A central cry of the Reformation was salvation by grace. Though the Roman Catholic Church taught that Mass is a “sacrifice [which] is truly propitiatory” and that by the Mass “God . . . grant[s] us grace and the gift of penitence, remits our faults and even our enormous sins,” the Reformers returned to the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Our righteous standing before God is imputed to us by grace because of the work of Christ Jesus our Lord.
In contrast to the doctrines of self-merit taught by Rome, sola gratia and the accompanying doctrines of grace—total depravity, unconditional election, particular redemption, and perseverance of the saints—were preached by all the Reformers throughout the Protestant movement. As the Baptist Confession of 1689 says,
Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified; and did, by the sacrifice of himself in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead the penalty due unto them, make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in their behalf. . . . Their justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.
The words sola gratia mean that human beings have no claim upon God. That is, God owes us nothing except just punishment for our many and very wilful sins. Therefore, if he does save sinners, which he does in the case of some but not all, it is only because it pleases him to do it. Indeed, apart from this grace and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that flows from it, no one would be saved, since in our lost condition, human beings are not capable of winning, seeking out, or even cooperating with God’s grace. By insisting on “grace alone” the Reformers were denying that human methods, techniques, or strategies in themselves could ever bring anyone to faith. It is grace alone expressed through the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to Christ, releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from death to spiritual life.