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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Reformation Essentials - Part 4 - Sola Gratia




Sola Gratia: Our Only Method
The reason we must stay with the Scriptures is because it is the only place where we are told that we are saved by the unprovoked and undeserved acceptance of God. In "The Sound of Music," Maria (Julie Andrews), bewildered by the captain's sudden attraction to her, rhapsodizes, "Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good." Deep down, human nature is convinced that there is a way for us to save ourselves. We may indeed require divine assistance. Perhaps God will have to show us the way, or even send a messenger to lead us back, but we can actually follow the plan and pull it off.

The Law is in us by nature. We were born with a conscience that tells us that we are condemned by that Law, but our reason concludes immediately that the answer to that self-condemnation is to do better next time. But the Gospel is not in nature. It is not lodged somewhere in our heart, our mind, our will, or our emotions. It is an announcement that comes to us as foolishness and our first response, like that of Sarah, is to laugh. The story is told of a man who fell off a cliff, but on his way down managed to grab a branch. He broke his fall and saved his life, but before long he realized that he could not pull himself back up onto the ledge. Finally, he called out, "Is there anyone up there who can help me?" To his surprise, a voice boomed back, "I am here and I can help you, but first you're going to have to let go of that branch." Thinking for a moment about his options, the man looked back up and shot back, "Is there anyone else up there who can help me?" We are looking for someone to save us by helping us save ourselves. But the Law tells us that even our best works are like filthy rags; the Gospel tells us that it is something in God and his character (kindness, goodness, mercy, compassion) and not something in us (a good will, a decision, an act, an open heart, etc.) that saves us.

Many in the medieval church believed that God saved by grace, but they also believed that their own free will and cooperation with grace was "their part" in salvation. The popular medieval phrase was, "God will not deny his grace to those who do what they can." Today's version, of course, is, "God helps those who help themselves." Over half the evangelicals surveyed thought this was a direct biblical quotation and 84% thought that it was a biblical idea, that percentage rising with church attendance at evangelical churches.

On the eve of the Reformation a number of church leaders, including bishops and archbishops, had been complaining of creeping Pelagianism (a heresy that denies original sin and the absolute need for grace). Nevertheless, that heresy was never tolerated in its full expression. However, today it is tolerated and even promoted in liberal Protestantism generally, and even in many evangelical circles.

In Pelagianism, Adam's sin is not imputed to us, nor is Christ's righteousness. Adam is a bad example, not the representative in whom we stand guilty. Similarly, Christ is a good example, not the representative in whom we stand righteous. How much of our preaching centers on following Christ--as important as that is--rather than on his person and work? How often do we hear about his work in us compared to his work for us?

Charles Finney, the revivalist of the last century, is a patron saint for most evangelicals. And yet, he denied original sin, the substitutionary atonement, justification, and the need for regeneration by the Holy Spirit. In short, Finney was a Pelagian. This belief in human nature, so prominent in the Enlightenment, wrecked the evangelical doctrine of grace among the older evangelical Protestant denominations (now called "mainline"), and we see where that has taken them. And yet, conservative evangelicals are heading down the same path and have had this human-centered, works-centered emphasis for some time.

The statistics bear us out here, unfortunately, and again the leaders help substantiate the error. Norman Geisler writes, "God would save all men if he could. He will save the greatest number actually achievable without violating their free will."

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Dr. Michael Horton is professor of apologetics and theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California).

© Modern Reformation

This article originally appeared in the Mar / Apr 1994 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.

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