[Common Places] Five Solas: Grace Alone by Michael Horton
This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, looking back to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the theological debates kick-started by their posting. The Reformation continues to be lauded, cajoled, and debated in circles of all sorts today. At Common Places we will begin the year by focusing on some of the central principles and most relevant texts that shaped early Reformation theology and that have continued that conversation in the centuries that followed. Each month we will begin with a post related to an ongoing book project from Zondervan Academic that addresses the five solas of Reformation theology.
Referring to the Nicene Creed, Cardinal Newman observed that the Rubicon separating orthodoxy from heresy was a vowel: Jesus is of the same substance (homoousios), not merely of a similar one (homoiousios). Similarly, the Protestant Reformers believed that the entire gospel depends on that modifier, sola (only). However, even some evangelicals consider this little word a nuisance at best. How could the Western church be divided over an adjective?
The Reformers never charged Rome with denying the necessity of Christ, grace, faith, Scripture, and God’s glory, but their sufficiency. Of course, Rome believed in grace. It was oozing from the pores of the church through its sacramental system, especially the practice of penance. However, it became clear as the debate progressed that not only the sufficiency of grace (over against the believer’s merits) was at stake, but that different definitions of grace itself were in play. Here are a few things to bear in mind regarding the real heart of the debate over grace.
First, the Reformers disagreed with the pope with respect to the human condition. According to the medieval church, the body and its passions were the “kindling wood” of sin and the purpose of grace was to keep these “lower” desires from taking over. The Reformers disagreed, pointing out that sinful rebellion took the very citadel of the mind, with the whole self turned against God. Further, human beings since the fall of humanity in Adam are not sick, but “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). Late medieval theology even taught that one could merit the first grace by loving God above all else. “God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them,” they said. God’s grace in this view consists in his leniency—the fact that he requires the smallest obedience rather than complete righteousness. The phrase is included in official documents all the way to the Second Vatican Council and the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Second, the Reformers understood the Bible to speak of grace primarily as God’s favor and gift. What can the unregenerate do?, the Reformers demanded. Nothing, they replied with Jesus and the apostles. Grace is not mere medicine to heal the soul from the chaotic passions, but is God’s favor and gift that is given unilaterally not only at the beginning but throughout the Christian life. Anchored in God’s eternal election, this gracious rescue operation is carried out by the Triune God. Sinners—including believers—are on the receiving end of that operation. Grace is first and foremost God’s stance toward those who deserve his wrath. He declares the sinner to be righteous through faith, which is itself a gift of grace (Eph 2:8-9). Not because they are no longer sinful, but because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to them, believers are not only forgiven but justified before God.
On the basis of this legal declaration, the Holy Spirit begins to conform believers to the image of Christ, but this is sanctification, not justification. Yet even this sanctification is a gift of God’s grace. “Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith,” Calvin wrote. “By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life” (John Calvin, Institutes 3.11.1). Made alive together with Christ, believers are able to respond to God’s commands with delight as the will of a loving Father, but always only because of the security of their status before him in his Son. So when we say that the preaching of the gospel, baptism and the Eucharist are “means of grace,” we are not thinking in terms of infusions of medicine to help us merit further gifts; rather, they deliver and seal to us the promise of our inheritance of every good and saving gift in Christ.
Third, for the Reformers, sola gratia is never left dangling by itself, but is always tied closely to solo Christo. In fact, all of the “solas” are grounded in the sufficiency of Christ. It’s not just that Christ made salvation possible, but that he accomplished full and complete redemption, from regeneration to glorification, leaving nothing for us to complete. Every grace has been merited already by Christ and they become ours only in union with him through faith. There is plenty now for believers to do, but not for their rescue. Rather, all good works are the fruit of faith, which is itself the gift of God (Eph 2:8-9). But grace is always God’s favor and gift, freely given to those who not only do not deserve it but who actually deserve the very opposite.
Whenever I ask people for a contemporary version of the medieval slogan, “God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies in them,” the response is usually quick: “God helps those who help themselves.” Unfortunately, according to a Barna study some years ago, most evangelicals not only affirmed this slogan but thought that it was a biblical quotation (though, in fact, it is one of Benjamin Franklin’s famous aphorisms). Other studies conducted by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and other denominations descending from the Reformation reveal a staggering similarity between the actual beliefs of people in the pew today and those of the late medieval church.
A recovery of sound catechesis has never been more necessary, but it must be worked into our preaching, liturgy, songs, confessions of sin and faith and discipline if the biblical doctrine of grace is to capture our hearts again. We need to weave it into our personal and family life and into the way that we relate to our fellow believers as well as non-Christians. Only then will it be more than a question on a quiz and truly become the song of our heart and joyful witness to those who have yet to hear the good news that sinners are saved by God alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.
Michael Horton (PhD, The University of Coventry and Wycliffe Hall) is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. He serves as editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine and co-host of the White Horse Inn radio program. He has written numerous books on Reformation and post-Reformation theology and contemporary issues, including his most recent release, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit.
Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.
Our current series, The Five Solas, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key principles of the Protestant movement in the sixteenth century.
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors
Learn more about Michael Horton's new release, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God's Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life. Get it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ChristianBook, or iBooks.
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