An Unimaginable Gift—Sola Gratia // The Solas – Part 4

This article is the fourth of a series on the “Solas” of the Protestant Reformation. They will post each Thursday here on The Post.

“I can’t believe I won!” As the winners shriek with surprise and jump up and down with joy, some of us watch it all with skepticism, while others may wonder, “Why can’t this happen to me?” I’m talking about those ads showing sweepstakes winners, and even those more sedate, even secretive lucky lottery winners.

This scenario somewhat represents how many people view this spiritual truth with skepticism or qualifications. One of the more puzzling paradoxes within the Christian faith is the response of people to the grace of God—God’s unearned kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, and approval.

Many people have a hard time accepting the truth of Sola Gratia—by grace alone—because it seems “too good to be true.” Granted, some people get it right away and are thrilled beyond belief. Others, however, accept it, but later doubt their worthiness to fully embrace it. Some claim to believe in God’s grace, but have a plethora of reasons why others don’t qualify for this unimaginable gift of acceptance and favor. These people are what I’d call modern-day Pharisees.

We see these same responses to God’s grace throughout the gospels and epistles in the New Testament. The Pharisees, and later those called the Judaizers, play the role of the spoilsport and point out how grace goes too far. They challenged Jesus during His ministry on earth, especially when He healed people on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11).

Those in the margins of society—the sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, and such—were delighted with God’s gracious acceptance and favor they saw in Jesus (Luke 19:1-10). But even the early church leaders struggled with how far God’s grace extended and who qualified to receive it.

In a sovereign way, God revealed how far His grace reaches when He poured out His Spirit on a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10:45; 11:18; 15:6-11). Then, the redemptive message of God’s grace (the gospel) began to spread through non-Jewish (Gentile) people, as it did in Antioch (Acts 11:19-24). The great shocker of all was the supernatural conversion of a radicalized rabbi named Saul (Acts 9:1-16). The radical rabbi Saul became the apostle Paul, who explained the theology of God’s grace in Galatians, Romans, Colossians, and the book of Hebrews. Though Paul vehemently stood against the truth of God’s grace, he became the great teacher of the Gentiles, who explained the grace of God better than anyone since Jesus.

Why we struggle with grace

I’m thankful for my first pastor, Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, back in the early ‘70s. I didn’t have preconceived notions or teachings about grace, so I accepted what I read in God’s Word and how Pastor Chuck confirmed it by his teaching. Although I don’t remember if he said this exactly, his attitude was that he’d rather err on the side of grace than legalism or judgment.

Over the years, I’ve watched people struggle with the simple but powerful truth of God’s grace. I suspect we all do at some point, even though we believe in it. There’s a myriad of reasons why we might struggle to accept the truth of God’s grace, but here are some that come to mind.

It seems too good to be true. Human skepticism, even to the point of cynicism fueled by the world around us, is the biggest reason. It all started back in the garden when the first humans believed a lie rather than trust their Creator (Genesis 3:1-7).

We look for exceptions to the rule. This reason extends from the “too good to be true” attitude but is characterized by “what ifs” and other limitations imagined or passed on by others who contrive various scenarios where God’s grace can’t be applied.

Some of us are beyond the reach of God’s grace. Shame, and the closed loop of unresolved guilt, often lead to this belief. Surely, we reason, there’s some limit to God’s grace, because we’ve benefited from it so often or done something deemed too terrible and outside the reach of God’s grace.

We question who qualifies to receive it. This attitude includes various religious and moral hurdles church leaders and people contrive, similar to the objections made against Jesus and the early church leaders, as mentioned earlier.

You’ve gone too far! Some people set a limit on how many times a person has appealed to God for His grace because of repeated failures. Also, the dreaded “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” (Mark 3:28-30), which gets interpreted in various ways according to a person’s situation.

Here’s what I’ve learned through the truth of Scripture in my own life of faith—God’s grace is greater than our failures, fears, doubts, and expectations of others.

How do the first three foundational Solas work together?

Grace and faith—Sola Gratia and Sola Fide. One of the clearest expressions of how grace and faith fit together is found in Ephesians 2:8-9—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. This should free a person from a performance-oriented Christian life since personal effort (good works) is of no value for gaining favor with God. Grace is the great equalizer when it comes to faith, and humility is the true evidence of experiencing God’s grace.

Faith and Scripture—Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. Paul reminds believers that faith comes from hearing the truth of God’s Word (Romans 10:17). Genuine Christian faith needs to be grounded in the truth of the Scripture through the work and witness of God’s Spirit (Galatians 3:2-6).

Grace and Scripture—Sola Gratia and Sola Scriptura. Our understanding of God’s grace needs to be grounded in the truth of God’s Word, not human reason (dogmatic beliefs) or emotion (shame or guilt). This is spelled out in many places, especially in the epistle of Romans (Romans 5:8-10; 12, 15, 18-21).

Don’t complicate the simplicity of God’s grace and don’t despise its simplicity. The depth of God’s truth isn’t complicated, it’s simple. If you begin to question the truth of Sola Gratia, I recommend reading Galatians, particularly chapters 3–5, as well as Romans chapters 5–8.

What exceptions or exclusions have you seen people make about God’s grace?

How has God’s grace overwhelmed your failures, fears, and unmet expectations?

Understanding terms—

Many of the theological terms used by Christians become like a foreign language to nonbelievers. Believers need to understand these terms well enough to put them in their own words, or as I call it IYOW (In Your Own Words).

I’ve tried to give some simple clarification of terms in these posts, but I encourage you to make an effort to understand these terms so you can explain them IYOW to others. If there’s a specific theological term that proves hard to grasp, let me know. I’ll at least point you in the right direction for an answer if I can’t help you with my explanation.

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