The phrase “by the grace of God” is so common these days that it may almost seem meaningless. But for Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, being saved by the grace of God alone (aka sola gratia—the fourth sola in our solas series) was essential to understanding salvation.

The Five Solas of the Reformation: Sola Gratia

Indeed, for Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers, any denial of sola gratia meant that people could save themselves apart from God. This, they taught, was against everything the Bible teaches about humanity and God.

This is why it’s really important for Christians and non-Christians alike to really get what sola gratia means. The truth of the entire gospel depends on it.

Sola Gratia Means That God Does It All

Sola gratia means that salvation is solely by God’s grace. In embracing sola gratia, the Reformers sought to refocus Christian teaching on the unconditional love and mercy of God. They rejected the idea that people can contribute to their salvation through righteous deeds, asserting that such attempts are useless in the face of God’s infinite grace.

This matches up with the biblical teaching that salvation is a gift, as Ephesians 2:8-9 says “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.”

Put differently, sola gratia doesn’t imply that God has completed the majority of the work for our salvation, leaving a small portion for us to contribute. This would place human works in a controlling position, suggesting that our salvation hinges on our own actions. Instead, sola gratia teaches that God’s grace exclusively acts to save us for the entirety of our lives.

Martin Luther wrote a lot about this in his day. In fact, it was this very truth that led him to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. He says:

No man can be thoroughly humbled until he knows that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, devices, endeavors, will, and works, and depends entirely on the choice, will, and work of another, namely, of God alone. For as long as he is persuaded that he himself can do even the least thing toward his salvation, he retains some self-confidence and does not altogether despair of himself … But when a man has no doubt that everything depends on the will of God, then he completely despairs of himself and chooses nothing for himself, but waits for God to work; then he has come close to grace. (Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Luther’s Works, Vol 33)

When we recognize that everything hinges on God’s will and not our own actions, we draw closer to understanding the true goodness of His grace.

Grace Does Not Excuse Evil

From its origin to execution, salvation stands as God’s own undertaking for wicked and underserving people. It is an act of God’s free will to rescue us. We are ugly and evil on our own, but God looks down on us and extends mercy purely because He is gracious.

Does this mean that God just ignores our evil tendencies? Absolutely not! Instead, as the Reformers have pointed out, the profound nature of grace was illustrated in the Old Testament through the animal sacrifices and perfected in the New Testament through the person and work of Jesus Christ—innocent blood shed for the cleansing of another.

Grace, rooted in the sacrificial love of God through His Son, does not grant permission for wrongdoing. Rather, it highlights the profound forgiveness provided by the sacrifice of Jesus. It emphasizes the transformative power of this grace, calling individuals to turn away from evil and embrace a life lived in gratitude for this sacrifice.

Grace Is Controversial

Throughout history, the concept of grace has been a source of controversy. In Martin Luther’s day, the concept of works-based righteousness played a significant role in the understanding of salvation. The Roman Catholic Church held to the idea that salvation involved a cooperative effort between human works and God’s grace. This perspective was deeply influenced by teachings and practices that emphasized the importance of sacraments, good deeds, and adherence to religious rituals as a means of earning God’s favor.

Today, while many Christians no longer believe in the need to do good deeds in order to be saved, we are often inundated by a world that tells us to do more and to be better. There are many important causes, like taking care of the environment or helping orphans, and people sometimes think getting involved in these things makes them “good people” —worthy of heaven. But while those actions are admirable, they won’t save you and make you worthy.

Instead, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” God bestows on us worthiness through His son. God’s grace gives us true rest by releasing us from ourselves and setting us to be completely dependent on Him.

Grace Is for You

The teaching of sola gratia should help us understand how great God truly is. God looked down at us–stupid and wicked as we are–and He forgives us, He treats us like we are righteous, He treats us as His own children, and He saves us out of sheer grace.

This grace is not for those we think of as good; it is for ordinary people like you and me. It is for everyone who believes in the name of Jesus—cling to Him, and by the grace of God, you will be saved.