Sola Gratia: By Grace Alone
July 6, 1997
I’d like to begin this sermon with a thought-provoking quotation from Kim Riddlebarger. He works with Michael Horton in an organization called CURE: Christians United for Reformation and Evangelism.
When we use the term “grace alone”, what we mean is that our salvation from the wrath of God–our deliverance from hell–is because of something good in God, and not because of anything good in us.
These words teach us two important truths: First, grace means there is something good in God. Second, grace means there is nothing good in us. Everything we believe about God’s grace may be comprehended in those two statements.
That there is something good in God we all gladly confess. But the second statement many of us secretly doubt. It sounds too strong, too harsh, too judgmental, too negative. How can we say there is nothing good in us?
Do all good people go to heaven?
If you have trouble with that concept, rest assured that you are not alone. In a recent survey, 84% of evangelical Christians agreed with the statement that “when it comes to salvation-God helps those who help themselves.” In the same survey 49% agreed that there are “other ways to come to God besides Jesus Christ alone” and an amazing 34% of evangelicals said yes to the proposition that “All good people go to heaven.”
Yet listen to Romans 3:10-12.
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
The words cannot be avoided.
No one righteous.
No one who understands.
No one who seeks God.
No one who does good.
And lest we misunderstand, twice the Bible says, “not even one.” You might not agree with those words, but at least you must admit that the Apostle Paul is crystal clear in his indictment of humanity.
Something in us cries out against this harsh conclusion. Surely we’re not so bad as all that, are we? I answer with the words of Anselm, who said, “You have not yet considered how great your sin is.”
Here is the simple truth. Unless we grasp our true condition, we will never understand what God’s grace is all about.
I. What Does This Doctrine Mean?
We sometimes define grace as the “unmerited favor” of God. That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Grace really is the “contrary-to-merit” favor of God. God’s grace is that in him which causes him to reach out to guilty sinners who deserve death and hell and to shower his kindness upon them. It’s not that we were spiritual zeroes and God pulled us into the plus column. No, we’re stuck in the eternal minus column and God, seeing our “minus” condition transfers us from eternal minus to eternal plus.
Grace means first of all that salvation starts with God, not with man. He takes the initiative, he makes the first move. If God didn’t make the first move, you would never make any move at all.
We think grace means, ’We do our part and God does his.” That’s a very American thought-most appropriate for this Fourth of July weekend. We Americans like to think of ourselves as being able to handle anything. We’re the strongest nation on earth, we’ve got unlimited confidence in our own ability. Give us a job and we can do it. And indeed, that “can do” spirit has been a great blessing, but when applied to the arena of salvation “can do” is deadly poison.
Grace means, “We owe everything to God.” But what if someone asks, “Don’t I have a part to play?” That question reminds me of a story from the late Harry Ironside. In one of his sermons he spoke about a man who rose in a Sunday night service to give his testimony. Evidently he magnified the grace of God, because afterwards a friend came to him with a comment: “You said a great deal about God’s part in your salvation. Why didn’t you say anything about your part?” The man paused for a moment said, “Please forgive me. My part was to run away from God as fast as I could. I kept running until he finally caught me.”
How true. Grace teaches us that our only “part” in salvation is to do the sinning and the running away from God. He does the rest.
II. What is the True Human Condition?
If you doubt the truth of my words, consider what the scriptures say about the true human condition. Before we were saved, we were …
So dead that only God can make us alive-Ephesians 2:1
So blind that only God could give us sight-2 Corinthians 4:4
So sinful that only God could forgive us-Psalm 51:5
So bad only God can make us good-Jeremiah 17:9
So lost that only God could save us-Luke 19:10
So helpless that only God could change us-Jeremiah 13:23
In short, without Jesus we were sinful … lost … helpless … hopeless … doomed … damned!
Nothing in us worth saving.
Nothing we could do to save ourselves!
If God doesn’t do something to help us, we’re in big trouble. This is the true condition of every man and every woman born on planet earth.
III. What Does the Bible Say About Grace?
The Bible teaches us that God’s grace is part of his basic character. He could no more be ungracious than he could be unjust. Because God is gracious and because the human race is sinful, grace must always come down from above. It starts with God and comes rolling down to man like a mighty ocean. Please understand. Grace never starts with man, it always starts with God. It comes from who he is and reaches us where we are as we are.
That’s why grace must always be free. Sometimes we hear the term “free grace,” but the phrase is redundant. If grace isn’t free, it isn’t grace. If you have to pay for it, or do anything to earn it or to deserve, or even if you have to do something later in order to prove you really have it, it’s not grace at all. Grace is free … it costs nothing and is therefore a gift from God (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9, “it is the gift of God”).
Grace is the reason why God sent Jesus into the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that God was somehow obligated to send Jesus to the world. The only obligation God has is to act consistent with his own nature. He sent his Son because that’s the kind of God he is.
IV. What Difference does Sola Gratia make?
Let’s wrap up this sermon by considering five implications of God’s amazing grace. First, it destroys all human self-confidence. These days we hear a great deal-even in Christian circles-about self-esteem and self-worth. May I say to you that in the deepest biblical sense there is no such thing as “self-esteem” or “self-confidence.” Instead, the Bible teaches us to have “God-esteem” and “God-confidence.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that apart from God, there is no firm ground for self-esteem and self-confidence. We often sing, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.” How true that is. Outside of Jesus there is no hope and therefore no ground for lasting self-confidence. All other ground is sinking sand.
Second, God’s grace frees us from having to win God’s favor. Because God is gracious, we don’t have to do things in order to make him gracious. This liberates us from the endless cycle of doing more and more things simply because we hope to pacify God. Grace means that God loves us eternally and showers his kindness upon us.
Third, grace enables us to serve God without fear. So often we wonder if we’re praying enough, witnessing enough, serving enough to make God happy. The answer of course is no, we’re not doing enough, which is why putting yourself on a performance standard can never make you happy. On the other hand, if you understand that God accepts us on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done, then you can relax because you know that God looks at you as a little child. He’s pleased with you and isn’t trying to find ways to break you down.
Fourth, grace take the pressure off in our witnessing. Let me illustrate. Years ago I used to feel (subconsciously at least) that I needed to pressure people into salvation. So if I found a likely prospect, I would back them into a corner and really let Ãem have it. And if they didn’t want to be saved, I would get angry with them.
I’ll bet that’s happened to you a few times, too. It often seems to happen when we witness to our loved ones. Sometimes in our zeal, we can almost begin to think that their salvation depends on us and not on God. Our job is to make the message clear and plain. It’s God’s job to save the lost. We don’t “save” people, God does.
(Note: This isn’t an argument against zeal, fervency, tears or urgent appeals. We ought to be fervent in our preaching and urgently call men and women to repentance. But in the end, we can’t change the human heart. That’s the work of God the Holy Spirit.)
Not a Popular Doctrine
Sola gratia is not a popular doctrine in America today. It has never been popular with unregenerate man. Yet it is entirely biblical. No one can be saved without God’s grace.
Our salvation depends entirely on God! This is what sola gratia really means. You contribute nothing to your own salvation. Even your faith is a gift from God! Ephesians 2:8 tells us that “by grace you have been saved through faith-and this not from yourselves-it is the gift of God.” Notice the three words in the first part of the verse: grace, saved, faith. Then notice the word “this” in the second part. What is the antecedent of “this.” Is it grace, is it saved, or it is faith? The answer is yes! It’s all three. The grace is not of yourself, the salvation is not of yourself, and even the faith to believe is not of yourself.
Martin Luther put it very colorfully with these words: “God creates faith in the human heart the same way that He created the world. He found nothing and created something.”
Perhaps you are familiar with these lines from the old hymn “Rock of Ages” by Augustus Toplady. They express as well as words can the truth of salvation by grace.
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to Thy Cross I cling,
Foul I to the fountain fly
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Think about that first line. “Nothing in my hand I bring.” This is why we need sola gratia. We come to God with empty hands or we don’t come at all. We need God’s grace because without it, our hands will always be empty.
Now we begin to see how the Four Solas begin to mesh together:
On the basis of the Bible alone
We know that our salvation is in Christ alone
By grace alone
Through faith alone.
God Wants Bad People in Heaven!
I’d like to close by quoting Romans 4:5, “Now to him who does not work, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
Consider these two amazing statements:
God saves people who give up trying to save themselves.
God saves the ungodly while they are still ungodly!!!
Oh, how we fight against this fact. Many people think God wants good people in heaven, so they spend their lives trying to be good enough to go there when they die. Wrong! God doesnÃt want good people in heaven. He wants bad people in heaven so that by saving bad people he can demonstrate the greatness of his grace.
So many of us are mixed up on this point. We think God is saying, “Clean up your act and then I’ll save you.” Or we think God is saying, “I’ll clean up your act and then I’ll save you”. God never says any such thing! He says something entirely different:
“I’ll save you while you are still dirty and then I’ll help you clean up your act.”
God says, “While you are still dirty, I’ll give you the righteousness of Jesus Christ.” Mark it down. God saves the ungodly while they are still ungodly. ThatÃs the miracle of justification.
And when you come to Christ–still dirty and uncleanÃ³not only does he save you, but he begins an inner process of cleansing that cleans you up from the inside out. But he saves you first, then he cleans you up!
Let’s suppose that I have a clean white handkerchief in my pocket. Taking it out, I place it over my right hand. Now I hold both hands up on the air-the left uncovered, the right covered with the handkerchief.
For the purposes of this story, let us say that the handkerchief on my right hand represents the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. When God looks at his Son, that’s what he sees-perfect, pure righteousness without a spot or blemish of any kind. Now let’s add the fact that my left hand represents my own life with all its sin, failure, folly, and defeat. When God looks at me, what does he see? He sees that sin because there is nothing covering it. Because I am conscious of the dirt in my life, I begin to wipe my hands on my pants-but there is just as much dirt down there as on my hands, so they don’t get cleaner. In fact, they get dirtier. What can I do to clean myself up?
Slowly I take my left hand and place it under the handkerchief, clasping my two hands together. That’s an illustration of what happens when you come to Christ. You the sinner are joined with Jesus Christ the Son of God and his righteousness covers your sin. What does God see now when he looks down at you? He doesn’t see your sin because it is covered by Christ’s righteousness.
To add one other touch to the illustration, while my two hands are clasped under the handkerchief, let’s suppose the two hands begin to run together. Note: Both hands are still under the handkerchief so you and I are still covered by Christ’s righteousness. What does the rubbing represent? It’s the process of Christian growth as the Holy Spirit begins to clean up my life from the inside out.
The whole Christian life is in that illustration. God takes dirty people while they are still dirty and covers them with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Having done that, his Holy Spirit begins to clean them up a little bit at a time.
Two Final Statements
Let’s wrap this up with two summary statements:
When it comes to salvation, faith and works are mutually exclusive.
If you want to be saved by works, then have at it. Go to Sunday School, get baptized, give your money, live by the Golden Rule, be a good citizen, give to the United Way, follow the Ten Commandments, do your best every single day. In the end, you will be sadly disappointed. If thatÃs your decision, then you have to live with the consequences.
But if you want to be saved by faith, then cling to Jesus Christ and to him alone. As the old hymn says, “Lay your deadly ’Doing’ down”. You can have faith … or you can have works, but you can’t have them both. When it comes to salvation, faith rules out works and works rule out faith.
God will save anyone who will believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
You must believe …
that he is the only Savior of the world.
that he came from heaven for you.
that he died on the cross paying the price for your sins.
that he rose from the dead on the third day.
that he is ready to forgive your sins.
that he wants to give you his perfect righteousness.
God has said all those things about his Son. Have you ever said, “Yes, Lord, I believe those things to be true?” When you get to heaven, you will discover that what you always believed turned out to be true. You will discover that God was as good as his Word.
There is nothing good in you, but there is something good in God. And that’s our hope of heaven.