Well, this idea of returning favours, or working for a gift, makes the biblical idea of God’s grace in the gospel scandalous to our fallen conscience (1 Corinthians 1:23).
We all naturally desire to work for, or repay, gifts. And so the gospel message that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone does not easily find purchase in our hearts.
This is not a new problem. From the time of the apostles to our present day, true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone has been misunderstood. These misunderstandings normally progress along three lines. First, we think the true gospel teaches lawless living (antinomianism). Second, we attempt to add works to the gospel in order to “pay” for it in some way. Third, we believe that we have something to contribute to our salvation.
Make no mistake: These are significant misunderstandings with dire consequences. In response to these errors, we can make three positive statements—three truths of God’s grace so we can give all glory to God for our salvation: first, God’s grace is effective; second, God’s grace is exclusive; and, third, God’s grace is enough.
God’s Grace is Effective
Let’s consider Romans 6:1–2. After proclaiming that we are justified by faith in Romans 5:1 (“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”) and then explaining that those who are justified are reconciled to God (Romans 5:6–11), Paul shows how this life-giving justification is a gracious gift of Jesus (Romans 5:12–18).
Immediately after explaining this, he raises a question that, no doubt, he was asked on numerous occasions: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). This should alert us to the fact that true preaching of the gospel of grace naturally raises this question. Preaching of salvation by works will not raise this question.
If you preach that people are saved by being a good person and doing good to others, this question will never arise. If you preach that people are saved by the church—and normally that is only your church and not anyone else’s church—this question will never arise. But when we proclaim the “staggering message, that God ‘justifies the ungodly’, and that we are saved, not by anything we do, but in spite of it, entirely and only by the grace of God through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,”1 this question does arise.
Why? Because it is very possible to misunderstand the purpose of grace. In our fallen world, it is easy to view grace like a get-out-of-jail-free card. We think that grace starts and ends with me being forgiven of my sins. But, friend, God’s grace is not just a free pass every time we sin. It is a powerful principle at work in our lives.
Listen how Paul describes it in Titus 2:11–12: “For the grace of God has appeared with salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age.” Grace is not just forgiveness; it is also life-transforming power. That is why Paul answers his question in Romans 6:1 with the following words: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2).
In other words, at the moment of salvation, a believer dies to the reign and power of sin and is brought under the reign and power of grace (Romans 5:21). And the power of God’s grace does not produce in us a desire for lawless living. On the contrary, grace trains us “to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”
What does this mean then? A person who has received God’s grace is transformed by that grace to live for God. We have now seen that God’s grace is effective and will move on to see that God’s grace is exclusive.
God’s Grace is Exclusive
Let’s consider Acts 15:1–5 together.
Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved!” But after Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, the church arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this controversy. When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, explaining in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they created great joy among all the brothers. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses!”
Notice how, long before the Roman Catholic Church, the apostles had to deal with the idea of salvation by grace plus works. Here we have a group of former Pharisees teaching that circumcision (15:1) and keeping the law of Moses (15:5) are necessary for salvation. Church history would later label them “Judaisers” from the infinitive Paul uses in Galatians 2:14 meaning “to live like Jews.”
The issue these former Pharisees raise is no trivial matter: Are we saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Or are we saved by faith plus circumcision plus keeping the law? This was no small matter, and it resulted in “no small dissension and debate” between these men and the first official missionaries—Paul and Barnabas.
Fresh from their first missionary journey, where they proclaimed that people can be saved by grace through faith—not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8–9)—they were now confronted with another gospel. The seriousness of this debate was not lost on Paul.
Paul’s first letter, penned not long after these events, shows his thinking on this matter. In Galatians 2:1–10, Paul gives his insights on the events recorded in Acts 15. And he makes clear that this was about defending the true gospel of God’s grace. He says in Galatians 2:4–5: “This issue arose because of false brothers smuggled in, who came in secretly to spy on the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to enslave us. But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you.”
Well, how was this matter resolved? Acts 15:6–11 shows us how:
Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter.
After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: “Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit, just as he also did to us.
He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.”
Notice what Peter affirms in his statement: The Gentiles were saved by hearing the gospel and believing (15:7). This was confirmed by them receiving the Holy Spirit in the same way the Jews did on Pentecost (15:8). Their hearts were cleansed by faith, not works (15:9). The Mosaic Law is a burden unnecessary for salvation (15:10). Jews and Gentiles are saved by grace (15:11).
The final judgment of the Jerusalem Council, the first church council in history, affirmed what Peter said above: that keeping the Mosaic Law is a burden unnecessary for salvation, because Gentiles and Jews are saved by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone and not by works. Sadly, this clear biblical teaching is contradicted by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). The RCC Catechism states: “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.” And this plank of teaching, along with many others, formed an edifice of doctrine that compelled the Reformers to abandon Rome.
Friend, our works can never add any value to our salvation. They are rather the fruit that flow from salvation.
Some people still believe that they must do something or follow the Mosaic Law to be saved. Some people don’t eat pork, others don’t wear certain kinds of clothes, others don’t eat hot food on certain days, others have church on the Sabbath, instead of the Lord’s Day.
These things cannot justify. They can’t even justify a Jew. Galatians 2:15–16 says: “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified.”
We have now seen that God’s grace is exclusive and will move on to see that God’s grace is enough.
God’s Grace is Enough
The third misunderstanding is that we have something to contribute to our salvation. In other words, we do something, God does something, and, in the end, we all share the credit for our salvation. Maybe it’s seeking after God, maybe it’s being acceptable to God, maybe it’s doing something like being baptised. Whatever it is, it is us bringing something to God that helps save us.
The Scriptures, however, paint a picture of humanity being powerless in the face of their own sin. Paul describes all humanity outside of Christ as “helpless” (Romans 5:6a), “ungodly” (Romans 5:6b), and “dead in your trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). This language does not suggest ability but rather helplessness. And the bad news of humanity’s condition can only become good news if God acts. But the good news is that God has acted. “For while we were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!” (Ephesians 2:4–5).
And as a result, Paul can say, “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). Salvation is the great leveller. No person has a claim on God that will allow him to boast. From beginning to end, salvation is by God’s grace alone.
Now, if we look at church history, we see a series of disputes that have helped the church go back to these biblical truths and reaffirm them. In the fourth century, a British monk came to Rome and saw people calling themselves Christians but not living like Christians. Being a monk, this deeply distressed Pelagius and so he took it upon himself to bring the self-denying holiness of monasticism into the church at large.
Sadly, Pelagius had some pretty bad theology. He believed that all human beings were born sinless like Adam was before he fell. Therefore, all humanity had not fallen in Adam, but Adam was just a really bad example. And Jesus’ life was then a really good example. So what people had to do was use their free will to choose to follow Jesus’ example and they will then get into heaven. And if they were really good at using their free-will, they could maybe even live a sinless life on earth before doing so!2
One writer puts it this way: “Entry into heaven, in the Pelagian scheme, became a just reward for living a good life on earth, rather than an undeserved gift purchased for helpless sinners by the blood of an all-sufficient Saviour.”3
Like any zealous teacher, Pelagius gained a following. The Visigoths then sacked Rome and Pelagius along with one of his most gifted students, Celestius, fled to North Africa. Now Celestius was a very strong personality, and he also was very logical. And Celestius’s logical connection of his master’s teaching is what exposed Pelagius as a heretic.
When they arrived in North Africa, Celestius tried to be ordained by the African Church. And instead of ordaining him, they condemned him as a heretic. This alerted Augustine, who was in North Africa, to what Pelagius and Celestius were teaching. Augustine then gifted the world with a wonderful defence of the absolutely sovereign grace of God in saving sinners.
Eventually, Pelagius was condemned as a heretic, because his teaching of man not being truly sinful just went against so many Scriptures.
Sadly, the issue didn’t die there. Eleven hundred years later, one of the greatest humanist scholars of his day, the man that gifted the Reformers with an outstanding critical Greek text, soon parted ways with them on this same issue.
Desiderius Erasmus imbibed a humanism in his studies that lead him to think too highly of human ability.4 And so Erasmus favoured Pelagius’s view on salvation, which brought him into direct conflict with Luther.
To summarise the disagreement:
Erasmus believed there was something within humanity that could lead them to salvation.
He argued that we are capable of making a choice to adhere to the Christian faith.
Luther, on the other hand, affirmed man’s total inability to save himself, and the sovereignty of Divine grace in his salvation. At the heart of Luther’s understanding of grace was the acknowledgment that grace is something which ultimately comes, not from within, but from without.5
Luther argued his position most persuasively in his book The Bondage of the Will. This is his theology of salvation by grace alone built upon the Scriptures and affirmed by other Reformers as they studied the Scriptures themselves.
This teaching—that people make no contribution to their salvation; that humanity is helpless, wayward, and incapable of choosing God; and that salvation starts and ends with God’s grace to sinners in Christ—became a battle cry for the Reformers. And against the Roman Catholic teaching that salvation is by grace plus merit, they proclaimed the Latin slogan: sola gratia (“by grace alone”).
As our culture readily affirms the inherent goodness of people, we need to hear the call of sola gratia. The Scriptures make it plain that “our salvation has nothing to do with our goodness, our ability, or even our intentions. On the other hand, it has everything to do with God’s might and power to rescue helpless humanity.”6 Friend, if anyone is saved, it will always be by grace alone.
Calvary Baptist Church
Jonathan was born in Cape Town but spent most of his life in Johannesburg. After graduating from Wits, he spent seven years working as an electrical engineer. During this time, he met his wonderful wife, Christy. After experiencing the great need for biblical preaching in South African churches, Jonathan pursued training for ministry at The Master’s Seminary in Los Angeles. Jonathan, Christy, and their two boys then returned to South Africa with a desire to plant or strengthen a local church. God quickly answered their prayer by providing an opportunity for them to serve him at Calvary Baptist Church in Richard’s Bay.
- D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 6 The New Man, 9–10. ↩
- N. R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 1, p. 215. ↩
- N. R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 1, p. 216. ↩
- 5 S. D. Ellison, Five: The Solas of the Reformation, p. 22. ↩
- Ibid., p. 24. ↩
- 7 Ibid., p. 33 . ↩