Episode 132 - The Reformation: Grace Alone

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For the last two weeks, and for the next two weeks after this week, we will be talking about the solas of the Reformation, these statements of some “doctrine alone.” For instance, the first week we talked about sola scriptura, that scripture alone is the sole, infallible rule of faith for the church. Then we talked about sola fide, that salvation comes through faith alone, not by faith and works. We looked at Ephesians 2, a passage we'll go back to some this week, to establish that the actual faith through which salvation comes is itself a gift of God.

That leads us today to sola gratia, grace alone, that salvation is by the grace of God alone. Sola gratia, grace alone, simultaneously affirms two things. The first is man's inability to save himself or even to desire God. The second thing that's affirmed (because of the first) is that God needs to decisively and unilaterally make the sinner a new creation if he's going to be saved at all.

To use some biblical terminology, God needs to, by the Holy Spirit, take out the heart of stone and give the person a heart of flesh (Ez. 11:19) before they could even ever have desires for God. Sinful man does not desire the things of God (Rom. 3). Sinful man does not desire to please God. Sinful man does not desire to submit to God. Sola gratia explains how one actually comes to salvation.

Because, when it comes to salvation, one of the biggest practical questions we have to answer is: Why did I choose to believe the Gospel and commit my life to Christ when my neighbor, my friend, my coworker, who heard the same Gospel, chose to reject it? What differentiates one person from another when it comes to if they are a Christian or become a Christian or not?

Unless it's something decisive in God, then that means it lies in the person. Is it that a person is more moral, they were more desirous of the things of God, they understand the Gospel better, they cared more, they were more sensitive to the things of the Spirit? If it's any of those things, then the person, the sinner who comes to faith, has something to boast in. Then this detracts, ultimately, from God alone getting the glory, which is what we see one of the main purposes of salvation is in Ephesians 1. God did all these things to effect salvation for a people so that he would be praised for his grace, “to the praise of his glorious grace,” Paul says in Ephesians 1.

When we talk about this term of sola gratia, grace alone, at the least what we mean is that our salvation from the wrath of God is because of something good that God did, not because of something good we did. Let's look at a few passages. Because, if you remember, scripture alone is the highest authority for the Christian so we need to form our doctrines out of scripture. We're going to be back in Ephesians 2 today and also spend some time in John 6.

Ephesians 2 starts out,

“Though you were dead in your transgressions and sin,"

and Paul goes on to say some more, "dead in transgressions and sin," not sick, not handicapped, not slightly disabled. No. Dead. Spiritually you were dead. He gives us some more context here in verse four.

“But God, being rich in mercy because of the great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in our transgressions, he made us alive together with Christ... By grace you have been saved!”

Paul basically interrupts himself to make that last point.

We have to ask and answer this question: What is the state of the sinner before salvation? Is he just somewhat of a blank slate? Can he make up his mind correctly with regards to God? Could he desire the things of God. Does he care but not as much as he should? Biblically speaking, that's not an option.

Paul says in Romans 8 that the person in the flesh, the non-Christian, does not submit to the law of God and cannot do so. He can't do anything pleasing to God (Rom. 8:7-8). In other words, he can't repent. He can't place his trust in God apart from God's gracious act that we'll talk about in a minute. He can't live for God. He can't even care about living for God, because he's not sick, he's dead in his sin. He has a heart of stone. A heart of stone does not have affections for God.

If we're going to take Paul and the biblical writers, and ultimately the Holy Spirit, speaking through them at their word and let terms have their natural meaning, “dead” is the worst state someone could be in. If we could imagine a worse spiritual state than dead, then that is what dead actually is. Let's not soften the spiritual imagery of stones, children of disobedience, sons of wrath, and being dead in sin. If you are dead, you cannot make yourself alive.

This leads us to why Paul interrupts himself in the middle of a sentence to say that we were “made alive together with Christ.” “By grace we have been saved.” It is God who via a sovereign decisive work takes out the heart of stone and puts in a heart of flesh. Because dead men don't even request to be saved. God must take that action by grace.

Paul goes on to say that

”He raised us up and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Jesus."

(As an aside, that's something that has happened. Paul is using the past tense here. You are already seated in the heavenly realms in Christ, positionally, if you are a Christian. That's just something that will blow our minds and we can think much more about at a later point!)

He continues that

“it is by grace you have been saved through faith. This is not from yourselves. It's the gift of God. It's not from works so that no one can boast.”

Paul is concerned here with removing the ability to boast. I'll return to where we started today. If man could say, "I had the opportunity to go either way. I had the capacity to choose God," then doesn't he have some type of glory that he could boast in? If I had this moral capacity, and wasn’t fully dead in sin, why couldn't I boast if that was the case? If I made a choice that someone else was fully able to make, that we all had the same capacity, and some of us made it and some of us didn't, boasting would not be excluded.

But Paul here, whatever he's saying, he intends it to exclude boasting. The most natural reading is that this grace that we have been saved by is a sovereign work of God. We talked last week about how grammatically grace, salvation, and faith in this sentence are all gifts of God.

I think there's this tendency for us often to have too anemic of a view of grace, where grace is kind of this abstract notion where we might define it as God's unmerited favor. “When it rains on the just and the unjust,” there's some common grace there.

But even the fact that we would call something common grace points to this idea that there is an uncommon, specific grace. When we come to salvation, we're not talking about an abstract kind of unmerited kindness where God made something available and someone could take advantage of it if they wanted. No, as Bright says, “Grace is a force in the spiritual order. It's not simply God's unmerited kindness in the abstract. No, it is such kindness in action as a movement of his Holy Spirit within the soul resulting from the incarnation and imparting to the will the affections in a new capacity of obedience and love.”

You see, after the fall it was not possible for man to not sin. But, that's because of his nature and his innate moral capacities, which are actually extremely damaged. He cannot not sin because he is dead in sin. He's a slave to sin. God has to set us free from that and give us new capacities, new desires such that we even want to live for him and obey him and love him. That's what Paul is saying here. When we were dead, God gave us those new capacities via specific application of grace, which is a force, not an abstract idea and concept but something that is actually effective at accomplishing its desired ends.

Before we move on here, I do want to clarify one thing. Paul does use the word “gift” here in Ephesians 2. I said last week we have a very western idea of a gift. The type of gift Paul has in mind here is not the type of gift that's on the table as an option that the child could ignore on Christmas day because it was overlooked. It's the type of gift where, while your family is on a vacation your friends come together, gut your house, and redo it with some type of “extreme home makeover.” You cannot choose to reject that gift. It has been done decisively. That's the type of gift God's grace is. Because there's a fundamental problem. The dead person in sin cannot want the gift of God because they don't see it as glorious.

I think this is what John is capturing in Jesus' words in John 3:3, where he says,

”I tell you the solemn truth. Unless a person is born from above, he can't see the kingdom of God.”

You can't see and understand and appreciate spiritual things unless you actually have been already born again.

This is what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 1:18, where he says

"the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to those who are being saved, it's the power of God."

There are only two groups, two groups in Romans 8: in the flesh, can't please God; in the spirit, can please God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 also has two groups: dead in sin, foolish, perishing, or those who are saved/being saved.

What accounts for someone not seeing the cross as foolishness? God has given them a new heart, new desires. Because if everyone who is not saved sees the cross as foolish, you have to answer the question: How does someone come to see the cross as not foolish? God has to change their mind, change their heart, and give them belief.

That's actually what Jesus is talking about further on in John 6. The disciples say,

”What must we do to accomplish the deeds God requires from us?"

They're thinking works here. Jesus requires,

”This is the deed: God requires to believe in the one whom he sent,"

to believe in Jesus. That's what is required for salvation from man's perspective and responsibility.

Then in verse 36 Jesus says,

“But I told you that you've seen me and still don't believe.”

So the question is why don't they believe? He's going to go on to make the point that they don't have the ability, apart from God's sovereign work of grace in their life. This is what he says in verse 37.

“Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away, for I've come down from heaven to do not my own will but the will of the one who sent me. Now this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose any one person of everyone he has given me, but raise them all up on the last day."

He repeats,

“For this is the will of my Father. For everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him to have eternal life, and I'll raise him up on the last day."

What Jesus is saying here in response to the question of people not believing is that people have not been given the ability by God to believe, at least in this specific case he's looking at. I think this is a general point too. In order for someone to come to Jesus the Father specifically gives that person to Jesus. The specific people the Father gives to Jesus, by Jesus' own words here, will come to him and Jesus will lose none, and he will raise them all up on the last day.

He says that he is the “bread of life” who's “come down from heaven.” Then the Jews become hostile. Why? Because they haven't been granted the ability to believe. In verse 44 he says again,

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him [literally “the one coming”] up at the last day.”

If you are coming to Jesus it is because the Father has given you, and if you are coming, you will continue to come and you will be raised up to glory on the last day.

In verse 61 in the same passage Jesus asks the disciples,

“Does this cause you to be offended?"

Another way to translate that would be, "Or does this cause you to no longer believe?" He basically saying “If me saying I have come down from heaven and I'm the bread of life is causing you not to believe,” he then asks in verse 62,

“Then what will you do when you see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?"

In other words, the cross is going to be an even bigger stumbling block than the claims Jesus made before the cross.

Then he says this in response to this idea that people may not believe. In verse 63 he says,

“It's the spirit who is the one who gives life. Human nature is of no help. It does not contribute.”

The same idea is in Ephesians 2. The grace, the faith, the salvation, all of it is a gift of God to the sinful person. It's effective at what it is intended to accomplish. It's not just Jesus tossing it out there on a hope and a prayer. No, as we see in verse 63,

“It's the spirit who gives life. Human nature does not help and contribute in that process.”

It can't because it's dead. It does not have affections for God.

Let's continue in verse 64 here.

“But there are some of you who do not believe. Jesus said this because he'd already known from the beginning who those were who did not believe and who is was who would betray him.”

He's not confused when people don't believe. When we read some passages and Jesus is astonished at disbelief, that doesn't mean he learned something he didn't already know or that he had a higher view of man than he was actually confronted with. (We could talk about that another day, but it can't mean that he didn't know.)

Jesus adds in verse 65,

“Because of this I already told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has allowed him to come,"

unless the Father has “given him to the Son” as he said previously. That's the only thing that makes sense. It can't be our works because we don't have the desire to do good things for God. If we did have the desire to do good things for our salvation, that would actually be a tainted type of desire because we're doing the things for salvation.

Even if you have a view where works contribute to salvation, they can't be perfectly good works because they're tainted by selfish impulses. But more than that, what we see is that, from Ephesians 2, from Jesus' words here, that man, apart from the sovereign work of specific application of grace—not grace in the abstract but grace in the specific—man cannot come to God.

The reason for this, at least in part, and I think there are several, is that God alone gets the glory for this. Remember, in Ephesians 2, Paul, whatever you think he's saying, at the end of this paragraph is saying that man does not get the glory, cannot boast for his salvation. But if man contributes even just a little bit, even the last 10th of a percent, he would have something to boast in.

In the same way that a bunch of people who participate in a relay or a marathon could boast because all participated, even if one only did the last two steps—he's on the team, he gets a trophy for it. Now he probably gets less glory than the person who maybe ran 10 miles, as it should be, but he still gets some. But that is not how it is with salvation. Salvation is from the Lord. It is a work of specific application of grace that brings the sinner to repentance, that gives them the faith that they place in God. That is how a man dead in sin can come to new spiritual life, by the work of God and good things in him, not by the work of man and anything in him. The result of this is as Paul says in Ephesians 1, that we praise God “for the glory of his grace.”

I hope that's where you find yourself. That this view and examination that we've looked at of the sovereign grace of God in salvation, that was recaptured in the Reformation and proclaimed to this day, and is taught by the biblical writers, that it actually encourages us to praise God, to have a larger view of him, to have a larger view of our sin and depravity, and to more greatly appreciate the work he actually did on the cross, where the Father had given a specific people to the Son, where the Son then atoned for those people, and later in time the Spirit applies that atonement and redemption such that dead people in their sins come to be made alive in Christ.

I'll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.