One of the mottos associated with the sixteenth-century Reformation is the Latin phrase post tenebras lux (“after darkness, light”). In contrast with the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers saw themselves as rediscovering the light of the gospel of Christ. This doctrine has been traditionally summarized under the five solas of the Reformation. One of these solas is the Latin term sola gratia (“grace alone”). For the Reformers, the doctrine of sola gratia was critical to a right and fully biblical understanding of salvation in Christ. For example, Martin Luther (1483–1546) put it quite clearly: “But no man can be thoroughly humbled until he knows that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, devices, endeavors, will, and works, and depends entirely on the choice, will, and work of another, namely, of God alone . . . then he has come close to grace, and can be saved.” In fact, for Luther and the rest of the Reformers, every corruption of the doctrine of sola gratia subtly smuggles human effort through the back door. It is for this reason that a proper understanding of sola gratia is extremely important for Christians today. The purity of the gospel hangs in the balance.
To understand what sola gratia is, we must first understand what sola gratia is not.
First, sola gratia is not “grace alone, mostly.” In other words, sola gratia does not mean that God has accomplished most of the work for our salvation, but there remains a little bit that we need to contribute. God’s grace does not bring us into a state which enables a neutral human response. To do so would put human works in the driver’s seat, since our salvation would then ultimately depend on human action.
Second, sola gratia does not mean that God accomplished salvation objectively but not subjectively. To put it another way, sola gratia does not teach us that Christ purchased salvation separate from salvation for you. Redemption is always particular and personal. To deny this is a pious way of smuggling human works into salvation. “Salvation” in Scripture is not the purchase of a thing but the redemption of particular people.
Third, sola gratia does not mean that only part of salvation comes from grace alone. Some Christians believe that people come to Christ by their own free choice, and then God sovereignly preserves them in the faith. Others argue that Christians are sovereignly drawn to the faith, but they can lose their salvation at a later point. In both cases, we have inadvertently smuggled human works into salvation. If a human choice (whether before or after conversion) is the determining factor for salvation, then salvation is fundamentally a result of human effort (i.e., works).
So, what does sola gratia mean?
First, God has accomplished everything necessary for your salvation. Salvation is not an abstract action, but a gracious redemption accomplished for you. From all eternity, the triune God agreed in covenant to save a people for Himself. The Father chose to elect a people for the Son (Luke 22:29; Eph. 1:3–14), the Son agreed to merit salvation for that people (Ps. 2; John 3:35; 14:31; 15:9), and the Holy Spirit applies salvation to that people (Isa. 63:10–14; Ezek. 36:25–27; 37:14; John 3:5; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7–15; 20:21–23). In this way, salvation was decreed concerning you, earned for you, and applied to you.
Second, sola gratia means that your salvation is purely on the basis of God’s sheer gracious love. Paul explains that the salvation of God’s elect is not based on human works or human decisions. Rather, this salvation is entirely credited to the gracious mercy of God distributed to whomever God wills (Rom. 9:15–16, 22–23; cf. Ex. 33:19).
Third, sola gratia means that from beginning to end, salvation is of the Lord (Ps. 3:8; 62:1; Rom. 8:29–30). God’s sovereign grace does not merely show up before conversion to transform you, nor does God’s sovereign grace merely show up after conversion to preserve you. Instead, from the foundation of the world until the never-ending age to come, God holds His little ones firmly in His hand, and Christ will raise all His people on the last day (John 6:41–46). From start to finish, from election to conversion to heaven, salvation is by God’s grace alone.