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Sola Gratia

J.B. Unseth

1943 Synod Convention Essay

The subject which is to engage our attention at this time is the watch-word of the Lutheran Church, termed Sola Gratia. This terms tells us how a sinner is saved. When the question is asked how can a person become justified before God and saved, the answer which Scripture gives is: By grace alone.

The word ‘grace’ is the good will and favor shown to one who can plead no merit, but only his needs; particularly, the love of God in its relation to the sinner as such: “The term ‘grace’ used of God in regard to sinful man is the gracious favor or the forgiveness of sins, which for Christ’s sake is present in God’s heart toward all sinful mankind, is attested in the Gospel, and is to be believed by all men on the basis of the Gospel.” (Dr. Pieper, Chr. Dogm.) Saving grace is not something in man, not any good quality or ability of man, any good disposition or activity of man. Luther says: “The sophists teach falsely concerning grace, when they say that it is a quality hidden in the heart.” Saving grace is much more something in God: God’s loving, gracious disposition, God’s favor or God’s love, mercy, kindness. In His Preface to the Epistle to the Romans Luther says: “Grace, in the proper sense of the term, denotes God’s favor and good will toward us which He cherishes in Himself.” God loves the world. The love of God toward us was manifested by the sending of His Son into the world, that we might live through Him. According to His mercy God saves us. God’s grace is wholly independent of human works and human merit and it is not shackled by human guilt, Rom. 5:20: “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”

This grace came by Jesus Christ. The grace according to which God is mercifully minded toward sinful mankind is according to Scripture not absolute grace, that is, grace independent of any cause, resting simply on God’s omnipotence. There are those who think and teach that God can be gracious unto men solely on the strength of His divine supremacy, as supreme Judge, even without the substitutionary satisfaction of Christ. But it is useless and foolish, indeed altogether absurd to argue about what God can do after He has revealed to us in His Word what He wants to do and actually does. Now God declares in His Word that God is gracious to sinners only for Christ’s sake, that He forgives sins “through the redemption, which is in Christ Jesus.” Chemnitz writes: “Outside of Christ there is no grace and mercy of God toward us sinners, for grace without Christ must not and cannot be conceived.” Again: “It is useless to argue about God’s power, when His will is evident from
His revelation.” Luther enjoins us not to imagine God’s grace independent of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction. He says: “Thus, indeed, grace is given to us gratuitously, so as to cost us nothing; but yet, for us, it cost another much, and was obtained with an incalculable, an infinite treasure; namely, the Son of God.”

Scripture teaches that by the fall of Adam all men have become sinners and are now according to the verdict of divine justice (set forth in the Law) subject to damnation. “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” And not only those who according to the verdict of men are wicked must die, but, “whosoever, shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all,” James 2:10. “The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth,” Ps. 34:16. “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them,” Gal. 3:10. God’s wrath against sin is so great that He threatens to cast the evil,doers into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched,” Mark 9:43. And since there here is no difference, “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God,” Rom. 3:23, all men are under the curse, have become enemies of God and children of wrath. According to His unalterable justice God must punish transgressors and give to every man all he has deserved. However, Scripture assures us that God is love. He does not want that any should perish, but that all should be saved. He therefore, before the world was, conceived a plan of saving sinners without abridging or curtailing in the least His justice. By grace God resolved to send His only begotten Son to be the substitute of sinful men and that He in our stead should fulfil that righteousness which God demanded from us. “When the fu1ness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law, to redeem them that were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption of sons,” Gal. 4:4–5. Christ, God’s Son, has fulfilled the Law in our stead. But the keeping of the Law alone was not enough. Curse and punishment hovered over us. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us,” Gal. 3:13. “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him,” Is. 53:5. “God made Him to he sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust,” I Peter 3:18. By His life, suffering and death Christ has appeased God’s wrath and everlasting justice is satisfied by His intervention. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them,” II Cor. 5:19. “By the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. By the obedience of one shall many be made righteous,” Rom. 5:18, 19. “We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son.” For Christ’s sake God cancelled the world’s sins from His account. When God raised Christ from the dead, He absolved the world of its sin and guilt and declared that He was no longer at odds with the sinful race of man. That is His grace. This is what St. Paul means when he says: “By grace are ye saved.” “For there is no difference: For all have sinned; and come short of the glory of God: being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” Rom; 3:23, 24. Man is justified freely, (without merit, by grace alone) through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

This scriptural teaching, that we are saved alone by the mercy and grace of God for Christ’s sake, has always been a stumbling block and foolishness to natural man. By nature man does not know otherwise and does not think otherwise than that salvation must be obtained by works. That is the teaching of all man-made religions. Man must, in some way or another, earn salvation.

But this “Godless opinion concerning works,” as the Apology calls it, with regard to man’s justification and salvation, is wholly contrary to the scriptural doctrine of salvation. It is paganism. Scripture takes great pains to inculcate the doctrine that salvation is by grace with absolute exclusion of works. St. Paul writes: “If by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” Rom. 11:6. Grace and human merit mutually exclude each other. It is either by grace alone, or it is by works alone. It cannot be by both conjointly. The moment work, even the slightest work, is added to grace, then it is no more grace. And now scripture teaches that salvation, from beginning to end, is by grace alone without any merit or worthiness in man. “By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” “They are justified freely by His grace.” “Where is boasting then? It is excluded.” “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the Law.” Rom. 3 and 4. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” Eph. 2:8 and 9. From these and other passages of Scripture it is clear that man’s works, in every form, the outward good works of the unregenerate and the spiritual good works of the Christian are entirely excluded as far as our justification and salvation are concerned. We are justified by grace alone. The way of grace is the only way unto salvation. By this teaching of salvation by grace, the Christian religion distinguishes itself from all other religions and to make salvation dependent on man’s own efforts is apostasy from the Christian faith.

As clearly as Scripture teaches sola gratia, so clearly does it also teach that saving grace is universal grace, that the gracious will of God and the salvation wrought by Christ embrace all men. “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,” Tit. 2:11; “For God so loved the world,” John 3:16; “God will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” I Tim. 2:4; “He (Jesus Christ) is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world,” I John 1:29. Scripture expressly states that universal grace pertains to each and every individual, 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is … not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” No less does God’s will, aiming at the conversion of men, extend also to those who perish, Matt. 23: 37; “How often would I have gathered thy children together … and ye would not.”

On the basis of Holy Scripture our Lutheran confessions maintain the universality of saving grace in its full extent. They teach the threefold universalism of the love of the Father, the merit of Christ, and the efficacious operation of the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace in all hearers of the Word. (Triglotta 1071.) A limited grace is expressly rejected in our Confessions: “Therefore we reject the following errors: 1. As when it is taught that God is unwilling that all men repent and believe the gospel. 2. Also, that when God calls us to Himself, He is not in earnest that all men should come to Him. 3. Also, that God is unwilling that every one should be saved, but that some, without regard to their sins, from mere counsel, purpose, and will of God, are ordained to condemnation, so that they cannot be saved.” (F.C.).

Luther loudly proclaimed this blessed truth that God’s grace is universal. Thus, to John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” he remarks: “In yonder life it will be our eternal joy and delight that the Son of God condescends so deeply and shoulders my sin, yea, not merely my sin, but that of the whole world committed from Adam on down to the very last man; this He would have regarded as committed by Him and would also suffer and die for it that I might be without sin and obtain eternal life and bliss … and this text is, God’s Word and not our word, nor devised by us, that God for this purpose sacrificed this Lamb, and that this Lamb, in divine obedience to the Father, took upon Him the sin of the whole world. But the world does not take to it. … What more should the Lamb do? It says: You are all lost (condemned), but I will take upon Me your sins; I have become the whole world, have assumed the part of all men from Adam on, so that, if we got sin from Adam, He will instead present us with righteousness. Here I ought to say: That I will believe! … That men, however, do not believe, is not due to a lack in the Lord Jesus, but the fault is mine. If I do not believe it, I remain in my condemnation. I must simply say, God’s Lamb has borne the world’s sin, and I am earnestly enjoined to believe and confess this, yes, to die in this faith. Well, you might say, who knows whether He bears also my sins? I well believe that He bore the sins of St. Peter, St. Paul, and other saints. They were pious people. If only I, too, were St. Peter or St. Paul! Do you not hear what St. John here says: ‘This is the Lamb of God that bears the sins of the world’? Now, you certainly cannot deny that you are a part of the world. … If then you are in the world and your sins a part of the world’s sin, this text tells you: All that bears the name of sin, the world and the world’s sin, from the beginning of the world down to us and to the end, lies on this Lamb of God alone; and hence, since you, too, are a part of the world and remain in the world, you, too, are to share in enjoying what this text here tells of.”

But how is the grace of God, gained for all men through the vicarious satisfaction of Christ, transmitted and appropriated to man? Where can I find the saving grace? That is a question of life or death to the terrified sinner. In answer to this question, scripture teaches that the grace of God can be found in no other way, at no other place, than in the means of grace which God has ordained. These means of God are the Word of the Gospel and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s supper. The word of the Gospel is the proclamation of God, in which He announces that He is through Christ reconciled with the entire world of sinners. 2 Cor. 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the Word of reconciliation,” viz., the reconciliation which has been effected, established by Christ. Again, Luke 24:46–47: “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name.” That Baptism also works forgiveness of sins is evident from the answer which Peter gave on the first day of Pentecost to those who inquired, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” He replies: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins,” Acts 2:37–38. In order that the fact that God is reconciled through Christ may constantly be kept fresh in mind, Christ offers the body which was given for us and the blood which was shed for the remission of our sins in His Holy Supper. Scriptures are also very definite in asserting that the Holy Spirit, who engenders and sustains faith, operates in and through the external means which God has instituted. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God,” Rom. 10:17. Luther says that the gospel bestows the forgiveness of sins, the grace of God: “The Gospel is nothing else than the Word; by which are offered unto us the spirit, grace, and the remission of sins obtained for us by Christ crucified; and all entirely free.” Baptism is the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, Titus 3:5. Both. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are instruments or means of the Holy Spirit, whereby we become members of the body of Christ and are thus united with Christ, I Cor. 12:13: “For by one spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one spirit.”

By way of objection the following has been asked frequently: Would it not be possible for the almighty God to bestow His grace, to work and sustain faith in Christ, without external means, without the preaching of the Word, without Baptism, without the Lord’s Supper? Most assuredly, if — God had chosen to do so. From Scripture we learn, however, that God has determined it otherwise. The order which God has fixed is laid down in His Word: “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God,” Rom. 10:17. Luther sharply takes those to task who ignore the means which God has ordained under the plea that the almighty God. is well able to work without means. He writes: “Surely, it could be done without the Gospel. For where is the person who could have hindered God from effecting salvation for us by any deed whatsoever, without proclaiming it, without sending Christ into the flesh? >It is true: He has created heaven and earth and continues to uphold everything without external preaching, without becoming man. But from this the conclusion dare not be drawn that the gospel is of no consequence. Now it is the will of God to bestow gifts through men, through the Word, through the bread of the Lord’s Supper. Who are you; O arrogant and ungrateful wretch, to make bold to ask why He does not give in a different manner or without any means? Do you dare to prescribe ways and means? Are you so hard to please? You ought to leap with joy and exult over the fact that He does it in any way that is pleasing to Him, just so you receive the benefit.” (From Dr. Pieper, “Unionism”). The grace of God, which supplies every need of the sinner, is stored up in the means of grace, and this storehouse, filled to overflowing, is opened to every sinner. “God determines that His gospel, which is necessary unto all, should be confined to no place, no time, but that it should be preached unto all, at all times, al1d in all places.” — Luther. Thus God out of infinite grace and mercy has taken everything that pertains to the salvation of man in hand Himself. It is the work of God that grace and salvation have been purchased for men by Christ, and it is God who has ordained the means by which grace and forgiveness are bestowed and transmitted to man. Even faith itself by which the grace of God and the merit of Christ are apprehended, is not a work of man himself; but is a of God’s grace. We cannot by our own reason or strength believe Jesus Christ or come to Him. It is wrought in our hearts by the Holy Ghost through the means of grace. It is God that worketh in us both to will and do according to His good pleasure. Luther therefore says that the Christian religion is, in a word, a religion of gratitude. All the good that Christians do is not done to merit something. Everything has been given us: righteousness, our everlasting heritage, our salvation. All that remains for us to do is to thank God. Luther rejoices in the doctrine of sola gratia (grace alone) because it alone is able to engender assurance of salvation. He writes: “As for myself, I certainly confess that if such a thing could somehow be, I should be unwilling to have free will given me, or anything left in my own hand, which might enable me to make an effort at salvation; not only because in the midst of so many dangers and adversities and also of so many assaulting devils I should not be strong enough to remain standing and keep my hold of it (for one devil is mightier than all men put together, and not a single man would be saved), but because, even if there were no dangers and no adversities and no devils, I should still be compelled to toil forever uncertainly, and to beat the air in my struggle. For though I should live and work to eternity, my own conscience would never be sure and at ease as to how much it ought to do in order to satisfy God. No matter how perfect a work might be, there would be left a doubt whether it pleased God, or whether He required anything more; as is proved by the experience of all. who endeavor to be saved by the Law, and as I, to my own great misery, have learned abundantly during so many years. But now since God has taken my salvation out of the hands of my will, and placed it into those of His own and has promised to save me, not by my own work or running, but by His grace and mercy, I feel perfectly sure, because He is faithful and will not lie to me; moreover, He is powerful and great, so that neither devils nor adversities can crush Him, or pluck me out of His hand. “No one,” says He, “shall pluck them out of My hand; for My Father, who gave them unto Me, is greater than all! Thus it comes to pass that, though not all are saved, at least some, nay, many are, whereas by the power of free will absolutely none would be saved, but every one of us would be lost. We are also certain and sure that we please God, not by the merit of our own work, but by the favor of His mercy which He has promised us; and that, if we have done less than we ought, or have done anything amiss, He does not impute it to us, but as a father forgives and makes us better. That is the glorying which all the saints have in their God.” (Trigl. H. I. 217). In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession this thought of Luther’s is repeated as follows: “If the matter (our salvation) were to depend upon our merits, the promise would be uncertain and useless, because we never could determine. when we would have sufficient merit. And this experienced consciences can easily understand (and would not for a thousand worlds, have our salvation depend upon ourselves.)”

This doctrine of Scripture which down through the centuries after the time of the apostles had been almost obliterated, is the doctrine which by God’s grace was so gloriously brought to light again by Luther. From the Word of God he had learned that man;s salvation is obtained not by the works of the Law, but alone by the grace of God in Christ. Only when this is acknowledged and taught does God receive the honor due Him. By God’s grace this doctrine has been handed down to us as a legacy of Luther. The history of our synod is a long struggle for this truth that man, who by nature is dead in trespasses and sins and an enemy of God, is justified and saved alone by the grace and mercy of God through the redemption of Christ without any merit or cooperation on his part. Through God’s unspeakable grace this blessed doctrine has for ninety years been kept pure within our synod. The confession of our synod has always been what is so beautifully expressed in the hymn:

“To us salvation now is come,

Through freest grace and favor,

Our works could not avert our doom,

They keep and save us never;

Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,

Who did for all the world atone;

He is our one Redeemer.


“As Christ hath full atonement made

And brought to us salvation,

So may each Christian now be glad

And build on this foundation:

Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,

Thy death now is my life indeed,

For Thou hast paid my ransom.”

This blessed doctrine of God’s grace in Christ is the doctrine which alone fully meets the sinner’s need. Unless grace does all (sola gratia), the sinner is lost. And unless grace is for all (universal grace), the sinner must despair.

Yet this doctrine is hated and disavowed by many, not only by the world at large, but also by many within the outward visible church. In the church of Rome this doctrine is not only rejected but is actually condemned. In its chief confession, the Decrees of the Council of Trent, it says: “If any one saith that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be cursed.” According to the Roman doctrine Christ has earned for men only so much that they now can earn salvation for themselves. The same is taught in the Reformed Churches. Many of them deny the divinity of Christ and consequently the atonement made by Him. They teach outright that man is justified and saved not by what God in Christ has done, but by their own outward morality and good deeds. And while some speak of salvation by grace alone, they virtually deny it, since they deny that God’s grace is seriously offered to sinners in the gospel and the Sacraments. They are therefore compelled to rely for the personal assurance of their justification on something within themselves or upon their renewal or their good words. That man is saved by grace alone, is also denied by the synergists within the Lutheran Church who teach that man’s salvation depends in part at least on his right conduct, self decision, lesser guilt, etc. Synergism was introduced into Lutheran theology by Melanchton, who maintained that there are three causes of salvation: the Holy Ghost, the Word of God, and man’s assenting will. We who have learned that salvation is by grace alone need to be on our guard that we are not ensnared into the false teaching of those who deny this truth. Synergism is the old hereditary foe of true Lutheranism. We might fight it in our own hearts. “The natural man can never of himself get away from the attitude that salvation, at least to some extent, depends upon himself” and: “This delusion runs in our blood, too.” If we are to remain in the truth that man’s salvation is by grace alone we must let God’s Word be our sole guide and by God’s grace contend for the faith which once was delivered unto the saints.