Sola Gratia: Christians Are Saved by the Grace of God Alone
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” “Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt.” “Wonderful grace of Jesus, greater than all my sin; how shall my tongue describe it, where shall its praise begin?”
Christians love to sing of the saving grace of God—and rightly so. John tells us that out of Jesus’ “fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Many of the New Testament letters begin and end with the writers expressing their desire that the grace of Jesus would be with His people. The very last words of the Bible read: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Rev. 22:21).
The Reformers understood the importance of the grace of God to the Bible’s teaching on salvation. In fact, one of the slogans that came to define Reformation teaching was sola gratia, which is Latin for “by grace alone.” Christians are saved by the grace of God alone.
Among Protestants, there is a popular misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on grace. Sometimes it is said, “Rome teaches that we are saved by works, but Protestants teach that we are saved by grace.” This statement, common as it is, is a slander against the Roman Catholic Church. Rome does not teach that one is saved by works apart from the grace of God. She, in fact, teaches that one is saved by the grace of God.
To what, then, did Rome object in the Reformers’ teaching? Where does the line of difference between Rome and the Reformation lie? It lies in a single word—sola (“alone”). The Reformers maintained that the sinner is saved by the grace of God, His unmerited favor, alone. This doctrine means that nothing the sinner does commends him to the grace of God, and that the sinner does not cooperate with God in order to merit his salvation. Salvation, from beginning to end, is the sovereign gift of God to the unworthy and undeserving. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, who were inclined to boasting: “Who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). No one can ever stand before God and say, “Look at me and at what I have done!” God is no one’s debtor, not least in matters of salvation (Rom. 11:35).
One passage of Scripture in which the doctrine of salvation by grace alone shines brightly is Ephesians 2:1–10. Paul wrote to the Ephesians after having ministered among them for some three years (Acts 20:31). It is clear from the Acts of the Apostles that Paul had deeply devoted himself to preaching and teaching the Word of God to them (19:8–10; 20:20–21).
The letter to the Ephesians gives us a glimpse into the feast of teaching that Paul had set before that church. In the first chapter, Paul takes us into the “heavenly places” (1:3). He shows us the plan of the Father to save sinners by the work of His Son, a work that is applied and guaranteed by the Spirit. This plan is a lavish plan— the Father has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (v. 3). Above all, Paul stresses how this plan of redemption redounds to the praise of the glorious grace of God (vv. 6, 12, 14).
After pausing to thank God and to intercede for the Ephesians, Paul applies the heavenly realities of 1:3–14 to our individual Christian lives in 2:1–10. He twice stresses the fact that it is “by grace you have been saved” (2:5, 8). How is the grace of God evident in salvation? We see God’s grace on display, Paul says, when God makes the dead alive in Christ. To appreciate fully the grace of God, let us consider from Ephesians 2:1–10 what it means to be “dead” and what it means to be “alive.”
Who are the “dead”? They include the Ephesians. (“You were dead in … trespasses and sins,” v. 1.) They include Paul and his fellow Jews. (“We all once lived in the passions of our flesh,” v. 3.) In fact, they include every man, woman, and child in Adam. (“[We] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind,” v. 3.) The “dead” include folks like you and I.
What does it mean to be “dead”? Paul points to three things in this passage. First, it means to be under condemnation. Before Christ, we were “dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked.” Death, God told Adam in Genesis 2, is the penalty for sin. When we violate the law of God, we stand guilty before this holy God, accountable to His justice. Second, to be dead means we were under the yoke. We served three masters—the world (“following the course of this world,” 2:2), the flesh (“we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind,” 2:3), and the Devil (“following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience,” 2:2) . Third, to be dead means we were under wrath. We “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (2:3). We were justly subject to the holy displeasure of God for our sin. We were this way “by nature”— in other words, we were born into this condition.
Many do not accept this teaching. Outside the church, many assume that people are basically good. They tend to believe, at least implicitly, that if we give people the right education, examples, or laws, then they will follow the right path. Just laws, noble examples, and proper education are invaluable, but they are powerless to change a heart committed to its rebellion against God. Inside the church, many have said and still say that people are sick, even desperately sick. These sick people, however, are still said to have the wherewithal to respond to and cooperate with the grace of God. But Paul does not say we are sick. He says that apart from Christ, we are dead. Spiritually speaking, we are corpses in the ground without Jesus. We can no more draw near to God than a corpse can summon the strength to get out of its grave. That is how bad off we are outside of Christ.
Thankfully, Paul does not stop there. Beginning in verse 4, Paul turns from us to God, from the evil we have done to the good that God is doing in Christ. He highlights three things about the grace of God in the rest of this passage:
First, he points us to God’s work in verses 5–6: “God 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.” God raised Christ from the dead and seated Him at His right hand (1:18–20), and He has done something incredible to us in our union with Christ. God, Paul says, has made the dead alive. That is what evokes Paul’s exclamation, “By grace you have been saved” (2:5).
Second, Paul points us to God’s motive. Why did God make the dead alive? It was not because of our works, Paul says in verse 9, neither the works that we did before we became Christians nor the works we have done after we became Christians. Otherwise, we might have cause to “boast” (v. 9). Instead, Paul says, God made us alive because of His “mercy,” His “great love with which he loved us” (v. 4). Paul goes out of his way to impress upon us that God’s own love and mercy are the font of our salvation.
Third, Paul points us to God’s purpose. For what purpose did God make the dead alive? It was, Paul says in verse 7, that we might put on display, both now and in eternity, the “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” How do we do that? We do it by displaying in our lives the master workmanship of our Maker and Redeemer— we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (v. 10).
We are saved, then, sola gratia—by the grace of God alone. Far from leading us to embrace lives of license and moral recklessness, the grace of God in the gospel leads us to pursue lives of consecration and holiness. Why is this so? The great hymnwriter Isaac Watts captured Paul’s point well when he wrote in his hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Think about that the next time you sing of the grace of God.