Denying Sola Gratia—Within the Church
One of the earlier Protestants to turn from the Five Solas was Jacobus (or James) Arminius (1560-1609). He is the namesake for the belief system known as Arminianism. In summary, Arminianism teaches that: 1) Election is conditioned on foreseen faith. 2) Christ’s death is for all, but only those who believe on Him are forgiven. 3) Fallen man is unable to do good or exercise saving faith without first being regenerated. 4) Grace is resistible. 5) Grace is able to preserve one through temptation, but man may still fall from grace and lose his salvation.
Notice that this theology teaches that God looks ahead in time to see whether someone will exercise faith. This would make faith, not an instrument to receive justification, but a criterion for God electing someone in the first place. This makes our election, and therefore our calling, dependent on our work of faith. Scripture specifically denies this in 2 Timothy 1:9: “Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” Arminianism also says that Christ’s death is for all, that man may accept or reject grace, and that whether a man is saved or not depends on his own actions. In short, salvation is dependent on the works of man, not God’s grace. Thus, Arminianism denies salvation by grace alone.
Charles Finney (1792-1875) is often considered to be the father of modern revivalism, the creator of the altar call, and the idea of making a decision for Christ (“decisionism”). Of Finney, Dr. Michael Horton says, “He is particularly esteemed among the leaders of the Christian Right and the Christian Left, by both Jerry Falwell and Jim Wallis (Sojournersmagazine), and his imprint can be seen in movements that appear to be diverse, but in reality are merely heirs to Finney’s legacy. From the Vineyard movement and the Church Growth Movement to the political and social crusades, televangelism, and the Promise Keepers movement, as a former Wheaton College president rather glowingly cheered, ‘Finney, lives on!'” (“The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney).” In his Lectures in Systematic Theology, 1851, Finney wrote,
Objection. Does a Christian cease to be a Christian, whenever he commits a sin? I answer:
1. Whenever he sins, he must, for the time being, cease to be holy. This is self-evident.
2. Whenever he sins, he must be condemned. He must incur the penalty of the law of God. If he does not, it must be because the law of God is abrogated. But if the law of God be abrogated, he has no rule of duty; consequently, can neither be holy nor sinful. If it be said that the precept is still binding upon him, but that, with respect to the Christian, the penalty is for ever set aside, or abrogated, I reply—that to abrogate the penalty is to repeal the precept; for a precept without penalty is no law. It is only counsel or advice. The Christian, therefore, is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys; or Antinomianism is true.
3. When the Christian sins, he must repent, and “do his first works,” or he will perish.
4. Until he repents he cannot be forgiven. In these respects, then, the sinning Christian and the unconverted sinner are upon precisely the same ground.
But again, to the question, can man be justified while sin remains in him? Surely he cannot, either upon legal or gospel principles, unless the law be repealed. That he cannot be justified by the law, while there is a particle of sin in him, is too plain to need proof. But can he be pardoned and accepted, and then justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him? Certainly not. For the law, unless it be repealed, and antinomianism be true, continues to condemn him while there is any degree of sin in him. It is a contradiction to say, that he can both be pardoned, and at the same time condemned. But if he is all the time coming short of full obedience, there never is a moment in which the law is not uttering its curses against him. “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.” The fact is, there never has been, and there never can be, any such thing as sin without condemnation. “Beloved, if our own heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart;” that, is, he much more condemns us. “But if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God.” God cannot repeal the law. It is not founded in his arbitrary will. It is as unalterable and unrepealable as his own nature. God can never repeal nor alter it. He can, for Christ’s sake, dispense with the execution of the penalty, when the subject has returned to full present obedience to the precept, but in no other case, and upon no other possible conditions. To affirm that he can, is to affirm that God can alter the immutable and eternal principles of moral law and moral government….
Whenever a Christian sins he comes under condemnation, and must repent and do his first works, or be lost.
But if Christ owed personal obedience to the moral law, then his obedience could no more than justify himself. It can never be imputed to us. He was bound for himself to love God with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and his neighbour as himself. He did no more than this. He could do no more. It was naturally impossible, then, for him to obey in our behalf. This doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s obedience to the moral law to us, is based upon the absurd assumptions, (1.) That the moral law is founded in the arbitrary will of God, and (2.) That of course, Christ, as God, owed no obedience to it; both of which assumptions are absurd. But if these assumptions are given up, what becomes of the doctrine of an imputed righteousness, as a ground of a forensic justification? “It vanishes into thin air.”
The atonement would present to creatures the highest possible motives to virtue. Example is the highest moral influence that can be exerted. If God, or any other being, would make others benevolent, he must manifest benevolence himself. If the benevolence manifested in the atonement does not subdue the selfishness of sinners, their case is hopeless.
It is obvious from this that Finney taught that Jesus Christ justified no one, and that Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to anyone. Charles Finney asserted that the atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross was merely an example, a moral influence, a motive to virtue. He believed that our salvation was entirely dependent on our perfectly keeping the law. Charles Finney did not believe in salvation by grace alone.
A number of twenty and twenty-first century evangelicals also teach doctrines that are logically inconsistent with sola gratia. Televangelist and sometime politician, Pat Robertson, has this to say about salvation:
First, God says, “You are righteous by faith,” then He gives you the Holy Spirit so that you can live righteously. Once you have been born again, you live the righteous demands of the law by the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is the process of regeneration that turns a sinner into a saint, fit for God’s kingdom.”
Pat Robertson, Answers to 200 of Life’s Most Probing Questions (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984) 208
In this quote, Robertson completely botches the ordo salutis, or order of salvation, and he incorrectly treats being being born again as something different from regeneration (in reality, they are synonyms). But more to the point, Pat Robertson teaches that what turns a sinner into a saint fit for God’s kingdom is living by the righteous demands of the law. Although Robertson gives lip-service to being “righteous by faith,” he is really teaching a works salvation that makes a mockery of the justification and sanctification obtained for us by Jesus. Thus, Pat Robertson’s teachings contradict sola gratia.
Pastor, writer, and radio broadcaster John Piper also promotes beliefs logically disagreeing with sola gratia. In his book, The Purifying Power of Living by Faith in…Future Grace (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 1995), he writes, “All the covenants of God are conditional covenants of grace—both the old covenant and the new covenant (248).” This statement has two major problems: 1) Not all of God’s covenants are covenants of grace. The Old Covenant is a covenant of works based on obedience to the law. 2) The term “conditional covenant of grace” is self-contradictory. A covenant that is based on a condition—a work we do—is not a covenant of grace. So what is Piper really getting at concerning these covenants? He goes on to explain: “They offer all-sufficient future grace for those who keep the covenant” (ibid.). Notice that for John Piper, God will give grace in the future to those who are obedient to the covenant. But, as we have already seen, that would be a reward based on works. So-called “future grace for those who keep the covenant” is not grace at all because grace is favor that is freely given. It is not based on obedience or works.
In commenting on this same book by John Piper, John Robbins wrote:
In chapter 19, “How Many Conditions Are There?” Piper actually enumerates 11 conditions we must meet if we want any “future grace”: loving God, being humble, drawing near to God, crying out to God from the heart, fearing God, delighting in God, hoping in God, taking refuge in God, waiting for God, trusting in God, and keeping God’s covenant, which he says is the summary of the first 10. Piper proclaims: “I am hard pressed to imagine something more important for our lives than fulfilling the covenant that God has made with us for our final salvation” (249). Consider his words carefully. Piper does not mean that the work of Christ in perfectly fulfilling the covenant on behalf of his people is the most important thing he can think of for our final salvation; he says that we personally, or as he says, “experientially,” fulfill the covenant on our own behalf, and that our fulfillment of the covenant is the most important thing for our final salvation. We ourselves “fulfill the covenant that God has made with us for our final salvation.” Furthermore, keep in mind his description of “future grace”: “the heart-strengthening power that comes from the Holy Spirit….is virtually the same as what I mean by future grace.” Therefore, if we fulfill the conditions required of us, if we obey the covenant, then God will give us “the heart-strengthening power that comes from the Holy Spirit,” and we will be saved. This is not the Gospel. It is a pious fraud.
John W. Robbins, “Pied Piper,” The Trinity Review, June-July 2002 (Unicoi, Tennessee: The Trinity Foundation) 7
Most Are More Subtle
I don’t want to give you the impression that most who deny sola gratia do so openly. Aside from the more blatant cult leaders, most who teach against grace alone give open lip service to it but logically deny it in their teachings. Anyone who adds anything to grace is contradicting grace alone. For example, those who teach that one must be baptized to be saved, are obviously implying that salvation is not by grace alone. Those who say that any point of any law must be obeyed for salvation, are essentially saying that grace alone is not the means of salvation. If you look for this, you will find that it is common.
Our Legal Obligation Has Been Paid
To say that we are saved by grace alone means that we have no legal obligation to obey any law. It means that our entire salvation—our election, our regeneration, our justification, our adoption, our sanctification, our glorification, and so on—is all by grace, entirely free of any obligation or requirement or earning of merit on our part. Our entire salvation from beginning to end has been entirely accomplished by Jesus. He has done it all for us. It is very purposefully that Jesus called the cup of wine that symbolizes His blood in the Lord’s Supper, “the new testament [or “covenant”—it is the same word in the Greek] in my blood.” By spilling His blood and giving His life (the life is in the blood—Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:14), Jesus paid the penalty for all of our sins and placed us under the New Covenant, and under the New Covenant, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1). The New Covenant has laws, but no condemnation. We conform to those laws voluntarily as we are led by the Spirit, but the fact that there is no condemnation allows us to be the flawed people we are without living under the threat of damnation every time we sin. It also allows God to do what He wants, which is to save us entirely by grace through His Son.
Sovereign Grace Baptist Henry Mahan, commenting on John 1:17 (“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ”) said this:
The Grace which saves a sinner is not moral weakness nor a mere sentimental invitation; but it is the Grace of God (Who cannot lie) which is established on the principles of a law honored and justice satisfied by our Redeemer. The Grace of Christ does not set aside the Law and its requirements. No! It establishes the Law! Grace establishes the Law because it has a Substitute who perfectly fulfilled every jot and tittle and endured the penalty of sin for all who believe. Law manifests what is in men—sin! Grace manifests what is in God—love! Law demands righteousness from men! Grace brings the righteousness of God to men! Law sentences men to death! Grace gives life to dead men! Law speaks of what men must do! Grace tells what Christ has done. Law gives a knowledge of sin! Grace puts sin away! Puts it away forever to be remembered no more.”
Jesus obeyed His Father’s commandments so that His righteousness could be imputed to us who believe on Him as our Savior and are thereby saved entirely by grace. Certainly, we show outwardly in our lives the salvation God is working in us. In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul writes, “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” This doesn’t mean we are perfect in this, and sometimes we get frustrated with ourselves, wondering, “How can a wretch like me be saved?” Of course, the answer is, “By God’s grace alone.” One of the ways that God works His salvation in us is through His Word, the Bible. That’s why Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Reading or hearing the Bible is not a work that saves us. Otherwise, anyone who reads or hears the Bible would be saved, and that is certainly not the case. No, it is only when people who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them hear or read God’s Word that the Holy Spirit uses that to change their minds, sanctifying them, making them holy. As we become more holy, we may sometimes feel an increasing discouragement over our sins. This may cause us to turn from Christ to ourselves and doubt our salvation. But it may be, in fact, simply because we are becoming more sensitive to our sins. This is why we must not trust our salvation to our works or our feelings. We must trust our salvation to God who saves us by His grace alone, and we must keep our eyes focused on our Savior, Jesus Christ alone.
Solus Christus or Solo Christo—”Christ alone” or “through Christ alone” will be the subject of the next installment in this series.
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Copyright © 2012 Peter Ditzel