Are We At the End of the Reformation?–Part Three: The End of Sola Gratia —”By Grace Alone”

Sola gratia was one of the Five Solas of the Reformation. They were: 1. Sola Scriptura—”By Scripture Alone,” 2. Sola fide—”by faith alone,” 3. Sola gratia—”by grace alone,” 4. Solus Christus or Solo Christo—”Christ alone” or “through Christ alone,” 5. Soli Deo Gloria—”glory to God alone.” Over time, the Five Solas have been distorted or completely abandoned by many Protestant and Evangelical churches. In this article, we will see what sola gratia means, where it is taught in the Bible, and see some examples of how it has been abandoned.

In Ephesians 2:8-9, the apostle Paul writes, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Clearly, this Scripture is teaching that we are saved by grace and not by works. That is sola gratia, by grace alone. There are many who teach that we are saved by grace. But their grace is laced with works. It is not grace alone. This is not just a dogma of Catholics; it is now the teaching of many Evangelicals and other Protestants. Since the way we are saved is at the heart of the Gospel, the straying from sola gratia corrupts the very Gospel itself.


“Grace” in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word charis. Charis is related to the verb chairō, which means “rejoice,” “be glad,” and is even employed as a greeting, such as “hail.” Among the many ways it is used, the noun charis can refer to looks or bearing, that is, physical beauty (of a person or thing) or beautiful way of doing things. It can also refer to favor shown to someone. It can refer to the recipient’s sense of the favor received—thankfulness or gratitude. And it can refer to the favor itself—either as given or received: e.g. “I did him a favor because I like him,” and, “I received the favor with delight.”

Notice that charis is not worked for. It is given or received freely. Thus, when the Bible says, “For by grace are ye saved…,” it is saying that we are saved by an unearned favor.

Salvation by Grace Alone

By its very definition, grace cannot be accompanied by our works. If God saves us by grace, He is doing it by unearned favor, not as a reward for our works. When we receive salvation by grace, we receive it as a favor we have not worked for. Paul is writing of this concept in Romans 11:6: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” In other words, as a means of giving or receiving something, grace and works are mutually exclusive. God is not looking at our works when He gives us salvation. Our works have nothing to do with our receiving salvation. Thus, according to both the definition of the word and its use in Scripture, grace must mean grace alone—sola gratia.

The Catholic Church’s Position

Pope Benedict XVI
Wikimedia/GNU Free Documentation License

Despite the fact that it is both self-evident and stated in the Bible that grace is grace alone without works, there have been and are plenty of Protestant and Evangelical theologians, some of them quite well-known, who teach the opposite. Before giving some examples of these, it might be helpful if we look at what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. It would be far too lengthy to discuss this in detail—Catholic dogma is anything but simple and straightforward. But I believe that looking at a few quotes from the Catholic Church will enable us to draw an accurate and fair conclusion about whether the Roman Catholic Church believes in salvation by grace alone minus any works on our part.

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema
Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 9

Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, so that “we too might walk in newness of life,”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 977

Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2010

Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as ‘the second plank (of salvation) after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1446

These points are explained a little more thoroughly and technically in the following:

Christian faith teaches us that the Incarnate Son of God by His death on the cross has in our stead fully satisfied God’s anger at our sins, and thereby effected a reconciliation between the world and its Creator. Not, however, as though nothing were now left to be done by man, or as though he were now restored to the state of original innocence, whether he wills it or not; on the contrary, God and Christ demand of him that he make the fruits of the Sacrifice of the Cross his own by personal exertion and co-operation with grace, by justifying faith and the reception of baptism. It is a defined article of the Catholic Faith that man before, in, and after justification derives his whole capability of meriting and satisfying, as well as his actual merits and satisfactions, solely from the infinite treasure of merits which Christ gained for us on the Cross (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. VI, cap. xvi; Sess. XIV, cap. viii).

The second kind of satisfaction, that namely by which temporal punishment is removed, consists in this, that the penitent after his justification gradually cancels the temporal punishments due to his sins, either ex opere operato, by conscientiously performing the penance imposed on him by his confessor, or ex opere operantis, by self-imposed penances (such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc.) and by bearing patiently the sufferings and trials sent by God; if he neglects this, he will have to give full satisfaction (satispassio) in the pains of purgatory (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, can. xiii, in Denzinger, n. 923).
Joseph Pohle, “Merit.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 10 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911)

In summary, Roman Catholic doctrine says that Jesus Christ gained an infinite treasure of merit for us but that they become ours only when we cooperate with grace by doing good works. Further, temporal punishments for sins can also be cancelled by good works. If this is not done, then satisfaction must be done in purgatory. Thus, even though they say that the merits were originally gained by Christ, according to Catholicism, our good works are necessary to our salvation. Thus, the Catholic Church teaches that salvation is obtained, not by grace alone without works, but by grace accompanied by works.

Some might say that the Roman Catholic position is what is taught in the Bible by James when he says, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). In fact, James does not at all mean to say that we must perform works to receive salvation. For more information, please read my article, “Does James Contradict Paul?

The Position of the Reformers

In contrast to the Catholic position, Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote,

Martin LutherThe first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us … Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark 13:31).
Martin Luther, “The Smalcald Articles,” Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005) 289, Part two, Article 1

In the Small Catechism prepared by Luther, we find this:

Of Sanctification.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; one holy Christian Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

What does this mean?—Answer.

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

Notice that Luther describes sanctification by first addressing our helplessness. He then speaks of sanctification as the work of the Holy Spirit, who “sanctified and kept me in the true faith” and “sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith,” thus also associating sanctification with what the Holy Spirit leads us to believe. Our own works are nowhere in evidence here.

On a side note, I want to point out that Luther’s idea of sanctification is so closely tied to justification that he has been accused of not properly distinguishing the two. Of Luther, John Wesley asked, “And who was more ignorant of the doctrine of sanctification, or more confused in his conception of it?” These paragraphs are from Martin Luther On Sanctification by Elmer L. Towns:

This misunderstanding of Luther’s concept of sanctification might have arisen because he uses Paul’s first-century message of grace as opposed to works to attack legalistic salvation found in the sixteenth-century church. Because of Luther’s emphasis on grace and liberty, many might accuse him of a weak concept of sanctification or an antinomian basis for the Christian Life.

Actually, Luther’s concept of sanctification is difficult to understand without looking at his doctrine of justification. Both doctrines for Luther are grounded in the Person of God. “But the fact is, that for Luther, justification and sanctification, although distinguishable in theory, are quite inseparable in factors” (Philip S. Watson, Let God Be God, p. 171). Luther goes on to state, “Justification and sanctification are related like cause and effect and from the presence of the effect we may conclude that the cause is at work” (Ewald M. Plass [ed.], What Luther Says, p. 723).

Where many people try to add something to grace is in their misconception of sanctification. They may understand justification as being by grace alone, but then they think the Christian must sanctify himself by keeping the law. There are times that Luther can also sound like this, but read here how he defines the law for a Christian:

First, we must receive the Holy Spirit, who enlightens and sanctifies us so that we can begin to do the Law, i.e., to love God and our neighbor. Now, the Holy Ghost is not obtained by the Law, but by faith in Christ. In the last analysis, to do the Law means to believe in Jesus Christ. The tree comes first, and then come the fruits.
Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (Translated by Theodore Graebner, December 1998, Kindle Locations 1424-1426)

For Luther, the Holy Spirit sanctifies us and the law is to believe in Jesus Christ. Notice the similarity to 1 John 3:23-24: “And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.” This is salvation by grace alone accomplished freely by the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 2012 Peter Ditzel