Celebrating the Solas, Part 4: Sola Gratia
According to the only authority on spiritual matters (sola Scriptura), God provides salvation in and through Christ alone (solus Christus) and obtained only by faith in his finished work (sola fide). But on what basis does God even offer such a salvation to us?
What would prompt God to voluntarily endure the astonishing self-sacrifice necessary—pouring out his righteous wrath against our sin on himself in the person of his own Son, so that he could become our Substitute—in order to save us in the first place? Because of my intrinsic value? Because he needs me to serve him? Because that’s just what God is supposed to do?
Nothing outside of God prompted or compelled him to do this. The answer lies within him and is expressed in a single word: grace.
WHAT IS GRACE?
To us, being gracious can mean being civil, well-spoken, well-mannered–knowing how to dress appropriately, what to talk about in polite society, and which fork to use. It can also mean kindness. It’s not grace when I pay the cashier for a gallon of milk; but it is if the manager doesn’t arrest me for trying to take the gallon of milk without paying for it, and doubly so if he pays for the milk himself and lets me keep it.
God’s grace always assumes a certain condition. It’s frequently defined not just as favor but as unmerited favor. I can be gracious to someone in need (a beggar on a street corner), or to someone who has wronged me (a neighbor who ran over my mailbox). When God is gracious to us, he is gracious to people who are both needy and at fault, and therefore people to whom God is not in any way indebted or bound. We have no claim on the grace of God; if we did, it would not be grace.
Grace is the extravagant kindness of God—under no compulsion, duty, or obligation apart from his own free will and delight—to people who not only are desperately needy for what he alone can provide but also have offended and provoked him in the extreme. Saving grace is the extravagant kindness of God to the same kind of people—free of cost to us but at the infinite expense of his own extravagant self-sacrifice. Nowhere is this expressed more gloriously than in Ephesians.
WHERE IS GRACE?
The word grace actually appears more frequently in the six chapters of Ephesians than any other NT book except Acts (28 chapters), Romans (16 chapters), and 2 Corinthians (13 chapters). And nearly all appearances of the word in Ephesians come in the first 3 chapters.
God blessed us with every spiritual benefit in Christ (Eph 1:3), chose us in Christ before creation (Eph 1:4), and predestined us in love to be adopted as sons through Christ (Eph 1:5) … why? To display his glorious grace with which he has graced us in Christ (Eph 1:6). In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of God’s grace which he lavished upon us in Christ (Eph 1:7-8).
That’s why Paul can sum up all God’s saving acts in Christ this way: by grace you have been saved (Eph 2:5) so that God can display the incalculable wealth of his grace by being kind to us in Christ through all the ages to come (Eph 2:7). The passage drips with the overflow of God’s extravagance as Paul repeats himself: by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9).
Grace locates “the believer’s salvation outside himself, in the action of God,” writes Carl Trueman. Understanding that “even the act of faith itself [is] an act of God’s sovereign grace” is “necessary for the Christian to have the real possibility of assurance” (Grace Alone, 124-25).
It’s impossible to read Ephesians 1-2 without hearing how definitive it is. These are not blessings we may have—if we hope and pray and beg and work hard enough. These are blessings we do have—now and forever, by grace, through faith, in Christ. The definitive nature of grace is intended to give the believer absolute and enduring assurance and confidence in Christ,
in whom we have boldness and access [to God] with confidence through our faith in him (Eph 3:12).
The glory of the solas is that they are not merely the ground of our salvation; they are the ground of our assurance of salvation. Again, Carl Trueman captures this connection succinctly. “Justification by an act of human will or by works would inevitably press the individual into looking within for assurance”—have I done enough? Have I done it right? What if I haven’t? How would I know?
“Luther’s main concern [not to mention Paul’s] is to deny any role to human merit in salvation and by doing so to offer a foundation for salvation on which true assurance can be built…. One cannot simply preach that justification is by grace through faith without reflecting on the relationship between grace and faith…. to fail to make faith an act of God’s grace [as Paul does in Eph. 2] is to subvert the whole notion, to smuggle a work in through the back door and to offer a view of salvation that is built in a very real sense on human merit…. Theologically that derogates the work of Christ, and pastorally it jeopardizes that most Protestant of pastoral distinctives, Christian assurance. If anything decisive is left at all in the power of the individual, be it faith or the performance of good works, then the chain of assured salvation is compromised such that assurance is effectively impossible (Trueman, Grace Alone, 124, 128, 131).
God does not just want to save you; he wants you to know that he has saved you (1 John 5:13). That’s what the solas of the Reformation are all about, and therein lies their glory.