Grace is a powerful word. We sing songs about how amazing it is. We name our daughters with it. We also name churches with it. But what is it? There are many ways to express grace: favor, unmerited kindness, or an undeserved gift. When the Reformers used the term Sola Gratia they were thinking about justification and salvation. Justification is a fancy way of saying how a person is made right before God. Salvation refers to salvation from eternal punishment that we deserve as those who have rebelled against God. Both of these things: justification and salvation are given to us as a free gift. This is grace.
The issue of Sola Gratia came about in a similar way that Sola Fide came about. Questions were being raised about how a person can be made right before God. The answers that were being given by the Church were not matching up with the teachings of Scripture.
Through the passing on of tradition many of the teachings of the church emphasized cooperation and contribution. Cooperation in that we are called to cooperate with God in our salvation. Salvation is something that we can contribute our efforts. Christ’s death on the cross only prepared the way for us to be able to be saved. The rest of our journey requires our contribution. While these contributions are done through God’s grace, it is a partnership and we must do our part.
Through the study of Scripture, it became clear that our justification is out of God’s kindness alone. It is not based off of our efforts or our deeds. The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9- “For 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.” In other words, we are saved as a gift of God. It is an act of unmerited favor from God. Additionally, the fact that a person would even be drawn to God is God’s work as well. Jesus taught the Pharisee Nicodemus that a person must be “born again” or “regenerated”. This regeneration comes through the work of the Holy Spirit.
The implication of this statement is manifold. First, because our salvation is unmerited, it keeps us from boasting. As stated in Ephesians, it’s a gift of God. A gift is not earned but accepted. If something received was based off of a person’s work, it is no longer a gift. But a gift is an act of unmerited kindness.
Second, because salvation is a gift of grace, we cannot hold God in our debt by our works. In basing salvation even partially on works, the doctrine puts God in our debt. Because of our work, God “owes” us. God becomes beholden to his creatures. But Scripture does not affirm that way of understanding God. When God shows favor to people, it is out of kindness and mercy, not out of obligation.
Third, this doctrine gives final glory to God. It reduces our stature but elevates God’s kindness. God is not only the one who initiates our salvation, but sustains our salvation and will complete our salvation. As Romans 11:36 states, “For from Him, through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever, Amen.”
Today this doctrine of God’s grace is not understood to its fullest extent. It is a scary doctrine because we cannot put God in our debt. We cannot manipulate God to do what we want because of our works. Instead, because salvation is a gift of God’s grace, he owes us nothing.
Additionally, God’s grace does not lead us to greater sin, but to a greater appreciation for God’s gift. In Romans 6:1-2, Paul addresses the erroneous thinking of many who interpret grace as license. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” Grace actually leads us to greater repentance and away from engaging and indulging in sin.
Lastly, the doctrine of grace brings tremendous comfort. In it we can find that even sinners can be washed clean and can experience the loving kindness of our Savior. Because the gift giver is faithful, we can be assured that God’s grace will carry us through until the end