May 9, 2021

Sola Gratia

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: The Five Solas Scripture: Genesis 1:1

Sola Gratia

Typically, our pattern is to preach passage by passage through books of the Bible—something that’s often called expository preaching. But at the moment, we’re actually in the middle of a five-week series of sermons that are more topical in nature, going through what are often called the “five solas” of the Protestant Reformation—sola being the Latin term for “only.” And the reason I believe this is such a worthwhile thing to do is because these five solas really trace out the contours of the true biblical gospel. 

  • So two weeks ago, we looked at sola Scriptura, which is Latin for “Scripture alone” and means that the Bible alone is our ultimate authority. Although it can certainly be helpful to study church traditions and creeds and things like that, the Bible is the authority above all of these other authorities.  
  • Then last week, Pastor Kevin preached on sola fide, which is Latin for “faith alone.” This means that we’re justified in God’s sight simply by faith in Jesus—not through baptism, good works, church involvement, or anything else like that but rather through faith alone. 
  • And now this week, we’ll focus on sola gratia, which is Latin for “grace alone” and means that we’re saved purely by God’s grace and not by any merits or achievements of our own. 
  • Then next week, we’ll be looking at solus Christus, “Christ alone.” And that means that Jesus alone is the one who saves on the basis of his death and resurrection. 
  • Then finally, we have soli Deo gloria, which means “to the glory of God alone.”

So those are the five solas of the Reformation, which effectively served to distinguish the Protestant Reformers from the Roman Catholic Church. And as I mentioned, the sola we’re going to be looking at today is sola gratia—grace alone. And I’ll just go ahead and say that I love this idea of grace. In fact, I love it so much that any time I’ve gotten the chance to name something, I’ve always tried to get grace in the name. So, for example, I named the church Redeeming Grace Church. I named my daughter Grace. I just think that grace is a wonderful thing. 

And yet, at the same time, there’s a danger with grace of thinking we understand it when we actually don’t. I’m sure pretty much all of us have had something like that happen in our lives, right?—where we think we understand something but actually don’t understand it.  I know, as a husband, there have been times where I thought I understood my wife, but let’s just say I didn’t understand her quite as well as I thought I did. And things can certainly get interesting whenever that happens. And in a similar way, it’s quite possible for us to think we understand grace but actually be misunderstanding it in a very fundamental way—which is actually a very serious error since grace is at the very heart of the gospel. That means our eternal destiny depends on us having a biblical understanding of grace. 

Now one way people often misunderstand God’s grace is by viewing it merely as an attitude or sentiment of God. Kind of like we might say of a person that he or she is a gracious person or maybe in a particular circumstance that he or she showed grace to someone. For example, there are times when a parent might choose to show grace to their child who’s misbehaved. Instead of disciplining their child, they choose to let their child off with a warning. And that is a form of grace—perhaps the most common form, actually—but it’s not what we’re talking about or what the Bible’s talking about when it speaks of the grace of God. God’s grace doesn’t just refer to him having a gracious disposition or to him overlooking our rebellion. One thing we’re going to discuss about God is that he never overlooks our rebellion. So be careful that you don’t misunderstand God’s grace in that way. 

Also, be careful not to have a view of grace that basically boils down to God doing his part while we do ours. Perhaps a more popular way of phrasing it is to say that God helps those who help themselves. Now, that may be true in a certain sense and in certain areas of life, but it’s absolutely not true when it comes to our eternal salvation or eternal welfare. The Christian gospel isn’t at all a message of God helping those who help themselves. That’s actually the opposite of the gospel. Yet many people believe that that’s the way we get to heaven—that God does his part while we do ours. 

And interestingly, it was this very error that the doctrine of sola gratia was formulated to correct. By the way, one thing that’s helpful to understand about the solas is that they were all formulated to correct some very serious misunderstandings of the Roman Catholic Church. And so, in order to understand these solas, we really have to understand Roman Catholic teaching. That’s just a part of understanding the historical context. So as we think about sola gratia, the error in Catholicism that sola gratia was formulated to correct is basically a more sophisticated form of what we just talked about—that God does his part while we do ours. You see, Roman Catholicism does believe in grace, but not grace alone—not sola gratia. Instead, Catholicism teaches a view of grace that involves human cooperation and human effort in order to be saved. Basically, to put it in everyday terms, it’s people who need to take the initiative. People need to take a step toward God before God will reciprocate that and impart his grace to them. The way this idea has commonly been expressed by the Catholic Church is that “God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them.” That expression is found in official Catholic documents from medieval times all the way down to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church of the 1990s. “God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them.” So you can see the assumption there that people, even in their unsaved condition, have the ability to…well…“do what lies within them”—that is, to take the initiative in moving toward God even prior to receiving God’s grace. When you think about it, it’s almost like we have to earn grace or that grace is a reward—or at the very least a result—of us doing something spiritually commendable in our own strength. So essentially, what you end up with—even though Catholics typically wouldn’t want to express it this way—is that we’re saved not by grace alone but rather by a combination of God’s grace and our works. Again, God does his part while we do ours. That’s the Catholic view. 

And of course, this error isn’t by any means limited to Catholicism either. We’ve just been talking about Catholicism since that’s the historical context in which sola gratia was developed. But really, this idea of God doing his part while we do ours is most people’s default way of thinking. In fact, the concept of grace might very well be the most misunderstood concept in the entire Bible—even among many who would identify themselves as evangelical Christians or Bible-believing Christians.

Yet we find a much different picture of things in Ephesians 2:1-10. And this is the passage I’d really like to focus on for the remainder of our time together. Let’s begin by looking at the first three verses—Ephesians 2:1-3: 1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. So notice the way verse 1 describes us in our unsaved condition—“dead in trespasses and sins.” You know, the common assumption nowadays is that people are basically good—that if we just give them the right education, the right examples, and the right laws, then they’ll naturally follow the right path. But as we can see here, that’s clearly not true. People aren’t inherently good and in need of a little bit of guidance; they’re inherently sinful and in need of radical, heart-level change. So that’s one thing this verse teaches us.  

Yet that’s not all. You see, this description of people being “dead in trespasses and sins” also corrects the common misunderstanding among professing Christians that people in their natural, unsaved condition have the ability to move toward God or cooperate with God’s grace even prior to receiving it. Notice that people are described here not as injured or as sick or as being in the process of dying but rather as dead. Stone cold dead. Every bit as lifeless as any corpse in the graveyard. And that means that people in their natural condition are no more able to move toward God than a physical corpse is able to summon the strength to get out of its grave. That’s the spiritual condition of every single person in this world apart from the saving grace of God. We can’t move even a single inch closer to God unless God first does a work in our hearts. If anything’s going to happen, it has to come from God’s initiative rather than ours. 

And that’s exactly what we find as we continue moving forward in Ephesians 2. Look what Paul says in verses 4-9: 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. So here we see how God helps us in our utterly helpless condition. Remember, we were “dead in our trespasses and sins,” right? But God raises us to life. Verse 5 says that he “made us alive.”And here’s the key thing for our purposes this morning: God raising us to life includes him giving us not only the gift of salvation but even the gift of faith through which we obtain the salvation. Make sure you understand that. Even the faith through which we obtain salvation is itself a gift of God. We see this in verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Our salvation in its entirety, from beginning to end, is a gift of grace. Paul then goes on to say in verse 9 that all of this isn’t in any way or to any degree whatsoever “a result of works”—that is, of human effort, human merit, human achievement, or even human cooperation. Now as we’re going to see a little later, God’s grace does produce human cooperation, but it isn’t a result of human cooperation. 

And there are plenty of other verses we could go to as well. For example, Paul also writes in Philippians 1:29 that “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” So how did we come to believe in Christ? Well, it was “granted” to us. We didn’t have the ability to do that on our own, but God granted us that ability. Also, Jesus states in John 6:44 that, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” And this really is the core of what sola gratia is teaching. It’s by God’s grace alone that we’re able to come to him and receive the salvation he offers.

So contrary to what Roman Catholicism teaches, it’s not about us doing our part and God doing his. It’s not about us cooperating with God’s grace prior to receiving it. It’s not about God helping those who help themselves. Instead, it’s about God helping those who are utterly helpless in every way and saving us sola gratia—by grace alone. You see, Catholicism might teach a message of salvation by grace, but it doesn’t teach a message of salvation by grace “alone.” And that’s a huge problem because the entire gospel hangs on that one word—“alone.” If salvation doesn’t come to us by grace alone, it can’t come to us at all—because we have exactly zero spiritual ability in and of ourselves.  And so, any supposed “gospel” that depends in any way or to any degree on human ability or goodness or merit is, in reality, no gospel at all. Listen: the only thing that you and I will ever contribute to our salvation is the sin that made it necessary. That’s it. That’s all we can contribute. Every else is a gift of God’s grace. 

In fact, let me take you very briefly to Romans 8:29-30. These verses lay out for us what’s often called the “golden chain of salvation.” Here’s what Paul says, speaking of God: 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. So, there are five links in this golden chain—five things that God’s done for us in his grace. First, he foreknew us in the sense that he set his love and affection on us from eternity past. Then the text says that he predestined us in the sense that he chose us to receive salvation. Then, he called us in that he worked in our hearts in such a way that we came to saving faith. In fact, we couldn’t help but come since his call was irresistible. Then next, it says he justified us, meaning that he declared us righteous in his sight on the basis of the righteous merits of Jesus. Then finally, he glorified us, which refers to our future heavenly state that’s so certain to happen in the future, it’s spoken of here as if it’s already happened. So that’s what God did—the golden chain of salvation. And notice in these verses how much it’s emphasized that God’s the one who did all of these things. It says that he foreknew, he predestined, he called, he justified, and he glorified. He, he, he, he, he. God is the one who takes the initiative and accomplishes the work of our salvation every step of the way. Our salvation isn’t something that we start and then he finishes. It’s also not something that he starts but then we have to finish. No, it’s something that he both starts and finishes. Our salvation in its entirety, from beginning to end, comes to us by God’s grace and by his grace alone

And the way God’s gracious to us in all of these ways is inextricably connected to his Son, Jesus. We’re going to talk about this a lot more next week when we talk about solus Christus—that our salvation is in Christ alone—but just make sure you understand this week that God’s grace is always, always connected to Jesus. There can be no grace apart from him—apart from his perfect life to fulfill God’s righteous standards in our place, apart from his sacrificial death to pay for our sins, and apart from his triumphant resurrection to win the battle over sin and death. It’s only through Christ and his life and death and resurrection that God’s grace comes to us. In fact, the connection between grace and Christ is so strong that I’ve even heard it said that to talk about grace is essentially to talk about Christ. Again, there is no grace apart from him. 

Now, as we think about the idea that we’re saved by grace alone, sola gratia, some might object to this idea, or at least have some concerns about it, because, they wonder, does sola gratia render us entirely passive? Like, as recipients of God’s grace, do we just receive it in an entirely passive manner? And the answer is no. The Bible’s very clear that in order for us to be saved, we have to repent of our sins and put our trust in Jesus. In Mark 1:15, Jesus declares, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” God doesn’t repent and believe for us. Rather, he calls us to repent and believe—and, as we’ve seen, enables us by his grace and puts it in our hearts by his grace to do so. 

In addition to that, not only are we not passive in repentance and faith, we’re also not passive in our progressive growth and sanctification throughout the Christian life. The Bible’s very clear that, as Christians who have had our hearts changed by God’s grace and who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we need to pursue holiness. And it’s at this point that we come full circle back to Ephesians 2. I’d like to look at verse 10, but for context I’ll re-read verses 8-9. Paul writes, 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. So notice the distinction here. Verse 9 tells us that our salvation is “not a result of works,” but that’s then followed up with verse 10 telling us that we were saved “for good works.” Good works aren’t the means to salvation, but they are the manifestation of salvation and the evidence of salvation and the fruit of salvation. God saved us “for good works.” Then it says “that we should walk in them.” Notice that that’s not a passive statement. It’s our responsibility to actively walk in good works—as we’re enabled and empowered to do so by the grace of God. 

I think another verse where we can see this balance quite well is Philippians 2:12-13. It says, 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. So the only reason any of this is possible is because of God’s grace—“for it is God who works in you,” verse 13 says. Yet we’re still called to “work out [our] own salvation,” which is obviously not a passive thing. It requires lots and lots of grace-inspired and grace-empowered effort on our part. We have to work out in our lives what God works within our hearts. So perhaps the best way of responding to the question of whether sola gratia renders us entirely passive is to say that, yes, we’re saved by grace alone, but God’s grace is transformative. Our salvation from its beginning in eternity past all the way to its end in eternity future is a work of the grace of God. But that grace is transformative…in that it produces grace-enabled effort on our part as we work out our own salvation.

Now, I know all of this has been a lot of information to digest this morning. Some of you might feel a bit of a headache coming on as you try to process all of this and wrap your mind around the nuances of sola gratia. But at the same time, I hope—and my prayer has been—that all of these truths we’ve covered would have a profound effect not just on your intellectual understanding of things but on your heart. Listen: sola gratia—if you really understand it and really believe it—should unlock new levels of gratitude and awe and worship within your heart. Almost like in a video game. I don’t know much about video games nowadays, but I know when I was growing up at least, you’d often have to do something to unlock the next level of the game. Quite often, that “something” might be as simple as beating the current level. And sometimes, you’d even be able to unlock a secret level by doing a certain thing. And that’s sort of the way I hope this sermon functions for us today. Hopefully, a deeper grasp of the glorious truths of sola gratia can unlock new levels of gratitude and worship in your life. I mean, as you think about the way in which God poured out his grace on us so abundantly—even when we were in such a wretched and helpless condition—doesn’t it make you want to glorify his name even more? In fact, I think it would even be fair to say that your worship of God and your gratitude toward God will never exceed the level to which you grasp the grace he’s shown you. The level to which you grasp his grace will, in effect, function as the limit of your ability to worship him. So if you want to worship God in a deeper and richer and more satisfying way, the journey to that kind of worship begins with a deeper grasp of God’s grace—and, more specifically, of the truths related to sola gratia that we’ve discussed this morning. 

In addition to that, grasping the glorious realities of God’s grace is a wonderfully liberating thing as well. You see, a lot people in our society go through their lives with a crushing burden on their shoulders—the burden of creating an identity for themselves. Perhaps more than at any other time in history, people carry around this burden of creating and maintaining a certain identity for themselves that they’ve selected. So, for example, some people might try to create an identity for themselves through their career. They want to be successful—and viewed as successful by others. That’s the identity they’ve embraced. Others might seek to fashion their identity through social activism. They’re very passionate about working toward a more just society—and have become devoted to that pursuit to such a degree that they’re essentially finding their identity in that. They want to be able to view themselves and be viewed by others as a passionate advocate for social justice. Or perhaps others find their identity in their role at home—such as a mother. They’ve gone beyond a healthy embrace of that calling and have instead begun to find their identity in that calling—so that their joy in life rises and falls based on how good of a mother they believe they are and how good their kids are turning out. 

So there are plenty of different ways in which people try to create an identity for themselves. Yet one thing that all of these different sources of identity have in common is that they’re all incredible fragile. What happens if you find your identity in your career but then aren’t able to progress in your career or even find yourself out of a job for whatever reason? What happens if you find your identity in the pursuit of justice but discover that, no matter how hard you work, things in society never seem to get much better? What happens if you find your identity in motherhood or fatherhood for that matter but somehow end up with kids who are making terrible decisions in their lives? What happens to your identity in all of these situations? Well, its’ shattered, right? 

But a key part of the Christian understanding of grace is that God offers us not only an eternal salvation but even a present identity that’s received rather than achieved. Let me say that again. The beauty of God’s grace is that he offers us an identity that’s received rather than achieved. I mean, how amazing would it be to be able to go through life knowing that your identity as a child of God is 100% secure—that God loves you and accepts you no matter what? That he loves and accepts you just as much on your worst day as he does on your best day? How amazing would it be to be able to go through your life with nothing to prove and no one to impress—because your identity is found in Christ and in the love he’s shown and in the grace he’s given? I mean, that’s revolutionary, isn’t it? Grace changes everything. It changes everything about your future and everything about your present. 

As Samuel Davies once wrote, marveling at the grace of God, 

Great God of wonders! all thy ways
Display the attributes divine,
But countless acts of pardoning grace
Beyond thine other wonders shine:
Who is a pardoning God like Thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?

In wonder lost, with trembling joy,
We take the pardon of our God;
Pardon for crimes of deepest dye,
A pardon bought with Jesu’s blood:
Who is a pardoning God like Thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?

O may this strange, this matchless grace,
This God-like miracle of love,
Fill the wide earth with grateful praise,
As now it fills the choirs above!
Who is a pardoning God like Thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?

other sermons in this series

May 23


Soli deo Gloria

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Genesis 1:1 Series: The Five Solas

May 16


Solus Christus

Preacher: Kevin Godin Scripture: Hebrews 1:1–3 Series: The Five Solas

May 2


Sola Fide

Preacher: Kevin Godin Scripture: Genesis 1:1 Series: The Five Solas