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What is a Reformed Church? (3) Sola Gratia -- By Grace Alone

by Pastor Lars Larson, PhD line

(A sermon delivered on October 5, 2008, at the First Baptist Church, Leominster, Massachusetts, USA)


          Today we will consider the third of five foundational principles that we hold and proclaim as a Reformed Baptist church.  These five general principles and beliefs were held by the Protestant Reformers of the 16th and 17th century.  They are identified by five Latin phrases or slogans, each containing the word “sola”, being translated in English as “alone” or “only.”  We have already considered Sola Scriptura and Solus Christus,meaning “by Scripture alone” and “by Christ alone.”  Today we will give our attention to sola gratia, being translated “by grace alone.”  We affirm that the Holy Scriptures teach sola gratia, that is, God saves us by His grace alone.

            III.  Sola Gratia -- by grace alone

          A.  The biblical teaching of sola gratia. -- Romans 11:1-11

          There are many places in the Scriptures to which we could turn in order to show the nature and importance of the grace of God with respect to our salvation.  But I thought for our purposes we would look at the first 11 verses of Romans 11.  Here we read of God bringing salvation to His elect out of Israel due to His grace.  Here we may obtain a basic biblical understanding of the centrality and essentiality of the grace of God in bringing salvation to us.
           Let me say a few words in way of introduction to the passage before us.  Paul wrote this letter to the church at Rome, which was comprised of both Jewish and Gentile believers.  In chapters 9, 10, and 11, Paul explains how it was that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel although Israel for the most part, refused to embrace Him as such.  Paul gave a number of reasons for this.  First of all, in Romans 9 Paul argued that one should not assume that Israel’s rejection of Jesus was due to the failure of God or His Word, as though He had attempted to save them but failed to do so.  Paul wrote, “But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect” (Rom. 9:6a).  After all, Paul reasoned, “they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (9:6b).  Paul makes it clear that there is a physical Israel--the physical descendants of Abraham, but there is also a spiritual Israel, fewer in number.  Not all those of physical Israel are members of spiritual Israel.  Paul argues that God had never intended nor had He ever promised redemption for all Jewish people.  Paul proves his point by citing the case of God choosing to be gracious to Isaac, having passed by Abraham’s older son, Ishmael (9:7-9).  And then even of Isaac’s twin sons, God did not choose them both, but rather God chose to favor the younger son, Jacob, rather than the conventional older son, Esau (Rom. 9:10-13).  Paul reasons for the justice of God in His gracious dealings with His elect and with His passing over all others.  God is free and sovereign to bestow mercy on whom He chooses to have mercy; He has compassion on those He has purposed to have compassion.  God does all things to the end that He will be glorified.  He is glorified in showing mercy to His elect; He is glorified in judging and condemning all others (9:14-23).  Since it is of His own choosing, God is free to save Gentiles also, not only Jews (9:24-29).  Having introduced the subject of Gentiles coming to salvation through Jesus Christ, Paul shows from citing Old Testament Scripture that it was God’s plan all along to save Gentiles unto Himself.   Moreover, he states that it was always in God’s plan to reject many Jews from among His people.  We read of this in Romans 9:30-33:

What shall we say then?  That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith. but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.  Why?  Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.  For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.  As it is written:

“Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense,
And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” {from Isa. 8:14; 28:16}

          In Romans 10 Paul shows that God saves all people through faith in Jesus Christ, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.  Verse 13 reads, “For whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  But then Paul showed that in order for people to come to call upon the Lord, God must work on their behalf.  He explained that it was in God’s purpose to prevent Israel from coming to Him, but that Gentiles come to faith.  He quoted Scripture again to demonstrate this was so.  Romans 10:20-21:

But Isaiah is very bold and says:
“I was found by those who did not seek Me;
I was made manifest to those who did not ask for Me.” {from Isa. 65:1}
But to Israel he says:
“All day long I have stretched
out My hands
To a disobedient and contrary people.” {from Isa. 65:2}

           We now come to Romans 11, in which Paul opens with the statement that God has not cast off Israel entirely.  God had been faithful to save Israel, for He had been saving a remnant of Jews.  Let us read our passage.

        I say then, has God cast away His people?  Certainly not!  For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.  God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew.  Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying. “Lord, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life”? {1 Kings 19:10, 14}  But what does the divine response say to him?  “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” {from 1 King 19:18}  Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace.  And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace.  But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.  What then?  Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were hardened.  Just as it is written:

God has given them a spirit of stupor,
Eyes that they should not see
And ears that they should not hear,
To this very day. {from Deut. 29:4; Isa. 29:10}

And David says:

Let their table become a snare and a trap,
A stumbling block and a recompense to them;
Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see,
And bow down their back always. {from Psalm 69:22, 23}

           What has God taught us in this passage?

            1.  God had not cast away Israel, but He has purposed only to save a remnant of them (11:1-5).

            2.  All Jews who believe on Jesus, including the apostle Paul, are of the remnant (11:1b). Paul wrote, “For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.” 

            3.  The election of the remnant from Israel was due to God’s grace (11:5).  “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace.”  God had initiated and carried out His work of salvation on their behalf.  God had chosen to save some Jews.

            4.  Their election was wholly due to God’s sovereignty in the bestowal of His grace.  Paul compares and contrasts God’s grace with man’s works.  Clearly the issue is this:  Are these people saved due to something that originated from them, something they did, some work they performed?  Or, were these people saved wholly due to God bestowing freely His grace upon them apart from who they were or what they had done?  As he declared in verse 6, “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace.  But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.”

         We see that the very essence and nature of grace is exclusionary of any thought of a man’s own effort.  The Bible most definitely teaches that salvation is wholly of God’s grace“Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).  What this is saying is that we are saved solely through the goodness and mercy of God that He chooses to extend to us.  God saves us out of His good pleasure that is extended to us only because He pleases to do so.  He does not save us because there is something about us or in us that we do in order to merit or elicit His kindness and mercy.  God’s free grace is extended to sinners because He wants to do so and chooses to do so. 
         But one of the perverse things about our sinful nature is that we desire to twist the teaching about God’s grace in salvation into something that is not biblical.  On the one hand we want to allow God to give us something freely, but on the other we want to see that we had some hand in it.  We desire to take some credit for receiving what He only bestows freely and fully to sinners.  We tend to want to assume some credit, to be ourselves the cause for God acting favorably on our behalf. 
         We resist being called “sinners”, for we do not see ourselves as really bad.  We may be weak, but not helpless.  We may fail, but we do not regard ourselves as perverse.  We may acknowledge a measure of ignorance, but not totally so.  We may acknowledge that we need some help from God, but we resist being told that we are, apart from grace, without the desire and will to lift ourselves from our condition.  We think that if we are given a little bit of instruction and a little bit of assistance, and a little bit of time, that we have it within ourselves to make up for any deficiencies that we have so as to render us acceptable to God.
          To the degree that we have this kind of thinking will be to the degree that we are robbing God of His glory in bringing us salvation.  And our God is a jealous God.  He will not allow others to take the credit for what He alone does.  He saves us in a manner so that no one can say, “By my might, by my wisdom, by my will,” I saved myself.  He saved us in a manner “that no flesh should glory (boast) in His presence” (1 Cor. 1:29).

          Now the salvation that God brings to us is entirely of grace—sola gratia—by grace alone.  Every aspect of God applying salvation to us is of His grace.   Our election by the Father was of grace.  Our initial calling to salvation was of grace.  Our ability to respond in faith and repentance to the gospel is due to grace.  Our progress unto holiness is due to His work of grace within us.  And finally, God’s grace will be fully realized to us when He brings us full and final salvation when Jesus returns and we are raised from the dead.  Let us consider these:

            1.  The grace of God in our election.

          The Bible speaks about God choosing people out of fallen humanity to be recipients of His salvation.  This selection, or election of persons by God was based on His grace alone; it is not based upon the goodness or the work of those persons.  They are sinners, chosen by grace and grace alone.  To claim that people are chosen by God for salvation because of something in and of themselves, is to say that they are saved by something other than grace.  We read, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6). 
           This election of persons to be saved was made by God even before creation.  We read this in Ephesians 1:3-6.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace by which He has made us accepted in the Beloved.

The selection by God of certain persons out of fallen humanity was not based on God foreseeing their faith or works.   He chose them and them only according to His own will and in accord with His own purposes.  Paul argued this point in Romans 9:10-13, illustrating God’s sovereignty in these matters by citing God’s choice of Jacob and His rejection of Esau.

For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.”  As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” {Mal 1:2, 3}

          For some reason known only to God, He chose you to be saved, if indeed you are saved or you will be yet be saved.  You came to know Him at some point in time when He revealed Himself to you, but the Bible says that He knew you (foreknew) you even before He created all that is.  His choice of you was by His grace for you as a sinner, not because of some thing that was desirable in you.  Remember that the very idea of grace in the Bible is that God freely extends His favor to undeserving sinners.

           But aside from the election of a people who would receive salvation freely from His hand, there is a time when God brings each of those people He had chosen to salvation.  God brings salvation to us in several stages.  He must first call us to receive salvation.

            2.  The grace of God in our calling unto salvation.

           God’s grace was at work when we came to faith in Jesus Christ and became Christians.  He called us to Himself by His grace.  Paul wrote regarding His coming to Christ: “…when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace…” (Gal. 1:15).
           Actually several acts of God’s grace were necessary in order to bring us out of condemnation into a state of being His children.  We first needed to learn of our need of salvation and the way of salvation through Christ, that is, we needed illumination of our condition and God’s remedy in Christ.  This knowledge of Who God is, of who we are as guilty, condemned and helpless sinners, of Who Christ is as the Savior of sinners, is a work of God’s grace in us.  We were in need of a work of God’s grace on our behalf in order to enable us to see God, that is, in order to know what He is like and to be able to know Him relationally.  The world is in darkness and cannot see the light of God in Christ so as to be transformed by Him.  But those who were born of God do see Him for Who He is.  John 1:14, “we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”  When God brings salvation to an individual, God Himself teaches that person that He is a sinner and that Christ is the Savior.  This is not to take away from the human instrument of the preacher or Christian witness.  But when the individual whom God intends to save hears the Word of God taught or preached, and if it is in God’s timing, God Himself opens the eyes of that person to understand the reality and importance of the truth.  God by His grace reveals Himself to us.
               And then secondly, we needed to be inclined and enabled to respond to the gospel that we came to understand--our regeneration.  Before we came to receive salvation we were spiritually dead in our sins.  What this means is that we were both incapable and unwilling to live before God.  He came to us in our spiritually dead condition and through an act of grace created life within us.  He gave us spiritual life which is seen in both the desire and the ability to respond to God as God.  Ephesians 2:1-7 record:

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.  But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

          The Bible uses several ideas to convey this act of grace.  The most common is that of being “born again”, which the Lord Jesus Himself used (cf. John 3:3ff).  The word that describes this act of grace whereby He creates new life in a dead sinner is regeneration.  We already introduced to this idea in John 1:12 and 13, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:  Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”  The Bible describes this act of regeneration as an act of God’s will toward His own.  It is not a response of God to a person’s action.  It is an act of God’s grace that He freely bestows upon a guilty sinner.
           The response of the sinner to this work of grace is further manifestations of grace within Him.  He repents of his sin and he believes on Jesus Christ as His Lord and Savior.  Repentance and saving faith are also due to the work of God’s grace with us.  In Acts 18 we read of the ministry of Apollos:

So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue.  When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.  And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ.

The Scriptures declare that not all men have faith.  Why do some have faith and others do not?   It is do to the sovereign grace of God.

                        3.  The grace of God given to us throughout life.

             The grace of God is manifest to and through the Christian throughout his life.  We are initially brought to faith in Christ by grace, and His grace sustains us throughout life.  God’s grace is manifest to us daily.  God’s grace, strengthens us, restores us, and guides us.  Peter could write, "But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.  To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever.  Amen." (1 Pet. 5:10)
              Eventually, we will receive the fullness of God’s grace at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  Peter wrote, “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 11:13).  Paul could write, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10), and if you are a Christian that is your testimony also.  Grace is a major theme of all of Scripture.  We are to proclaim God’s grace.  We are to praise His grace.  We are to defend God’s grace against any suggestion or claim that would diminish or deny God’s grace.  We affirm the biblical and the reformation teaching of sola gratia, we are saved by God’s grace alone.

            B.  Further biblical teaching of sola gratia -- 2 Timothy 18-12

          Although we examined a passage that dealt with this matter, let us look at another.  And so, let us begin by turning in our Bibles to 2 Timothy 1.

        Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.  For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day. (2 Timothy 1:8-12)

           Here is another place that affirms sola gratia.  We read of Paul encouraging Timothy to be bold in his witness for the gospel.  Timothy was to be willing to suffer for the gospel, if necessary.  Paul describes God as having “saved us and called us.”  God took the initiative to save us.  He called us into this state of salvation with a “holy calling.”  The author of our calling is holy.  His calling itself is holy.  The call is unto our own holiness, implanting within each of us who believe principles of grace and holiness, and are by them influenced to live holy lives.
           Paul declared that God saved us “not according to our works.”  Our works are not the cause of God saving us; rather, the free love and grace of God is why He determined to save us.  He alone brought salvation to us.  It was not according to our works, “but according to His own purpose and grace.”Works are the fruit of our having been called of God with a holy calling.  Our salvation is according to His purpose.  In other words, our salvation has come to us because God purposed to do it.  Our salvation is according to His grace.  He initiated it and performed it, first to last.  We are saved because He chose to do so of His own free will. This statement carries the same idea as Ephesians 1:3-9

      Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him; in love having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He has made us accepted in the Beloved.  In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself.

           We read of this grace, “which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began”:

It is a gift, and a free gift, not at all depending upon any conditions in the creature, and entirely proceeding from the sovereign will of God; and it was a gift from eternity; there was not only a purpose of grace in God’s heart, and a promise of it so early, but there was a real donation of it in eternity: and though those to whom it was given did not then personally exist, yet Christ did, and He existed as a covenant head and representative of His people; and they were in Him, as members of Him, as represented by Him, being united to Him; and this grace was given to Him for them, and to them in Him; in whom they were chosen, and in whom they were blessed with all spiritual blessings. (John Gill)

            C.  The resistance to and perversion of sola gratia.

           God saves His people by His grace, wholly by grace, not due to any work by them.  And yet, it is at this point where a great battle has ensued through the ages.  Due to our sinfulness, there is a resistance on the part of fallen man to embrace the biblical teaching of sola gratia--grace alone.  Inherent in our sinfulness is the propensity to insist there is something about us that can do something about the problem, that there are things we can do that deserves God’s favor toward us.  And yet, even when people do come to acknowledge their need of and indebtedness to grace, they react to and reject the notion of sola gratia.  There is a spirit in fallen man that insists that he must have a part, that he must take some credit for who he is and why he stands apart as the object of God’s blessing.
            There have been challenges that have arisen against sola gratia down through history.  We addressed one of these last week; which is the teaching that there is the addition of meritorious good works coupled with grace that results in salvation.  A similar issue to this is the teaching respecting the role of man’s will and its relationship to God’s work of grace in salvation.  Those, who insist man’s will and God’s grace work together bringing salvation to the believer, deny sola gratia.  They are legalists.
            Now, the Bible clearly teaches that God’s grace is the cause of man’s salvation and not man’s will.  This is not to deny that man’s will is involved in the matter of salvation, for no one will be saved who does not will to be saved.  But the Bible makes it clear that the only reason a sinner responds willingly to the command to repent and believe the gospel is because the grace of God was working in him, moving him and enabling him to believe the gospel.  Apart from God’s grace working, man is unable and unwilling to come to Christ.  Grace precedes man’s decision and enables the sinner to believe the gospel onto salvation.  Let us consider several verses that speak to this issue.

Romans 9:15f.  “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’  So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”

John 1:12f.  “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

We may consider several verses that speak of man’s inability to come to Christ willingly apart from God’s grace.

John 6:65.  “And he said, ‘Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.’”

Romans 8:5-8.  For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.  For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.  Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

1 Corinthians 2:12-14.  Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.  These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.  But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

              Man in his unregenerate state cannot come unto Christ.  He cannot submit to God’s law to repent and believe the gospel.  He cannot know the things of God.  The idea that God’s grace is coupled with man’s “free will” which then results in salvation is not taught in the Scriptures.
              Again, God saves His people by His grace, wholly by grace, not due to any work by them.  God saves His people in a way “that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7).  God saves us in such a way that we might be “to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Eph. 1:6).  Ephesians 2:8 and 9 declare, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
              And yet, it is at this point where a great battle has ensued through the ages.  Due to our sinfulness, there is a resistance on the part of fallen man to embrace the biblical teaching of sola gratia--grace alone. Inherent in our sinfulness is the propensity to insist there is something about us that deserves God’s favor toward us. And even when people do come to acknowledge their need and indebtedness to grace, they react to and reject the notion of sola gratia. There is a spirit of legalism in fallen man that insists that he must have a part, he must take some credit for who He is and why he stands apart as the object of God’s blessing.
              This sinful but natural sentiment in man was illustrated by Michael Horton in his reference to a song in The Sound of Music sung by Julie Andrews:

In The Sound of Music, Maria (Julie Andrews), bewildered by the captain’s sudden attraction to her, rhapsodizes, “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.  So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”  Deep down, human nature is convinced that there is a way for us to save ourselves.  We may indeed require divine assistance.  Perhaps God will have to show us the way, or even send a messenger to lead us back, but we can actually follow the plan and pull it off.

Horton went on to write,

      The Law is in us by nature.  We were born with a conscience that tells us that we are condemned by that Law, but our reason concludes immediately that the answer to that self-condemnation is to do better next time.  But the Gospel is not in nature.  It is not lodged somewhere in our heart, our mind, our will, or our emotions. It is an announcement that comes to us as foolishness and our first response, like that of Sarah, is to laugh.  The story is told of a man who fell off a cliff, but on his way down managed to grab a branch.  He broke his fall and saved his life, but before long he realized that he could not pull himself back up onto the ledge.  Finally, he called out, “Is there anyone up there who can help me?”  To his surprise, a voice boomed back, “I am here and I can help you, but first you’re going to have to let go of that branch.”  Thinking for a moment about his options, the man looked back up and shot back, “Is there anyone else up there who can help me?”  We are looking for someone to save us by helping us save ourselves.  But the Law tells us that even our best works are like filthy rags; the Gospel tells us that it is something in God and his character (kindness, goodness, mercy, compassion) and not something in us (a good will, a decision, an act, an open heart, etc.) that saves us.

           This was the great error of mainstream Judaism in the first century.  Most of the Jews insisted that they were in a right relationship with God because of their ethnicity or because of their privilege due them as law-keepers.  Paul wrote of them,

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.  For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.  For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.  For Christ is the end (i.e. goal) of the law of righteousness to everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:1-4)

           We are all similarly prone to self-righteousness.  Therefore, when confronted with the notion that God deals with us by grace alone, and it is made clear what that means, there is a reaction of that teaching and often times a rejection of it and its messenger.  That is why Jesus’ own neighbors would attempt to stone him in Nazareth as recorded in Luke 4..  He preached to them sola gratia.  This is why virtually all abandoned Him and even His own Twelve were tempted to do so when our Lord taught the crowds grace alone in John 6.  This is why the Jews stoned Stephen when he preached to them grace alone in Acts 7.  Sinners hate the notion of grace alone.  And even after we come to Christ we may find ourselves resisting the notion of grace alone, for we want to think that there is something worthy in us or something that we can do to secure God’s favor toward us.  People in churches, pastors of churches, resist the notion of grace alone.  Spurgeon once preached a sermon, “Religionists hate sovereign grace.”  There is animosity against those who hold forth grace if it be a true biblical teaching of grace alone.  But we will need to explain and substantiate this further another time.

            D.  Historical challenges to sola gratia

            And yet this matter of man’s will has continuously emerged over history as a challenge to the biblical teaching of sola gratia, grace alone.  One of the major opponents of grace came upon the scene in the 4th century.  His name was Pelagius.  Pelagius was born around AD 354 in the British Isles.  He was a well-educated man, fluent in both Greek and Latin, and schooled in theology.  He was generally known as a devout man who sought to live a holy life.  He traveled to Rome and soon made a name for himself.  He was a skilled orator and gathered a number of faithful followers of himself. 
            In about AD 405 Pelagius heard a quotation from Augustine, in his book, Confessions, which read, “Give me what you command and command what you will.”  Augustine believed and taught the sovereignty of God’s grace in election and predestination.  He also developed the teaching of the Bible regarding original sin, the teaching that Adam’s sin resulted in the human race becoming sinners, wholly slaves to sin unless and until God sets them free.  Pelagius reacted to Augustine’s theology, claiming, teaching, and writing that man has a free will and is able to believe the gospel apart from God’s enabling grace.  Pelagius also denied the teaching of original sin, one aspect of that being that man’s will was also corrupted by Adam’s fall into sin.  Augustine withstood Pelagius, writing and preaching in order to refute him and check his influence among Christians.  Later Pelagius traveled to Palestine, where Jerome withstood him and his teaching.  Eventually Pelagius was charged with heresy and a council was convened to assess and pass judgment on his teachings.  Interestingly, Pelagius was exonerated at the first council held (the Council of Diospolis).  But later, at the Council of Carthage (AD 418), the free will taught by Pelagius was condemned as unbiblical.  Pelagianism was thereafter regarded as heresy.
           Interestingly, rather than Pelagianism falling by the wayside, it morphed into a hybrid form of heresy which much later came to be known as semi-Pelagianism.  This is the teaching that man and God can cooperate to a certain degree in this salvation effort.  Full-blown Pelagianism teaches that man can, unaided by God’s grace, make the first move toward God, and God then completes the salvation process.  Semi-Pelagianism teaches that man’s will is free, but is aided by the grace of God to believe.  Semi-Pelagianism is also a denial of sola gratia, as is full Pelagianism.  Semi-Pelagianism also teaches “free will”, in other words, his own effort or work may be coupled with God’s grace which then results in salvation.  Another term that is often used to describe this teaching is synergism.  This is taken from two Greek words, erg, meaning “work”, and syn, meaning “together.”  Synergism describes the teaching that both man and God cooperate together resulting in the man’s salvation.  This is a denial of sola gratia, salvation is by grace alone. 

            Now some may wonder why we take the time to describe a heresy that was dealt with nearly 1700 years ago.  It is because this error has existed in one form or another ever since the days of Pelagius.  Interestingly, although Roman Catholicism declared Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism to be heresy, Rome itself teaches a semi-Pelagian gospel.  Salvation is by God’s grace, but is by the free will of man also.
            The historic reformed position is that of monergism.  God of His own free will saves His people.  He comes to them and illuminates their hearts and minds to the truths of the gospel, then He regenerates them, thereby enabling their willing belief and compliance to the gospel.  Martin Luther said this about “free will”, so-called:

I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, My Lord, or come to Him.  But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in truth faith.

Luther debated the Roman Catholic theologian, Erasmus, on the issue of the human will.  One of Luther’s classic books, The Bondage of the Will, is a record of Luther’s arguments in this debate.  The church historian, Michael Haykin stated,

The Reformation was not merely about justification through faith alone but, more importantly, it considered "...whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christs’ sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith."

           This is one of the points of belief that cause us to regard ourselves as a Reformed church.  The word that is commonly used to describe God’s work alone is monergism, from erg meaning work, and mono, meaning “alone.”  We believe in monergism.  God alone takes the initiative and saves His people by His grace. 
           A generation after the initial Protestant Reformers, Jacob Arminius arose and taught a semi-Pelagian gospel.  We will have more to say regarding Arminius and Arminians in several weeks, but it is important for us to note here, that Arminians are semi-Pelagian.  Although they may claim to believe in salvation by grace alone, it is their teaching that it is God’s grace coupled with man’s “free will” that brings about salvation.  They hold to synergism, not monergism, as the Bible teaches.
           Semi-Pelagianism, or synergism, is alive and well today.  In fact, most evangelicals believe in a semi-Pelagian gospel.  They believe and teach that man has a free will, that although he is a fallen, sinful creature, with some help from God he has the ability to freely believe on Jesus Christ for salvation.  They may claim to believe salvation is by grace alone, but in reality they do not believe the Scriptures.  They hold to the belief that God has made a plan of salvation and that it is up to man and his free will to respond to that gospel, resulting in his salvation.  This is unbiblical.  God’s Word declares that salvation is by God’s grace alone, not of any man’s works.  Salvation is of the Lord first to last. 
            Sola gratia (monergism) believes that in regeneration (the new birth) the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ independent of any cooperation from our unregenerate human nature.  God quickens us (makes us spiritually alive) through the outward call of the preaching of His Word.  God “disarms our innate hostility, removes our blindness, illumines our mind, creates understanding within us, turns our heart of stone to a heart of flesh resulting in a love of His Word, all that we might, with our renewed affections, willingly and gladly embrace Christ” (John Hendryx).  We believe in man’s will, but it is not free until God sets it free through the new birth.  Then and only then are we able to respond to God in faith.
            Most Christians deny this.  They are Arminians (a term that we will define another time).  They are semi-Pelagian.  They believe and teach that God saves people through man’s cooperation.  This is a denial of the clear teaching of Scripture.  It takes away from the glory that is due to God alone. 
            Now they would deny that they do so.  And, they would argue that semi-Pelagianism would be a false charge leveled at them, for they claim that people are helped by God’s grace to believe of their own will.  In other words, they say that God comes to all sinners alike and gives them grace (prevenient grace) inclining them and enabling them to believe.  But then they choose where or not to believe.  In other words, God has offered salvation, and man must do his part to receive it.  But we respond by asking,

If two persons receive prevenient grace and only one believes the gospel, why does one believe in Christ and not the other?  What makes the two persons to differ?  Jesus Christ or something else?  And that “something else” is why Calvinists believe Arminians to be synergists. (John Hendrix).



Two Views of Regeneration
by John Hendryx

Monergism: In theology, the doctrine that the Holy Spirit is the only efficient agent in regeneration - that the human will possesses no inclination to holiness until regenerated, and therefore cannot cooperate in regeneration.  The Holy Spirit, who joins us to Christ, quickens us through the outward call cast forth by the preaching of His Word, disarms our innate hostility, removes our blindness, illumines our mind, creates understanding, turns our heart of stone to a heart of flesh. Only then do we apprehend the beauty and excellency of Christ.  This gracious Spirit wrought work in the heart gives rise to a delight in His Word -- all that we might, with our renewed affections, willingly & gladly embrace Christ. Monergism is when God conveys that power into the fallen soul whereby the person who is to be saved is enabled to receive the offer of redemption.  It refers to the first step (regeneration) which has causal priority over, and gives rise to, the moral and spiritual desire/ability to comply with all the other aspects of the process of being united to Christ, (i.e., the ability to apprehend the Redeemer by a living faith, to repent of sin and to love God and the Mediator supremely).  It does not refer to the whole process that it gives rise to (justification, sanctification), but only the granting of the spiritual capacity to comply with the terms of the covenant of grace.  As Michael Haykin says, “The Reformation was not merely about justification through faith alone but, more importantly, it considered ‘...whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christs’ sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith.”

Synergism: “...the doctrine that there are two efficient agents in regeneration, namely the human will and the divine Spirit, which, in the strict sense of the term, cooperate. This theory accordingly holds that the soul has not lost in the fall all inclination toward holiness, nor all power to seek for it under the influence of ordinary motives." The synergistic doctrine of prevenient grace does not resolve this issue, but only pushes it back, for if all have grace and only some believe the gospel, then what makes them to differ?  Jesus Christ or something else in them?  According to the synergist, something other than grace makes men to differ.  This unscriptural view is the greatest threat to a true understanding of salvation in the Church today. (my emphasis)

The following chart highlights some of the major points of difference in these systems:



Cause of Regeneration

Regeneration is the work of Christ plus the good will of unspiritual man.  What makes men to differ from one another is not the grace of Jesus alone, but Jesus plus the good will of unspiritual man.

Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit alone applying the effectual crosswork of Christ to the unspiritual man. What makes men to differ is Jesus Christ alone.

Faith is the cause that triggers regeneration

Regeneration has causal priority to faith (Just as a person must have eyes before they see and ears prior to their ability to hear, so one must first have a new heart in order to understand spiritual truth)

Faith and affections for God are produced by the old nature.

Faith is not produced by our unregenerated human nature. It is the immediate and inevitable product of the new nature.  The new heart (by nature) loves Christ.

God and Man work together to produce the new birth. God’s grace takes us part of the way to salvation, man’s unregenerate will must determine the final outcome. In other words belief in Christ gives rise to the new birth.

God, the Holy Spirit, alone produces regeneration with no contribution from the sinner (A work of God). The new birth is never spoke of in the imperative (not commanded), rather man must be born again by God.

God is eagerly awaiting the sinner’s will.

God effectually enables the sinner’s will.

The persons of the Trinity have conflicting goals in accomplishing and applying salvation:  The Father elects a particular people; the Son dies for a general people and the Holy Spirit applies the atonement conditionally on those who exercise their autonomous libertarian free will.

The persons of the Trinity work in harmony - The Father elects a particular people (Eph 1:3-5), Christ dies for those the Father has given Him (John 17:9, 15; Rev 5:9) and the Holy Spirit likewise applies the benefits of the atonement to the same. (Regeneration is one of the redemptive benefits of Christ’s work)

Restoration of spiritual faculties comes after the man without the Spirit exercises faith with his natural (innate) capacities.  Has the ability to see spiritual truth even before healed. (see 1 Cor 2:14). Has spiritual capacity/desire to receive the truth, prior God’s granting any spiritual ability.

“Light” itself is not enough for a blind man to see, his vision must first be restored. (John 3:3,6).  Needs spiritual ability to receive truth prior to receiving it (1 Cor 2:12; John 6:63-65 & 37).

View of Humanity

The fallen sinner has the ability and potential inclination to believe even prior to the new birth

The fallen sinner has no understanding, moral ability or inclination to believe prior to the new birth. (1 Cor 2:14).

There is enough good left in fallen man to turn his affections toward Christ.

Fallen Man has a mind at enmity with God; loves darkness, hates the light and does not have the Holy Spirit. “There is no one who seeks God” (Rom 3:11).  The sinner would never turn to God without divine enablement and new affections.

Sinner needs help, is spiritually handicapped.

Spiritually dead sinner needs new nature (mind, heart, will), regeneration.

Natural man is sick and disabled like a drowning man so God would be uncaring if He didn’t help by casting a rope.

Natural man is spiritually impotent and morally culpable for sin.  Our moral inability is not like a physical handicap or a drowning man for which we would not be culpable but, rather, it is like a man who cannot repay a squandered financial debt.  Inability to repay, therefore, does not relieve us of the moral responsibility to do so. God, in His mercy, does not merely throw us a rope, He dives in to make certain we do not drown.

Needs salvation from the consequences of sin - unhappiness, hell, psychological pain.

Needs salvation to remove the offense we’ve made against a holy God and from the power and bondage of sin.

The natural man is sovereign over his choice to accept or reject Christ - God conditionally responds to our decision. God’s love for the sinner is, therefore, conditional.

The natural man can contribute nothing towards his salvation.  Faith is a response rendered certain following the efficacious work of the Holy Spirit. We respond to God's unconditional love. (Acts 13:48; John 6:37)

Those fallen men who are saved, either created a right thought, generated a right affection, or originated a right volition that led to their salvation while some others did not have the natural wherewithal to come up with the faith that God required of them to obtain salvation.  Therefore salvation is dependent on some virtue or capacity God sees in certain men.  Not Jesus alone, but Jesus PLUS...

No fallen man will create a right thought, generate a right affection, or originate a right volition that will lead to his salvation.  We would never believe unless the Holy Spirit came in and disarmed our hostility to God.  Therefore salvation is dependent on God’s good pleasure alone (Eph 1:4, 5, 11), not some virtue or goodwill He sees in us.

Man’s nature & affections do not determine or give rise to their choices.  Even without the Holy Spirit working change in his heart, the sinner can still make a saving decision to believe the gospel.  In this scheme God gives enough grace to place man in a neutral position which can swing either for or against Jesus. (An act of chance?)

Man’s nature determines his desires/affections and give rise to the choices he makes. Jesus bears witness to this: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit” (Luke 6:43).  Only Christ can “make a tree good and its fruit will be good.” (Also see John 8:34, 42-44; 2 Pet. 2:19).

View of the Gospel

The Gospel is an invitation

The Gospel is not merely an invitation, but a command (1 John 3:23)

Christ died for all our sins except unbelief

Christ died for all our sins including unbelief

Sinners have the key in their hands. Man’s will determines whether or not Christ’s death is efficacious.

God has the key in his hand.  God’s eternal counsel determines to whom the benefits of the atonement apply.

It would be unjust of God to not give everyone an equal chance.

If God exercised His justice then none of us would stand, since each of us is in active rebellion against an infinitely holy God.  He owes us nothing and is under no obligation to save any person.  Regeneration is, therefore, an act of pure, undeserved mercy because the justice we deserved, He poured out on His Son (thereby turning His wrath away from us).

After God makes one’s heart of stone into a heart of flesh the Holy Spirit’s call to salvation can still be resisted.

After God makes one’s heart of stone into a heart of flesh, no person wants to resist.  By definition our desires, inclinations and affections have changed so we willingly and joyfully turn in faith toward Christ.

Salvation is given to fallen sinners (unregenerate) who choose and desire Christ of their free will.

Apart from grace, there is no fallen sinner (unregenerate) who fits that description.  A desire for God is not part of the old nature.

The grace of God is conferred as a result of human prayer

It is grace itself which makes us pray to God (Rom 10:20; Isa. 65:1)

God has mercy upon us when we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, apart from his regenerative grace.

To desire and seek God prior to the new birth is an impossible supposition. (Rom 3:11; 1 Cor 2:14) It is the infusion and quickening of the Holy Spirit within us that we even have the faith or the strength to will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock and believe in the finished work of Christ.

Commands to repent and believe the gospel imply the ability of the sinner to do so.

The command toward sinners to repent and believe does not imply ability.  Divine intent of the Law, according to Scripture, is to reveal our moral impotence apart from grace (Rom 3:20, 5:20, Gal 3:19,24).  The Law was not designed to confer any power but to strip us of our own.

God helps those who help themselves.

God only helps those who cannot help themselves. (John 9:41)

Unregenerate man contributes his little bit.

“Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy Cross I cling.”

Repentance is considered a work of man.

Repentance is a gift of God. (2 Tim 2:25)

One of the greatest gifts God gives humans is to never interfere with their free will.

The greatest judgment which God can inflict upon a man is to leave him in the hands of his own free-will.  If salvation were left in the hands of the unregenerate sinners, we would indeed despair of all hope that anyone would be saved.  It is an act of mercy, therefore, that God awakens the dead in sin to life since those without the Spirit cannot understand the things of God at all. (1 Cor 2:14)

With Man’s will salvation is possible.

With man’s will salvation (repentance and faith) is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matt 19:26; Rom 9:16; John 6:64,65) “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6)

Note: God acts unilaterally, taking the sole initiative in a free act of sovereign grace toward the sinner—grace that is altogether prior to, and effectually produces, justifying faith. The response of faith from the sinner is penultimate as it stands next to the ultimate sovereign grace of God in monergism. As the first act of a newborn baby is to breathe, so the act of faith is the first act of the regenerated sinner, in his/her new birth in Christ.