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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sola Gratia

by Chris Cobb

You have won a free gift!

"Yeah, right," I thought to myself as I continued to read the letter. My cynical skepticism was justified when I discovered that in order to enjoy my free gift, I would have to pay inflated shipping and handling fees. No thanks. Free means free - otherwise it is not free at all.

Whether or not we have to attach a "shipping and handling" payment to the free gift of salvation through the work of Christ has been a point of contention in the church since at least the fifth century, when a fellow named Pelagius was teaching that man has the ability to keep God's Law if he so desires. According to Pelagius, God's grace was not actually necessary if one wanted to go to heaven; man was capable of being sufficiently moral to enter God's holy presence on his own merits. Pelagius denied that the guilt of Adam's sin and its ensuing moral corruption was imputed to all mankind. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, decisively refuted Pelagius and his teachings at the Synod of Carthage (418). Augustine made the biblical point that mankind was incapable of rising out of sin, that the death of Christ was necessary to vanquish sin, and that God's grace alone is the beginning, middle, and end of salvation. Grace alone - Sola gratia - was required if man was to be saved.

Within a hundred years, the corruption of grace had returned to the church in a form known as "Semi-Pelagianism." According to this teaching, God's free grace is absolutely required for salvation. But so are man's own efforts. God's grace does the heavy lifting through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ (the free gift). But I must cooperate with what God is doing (shipping and handling charges) in attaining salvation by responding by my own free will to the gospel, and by doing good works to complete my salvation. Semi-Pelagianism was condemned in the Council of Orange in 529. But it eventually returned to trouble the church again.

One of the main points of contention in the Protestant Reformation had to do with whether or not we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, or whether we must add something to the work of Christ. The Roman Catholic church had been teaching (and still does) that the works done after initial justification by cooperating with God's grace actually merit final justification. This is seen especially in the sacrament of penance, which involves in some degree a satisfaction and atonement for sins committed after being initially justified. This is salvation with an asterisk, or a footnote, or fine-print. This is a "free gift" that comes with shipping and handling charges.

Sola gratia is the biblical doctrine that teaches that we are saved by God's grace alone, apart from any effort, any initiation, or any congruous work of our own. The scriptural support for the argument is actually quite simple. The Bible teaches that unredeemed man is dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1), we are "children of wrath" (Eph 2:3), we do not understand or seek God (Ro 3:10), we do not do good (Ro 3:11), even our righteous deeds are filthy in God's sight (Is 64:6), we are hostile against God and unable to subject ourselves to the law of God (Ro 8:7), and that we cannot please God (Ro 8:8). Now that's a pretty comprehensive list, and is actually just a tiny portion of the overwhelming Biblical data regarding man's inability to come to God. Jesus plainly declares that no one can come to Him for salvation apart from the Father drawing him (Jn 6:44). The bottom line of this is that while man is truly responsible for obeying God, he is completely and totally unable to do so because of his sinful nature. Condemnation is assured and cannot be avoided. Being by nature hostile against God and dead in trespasses and sins, man can not even cooperate in saving himself. He is at war with God; the last thing he wants to do is draw near to an infinitely holy and righteous God.

Into this tragic impossibility, God comes, bringing salvation (Matt 19:26). Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 2:4-7 (NASB):
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (emphasis added)
It is made clear in Romans 8:29-30 that God sovereignly causes salvation by His foreknowledge. God's foreknowledge is not the same as human foreknowledge. If I talk about my own foreknowledge of something, it is nothing more than "prior awareness". God's foreknowledge is different. It is actually the driving force that causes the object of His foreknowledge to be actualized in reality. This can be seen by simply examining Matt 7:23. That text is not saying God had no knowledge of those condemned; it is saying that He never foreknew them in the sense of electing them to salvation. In 1 Peter 1:3, Peter tells us that God, by His mercy begot us, or caused us to be born again. It was an act of God, not of man. The same truth appears in Jn 1:13.

To summarize then, Sola gratia is the biblical teaching that we are saved on the basis of God's grace alone. At every step of the way salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Not only did we need God to favor us by providing an atoning sacrifice, we needed God to favor us by bringing to life our spiritually dead hearts, opening our spiritually blind eyes, and causing us to trust in His dear Son.

We are saved by grace alone!
Chris Cobb is the Senior Pastor of Bible Fellowship Church. He not only faithfully shepherds his flock, but he's been a source of Biblical counsel and warm friendship for me.


  • At 1:27 PM, Blogger Noel said…

    Amen Danny!

  • At 9:26 PM, Blogger danny2 said…

    actually, kudos go to Chris Cobb.

    i especially appreciate that chris was willing to point out that Roman Catholicism taught a faulty view of faith, refused to repent of their error, and hold steadfast to the abhorrent doctrine.

    not a popular or political declaration nowadays.

  • At 6:53 AM, Blogger brother_barabbas said…

    ceboomI come from a tradition that was more than willing to point out EVERYONE's 'faulty view of (something)' their 'refus(al) to repent of their error' and the fact that they 'hold stedfast to abhorrent doctrine', and no one was exempt. So, from that premise, I wonder why it was necessary to call out the RCC by name. Maybe just an exposure of their doctrine as contrasted with the Scripture would have done sufficient for promoting truth.

  • At 8:15 AM, Blogger danny2 said…


    unfortunately, the broader range of evangelicalism is not clear on this issue.

    Stuff exists like this. moralism and political issues have washed away the distinction to the point that questions like this. of course, i think a better question is this.

    however, preaching and writing can be much like this comment. i can allude (hyperlinks) to things, but i leave the person to do the rest of the work. a lazy, or busy, or tired person may not consider the pratical application. therefore, it becomes the responsibility of the shepherd to lay things out for their people to see.

    i do not consider chris' article to be an attack of the catholic church, nor was it vexed or mean. he simply laid out a distinction and a large portion of the population that is lost in a wrong view of grace and justification.

    perhaps the article would cause someone to pray for, seek out and evangelize a family member they considered "christian" but now realize is deceived in a lie that will cost them their soul. would that be unneccesary?

    (and what in the world is ceboomi?)

  • At 9:43 AM, Blogger Chris said…

    barabbas, I appreciate your concern re: pointing out the error of the RCC. I don't appreciate ministries either whose entire focus seems to be on what's wrong with everyone else.
    But note two things: first, my piece on sola gratia deals (briefly) with the history of the debate. The RCC is a significant player in the history of the debate. Second, Danny's purpose is to talk about the five solas of the Protestant Reformation. Both the protest in "Protestant" and the reforming going on in "Reformation" were specifically aimed at the theological failures in the RCC, which lead to some pretty gross and widespread failures of practice in the church. It is pretty hard to talk about the doctrine that was the point of the spear in the Reformation, without mentioning the Roman Catholic Church. As a pastor, my intent is to teach the flock I shepherd. The Reformation is part of our history, and it is important to know it.

  • At 12:32 PM, Blogger Zach Doppelt said…


    I would point out that Danny was being generous in pointing to the historical reformation, and pointing to the historic catholic church, rather than pointing to the general church today.

    He was being generous because a vast group of evangelicals are rethinking their relationship to catholicism. It was easy for people to reject the overly simplistic notion that catholics believe in works salvation, but as people are realizing that catholics believe salvation is by faith through grace, but that grace is administered through works, suddenly they are not so sure. So, they are buying into recent catholic by the droves.

    I recognize that we must just lay truth out and not finger point, as many have done. But, we also must recognize that theological issues in scripture are not without importance.

  • At 7:10 PM, Blogger brother_barabbas said…

    ceboomi was the word verification I had to type to post. Apparently my cursor was located at the wrong place (which would explain why I had to type the word verification again, eh?).

    I realize that our preaching/writing can become so inclusive, friendly, pusillanimous (I've always wanted to use that word since I was introduced to it by Dave) sometimes that it lacks the punch and division that truth must - will - have. I also agree that Chris' article was not a flagrant, frontal against the RCC.

    You make an excellent point. One that I missed altogether. The Protestant Reformation was the protesting to the erroneous doctrines of the RCC and the reforming of those doctrines in the life of these newly enlightened believers. Great point. Thanks for clarifying that point. To expect someone to address the Protestant Reformation without referencing the RCC is like asking someone to discuss Bible Fellowship Church of Greenville, Ohio without referencing Chris Cobb.

    I also appreciate your pointing out that the historical position of the RCC was in question, not necessarily the contemporary Catholic people.


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