Many of us are familiar with John Newton's hymn, Amazing Grace, and the line, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. So we know that the grace of God is amazing, but is it essential? Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and thanks for joining us today on Renewing Your Mind.
This week, R.C. Sproul has been taking us through a series looking at five essential gospel truths that were rediscovered and reaffirmed in the Protestant Reformation, truths that we as Christians must never compromise. Today he's going to remind us that our salvation is by grace alone. We're going to continue with our series of study on the five solas of the Protestant Reformation. We've already had two messages on the question of sola fide, or justification by faith alone, which was the material or the substantial issue over which the Reformation was fought.
And closely related to the doctrine of sola fide is the doctrine of sola gratia, or gratia, however you want to pronounce it, which means literally by grace alone. Now in the Middle Ages, in the Roman Catholic Church, of course the leading theologian was St. Thomas Aquinas, and the church since that time has referred to Thomas as the angelic doctor, the Dr. Angelicus, the doctor of the angels. They have another nickname for the great St. Augustine, who ministered at the end of the fourth century and into the beginning of the fifth century, and Augustine's nickname is Dr. Gratia.
That is, he's known as the doctor of grace in church history because he is the one who first formulated this idea of sola gratia. And that notion that Augustine articulated was recovered and recaptured in the Reformation by his two main disciples of that period, Martin Luther, who was an Augustinian monk at Erfurt before the Reformation began, and from John Calvin, who in all of his writings, apart from his citations, quotations, and allusions to passages from sacred Scripture, the single individual from whom Calvin quotes the most in terms of frequency was, of course, Augustine. And so we look back to Augustine and the controversies in which he was involved to get a source of understanding of this idea of sola gratia. Before I look back to Augustine, however, I'd like to read a passage from the historical introduction to the English translation of Martin Luther's famous work De servo arbitrio, that is on the bondage of the will, that was put out by the Fleming Ravel company many, many years ago.
This book, which Luther wrote in response to Erasmus of Rotterdam's diatribe, is the volume that Luther himself considered to be his most important work. And the lengthy historical introduction to it was penned jointly by a man by the name of Johnston in collaboration with Dr. J. I. Packer. And it's from that introduction that I'd like to read a brief statement. Packer and Johnston make this assertion, quote, justification by faith alone is a truth that needs interpretation. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia.
Now let me interrupt myself at this point. You hear what Packer and Johnston are saying is that you can't really understand the Protestant doctrine of sola fide unless you understand it against the deeper question against the backdrop of the doctrine of sola gratia. Now when Packer and Johnston make this assertion, they're not making this out of whole cloth because this is precisely the point that Luther was making in his book against Erasmus, that you haven't really grasped sola fide until or unless you really understand this principle of sola gratia. Let me continue from that historical introduction. What is the source and status of faith?
That's the question. In other words, where does faith come from and what is its status? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received or is it a condition of justification which is left for man to fulfill?
Now do you understand the difference there? Is faith God-given or is it simply a condition for our justification that God does not provide but what we must provide in order to be redeemed? So for example, as I think we will see, two people can both affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone. One of them says, the faith by which I am justified is a gift from God. The other one says, yes I'm justified by faith alone but faith is something that I did.
You see the difference? And that's what Packer and Johnston are talking about here. He says, is it a part of God's gift of salvation or man's own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter, as the Arminians later did, thereby deny man's utter helplessness and sin and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder then that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principle a return to Rome because in effect it turned faith into a meritorious work and was a betrayal of the Reformation because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the Reformers thought. Arminianism was in Reformed eyes a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism for to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle from relying on oneself for works and the one is as unchristian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus, there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.
Now let me just say here, when I first read that, I blinked. I said, I can't believe that J. I. Packer and his compatriot would speak so strongly about Arminianism as to say that it is unchristian in this respect and anti-Christian in this respect when it in fact makes faith a work that we do and becomes the basis and the final analysis of our salvation. Let me try to soften that a little bit because I believe that Packer, as well as I do, believes that Arminians are Christians and don't belong to the temple of the anti-Christ. We differ strenuously on this question that they're debating here, but when you talk to Arminians, they shun away from the idea that the faith that they bring to the table is a righteous, meritorious work that becomes part of the grounds of their salvation. Every Arminian I've ever dealt with on this point affirms, truly affirms, that justification is by faith alone, by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, and not by our works, even though they believe that faith is something that we bring to the table. But that's different from saying that they believe that their faith is a good work that is the basis of their salvation.
They don't say that. Maybe what these men are saying is if they were really logically consistent with their situation and with their doctrine, they would have to say that. But we're not always logically consistent, and sometimes we escape heresy by a lucky inconsistency or a happy inconsistency as the case may be. Also, when they say this idea is as unchristian or anti-Christian as other matters are, I need to soften that. I'm sure that there are ideas in my head, in my theology, that are wrong. And insofar as they're wrong, they're unchristian. And insofar as they're wrong, they are anti-christian. And I think that's true of all of us, that all of us pick up ideas along the way that are really not compatible with Christian thinking.
And in fact, we've been seduced by anti-Christian ideas. I say today that the average concept of free will that most Christians use in their thinking is a pagan notion. They don't embrace paganism. They don't see it as a pagan notion. I'm convinced it is a pagan notion. But it's one thing for me to say you have unchristian elements in your thoughts and saying, therefore, you're not a Christian.
See the difference? Now, those elements in your thought may be so unchristian as to make you an unchristian. You may have the unchristian idea that Jesus, you say you're a Christian, but you don't believe in the deity of Christ. If that's the case, I would say that unchristian idea is so significant that it vitiates your profession of faith in Christ altogether.
So I hope we have that straight. Now, this whole idea of sola gratia that Packer and others are talking about here is related historically to two other theological issues. We've seen that it's indirectly related to justification.
We'll come back to that. But the two major theological concepts by which this phrase sola gratia has immediate application are, number one, the doctrine of original sin, because it was in that context that this idea was first affirmed by Augustine, and second of all, the doctrine of election. And so it's original sin and election that are the twin doctrines that are related closely to the idea of sola gratia.
So we'll look at that now as we proceed in our study. A quick overview of the history, and by the way, I've written an entire book on the question of the relationship of sola gratia to our salvation and to the issue of original sin and free will entitled, Willing to Believe, where I go through the whole historical debates on this issue beginning with Pelagius and Augustine and Cassianus and Luther and the Roman Catholic view and the Arminian view, the dispensational view, Edwards' view, and so on throughout church history. Well, in any case, let's look first at the historical provocation that led to this phrase in the teaching of Augustine, and it came about in the so-called Pelagian controversy that took place roughly around the turn of the century from the fourth to the fifth centuries. And it began when Pelagius was a British monk who came to Rome to visit Rome and heard of the reputation of the great Augustine. But when he came to Rome, he was appalled by the behavioral patterns and the licentiousness of members of the church and those who were professing Christ.
They seemed to be living godless lives. And so, in a very real sense, Pelagius wanted to be a reformer of the morals of the Christian church of his day. And he was disturbed by a famous prayer that had been written by Saint Augustine, where in that prayer, Augustine said this, O God, grant what Thou dost command and command what Thou dost desire. Now, the second part of the prayer that God would command from His creatures, whatever was pleasing for God to command, Pelagius certainly agreed that God had the right to impose obligations on the creatures that He has formed in His own image. He believed that God was morally sovereign and that He is the lawgiver, not we.
We are not the ones who create the law of God. No problem with that part of the prayer. It was the first part of the prayer that distressed him so greatly in which Augustine said, O Lord, grant what Thou dost command.
Pelagius was puzzled by that. He said, why would you ask God to grant you? Grant is a gift, after all. Why would you ask God to grant you whatever He commands? That indicates that God is commanding that you do something that without this grant, without this gift, you cannot do. Well, this is exactly what Augustine was saying. Augustine was saying is that God gave His law to man in creation, and man was created to mirror and reflect the character of God.
God is holy, and we were created with a mandate to be holy, a mandate to be righteous, a mandate to be perfect. But Augustine says in the fall, man was ruined as he fell into a corrupt status by which it was no longer possible for that human being to obey all of the commands of God, that man was no longer morally able or morally powerful enough to live a perfect life. And so that the only way we could become righteous would be through God's help, through God's gift of grace. So it's one thing to consider man in creation.
It's another thing to consider man in his fallen condition. In his created, original situation, man could be righteous, according to Augustine. After the fall, because of original sin, man could no longer obey the law of God. Now again, remember that the doctrine of original sin does not refer specifically to the first sin, the original one, you know, the first one that got everybody in trouble. Now what original sin defines or describes in theology is the result of that first sin, the result being the fallen corruption that was the subsequent judgment of God upon the first sin. So that after Adam's sin, after Adam and Eve fell, then their future descendants are born in sin, born with this human nature that is corrupt by birth and is no longer able to achieve righteousness. That's why Augustine said, since the fall, for us to do anything right requires the grace of God.
Now this is where Pelagius objected. He said that the sin of Adam affected only Adam. There was no transfer to his progeny of the consequences of this sin. We only sin not because we're born sinners, but we only sin when we imitate what Adam did, that we are those who ape our original father when we sin. But Adam's sin did not do anything to change the constituent nature of humanity.
We are born today in the same condition as Adam was when he was first created, so that we have the same abilities, the same powers that Adam had when God first made him. Pelagius went on to say that we as human beings still have the power to live perfect lives without grace. Now it's not that he was opposed to grace. He said not only can we theoretically live perfect lives without the grace of God, but there are people, in fact many people, who achieve that and who actually live righteous lives. Now it's made more difficult because so many people have echoed and imitated Adam by copying, being copycat sinners as it were, that we now live in a society and environment where there's so much sin that that makes it hard for the person who still has the constituent nature of the original Adam to make it through life without sinning because there are these negative pressures all around him.
But still the ability is there. The moral ability to perfection remains in the soul and the heart of human beings since Adam. Now he went on to say that grace helps. He wasn't opposed to grace. His concept was this, that grace facilitates living a righteous life.
And of course the word facilitate means to make easier. But grace, Pelagius insisted, is not necessary for a person to be righteous. So that was the issue that provoked so much of Augustine's insightful teaching on the fall of man and on the doctrine of election or predestination. Now as a result of this conflict, the church of that time roundly and soundly condemned Pelagius as a heretic and completely rejected Pelagian theology, not only in the fifth century but again in the first three canons of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.
The church reaffirmed its judgment against Pelagianism. And in fact in the fifth century the church ruled in favor of Saint Augustine vis-à-vis Pelagius. And the principle idea of Augustine can be summarized with these words, moral inability, namely that the fall was so radical and so corrupt, sin so invaded our humanity, that we are born in a state that the Bible describes in terms of being in a state of spiritual death or in bondage to sin and saying that we are morally impotent to do the things of God. Augustine said there can be an outward conformity to the law of God from unconverted people and unregenerate people, what Calvin would later call civic righteousness or civic virtue. There are still parents that have a natural love for their children and so on, but there is no inclination or desire of the human heart for the things of God because the heart of fallen humanity is now a heart of stone. And in that heart it only has wicked desires continually. And Augustine said even after conversion that our best works, even with the assistance of divine grace, are splendid vices because sin is so damaging that it attaches itself to us even after conversion until we are glorified by God in heaven. And so Augustine is saying without God's doing the work, we are powerless to do spiritual good. Now that was the issue then. That issue was resurrected in the 16th century with a vengeance, and we will look at that in our next lesson. Hearing that reminds me of the words of the psalmist in Psalm 14.3, there is none who does good, not even one.
Well, that was R.C. Sproul continuing his series, God Alone. And as we study these important topics, we're reminded that understanding the gospel is not only helpful for when we're defending the faith and even proclaiming the faith, but it's helpful for when we're preaching the gospel to ourselves, which is why I think this series, God Alone, can be so helpful for you. It is 10 messages in its entirety across three DVDs, and we'll send it to you for your donation of any amount. Not only will we send this DVD package to you, we'll also give you digital access to the study guide so that you can dig a little bit deeper in your study.
You can make your donation today by visiting renewingyourmind.org or by calling us at 800 435 4343. That series again is God Alone by R.C. Sproul. Tomorrow we'll hear another message from this important series from R.C.
Sproul. Here's a preview. The whole doctrine of salvation by grace rests on the principle that the law of God has been fulfilled by Christ and by Christ alone. That what the first Adam failed to accomplish and plunged us into misery, the new Adam or the second Adam took upon himself the burden to obey all of the commandments of God and to fulfill the covenant of works. And what is so gracious about the covenant of grace is that the covenant of grace does not destroy the covenant of works, but rather says the covenant of works can be fulfilled for you by a mediator that God appoints. So I hope you'll join us tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind.
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