Sola Gratia

R.C. Sproul

Theology must be grace-saturated. If we are saved by faith, then we are saved not by works but by grace alone (Rom. 11:6). Grace is God’s generous disposition by which He lavishes us with good things that we do not deserve. Everything we receive from God is by grace, from our daily bread to the final resurrection of our bodies (Ps. 145:8). The grace of God is vested in Christ and He alone gives saving grace to those whom the Father pities in His mercy (Ps. 103:13). This is why the Apostle Paul’s letters begin, “Grace and peace to you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2). The Holy Spirit teaches us through Scripture that salvation is by grace alone because salvation is by faith in Christ alone. Grace is not a sentimental idea leading us to ignore our sins, not caring how we live. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11–14).

One of the mottos associated with the sixteenth-century Reformation is the Latin phrase post tenebras lux (“after darkness, light”). In contrast with the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers saw themselves as rediscovering the light of the gospel of Christ. This doctrine has been traditionally summarized under the five solas of the Reformation. One of these solas is the Latin term sola gratia (“grace alone”). For the Reformers, the doctrine of sola gratia was critical to a right and fully biblical understanding of salvation in Christ. For example, Martin Luther (1483–1546) put it quite clearly: “But no man can be thoroughly humbled until he knows that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, devices, endeavors, will, and works, and depends entirely on the choice, will, and work of another, namely, of God alone . . . then he has come close to grace, and can be saved.” In fact, for Luther and the rest of the Reformers, every corruption of the doctrine of sola gratia subtly smuggles human effort through the back door. It is for this reason that a proper understanding of sola gratia is extremely important for Christians today. The purity of the gospel hangs in the balance.

To understand what sola gratia is, we must first understand what sola gratia is not.

Sola gratia is not “grace alone, mostly.”

In other words, sola gratia does not mean that God has accomplished most of the work for our salvation, but there remains a little bit that we need to contribute. God’s grace does not bring us into a state which enables a neutral human response. To do so would put human works in the driver’s seat, since our salvation would then ultimately depend on human action.

Sola gratia does not mean that God accomplished salvation objectively but not subjectively.

To put it another way, sola gratia does not teach us that Christ purchased salvation separate from salvation for you. Redemption is always particular and personal. To deny this is a pious way of smuggling human works into salvation. “Salvation” in Scripture is not the purchase of a thing but the redemption of particular people.

Sola gratia does not mean that only part of salvation comes from grace alone.

Some Christians believe that people come to Christ by their own free choice, and then God sovereignly preserves them in the faith. Others argue that Christians are sovereignly drawn to the faith, but they can lose their salvation at a later point. In both cases, we have inadvertently smuggled human works into salvation. If a human choice (whether before or after conversion) is the determining factor for salvation, then salvation is fundamentally a result of human effort (i.e., works).

So, what does sola gratia mean?

God has accomplished everything necessary for your salvation.

Salvation is not an abstract action, but a gracious redemption accomplished for you. From all eternity, the triune God agreed in covenant to save a people for Himself. The Father chose to elect a people for the Son (Luke 22:29; Eph. 1:3–14), the Son agreed to merit salvation for that people (Ps. 2; John 3:35; 14:31; 15:9), and the Holy Spirit applies salvation to that people (Isa. 63:10–14; Ezek. 36:25–27; 37:14; John 3:5; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7–15; 20:21–23). In this way, salvation was decreed concerning you, earned for you, and applied to you.

Salvation is based on God’s sheer gracious love.

Sola gratia means that your salvation is purely on the basis of God’s sheer gracious love. Paul explains that the salvation of God’s elect is not based on human works or human decisions. Rather, this salvation is entirely credited to the gracious mercy of God distributed to whomever God wills (Rom. 9:15–16, 22–23; cf. Ex. 33:19).

From start to finish, from election to conversion to heaven, salvation is by God’s grace alone.

Salvation is of the Lord.

Sola gratia means that from beginning to end, salvation is of the Lord (Ps. 3:8; 62:1; Rom. 8:29–30). God’s sovereign grace does not merely show up before conversion to transform you, nor does God’s sovereign grace merely show up after conversion to preserve you. Instead, from the foundation of the world until the never-ending age to come, God holds His little ones firmly in His hand, and Christ will raise all His people on the last day (John 6:41–46). From start to finish, from election to conversion to heaven, salvation is by God’s grace alone.

For Christians, sola gratia is one of the sweetest teachings in all of Scripture. As Luther explains,

If God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion, so that it cannot be turned another way by any opposition, nor be overcome or compelled even by the gates of hell, but it goes on willing and delighting in and loving the good, just as before it willed and delighted in and loved evil.

What shall we say then? How can we respond to such a great salvation? The only possible reply is to fall on our knees before our gracious God in humble awe at His eternal purpose. We ought to cry with thankful tongues, “Lord, why was I a guest?”