Today I’m continuing a short 5-part series on the five solas of the Reformation. The five solas are specific Latin slogans that emerged from the Reformation era as a means of identifying specific doctrinal positions that stand in contrast to the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The slogans are:
- Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
- Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
- Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
- Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
- Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be Glory)
How can the phrase, sola gratia (grace alone) be misunderstood and misapplied by Protestant believers? In the attempt to stand in a continual protest of the works based salvation of the Roman Catholic Church, we must continue to point out that God saves sinners by grace alone—not based on the value of any works. However, we must never diminish the need for good works to be present in the life of a child of God.
Defining Sola Gratia
When the Reformers used the phrase, sola gratia, they were insisting that God saves sinners based on God’s divine grace alone. The idea was nothing new, in fact it was taken from the clear teachings of Scripture. In Ephesians 2:1-10, the apostle Paul makes his point clear—salvation is by grace alone, apart from works, so that no one will be capable of boasting. As the Reformers were protesting the selling of indulgences and various other practices of the Roman Catholic Church—their motivation in sola gratia was to point upward to God and make a clear point that God saves sinners by his grace and anything added to God’s grace is no longer grace.
Misunderstanding the Catholic Church
When people make the claim that the Roman Catholic Church does not believe in the saving grace of God, that actually is a misrepresentation of the Catholic’s position. According to official Roman Catholic doctrine, they do embrace the teachings of salvation by the grace of God. However, where the problem arises is when Protestants attach the word “alone” to the statement. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that sinners are saved by the grace of God, but not all alone. For instance, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1257:
“Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude . . . “
While it should be clear that baptism is a work of man in obedience to God’s command, sometimes it is overlooked because it’s one of the ordinances of the church. However, if you continue to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2010, you will see these troubling statements regarding works:
”The specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation,”
At the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church made this frightening statement to anyone who embraced salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone:
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema,” (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 9).
Misunderstanding Sola Gratia
Not only do people often misunderstand sola Scriptura, but they likewise misunderstand and misrepresent the intent behind sola gratia. While we as helpless sinners are saved by God’s grace alone, the grace of God should never be alone in the life of a believer. In other words, works do not save a sinner, but good works are present in the life of a believer as a direct result of the changed life by the grace of God. Hear Paul in his letter to the church at Galatia:
yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2:16).
The Judaizers had crept into the church in Galatia and were teaching a salvation by faith in Jesus, but they added circumcision to the equation. Suddenly, it was no longer salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins. They added works to the formula. In doing so, they changed the gospel from God’s gospel to something else—and Paul gave a stern warning to such practices in the opening words to the church at Galatia (see Gal. 1:6-9).
As we turn over to James, we see language that perhaps seems to be contradictory. James argues for works to be present and active in the life of a believer. James writes, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). James’ point is clear—the works of a person’s life reveals their true spiritual condition. Faith without works is dead and lifeless which points to the reality of a person who has never experienced the grace of God.
Do you have good works that flow out of God’s grace in your life? Charles Spurgeon once wrote the following statement, “Although we are sure that men are not saved for the sake of their works, yet we are equally sure that no man will be saved without them.” 
Don’t misrepresent sola gratia by denying the need for good works and a pursuit of holiness in the life of a child of God. At the same time, never lean upon good works as a means of your salvation.
- Charles Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit, 4:265.