One of the core Reformational ideas that many ascribe to today is what is known as sola gratia, or “grace alone.” This Latin phrase is one of the pillars of the Reformation, the five solae, which were advocated in order to summarize the foundational structure upon which the Reformers’ took their stand. And yet while sola gratia might, indeed, be the most crucial, it is certainly the most controversial. Springing from confusion surrounding works, righteousness, and grace within the Church of Rome, the Protestant Reformers sought to bring clarity and light to this doctrine, propounding that the truth regarding the gospel as found in Scripture was in direct contradistinction to that which was being taught by the Catholic priests. The conflict began by Luther and others boils down, basically, to a dialogue and disagreement regarding the grace of God — what exactly it entails and what it does.
Uproar over this doctrine isn’t limited to 16th century Catholics and Protestants either. Much of the same debates that were had then are continued and repeated today. Whether functionally or consciously known or not, many Christians live their lives in works-based merit systems without even the slightest hint of unmerited favor or free forgiveness to be found. The practical effect of many believer’s lives nullifies and flat out ignores the grace of God, even if those same believers would lay claim to grace in theory. Among many, there persists a disconnect between initial grace and ongoing grace — between the grace that gets you and the grace that keeps you in. Much of the fear and disruption surrounding this topic lingers due to mankind’s innate distrust in something so free. Logic says that something as absolutely and unequivocally free as grace shouldn’t be broadcasted too strongly or you’ll run the risk of people taking advantage of it.
Despite these fears, however, the power of grace isn’t hindered or halted by man’s hesitancy. Regardless of how much we disbelieve or how little faith we put in grace to do its work, grace always wins. The comprehensiveness of grace is unreachable, unknowable, incomprehensible. However far you think it goes, grace goes further. Dr. Horatius Bonar sums up this idea quite nicely:
It is grace that strives with the sinner, grace that renews him, grace that leads him to the cross, grace that forgives him, grace that heals all his diseases, grace that bears with him after forgiveness, grace that guides him along, grace that fights for him, grace that comforts him, grace that trains him for the kingdom and makes all things work together for his good, grace that keeps his soul in peace amid the tumults of a stormy world, grace that maintains his unbroken fellowship with the Lord, grace that lays him down quietly to sleep in Jesus, with the blessed hope of soon rising again and putting on immortality — it is grace that does all these marvels for him and in him. (283)
Grace does it all! Grace did it all! Filthy sinners are forever allowed to fall upon a faithful Savior because of grace. Let there be no confusion or distrust in sola gratia to do what God would have it do — which is, to resurrect and reform rebellious sinners. The wonder working power of grace is unmeasurable and uncharted. It’s not just a wicked man’s ticket into glory — it’s the power and presence of the Father’s Spirit enabling and emboldening him to be transformed into the image of the Son. (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:29) By grace we are saved. By grace we are sustained.
The life of a believer is not summed up by his grit but by God’s grace. Our confession should be like that of the apostle’s, conceding all the adulation and attribution of our work to the grace that is in us — “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Cor. 15:10; cf. 2 Cor. 3:5)
Grace is comprehensive enough to swallow mankind’s sin and yet keen enough to notice your struggles. Sola gratia is the lifeline of every sinner and the lifeblood of every saint.
- Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954).