The nature of the Divine goodness is not only to open to those who knock. but also to cause them to knock and ask.
— Augustine of Hippo
In the 5th century, a monk, by the name of Augustine of Hippo, took notice of an important teaching found in the Bible. He found that the Bible taught what he called “original sin,” which was the belief that mankind was affected by the sin of Adam and Eve, to the point that we had become radically depraved. He found this through biblical studies, as well as by noticing behavioral flaws. Up until that time, the majority of theologians believed that the source of sin was a person’s hate for his fellow man. Augustine argued that sin was from hatred against God. He believed that this was the cause of our innate sinful desires and that the good works of mankind will not do any good against a holy and righteous God.
However, Augustine taught that though mankind was totally depraved, God had a plan to save a remnant of mankind. He taught, after studying the Scriptures, that it was only by God’s grace that anyone could believe. He also taught that God gave this grace to those whom He predestined, and the ones who were predestined didn’t do anything to deserve that grace, but it was solely because God was love. Furthermore, Augustine taught that God’s grace was unmerited, irresistible, and enough to preserve His elect. Not all men were willing to accept that.
Around the same time, there was a British monk, Pelagius, who taught that man had complete free will, and that man could choose to obey God’s call in the natural state. He didn’t believe in original sin, in grace being a unmerited favor, and he didn’t believe in predestination. He believed that man was innately good, and that to believe in the Augustinian view of grace was to be a pagan. To Pelagius, God’s grace was the gift of absolute free will, and he believed that sin was only a result of not realizing our own good.
In 418 A.D., Pelagius was declared a heretic, along with his followers. Though there were forms of Semi-Pelagianism that tried to bridge the teachings of grace and free will together, many church fathers still believed that it was heresy. Was Roman Catholicism still believing in apostasy? In many areas, yes. However, for many centuries, a great number of pastors and theologians refused to believe and uphold doctrines that were not held according to the Bible, and that included that God’s grace was completely sufficient for salvation. That all changed however in the dark ages, and that “most” turned into the “few.”
In the 16th century, the Catholics came to believe in something called synergism, which was the belief that God and man worked together to attain individual righteousness. Their proof? Passages that Pelagius cited. That’s right… they went back to Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. The logic behind these theologians was that there were Scriptures that said things like “choose Me”, “come to Me”, or “if thou art willing”.
It wasn’t until Martin Luther came along that the subject was brought up again, and the view of synergism was called into question. In Luther’s work entitled On the Bondage of the Will (one of my all-time favorite books), he made a response to the arguments made by the synergists, which could only be described as genius and hilarious:
“Even grammarians and schoolboys on street corners know that nothing more is signified by verbs in the imperative mood than what ought to be done, and that what is done or can be done should be expressed by words in the indicative. How is it that you theologians are twice as stupid as schoolboys, in that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning, as though the moment a thing is commanded it is done, or can be done?… The passages of Scripture you cite are imperative; and they prove and establish nothing about the ability of man, but only lay down what is and what not to be done.”
What Martin Luther said at the end of his work still moves my spirit and shows all of us how important the subject of sola gratia is:
“But now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him.”
What was an important aspect of the Reformation? Going back to the teachings of the Scriptures, to the teachings of Augustine of Hippo, and to the many church fathers prior concerning the issue of grace. The purpose of sola gratia was to draw the attention away from ourselves and to realize that it was only through God’s sovereign grace that anyone can be saved. The reformers knew that contrary to the view of Pelagianists and Semi-Pelagianists, synergists, and Arminians, man could only be saved by grace alone. What is grace? Grace comes from the Greek word “karis/karin”, and it means “unmerited favor”. This means that we are saved not because of our own works or free will, but because God had predestined us to Himself out of His own love and mercy.
Some may wonder as to why Reformed Christians (Presbyterian, Reformed Baptists, and Lutherans, etc.) don’t believe that good works can please God. After all, isn’t it possible for man to do good things once in a while? Isaiah 64:6 (ESV) says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Apart from God, no man is righteous, nor is he able to do any good works.
There will still be more people who will ask if it is possible to have both. Can grace and free will co-exist? Is it possible that man can choose God, and then God would give His grace to the one who chose Him? Could God predestine those who He foreknew would love Him? Romans 11:6 (ESV) says, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” The Bible makes it abundantly clear: grace and free will can’t co-exist because man does not will to please God, but instead wills to live a life of sin. God cannot give grace, which is defined as “unmerited favor”, to people who would love Him or choose Him. If that’s the case, then that means God love is not based on His own merit, but the merits of the person.
Sola gratia, my friends. No person can be saved apart from the grace that God has given us. As Ashton pointed out in the post on sola fide (click here if you haven’t read the amazing post), faith is a gift that is granted to us by God. Faith is what justifies us before God, and the imputed righteousness of Christ is what gives us right standing. But, why would He save people that didn’t deserve anything but punishment for their sin? What did man do to earn Christ’s right standing before God the Father? Man did nothing. Man didn’t barter a deal with God, negotiate with God, and man couldn’t earn forgiveness from God. Grace is the reason for why God would give us faith, that it is all because of His undeserved love for the elect. Without grace, and grace alone, there would be nothing left but for God to punish us (and rightly so) for rebelling against Him.
The question remains though: can we fall out of grace? Are you ready for this? NO! Isn’t that amazing?! Because we are saved by God’s grace, and grace alone, then we have all confidence in Him. If my salvation was earned, or if my salvation was given to me because of my choice, then it would make sense that I could lose it. But if God is the one who gave His gift of salvation to me and my salvation is in His hands, there is no way I can fall from His grace. To believe that anyone from the elect can lose their salvation is to make God a liar, and to go against the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Romans 8:38-39 (ESV) clearly says, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I stand with Augustine, Martin Luther, and all the early reformers that took Scripture at face value. Even at a time such as this, when many churches are even forgetting that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, and when the heresy of synergism and Semi-Pelagianism is seen as the common view of soteriology, we must stand and declare that salvation is sola gratia (by grace alone). May God continue to pour out His grace, and may this following passage (which is my personal favorite from the entire Bible) ring true to our ears:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV)
Soli Deo Gloria.