Published by Calvin Seminary
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me.” Martin Luther never knew this song, but if he had known it, he would have sung it with gusto. Luther was schooled in a theological tradition in which the sound of grace was not always so sweet. He had been taught that God grants saving grace only to people who merit (earn) it with acts of love for God and neighbor. “Draw near to God,” his teachers told him, quoting James 4:8, “and he will draw near to you.” Divine favor was not so much a gift as a reward.
So Luther tried it. He became a monk, taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. He prayed to God almost nonstop, confessing the tiniest sins he could remember. He flogged himself, deprived himself of sleep, and starved himself so severely that, according to one report, “his belly button touched his backbone.” But rather than drawing nearer to God, he felt himself slipping further away. It was not until he began an intensive study of the Book of Romans that he finally realized that our right standing in the eyes of God is not something we must earn; it is God’s gift to us sola gratia—by grace (undeserved favor) alone. “All at once,” Luther later recalled, “I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates.” Grace had never sounded so sweet.
The Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace alone soon led to the accusation by Catholic opponents that Protestants no longer valued good works; they wanted their grace on the cheap. The Heidelberg Catechism framed the concern this way in Question 86: “Since we have been delivered from our misery by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why then should we do good works?” The catechism makes clear in its response that the sola in sola gratia does not mean that good works are no longer important in the Christian life. Our works do not merit salvation, but they are expressions of gratitude to God for our salvation. They can also be means of praising God, assuring ourselves of true faith, and winning our neighbors to Christ. In making this point, the catechism resonates with Ephesians 2:8- 10, where Paul famously states that “by grace you have been saved, through faith . . . not by works,” but then immediately adds that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Good works are not the basis of our salvation but its fruit.
At the heart of this doctrine of salvation sola gratia is not just the nature of God but the condition of humanity. God’s grace is so amazing because we are so in need of it. Contrary to what Luther had once been taught, we do not have the inner resources to find our way back to God. As fallen creatures, each of us is deceitful at the very core of our being (Jeremiah 17:9) and spiritually “dead in [our] transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). We are like people who have fallen into a pit and are lying unconscious at the bottom. The only way out is a rescue from above—someone who reaches down to us, revives us, and pulls us to freedom. As the Canons of Dort put it, humanity is in such a sorry state that “without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit [we] are neither willing nor able to return to God” (III.3).
Unfortunately, the truth of salvation by grace alone often gets overshadowed in North American Christianity because it is so countercultural. We are a performance-oriented society, dominated by a can-do spirit. We work for good grades in school, earn victories on the basketball court, compete for awards, receive merit pay at work, and get demerits if we misbehave. In the midst of all this striving and achievement, it is not easy to admit that when it comes to meeting the deepest need of our existence, our restlessness for God, we can do absolutely nothing ourselves. We are totally reliant on outside help.
That is why the grace that Luther rediscovered five hundred years ago is so amazing. We don’t deserve it. We can’t earn it. And yet God is not only willing and able to save wretched people like us, but—sola gratia—he actually does.
At the heart of this doctrine of salvation sola gratia is not just the nature of God but the condition of humanity.
By Lyle D. Bierma
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