But if you were to enter the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany church on October 30th, 1517 – the day prior to Martin Luther nailing his 95 Thesis to the door – and asked the priest whether the Roman Catholic church taught salvation by works or by grace, what do you think the answer would be?
The church in Luther’s day taught, and Catholicism continues to teach, that it is impossible for sinful man to be saved apart from God’s grace.
Although it came together after the Reformation began, the Council of Trent states:
“If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or by the teaching of the Law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema” (Session 6; can. 1)
However, their teaching is that man has “the ability and the obligation to cooperate with God in securing his own salvation.”1 But since we are spiritually weak and lazy, God must give us a boost of “grace” to enable us to do the work needed to become holy in this life and be counted fit for heaven after death.
Church historian Michael Reeves likened this view of grace to a can of Spiritual Red Bull.1 The idea is that we are spiritually lethargic, but God gives us ‘grace’ and now we are ready and eager to do good works to secure your salvation.
But here’s the problem: if after becoming holy you commit a grievous sin (or mortal) sin – which everyone inevitably will – you’re back to square one. You can only regain holiness with the help of more grace from God, metered out by the church through the sacraments. And you need to die in a state of grace to avoid damnation, although you can’t know if you’ve done enough to merit heaven.
That was the burden under which Martin Luther and countless others lived, and is the reason that Luther worked and worried himself nearly to death while he was a monk.
It’s true. I was a good monk and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should have entered in. All my companions in the monastery who knew me would bear me out in this. For if it had gone on much longer, I would have martyred myself to death, what with vigils, prayers, readings, and other works…And yet my conscience would not give me certanity, but I always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.” The more I tried to remedy the uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more daily I found it more uncertain, weaker, and more troubled.1
Like many others, Luther was terrified of God’s wrath and was wracked with uncertainty about his ability to earn God’s favor through his works.
Clearly this medieval understanding of “salvation by grace” is heavily dependent on the works of the individual. Is this what the Bible tells us about how we can be saved by grace?
When examining Scripture, the Reformers saw that salvation is not by works enabled by God’s grace, but that salvation is by grace alone – Sola Gratia.
Grace is unmerited favor from God. While justice is getting what we deserve, and mercy is not getting what we deserve, Grace is getting what we do not deserve.
Ephesians 2:1-10 provides an excellent overview of what it means to be saved by grace alone. In this passage we see the universal need of grace, the unearned gift of grace, and the ultimate result of grace.
The Universal Need of Grace
Who needs grace?
To understand that, we need to have an accurate picture of the condition of mankind. Is man spiritually lazy and in need of a helpful boost, like a teenager still in bed at 11? Or is man sick and in need of medicine? Is he drowning and in need of a life preserver?
Ephesians 2:1 “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.”
Not lazy. Not weak. Not sick. Not dying. Not even “mostly dead, yet slightly alive.” Dead.
Later, in verse 3, we see that the apostle Paul is speaking of all mankind. He portrays the whole world as one large cemetery, and the cause of death inscribed on each tombstone is the same: dead through “trespasses and sins.” These words speak of missing the mark, of falling short. As Scripture says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
The wages, or result, of this sin is death. Spiritual death. Just as a physically dead person is incapable of responding to the world around him, the spiritually dead person is incapable of responding to spiritual things.
That doesn’t mean that every person is as bad as they could be, or that unbelievers cannot live what we would consider to be good lives. But the best of humanity and the worst of humanity are alike dead in sin. You cannot be more dead or less dead than another dead person; cemeteries are not sorted by level of deadness. Dead is dead.
Everyone in this world either now is or once was spiritually dead. But being spiritually dead does not mean that we are inactive, as a physically dead person would be. Rather, the spiritually dead are active in rebelling against God.
Ephesians 2:2: Those who are dead in sin, “follow after the course of this world,” which is to say that we are influenced by the godlessness that surrounds us and we are all too happy to embrace a culture that lives as though God does not exist.
Unbelieves are “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” This is a description of Satan, who hates God and hates His image bearers, drawing people into willful disobedience against Him.
Unconscious to the things of God, the spiritually dead “live in the passions of the flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Eph. 2:3). Romans 8 tells us “to set the mind on the flesh is death” because “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.”
If we live purely to satisfy the desires of the body and the mind, we will be hostile to God’s law. I think our culture today serves as a clear enough example of this truth.
As a result of this hostility towards God we are under the His just judgement and wrath. We “were by nature children of wrath” the end of verse three says. Our very nature is sinful as a result of the fall – and so we are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners by nature. The need for grace is universal, because sin is universal. Admittedly, this is a bleak picture.
But Paul said, “Once lived” and he began by saying you were dead. So clearly there is a remedy for this situation.
But if in our natural state we are spiritually dead, how can the solution possibly come from us? It can’t.
The dead do not need more education. The dead do not need more legislation. The dead do not even need resuscitation. The spiritually dead need resurrection!
The Unearned Gift of Grace
“You were once dead in trespasses and sins…” but God. Whenever you encounter, “but God” in Scripture, sit up and pay attention.
For example, Acts 13 relates the story of Christ’s sham of a trial, his horrendous execution, and his hasty burial in a borrowed tomb…and then in verse 30, “But God raised Him from the dead.”
The same God who raised Christ from the dead raises the sinner from death unto life!
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus
Whereas we were once dead and subjects of God’s wrath, by His grace we are made alive and experience the “immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” We go from death & wrath to life & kindness.
How is this possible? How can these things be?
Colossians 2:12-14 tells us very plainly:
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Our debt of sin was transferred to Christ, who died so that we might live. He bore the punishment for sin so that we who were children of wrath could become children of God.
What do we need to do to earn this? Nothing. Romans 5:8 says “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Ephesians 2:5 “even when we were dead in our trespasses” God “Made us alive in Christ Jesus.”
We do not secure our own salvation. We do not cooperate with God to secure it. We were still dead when he saved us (and dead people are notoriously uncooperative).
That is why Sola Gratia – salvation by grace alone – was so radically different from what was being taught by the Catholic church in Luther’s day.
Sadly, it’s radically different from what many Protestant churches are teaching today. Many people miss the truth that salvation is an unearned gift. Yes, “unearned gift” is redundant. But pick up on Paul’s repetition:
In verse 5 ‘by grace you have been saved’ and in verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Paul is saying that salvation is by grace, grace, not by works, a gift, not by works in this passage.
We are saved by grace and grace alone. If it is not alone, it is not grace.
Yet our flesh rebels against the idea of salvation that doesn’t require any work on our part. Luther said rightly: “If God were willing to sell His grace, we would accept it more quickly than when He offers it for nothing.”
Many want to secure their own salvation. Many reject God’s gift of grace and instead try to earn it by our own efforts.
Would you try to bribe God for His grace? What would you offer as the purchase price to Him who offered up His own Son to purchase you? Would God allow such a thing? For if you could earn salvation, what need do you have of Christ’s mercy and sacrifice?
Surely, Sola Gratia – salvation by grace alone – stands as a warning against the futility of attempted self-righteousness. Salvation is exclusively for those who know that they do not deserve it!
Jesus told the Pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
And so we see that Sola Gratia also serves as a beacon of hope to the sinner: For if salvation is by grace, and not by works, what should prevent someone from coming at once to Jesus and being saved?
Perhaps they feel that they do not deserve forgiveness because you are a sinner. But “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). As Spurgeon put it “Do you think you must be lost because you are a sinner? That is the reason you can be saved!”
Perhaps they believe that you are too great a sinner to be forgiven? Does God lack enough grace to redeem a sinner such as you? God is “rich in mercy” and has “immeasurable riches of grace” that He can bestow on you. Your debt of sin will not exhaust his riches of grace.
Just ask any who have already experienced the free grace of God in being raised from death to life in Christ Jesus. Ask a Christian if these things are true.
Believer, would you be eager to share that truth? Do you love to tell the old, old story of how a Savior came from glory. How he gave His life on Calvary, to save a wretch like me?
Ask yourself: Am I still amazed by grace?
You were lost, but now are found; you were blind, but now you see; you were dead, but now have eternal life in Christ. You went from being sons of disobedience and children of wrath to children of God and joint-heirs with Christ.
Reflect on God’s grace in salvation, and rejoice in His infinite kindness toward you in Christ Jesus. Beware the tendency we all have to slowly concoct a Romanish doctrine that acts as though we deserved salvation, or that we now must keep it by our own efforts.
This is a constant struggle for the Christian. Are we so foolish that having begun in the spirit that we would try to be perfected by the flesh? Sadly, yes. We often act as though we deserved salvation. Or we try to be on our best spiritual behavior so that God will be obligated to do what we ask. Or we despair when we fall into sin yet again, and we flee from God as though His grace towards us had finally been exhausted.
Fight this. Embrace God’s grace. Dwell on the doctrine of Sola Gratia. We are made righteous and kept righteous not by our works, but solely by the grace of God.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that Grace may abound? By no means!
The Ultimate Result of Grace
What does being in Christ necessarily entail? What does it lead to?
Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Notice how Paul speaks of ‘walking’ twice in our passage. First, in verses 1-2, we see that we were “dead in the trespasses and sin in which we once walked.” Now we see that, as those who have been raised in Christ Jesus and saved by grace, we are created to “walk” in – or live a life characterized by – doing good works.
Good works are an inseparable condition of having new life in Christ. So it seems that we have two truths in tension side-by-side here: First, works are not necessary for salvation. Second, works are necessarily a part of our salvation.
Is this the sort of thing that the Puritans referred to as an Orthodox Paradox? Well, not quite.
We do not walk in good works in order to obtain salvation. We walk in good works because we have been saved.
To put it another way, good works are the fruit of salvation, not the root of salvation.
We are able to do good works that are pleasing to God because we are a new creation in Christ Jesus. We will want to do them out of joyful thanksgiving to our Savior.
In our passage we are warned against legalism and lawlessness. Yes, you are saved by grace as a gift – completely apart from works. But you were not made alive in Christ so that you could walk in your old ways. Nor were we raised to life to live out a dead faith. Because faith without works is what? Dead.
But we are no longer dead. Ephesians 2:6 tells us that we are “alive in Christ Jesus.” We are not merely improved version of our old selves. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
And as those who now abide in Christ, we will bear fruit (John 15). We are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
Believer, seek to make daily advances along the path of good works that God has set for you to journey on. This walk should be our daily exercise; not an occasional occurrence like actual physical exercise.
Just know that it is not our works which save us, it is our Savior who enables us to do good works. It is not our effort that will keep us in God’s grace. “Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Another Latin phrase from the Protestant Reformation was Post Tenebras Lux – After darkness, light.
The doctrine of Sola Gratia that was recovered during the Reformation allowed the light of the gospel to pierce the darkness of medieval works-based religion. That light continues to shine forth today, and it shines brightly here in Ephesians 2.
I pray that by this light, those who spiritually dead outside of Christ will see the great love with which He loved us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
This article was originally a sermon I preached titled, “Sola Gratia: Salvation by Grace Alone.” You can listen to the audio from this sermon below:
2 Why the Reformation Still Matters, Michael Reeves & Tim Chester