"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


  • Rev. John Samson
  • Rev. David Thommen (URC)
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  • « Hebrews 6:4-9 (revisited) | Main | Are Faith, Repentance and Sanctification Synergistic? »

    Sola Gratia - Grace Alone

    The religions of man often like to bring grace into the equation. Human works always play a role in obtaining salvation in these man made formulas. An appeal is often made that although works (human actions) must be involved before salvation can occur, it is still "grace alone" that saves because it is God alone who is the ultimate source of power for these works. They say that God (in the end) therefore gets the glory for the works we do to save ourselves.

    While it is true that for the Christian, God's grace empowers us for Christian service (sanctification), the Bible makes it abundantly clear that the works we do play no role whatsoever in our salvation (justification) (Romans 4:4,5). In contrast, Rome confuses justification with sanctification for in their scheme, only when a man is fully sanctified will be be declared right with God (or justified). Yet Romans 5:1 declares that justification is a past tense event for the believing Christian - having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2 8, 9 also declares, "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." According to the Bible, for grace to truly be grace, works cannot be mixed in. Romans 11:6 says, "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace."

    In contrast with all man made concepts, the Protestant Reformers heralded the message of "Sola Gratia," or Grace Alone. There was no confusion as to the meaning of the term. Sola Gratia meant grace at the start, grace to the end, grace in the middle, grace without fail, grace without mixture, grace without addition, grace that allows no boasting, grace that precludes all glorying but in the Lord. All false concepts of grace would seek to eliminate at least one of these clauses, but the biblical Gospel stands firm. Unless Grace alone is understood in this manner, man will always have some room for boasting.

    The Reformers understood that man's only contribution to the table of redemption is in fact his sin. Man's will is not a deciding factor (Romans 9:16) because it is inseparately linked with his heart which is desperately wicked and while still in the flesh, he cannot submit to God (Rom 8: 7,8). It takes a new heart - a regenerated or born again heart - to enter or even see the kingdom of God (John 3). As Martin Luther said, ""If any man ascribes salvation, even the very least, to the free will of man, he knows nothing of grace, and he has not learnt Jesus Christ aright." Even though we are justified by simple faith, without any human works or human merit involved, even this faith is the gift of God and not a reason for which to boast, for any boasting of man robs God of His glory. The works we do are the fruit and not the root of our salvation. The fruit is necessary to affirm that the faith is genuine, but Jesus Christ is the Savior who saves through faith alone - plus nothing! Only when Sola Gratia is properly understood does Soli Deo Gloria (the fifth sola) maintain its integrity. The issue has never been the necessity of grace but the sufficiency of grace. All man made religion believes grace is necessary but cannot embrace grace's sufficiency, and because of this, stands in opporition to the only Gospel that saves.

    Sola Gratia, Soli Deo Gloria. It is because saves us by His Grace Alone that all the glory for it goes to God alone. - JS

    Posted by John Samson on May 5, 2009 08:22 AM


    Terrific post, John… everything you say is spot-on and pertinent.

    There is just one sentence which I would worry might be sufficiently open to mis-interpretation that it could be used to smuggle good works back into salvation (which the man-centred tendency in each of us is inclined to do!)

    You write correctly write “The works we do are the fruit and not the root of our salvation” but then say “The fruit is necessary to affirm that the faith is genuine.”

    There is some danger in using the word ‘necessary’ as it implies that we can ‘do’ fruit, whereas of course fruit cannot ‘be done’ or ‘be made’ - it is, by its very nature, a by-product of something else that is happening (watering, soil, tendering the plant etc).

    Also, the fruit we bear will not of course ‘affirm’ anything to God who knows our hearts (and sees the faith which he has placed there); our works are simply evidence (or confirmation, rather than affirmation) to others that we are Christians.

    The role of works is set out in James 1.22-25. This passage is usually translated and interpreted as a linear additive relationship meaning that we (A) study the word + (B) then go and do it, then = (C) we will be blessed. To the Catholics, this obviously means ‘faith and works’ are required for salvation, to which the reformed tradition rather weakly says that it should not be taken in this way. However, the reformed tradition would have much less difficulty with this passage if it was treated more carefully in translation in the first place.

    Verse 22 does indeed make it clear (as does Rom 2.13) that we are to be doers of the word, or the law, not merely listeners. But it is not until verse 25 that it is explained how we are to be (or rather to become) ‘doers of the word’. And the Greek in verse 25 is poorly translated in most Bible versions.

    The NIV renders verse 25 as “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does”

    The ESV has “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing”.

    The KJV has “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed”.

    The NASV has “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does”.

    All these renderings give unnecessary credence to the Catholic position. They are all of the following form:- if you (A1) read the word; (A2) persevere in reading the word; (B1) remember the word; (B2) do the word; = THEN (C) you will be blessed. In this format, there are four things to do (A1, A2, B1, B2) in order to receive the blessing.

    However the Greek has the word ‘outos’ before B1/B2 and again before C. The correct meaning is therefore as follows:- if you (A1) read the word; (A2) persevere in reading the word; = THEN you will (B1) not forget the word; (B2) be a doer of the word; (C) be blessed.

    In the usual translations, man is given the responsibility of both ‘reading/persevering’ and ‘remembering/doing’. If however we acknowledge both occurrences of ‘outos’, there is the implication that it is God himself who will convert the ‘reading’ into the appropriate ‘doing’. This latter version is consistent with two wider evangelic truths:-

    (i) that it is of course ultimately all about God’s promise to us that He will change our hearts; not our promise to Him that we will change our lives
    (ii) that we are justified AND sanctified by grace through faith. To uphold justification by faith but to let go of sanctification by faith is essentially to fall into the error which Galatians and Hebrews address.

    The subtle point being made by James is, paradoxically, not just that people do not ‘do’ the word; it is that they fail to do the word because they do not study it enough; they are not then shaped by it.

    Finally, at the risk of making a complex point even more complex, I will add the following. ‘Doing the word’, (or doing the law, as Paul puts it in Rom 2.13) is not just a question of doing the right actions – it is doing the right actions ‘naturally’, that is, with our new nature (which is still of course being wrought in us). Instead we often tend to see the Christian life in excessively mechanistic, and rather dissociative, terms, as if the acts that we do have some moral value in and of themselves. But a painter does not change into a poet simply by reading out poetry – he must study it, understand it, and find it entering his soul; then he will be a poet. And likewise a poet must study light, colour and shape intently if he is to become a painter. We tend to concentrate on the actions which flow from us, whereas we should be concentrating more on the inspiration which flows into us. Indeed excessive focus on our actions is almost the opposite of what is good for us.


    Very well put. It's a shame that in the modern church, the solas are almost never mentioned...
    Today's Christian would do well to understand them.

    During the Advent Season, I am preaching of the solas. Since Advent is beginning of the new year, Advent I is Glory to God Alone!; Advent II is Scripture Alone; Advent III is By Grace Alone; Advent IV is By Faith Alone; and Christmas Eve is Solo Christo! We're half-way into it now, and the congregation is receiving it with great thanksgiving!

    During the Advent Season, I am preaching of the solas. Since Advent is beginning of the new year, Advent I is Glory to God Alone!; Advent II is Scripture Alone; Advent III is By Grace Alone; Advent IV is By Faith Alone; and Christmas Eve is Solo Christo! We're half-way into it now, and the congregation is receiving it with great thanksgiving!

    I too am in the middle of such a series on the 5 solas in my church(PCUSA) I am doing it as a Lenten reflection opportunity and encouraging the congregation to develop their own "top 5" of the faith as a spiritual discipline. I am not sure all are enjoying it as much as the preacher- but it has been enjoyable to remind people in this region just how many ways we are unique in our theology from the Methodists or Lutherans.

    I think you need to replace part tense event with past-tense event:
    Yet Romans 5:1 declares that justification is a part tense event for …

    P.S. It is usually best to have the most-recently posted comments at the the top

    Great post. I am doing some research on the sola's for an article i am writing. This is a lost doctrine in much of the protestant world. truly, reformed theology is the confession of many, yet they have no clue what it is. They are often confused about the scriptures truths since they are taught so many different things. I pray that this article will help many to understand where we derive our stance from.

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