SOLA SALUTARIS GRATIA
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
— Ephesians 1:3-6, ESV
“Sola Gratia,” or Grace Alone, is the second of the five pillars of the Great Reformation. To recount all five, “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone) teaches that salvation is by “Sola Gratia” (Grace Alone) through “Sola Fide” (Faith Alone) in “Solus Christos” (Christ Alone) for “Soli Deo Gloria” (the Glory of God Alone). Today we will focus on grace.
“Grace,” alone, has a singular definition and two divine applications. Grace means unmerited favor, or unearned gift. When someone gives you something good you did not earn or deserve, you get grace. When grace comes from God, it can be common or saving.
Everyone gets common grace. As Jesus said, “For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (ref. Matthew 5:45). That the Creator makes His creatures’ hearts beat, lungs fill, and brains function is common grace. That He providentially puts food on our tables, music in our ears, and SEC football on Saturdays, is owed to common grace, things which the saved and the unsaved can enjoy in this temporal life.
“Grace Alone,” or saving grace, is much more specific. It is a gift that not only gives abundance and purpose in this life, but also guarantees us eternal life, with God, the angels, and all others whom He saves. Such spiritual and eternal salvation comes by grace, and by grace alone.
“Grace,” alone, or common grace, causes little or no controversy, especially among confessing Christians. “Grace Alone,” or saving grace, “Salutaris Gratia”, however, divides Catholics from Protestants, Arminians from Calvinists, Baptists from Baptists, and perhaps even some of the people sitting in our own pews.
But for the next few moments, let us unite our hearts and minds to take an open and honest look at a key text in the debate about saving grace. If salvation is by grace alone, and grace belongs to God, then God, alone and by Himself, saves you, by His grace, you and I have nothing to do with it except receive it and be saved by “Sola Salutaris Gratia” forever.
Saving Grace is a Blessing Given by God
The theme of “blessing” is strong in the Bible. It is akin to the concept of inheritance and attune with the doctrine of grace. Biblical blessings are given by fathers to their children. They consist of certain provisions and protections provided by the father, but mostly pertain to the wealth and positions passed on to the children after the father dies. The father did the work, the father gained the wealth, then freely gives it to his children when he dies. The father earned it, owns it, bestows it. It is not an entitlement, it is not earned. It is a blessing, it is grace.
Saving grace goes even further. The text, which is talking to people saved by grace, likens our salvation to a “spiritual blessing” located in a “heavenly place.” This means that our Father, God, has done a spiritual work and stored up a spiritual inheritance to bless us with, to give to us by grace, upon His death.
So when did God die? Not in 1966, as printed in the infamous headline of the New York Times. No, it was long before that. Remember our God is triune, the Father and the Son and the Spirit are one. In the person and work of God the Son, God died two thousand years ago. The inheritance, or the “spiritual blessing” given to the children of God, is salvation and eternal life in “heavenly places,” and such salvation is by grace alone.
A blessing is not earned, it is bestowed. It is grace that brought Jesus from heaven to earth and from the cross back to heaven, we did not deserve it. It is grace that brings the gospel to our ears, through godly parents and preachers, we cannot earn it. It is grace that grants repentance (ref. Acts 11:18) and faith (ref. Ephesians 2:8; 2 Peter 1:1), we cannot produce it. Salvation from the Father to the children of God is a spiritual blessing received by grace, and grace alone!
Saving Grace is a Choice Made by God
A good and pure gift, and salvation is the greatest and purest of all gifts, puts all the power in the hands of the giver and is irresistible to the recipient. A pure and good gift belongs to the giver and is given at the will of the giver, not the will of the recipient. It is undeserved and often unexpected by the recipient, given with great love and received with great gratitude.
Such is salvation by saving grace alone. It is a gift that belongs to our sovereign God, who gives it to whomever He wills. Your will, in spite of popular opinion and populist preaching, has nothing to do with it, as this text makes plain.
God elects, or chooses the people He saves. The doctrine of election is hard to understand in our democratic age. Freedom of choice (also a gift from God) is deemed today as the highest human right. We choose our elected officials, we choose where we live, we choose what we eat, and by God we choose our own God, or so we think. God thinks differently.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding,” (ref. Job 38:4) God asked Job. He asks each of us the same question and all of our answers would have to be the same. We were not there, living, thinking, choosing. But God was, and it was there, before creation, that God chose to save some by grace alone.
God predestines the paths of His elect in order to bring them to grace. Accidents happen when we lose control. God never loses control, so there are no accidents with God. Who chose your birth parents and place, your friends and associates, the people who come and go in your life? To be sure, the gift of free choice God gives to humans plays a hand. But there is a bigger, more powerful, sovereign, unseen hand and a higher choice above every human endeavor. It is God, “He predestined us” by grace, and by grace alone.
God adopts us. He gifts us Himself as Father, Jesus as Lord and Savior, and Holy Spirit as resident teacher and guide. Do those adopted choose the parent, or does the parent choose the adopted child? This is why becoming a child of God, salvation, is by God’s saving grace, and God’s grace alone.
After studying these things and this text for forty years, now, it does not seem such a mystery anymore. It makes sense that a sovereign God can choose His own followers. It makes sense that the Almighty God can control the destiny of His subjects. It makes sense that a loving God will adopt children, save them from ruin, and give them an eternal home. He is God!
What remains a mystery to me, however, is why God chooses some and passes over others. The only clue in this text and corroboration from others is, “According to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.”
If you are saved, it is not because of what you have done for God, but because of what God has done for you. If you are saved, it is not because of what you decided for God, it is because of what God decided for you (eons before you were even born). If you are saved, it is by grace, and by grace alone, and He is to be praised for His grace.
Saving Grace is a Change in the Child of God
So then, how does a person know if they have been chosen by God, predestined for salvation, and adopted into the family of God? There will be a family resemblance, of course, between the Father and the child.
Of course, there is a real sense in which all human beings bear the image of God, saved or unsaved, and this is owed again to common grace. We all have the communicable attributes of love, kindness, honesty, even sacrifice. But there are two things that unsaved people cannot be, and only people with saving grace can: “holy and blameless.”
Holiness is a saving grace that separates and marks a person as belonging to God and behaving in a godly fashion. This goes beyond general loves and kindnesses and truthfulness. Holiness is a love for God in Christ, the things of God like the church, the word of God or Holy Scripture. Holiness is a lifestyle that longs to worship and serve God. Holiness is a will freed to obey God and bring others to God, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Blamelessness is a saving grace that secures our standing before God. Non-Christians will stand before God one day and be blamed, rightly, for all of their sins. They will be judged and forever punished, in accordance with the decrees and divine will of God. For the children of God, however, those saved by grace alone, there is no blame, no punishment. This is because of the cross of Christ, the centerpiece of the gospel, where God took the sin of all of his children, mixed it with love and wrath, and took it away from us by bestowing it upon “the Beloved,” the Lord Jesus Christ.
The grace of holiness and blamelessness changes a person, the way they think, the way they live, and the way they die (which, by grace, they never will). This is salvation. This is by grace, saving grace, and by saving grace alone.
Confessing Christians continue to agree to disagree about the doctrines of grace. Thankfully, one does not have to have a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology to be a Christian (and even those who do differ on soteriology). But, your understanding of grace will determine the size and scope of God in your life.
Some Christians actually think grace was owed to them, because they did good deeds or made a good decision. Remember that those who perform deeds and those who make decisions are highly paid for their “work.” Obviously, this group does not even understand the meaning of the word grace. God is big in their lives but they are at least as big if not bigger in their own eyes.
Some Christians grasp grace as a gift from God, but believe they grasped it for themselves by their own free will. God did his part, they did their part, salvation ensues. Essentially, this makes them equal partners with God. I’ve even heard some people testify, “God voted for me, Satan voted against me, and I cast the deciding vote.” So they and God and Satan are about the same size, with their vote carrying the most weight.
Some Christians, however, see their relationship with God like the title of a great book by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “All of Grace.” We know we would have never followed Christ had God not pursued us. We know we would have never called upon the name of the Lord if He had not first called our name. We know we would have never chosen God if He had not chosen us first, even “before the foundation of the world.” We had to be born again, and no baby controls his or her own birth. We are small, yet extremely significant to God. We still sin, yet are unconditionally forgiven and beloved by God. We enjoy life, but do not fear death, for that will just bring us into the presence of God. God is bigger than life, and we love and obey Him, by His grace, His saving grace, and His saving grace alone.