Grace Alone (Sola Gratia)
We are saved by God's grace alone through faith alone. The material principle of the Reformation (Sola Fide) centers on the very real problem of the assurance of one's salvation before God. Yet as the Reformers staked their lives and ministries upon the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, it became abundantly clear that the issue of God's grace must be dealt with also. In the Medieval Catholic Church, God's grace is insufficient unto salvation as to matter and efficacy. It was insufficient in matter because God's grace alone could not save sinners, but rather that the merits of the saints (from the "treasury of merit") was necessary to save sinners. It was insufficient in efficacy because God's grace alone could not truly save sinners by itself, but the cooperation of the will of Man was necessary.
In dealing with the topic of grace alone, most people will deal with the Roman Catholic issue of merit (insufficiency as to matter). The whole idea that Man could merit anything from God is simply ludicrous. After all, doing what is good is merely doing what is required, and the creature has no right to anything from the Creator (Lk. 17:9-10). Under the sovereignty of God, Man cannot merit anything before God. Salvation therefore must come by God's grace alone, if salvation is to be achieved.
But a deeper controversy with regards to the grace of God concerns the efficacy of God's grace. When the renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus was asked to refute Luther's theology, he critiqued Luther in his book The Freedom of the Will concerning the freedom of Man's will, with the contention that the will is truly free. Luther in response wrote The Bondage of the Will, where Luther defended in no uncertain terms the spiritual deadness of the will of Fallen Man. Man therefore does not have "free will," but rather the will of man is bound by sin, unable not to sin.
Why we may ask did Erasmus focus on this one topic, and Luther defended the idea that the will of man is not free? The reason why this question is actually a very important one is due to its implications on the efficacy of grace. If Man's will is indeed free from the bondage to sin, then that will has contributed something for salvation in choosing to believe in Christ for salvation. Therefore, salvation is not by grace alone, but by grace and some small work, Man's free choice of Christ. Once such a crack is admitted, then the entire medieval works-righteousness system can be brought back in through the back door. If Man's free choice is necessary, perhaps then the idea of the necessity of works for salvation is helpful, since surely Man must exercise the work of free choice to not suddenly stop choosing Christ? If Man's free choice is necessary, then perhaps the Roman sacraments are necessary for salvation in the sense that they help the free will in its continual choice for God. That is why this seemingly esoteric topic took on such significance for both Erasmus and Luther.
In the subsequent history of the Church, we know that even within Protestantism, syngergism gained the upper hand. The Arminian controversy of 1618-1619 is merely the most prominent example where the principle of Grace Alone has been compromised. In this 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation therefore, let us return once again to the principle of Grace Alone, and return to the monergistic doctrine of the bondage of Man's will, and the grace of God that can only save. Amen.