Sola Gratia: Where it came from and what it means

This past week I preached at Christ Church Rolesville as part of a series on the 5 solas. Below is a description of the history and meaning of sola gratis.

The idea that we are saved by “grace alone” has a long history in Christianity. If we were to trace the roots as far down as they’ll go, we find ourselves at a theological conflict between two men, one named Augustine and the other Pelagius.[1]

And it all started with a simple little prayer that Augustine had written around the year 400 AD. “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!”[2] When Pelagius read these words, he understood correctly that Augustine was implying that humans are incapable of obeying God’s commands unless God first grants them the ability to do so. Pelagius strongly disagreed. He believed the very fact that God would command something implies that we must have the ability to obey it. We don’t need God’s grace to help us obey; we simply exercise free will and make the decision to do it or not. How does one obey God? This is where they disagreed.

But behind this disagreement, Augustine and Pelagius had another disagreement. They had different opinions about the nature of humanity. Augustine argued that ever since Adam ate the fruit in the garden, that humanity was locked in corruption. It’s not just Adam that fell; we all fell in Adam. So Augustine says, “The sin which they committed was so great that it impaired all human nature—in this sense, that the nature has been transmitted to posterity with a propensity to sin and a necessity to die.”[3] So according to Augustine, Adam doomed humanity. When Adam fell, we all fell.

On the other hand, Pelagius said that when Adam fell, only Adam fell. But after Adam he said we are all still free to make our own decisions, whether we will obey God or not. Augustine and Pelagius had a pamphlet battle. They wrote all sorts of pamphlets back and forth, arguing against the other. Eventually, very early in the fifth century several church councils were called and found Pelagius to be denying the clear teaching of Scripture.[4] But even though the teaching of Pelagius was officially condemned, it never actually disappeared. The church in every generation has suffered from some form of it. In fact, in the thousand years between Augustine and Martin Luther, the official theology of the church had drifted somewhat away from Augustine and toward Pelagius.

Martin Luther came on the scene around 1500, over one thousand years after the Pelagius’ teaching had been rejected. Luther’s theological discussion was with the Roman Catholic Church. The church argued that grace could be infused to people as they performed certain actions like going to mass and participating in the eucharist. In other words people could simply exercise free will to do good and thereby earn the grace of God. But Luther denied that humans are capable of freely choosing any works good enough to earn God’s grace.

So the will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills….If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.[5]

 Martin Luther insisted when it comes to salvation, we don’t make the first move. Our will doesn’t choose it’s own rider. Rather, God gives the gift of faith so that we might believe. If anyone does what God commands, it is beccuase his grace and his grace alone has enabled us to do it. So the debate between Augustine and Pelagius was resurrected between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. Other church Reformers agreed with Luther’s “grace alone” slogan, and John Calvin systematized these classic Reformation insights.[6]

From this history we draw two significant doctrinal truths.

The first of these two truths is called original sin.[7] The doctrine of original sin says the sin of Adam and Eve touched every future member of the human race. Simply put, we are all infected, corrupted and guilty.[8] Sin is a precondition of human life. We’re born this way, with the whole cluster of psychological, relational and spiritual sicknesses that result from the original infection. Original sin means, among other things, that we are spiritually sick: that no one is looking to submit their life to God. You may know people who do a sort of scavenger hunt through world religions, but interpreting that kind of thing through the lens of original sin, we might conclude that even those searchings are aimed at self-improvement rather than self-abandonment to God. No one is seeking to submit to God. Humans are corrupted from conception. That’s original sin.

The second doctrinal truth is called monergism. The word comes from monos- meaning one or alone (as in monogamy) and –ergon, meaning ability or work, somewhat like energy. The meaning of monergism is that God alone initiates with people, he works unilaterally in the hearts of people who aren’t seeking him, and causes them to seek him. Paul reminds the church in Rome that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). If that’s true, if no one seeks for God, then how is it that some people end up finding him? Only by accidentally bumping into him on a dark path? No. Paul says, for anyone who knows God, the way they came to know him is that God turned the lights on. They were sitting in a dark room and happy to be in the dark, not looking for a light switch. Not seeking God. But God completely of his own initiative turned the lights on. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). And that is monergism—God alone working.

So this idea of “grace alone” says something about God and something about us. About us: that we are dead in sin. About God: that he is full of grace.

 

[1] For more on this see Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 173-181.

[2] Augustine, Confessions 10, 29 (Penguin Classics), 233. Could be translated, “Give what you command; command what you will” (Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 180). According to Latourette, it was these words that sparked the reaction from Pelagius, though no source is cited for this assertion.

[3] Augustine, City of God (New York: Image Books, 1958), 279. “No one was to be born of them who was less a sinner than they were. Such was the greatness of the guilt that the punishment so impaired human nature that what was originally a penal condition [punishment] for the first parents who sinned became a natural consequence in all of their descendants,” 252.

[4] The Councils of Carthage, 412 and 418 AD, Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 180.

[5] Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will. Cited in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 76.

[6] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 74, 120, 166.

[7] In a portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe, David McCullough says that she “discarded the doctrine of original sin” as part of a move away from her “harsh Calvinist heritage.” She came to believe that “neither man nor nature was necessarily corrupt. Hers was a faith of love and Christian charity” (Brave Companions, 49). This characterization of original sin as a “harsh” doctrine is typical.

[8] Corruption and guilt are the two aspects of original sin. “Corruption and guilt present the problems that the gifts of sanctification and justification graciously address,” Cornelius Platinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, 29. Augustine’s phrase “propensity to sin and necessity to die” corresponds to these two aspects of original sin.

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