[We remember our Reformation heritage with this third instalment of an article entitled the “Five Solas”. Salvation is by “Grace Alone.]
By Dr. Keith Mathison, Reformation Bible College
In the early fifth century, a theological controversy occurred that would forever shape the thinking of the church. In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo wrote in the form of a prayer the words: “Give what Thou commandest and command what Thou will.” The British monk Pelagius was upset by these words, believing that they would give Christians an excuse for not obeying God. Pelagius believed that if God commanded something then man was naturally (apart from grace) able to do it. He believed that this was possible because he also believed that Adam’s sin had only affected Adam. All human beings are born in the same state in which Adam was born, capable of either obeying God or disobeying him. If they obey, their good works merit salvation. If not, they deserve God’s punishment.
Augustine, on the other hand, taught that Adam’s sin had dramatically impacted all of his descendants. The Reformed churches followed Augustine in their rejection of Pelagianism. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, has a clear explanation of the doctrine of original sin. By our first parents’ sin:
[T]hey fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions (VI.1–4).
Since the fall, all human beings are born in this fallen state with their will (one of the faculties of soul and body) in bondage to sin. Because of the fall, we are born spiritually dead, unable to choose or will the good (Rom. 3:10–12; 5:6; Eph. 2:1).
Although Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy at a number of councils, including the third ecumenical council in 431, it has raised its head in various forms ever since. By the late medieval period, the Roman Catholic Church had fallen into a type of semi-Pelagianism. The justification of the sinner was seen as a kind of synergistic, co-operative work between God and the sinner. The doctrine of sola gratia was the Protestant response to this.
The Protestant doctrine of sola gratia is found in all of the major Reformed confessions. It underlies everything said regarding the state of the fallen sinner, election, calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, and more. The point that the Reformers wanted to make in the sixteenth century is the same point that Augustine made in the fifth. We are not saved by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. The fallen sinner is not a drowning man who merely needs to do his part by reaching out to grab the life preserver tossed by God. No, the sinner is in a far more serious condition. He cannot grab a life preserver because he is not merely drowning. He is a cold, dead, lifeless corpse on the bottom of the sea. If he is to be saved, he will not be able to cooperate with God. His salvation will be an act of pure grace, and grace alone, on the part of God (Eph. 2:8).