The Reformers were confronted with this idea of grace alone because of their understanding of God’s righteousness.
Before Martin Luther nailed his theses, the position of the Western Church (vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic Church) believed that humans had to attain to God’s perfect righteousness. For example, according to Roman Catholicism, the sacraments – both baptism and the eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) –gave an injection of grace into a Catholic so that he or she could better live righteously. For them, grace came every time they consumed the eucharist. The eucharist covered their sins that they amassed from the last time they had the eucharist. In other words, the sacraments acted as a sort of reset – their sins were forgiven – and a boost. Grace was a like a jetpack, a momentum boost to live righteously. God’s grace was a limited injection of purity and strength, and this was obtained by participating in the sacraments.
What do you make of this view? What do you think about this understanding of God’s grace?
Well, for Martin Luther, he wasn’t satisfied with this understanding of grace. For him, according to this view, God’s grace wasn’t enough, because no matter how hard he tried, he could never meet God’s demand for righteousness. Luther was tormented at the thought that he had not done enough to make himself sufficiently righteous. Even when he consumed the eucharist, God’s grace in that moment was never enough to help him fulfill God’s demands.
This understanding of grace and of God’s righteousness caused Luther to resent God. Listen to how he described his feelings about God before he truly understood the gospel: “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God…” (preface to Complete Edition of Latin Writings, 1545).
Needless to say, Luther came to hate this God who had given laws which no one could keep, even with whatever grace was available. This grace was not enough to fulfill God’s laws. In this way, no one could truly obtain salvation. And that idea haunted Luther.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like, despite all your best attempts, you still could not please God? That no matter what, you were still not worthy of God and His salvation? Have you ever had such thoughts?
If we are being honest with ourselves, I’m sure all of us, to some degree, have felt that. For some of us, we grew up either in churches or cultures that taught us that salvation was something we had to obtain on our own. God would only accept us if we cleaned up ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say that. Many folks believe in order to come to God, they must first get their act together. Yet, even still, such people rarely if ever come to God because they can never perfectly fulfill what God demands. This too weighed Luther down.
But there was a breakthrough.
You see, the Holy Spirit showed Luther that grace was something altogether more glorious than what he had believed and been told. God revealed to Luther that what made people righteous was, not their own doing, but it was God’s doing. God made people righteous through the grace found in Christ.
Here’s how Luther came to this understanding, and it is based in our sermon text. The Holy Spirit made clear two realities for Luther. First, Luther learned that humans can’t be righteous on their own. Look at Ephesians 1:1-3. Luther came to the realization that spiritually dead, sinful human beings cannot do right. Humans can only do what’s in their capacity, which is to disobey, and that is what we did, that is what you and I did. We were dead because of our sin, because we followed the world and the devil, and because we constantly chose our selfish wills above anything else. We could not do and be righteous on our own. As a result, something outside of us must change us so that we can be righteous. Luther concluded that no matter how hard we try, we, humans, will never ever satisfy God’s righteousness.
Second, Luther learned that God makes people righteous in Christ. Look at Ephesians 2:4-5. While we were languishing in our sin and spiritual death, God changed us in Christ. That is, through our union with Christ, God makes people spiritually alive, and, all of this, happens outside of us. We contribute nothing to it. Paul stated that in verse twice – once in verse 5 and the other in verse 8: note the emphasis on “grace” and “gift”. God used this verse to open Luther’s eyes to the beauty of the gospel. And it is this, our salvation is a free gift from God.
That is what grace means; it means a free, divine gift. There is nothing we can do to earn it; it is purely a gift; it is grace.
So, as it pertains to righteousness, on our own, because of our spiritual death, we can’t ever do right. But in Christ, we are made righteous. Brothers and sisters, that is grace! When Luther came to this realization, his world radically changed. Luther came to see that grace was much, much bigger that what the Catholics had conceived. Grace was not a limited injection of purity and strength. Rather, grace was God’s infinite gift of Christ for us – His life, death, and resurrection. Grace was God’s infinite gift of making us righteous once and for all.
Do you now see why Sola Gratia became a pillar of the Reformation? The Reformers fundamentally retrieved what grace meant in the Scriptures. Grace was God’s free, divine gift of love in Christ. Put another way, our salvation flows out of grace.
Luther sums this up well in his Heidelberg Disputation. This disputation was a debate that Luther had with Roman Catholics in 1518. Luther said, “The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” We are saved by grace alone. That is Sola Gratia. Amen?
Want to learn more about the difference between Protestants and Catholics? Read our posts here.
On other Solas in the Protestant Reformation, check out this post.
The original post was written by Pastor Aaron Reyes for The Art of Taleh here.