gift of God. The ultimate gift of God available on this level is His self-revelation to all of humanity so that we might know that there’s a God and what He’s like.
Yet, the Reformers had something even more amazing in mind when they spoke of sola gratia. The problem in their generation was that many in the church believed that salvation is something to be acquired and accomplished, that humans had something to add to their salvation beyond their faith. They taught that as humans responded to God’s offers of grace in faith, God responded by offering further grace. Thus, salvation was understood to be something of a cooperative work between God and man.
The Reformers argued that Scripture taught something far different. The Bible, they said, speaks of a grace that comes from God alone, apart from man’s efforts. This kind of grace, modern theologians explain, is special. It is saving grace.
As Scripture explains, fallen man has a major problem. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23). We all deserve death (Romans 6:23). Even our best efforts, our most righteous works are but filthy rags compared to God’s holiness, our standard (Isaiah 64:6 and Leviticus 11:44/1 Peter 1:16). We can never work our way out of this dilemma (Romans 8:8).
The picture is bleak, our future not so bright. Without grace we are without hope.
Yet, as Paul wrote Titus, we have hope. “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5). To the Ephesians Paul wrote of God’s rich mercy. “By grace you have been saved,” he exclaimed (Ephesians 2:5). It’s a gift of God, he added, so that we couldn’t boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
In salvation, we see the beauty of God’s grace as all three Persons of the Trinity act in love towards the unlovable. God conceived a plan to redeem the lost (Romans 8:28-30). Christ accomplished that plan on behalf of the lost (John 19:30). The Spirit now applies that plan in the lives of the lost (John 16:8-11).
God mercifully does these things not because we deserve them but to reveal the majesty of his glory. Seven times in Ephesians 1 Paul reminds us that God has orchestrated this great exercise of his grace “to the praise of His glorious grace.” As the Reformers humbly and confidently stated: We are saved by grace alone. Amen.