On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. These were dark, dark days; the gospel had been shackled by the superstitions and idolatries of the Roman Catholic Church and consigned to her dungeon where its light was hidden from the world. But Luther’s action that day would initiate its emancipation by sparking the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers rescued the gospel from Rome’s dungeon and brought it to the hilltops from where its light could again emanate as a beacon of salvation for all to see. To remember this day in the history of Christ’s church, brothers from various Reformed denominations have contributed articles on each of the five solas of the Reformation: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. Together they form the five-fold light of the gospel that overcomes the darkness.
– Daniel Ragusa
Christians the world around believe in salvation by grace. In fact, many on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide believe that salvation is by grace alone. The Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical document, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, attests to this in paragraph 15: “Together we confess: By grace alone [emphasis mine], in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” Here we have what seems to be a definite statement by both Lutherans and Catholics that salvation is by grace alone. Does this mean that the Reformers were wrong to assert sola gratia or “grace alone”? What does “grace alone” mean anyway? What was the issue at stake?
In order for us to understand “grace alone,” we need to revisit a debate that began in ancient times between Augustine and Pelagius and continues to this day between Augustine’s defenders and his critics. This look at “grace alone,” then, will be a historical overview not a biblical one, though I hope to intersperse biblical thought throughout. Since this debate began with Augustine and Pelagius, I will spend most of my time with them.
Augustine and Pelagius
The debate between Augustine and Pelagius was over the nature of the fall of man, of God’s grace, and of predestination. Pelagius taught that Adam’s fall into sin affected him only, thus he denied that men were fundamentally corrupt and sinful. Instead he taught that man is basically good, but can become sinful by means of imitation or immoral choices. Grace, therefore, was not necessary, but only auxiliary. It was there to help, but man could be righteous apart from it. Furthermore, Pelagius had a severe distaste for Augustine’s teaching on predestination, arguing that it made preaching useless. If man could not do what God willed, then there was no point in God commanding anything. And if God predestined some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation, then God will save regardless of whether man chooses for good or not. Predestination, he thought, amounted to a license to sin.
Augustine did not always hold to the view of sovereign grace and predestination. He mentions in his Retractions that before he became a Bishop, he taught that man’s faith came first and God’s grace was a response to that faith. He later came to teach sovereign grace after a fuller consideration of the Apostle Paul’s teaching, who said, “And what do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and of this statement by Cyprian: “We must boast over nothing since we have nothing of our own.”
Once he understood what the Apostle Paul said concerning man’s inability and God’s sovereign grace, Augustine taught that, since the fall, man is completely incapable of doing any good that would merit anything from God. Adam and Eve were capable of being good and righteousness in their original state, but when they fell, they became guilty and thoroughly corrupted themselves, and not only themselves, but their guilt and corruption fell upon the whole human race. Augustine based this teaching upon Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
Since man is thoroughly corrupt, he cannot do anything that would merit God’s grace. Moreover, man cannot even cooperate with God’s grace in any way. God’s grace must precede every salvific act for and in man. If man has faith in Christ, it is because God graciously enabled him to do so. Faith does not precede God’s grace, as the Pelagians taught; rather, as the Apostle Paul taught, “it is a gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
Augustine argued, based upon Philippians 1:29, that man was not given grace to have more faith, but simply to have faith. This verse, as well as Ephesians 2:8, was proof for him that faith does not precede God’s gift of grace. But as to why some believe and others do not, Augustine taught, based upon Ephesians 1 and Romans 9, that it is because God predestines some to believe unto eternal life and others to remain in their sin and unbelief. The grace of God precedes man’s faith from all eternity, yet His grace prepares man’s will and enables him to believe in time. More accurately, he said, “Predestination is the preparation for grace, while grace is its actual bestowal.” The Triune God works from all eternity to bring about in time the salvation of man, as 1 Peter 1:3 states, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”
Augustine did not only see this idea of predestination in the Apostle Paul’s teachings, but also in the teachings of Jesus Christ. He turned to John 6 and saw the same view of the priority of grace as in Paul. Jesus clearly taught that if a person is to come in faith to Christ, it is necessary for God to move him by His grace. “All that the Father gives me,” Jesus said, “will come to me” (6:37), and “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6:44). This is very similar to Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 11:25–30, where He gives thanks to the Father for revealing to babes what He hid from the wise. He says further in v. 27, “No one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” The difference here from John 6 is that it is the Son revealing sovereign grace as well as the Father.
Augustine clearly taught that predestination was not based upon God’s foreknowledge of faith or human worthiness. It is a predestination based solely upon God’s gracious disposition. He wrote, “If one examines and asks why anyone is worthy, there are not lacking those who say that it is due to the human will. But we say that it is due to God’s grace or predestination.”
There were those who were (and still are!) troubled by this teaching. Why didn’t God predestine all unto everlasting life? Augustine left this mystery to God, but he wrote, “But why is it not given to all ought not to disturb a believer who believes that because of the one all have entered into condemnation, which is undoubtedly most just, and that there would be no just grounds for blaming God even if no one were set free from it. From this we are shown that it is a great grace that many are set free and recognize what they deserved in those who are not set free.” Augustine also echoes the Apostle Paul’s sentiment in Romans 9:20, “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?” It is God’s prerogative to show mercy to whomever He will have mercy and compassion to whomever He will have compassion (Rom. 9:15).
It is important to remember that Augustine did not teach that man’s will is violated by God’s grace. Post-fall man is corrupt and cannot do any meritorious good. Nevertheless, he sins of his own will. God does not force him to sin. So, too, those who believe are not forced to believe. When Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me,” he did not mean that they came grudgingly. God works in them so that they willingly believe and come to Christ with thankful hearts. Even though Augustine called faith a gift, he taught that man’s faith was his own. Augustine never denied that man possessed a will; he only taught that his will was corrupt and needed God’s grace to choose for the good.
This teaching, said Augustine, brought glory to where it is due—to God alone. Those who taught that faith preceded God’s grace gave glory to man. He wrote, “Not wanting, then, to resist these very clear testimonies [from Rom. 12:3 and Eph. 6:23] and yet wanting to have his believing from himself, a person makes a deal, as it were, with God and claims for himself a part of his faith and leaves a part for God. And what is more presumptuous, he claims the first part for himself and gives the second part to God, and in that work he says belongs to both, he puts himself first and God second.”
Pelagianism was condemned by the Council of Carthage in 418, which was later upheld by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Yet, despite this condemnation, there were still those who continued to be troubled by Augustine’s view. Men such as John Cassian and Vincent of Lerins sought a middle way between Augustinianism and Pelagianism. Their view came to be known in the sixteenth century as “semi-Pelagianism,” though disciples of Augustine saw their view as “the remnants of the Pelagian heresy.” They agreed with Augustine that Adam’s fall affected the entire race, but they did not teach a thorough corruption. They taught that there remained enough good in man to respond to God’s call to faith and repentance. In their view, faith still preceded God’s offer of grace, yet, they argued against Pelagius, God’s grace was still necessary to salvation; a person cannot be righteous without it.
They taught that man cooperated with God’s grace, that he could resist and reject God’s grace, and that he could even fall away from God’s grace. These notions were all rejected by Augustine. Any cooperation, he taught, was because God enabled that cooperation by grace, and this grace never failed in its application. Here he was echoing the Apostle Paul who said, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13), and “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
The second Council of Orange in 529 condemned semi-Pelagianism and upheld Augustinianism. Canon 20 sums up well both the necessity and the priority of grace: “That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.” The Council of Orange, however, was not an ecumenical council, so its canons were never considered to be the universal teachings of the church, even though it claimed catholicity to its teachings.
This debate, therefore, continued through the Medieval period, most notably in the ninth century between Gottschalk, an Augustinian, and Hincmar, a semi-Pelagian. Gottschalk was not alone in his day in affirming all the points of Augustine’s view of grace, but he was nevertheless attacked. And because of his views he was whipped, defrocked, forced to burn his books, and imprisoned in a monastery until his death around 868. This is indicative of how the tide rose in favor of semi-Pelagianism in the church. Still, Augustine’s view of grace and predestination remained in favor by several Medieval theologians, such as Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Bradwardine.
As we can see, the Reformation did not begin the debate, but merely carried on the debate. The early Reformers, nearly to a man (at least those who ended up breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church) sided with Augustine on the nature of the fall, grace, and predestination. They agreed that man was thoroughly corrupt and unable to do anything that merited God’s favor and that God’s grace was sovereign and objectively preceded every salvific act in man. The Roman Catholic Church, however, decided in favor of semi-Pelagianism at the Council of Trent, as it does to this day.
John Calvin, in particular, was an adept student of Augustine. He taught that Adam’s fall into sin brought guilt and corruption upon the whole human race. Thus, since the fall man is not capable of any saving good. In fact, he said, according to the Apostle Paul, only damnable things are produced from man’s nature. Calvin cites Romans 3:10–18 which concludes that “there is none who does good, no, not one.”
It is because of his corruption that man cannot seek salvation in himself but must look entirely elsewhere. He cannot come to any saving knowledge of God except through faith in Christ. He cannot justify or sanctify himself apart from any union with Christ. All of this is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who works faith in believers’ hearts and unites them to Christ from whom they receive the blessings of salvation, especially justification and sanctification. But this would never have occurred unless God first predestined them to salvation. Thus Calvin could say in his commentary on Ephesians, “The foundation and first cause, both of our calling and of all the benefits which we receive from God, is here declared to be his eternal election. If the reason is asked, why God has called us to enjoy the gospel, why he daily bestows upon us so many blessings, why he opens to us the gate of heaven, — the answer will be constantly found in this principle, that he hath chosen us before the foundation of the world.”
Calvin taught, as Augustine did, that God’s sovereign grace did not violate man’s will, but made him willing and able to receive the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The faith that God granted was man’s own, but God worked it in him by the grace of the Holy Spirit. He taught, too, that God’s election was not based upon a foreknowledge of man’s faith or merit, but based solely upon God’s grace.
This Augustinian and Calvinistic teaching of man’s corruption and God’s sovereign grace was codified in every Reformed confession. And Reformed churches today continue to confess, as the Belgic Confession does, “We believe that, all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of our first parents, God then did manifest Himself such as He is; that is to say, merciful and just: merciful, since He delivers and preserves from this perdition all whom He in His eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness has elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works; just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves” (Art. 16).
In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, this debate was revived within the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, this time in the form of the teachings of James Arminius. After his death in 1609, his disciples drew up five articles known as the articles of Remonstrance. They took issue with Belgic Confession’s view of election and grace. They instead taught that 1) God’s election was based upon a foreseen faith, 2) Christ died for all men, but only those who believe receive forgiveness of sins and redemption, 3) unregenerate man is not utterly dead in sin and has some power to choose what pleases God, 4) man can resist God’s grace, and 5) saved man can fall away from grace. These teachings were all condemned by the Synod of Dort in 1618/1619.
The Synod, however, affirmed that God’s election unto faith and everlasting life was based solely upon God’s grace and that reprobation is God justly leaving the non-elect in their sin and obstinacy. It also affirmed that, though Christ’s death was sufficient enough to redeem all of mankind (Canons of Dort II.3), yet because of God’s decree, it was effectively applied only to the elect.
The Synod also affirmed that man was thoroughly corrupt and incapable of any act that was pleasing to God. Because of this, man’s conversion is a gracious act of God through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. At no point does man cooperate with his own conversion. And rather than being a grace that man resists, this work renews his will so that he desires to be converted and believe in Christ.
Finally, the Synod affirmed that saved man will not fall away from grace. God’s grace is able to save to the full, and there is no one who can snatch a believer out of God’s hand. These teachings were later rearranged and became known as the “The Five Points of Calvinism,” often seen in the acronym “TULIP” or total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. It should be noted, however, that this is not the sum of John Calvin’s teaching, but merely a part.
The Modern Period
The debate that began with Augustine and Pelagius and was carried through the Medieval and Reformation periods continues to this day. In the eighteenth century in America, Jonathan Edwards carried on this debate with the Arminians of New England in his famous book popularly titled, Freedom of the Will. The issue at stake for Edwards was not so much a proper view of man in his fallen and corrupt state, but a proper view of God and of His glorious grace. Edwards understood Calvinism to be biblical; anything less promoted a view that did not give God the glory due His name. Edwards wrote in his sermon, “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence,” “Let us be exhorted to exalt God alone, and ascribe to him all the glory of redemption. Let us endeavor to obtain, and to increase in, a sensibleness of our great dependence on God, to have our eye on him alone, to mortify a self-dependent, and self-righteous disposition. Man is naturally exceeding prone to be exalting himself, and depending on his own power or goodness, as though he were he from whom he must expect happiness, and to have respect to enjoyments alien from God and his Spirit, as those in which happiness is to be found.”
The debate continues today. There are still those who side more or less with Augustine and the Reformation or with Pelagius, semi-Pelagianism, or Arminianism. Books continue to be written defending Augustinianism or semi-Pelagianism and Calvinism or Arminianism. Reformed believers, however, continue to beat the drum of “grace alone.” Why do we do this? It is because views of grace, whether Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, or Arminianism, that fall short of the Augustinian (and, we would insist, biblical) standard, cannot be said to give God’s grace its proper due. In other words, it is because we also hold to that other sola of the Reformation, soli Deo gloria, “Glory to God Alone.”
In sum, the watch-word “grace alone” has to do with how we understand man’s fall into sin, God’s gracious recovery, and predestination. Pelagius denied that man was corrupt. He had the ability to be righteous and do meritorious works. Therefore, grace was not necessary to man’s salvation, but only as an aid when needed. The semi-Pelagians saw grace as necessary, but man was not completely corrupt. He retained some spiritual abilities, thus he was able to cooperate with God’s grace. Predestination was downplayed as an inhibitor to preaching and Christian morality. The Roman Catholic Church today still holds this view, but is careful to note that man cannot of his own strictly merit anything from God. It is in this way that Catholics can affirm “grace alone” without denying man’s cooperation with grace. Arminians, too, affirm the necessity of grace, but, like the semi-Pelagians, end up teaching that man cooperates in some way with this grace. Only the Augustinian and Reformed view teaches that salvation from start to finish is all of God’s grace, never of man’s work lest anyone should boast. “Grace alone” is a safeguard against boasting and ensures that we truly give glory to God alone.
For Further Study
- Saint Augustine, “The Predestination of the Saints” and “The Gift of Perseverance” in Selected Writings on Grace and Pelagianism. Translated by Roland Teske. Edited by Boniface Ramsey. New City Press, 2011.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Edited by John McNeill. Westminster Press, 1960.
- The Canons of Dort. See Cornelis Venema’s exposition in But for the Grace of God.
- Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back into Grace. Baker Books, 2011.
- Alexander Y. Hwang, Brian J. Matz, and Augustine Casiday, Eds. Grace for Grace: The Debates After Augustine and Pelagius. Catholic University of America Press, 2014.
- Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine. Baker Academic, 2013, pp. 71–87.