The Lutheran Difference: Sola Gratia

One of the symbols you may have seen during this series is the Luther Rose:


The meaning of the rose itself is pretty cool, but I wanted to focus on the three phrases that are wrapped around it. These are the three solas of the Reformation, the foundation upon which so many Protestant faiths (and Lutheranism especially) are built. I know that some folks have expanded the three to five, and while there’s nothing wrong with the two additional ones, most Lutherans talk about the first three, namely:

  • Sola gratia, which is Latin for “grace alone.”
  • Sola fides, which is Latin for “faith alone,” and
  • Sola Scriptura, which is Latin for Word alone.

So let’s tackle one of the three solas, namely that of “by grace alone.”

I actually debated about starting with sola scriptura this week, but when you come right down to it, the one doctrine that really sets Lutherans apart from other Christians is what we believe about grace. It’s foundational to so much of what we believe and how we live out that faith. Or it should be (in my not-so-humble opinion).

As a matter of fact, grace is in the beating heart of two verses that pretty much sum up the Lutheran belief about grace, namely Ephesians 2:8-9

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Paul lays it out pretty clearly: we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by anything we do. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. We contribute nothing to our salvation. We are saved only by God’s grace.

If you read the post about Roman Catholic teachings during Luther’s time, you know how diametrically different Luther’s emphasis on grace alone would have been. At the time, the Catholics insisted that while Christ did His part in saving us, the rest was up to us. We had to do enough good, holy, pious works to earn our way into heaven. Luther rejected this notion, insisting that we can’t save ourselves at all. God does it all for us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our salvation is by grace alone. And we do mean alone.

As Lutherans, we reject the idea that we can do anything at all to contribute to our salvation. Going to a worship service is great, but it doesn’t save us. Helping our neighbors is important, but not because it makes us right with God. And that even extends to the idea that I have to decide to be a Christian.

I see this in a lot of other Protestant denominations, the idea that I have to do something to be saved. I have to make the decision or pray the Sinner’s Prayer or something along those lines, and if I don’t, I’m not saved. For Lutherans, though, that smells too much of works-righteousness. You won’t find any sort of altar call at a Lutheran service. Any sort of language that puts our salvation back on us is flatly rejected. I can do nothing to save myself. Not a single thing.

We see this in Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed. He wrote this:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.

We base this belief on verses like 1 Corinthians 12:1-3, where Paul tells us that no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. I can’t generate faith on my own. I can’t do anything to save myself. Salvation in found only by grace through Christ’s death and resurrection. To a Lutheran, it’s as simple as that. Nothing is up to me. Everything is up to God.

That’s why you won’t hear many Lutherans talk about making a decision. We wince when we see any hint of “I did my part.” If someone says “I found Jesus,” my gut-level reaction is usually, “Huh, I didn’t know He was missing.” God isn’t the one who is lost. We are. By His grace, we are the ones who are found. God finds us, not the other way around.

Why do we believe this? Because we believe that, on our own, human beings are completely lost and fallen. We don’t have any redeeming qualities within ourselves, no divine spark that allows us to do anything good. God needs to do it all for us because there’s nothing that we can do on our own.

And why does He do this? Because of His incredible, deep, rich, never-ending love for all of humanity. God desires that everyone should be saved. His grace is sufficient for everyone, radiating out throughout all of time and space. Grace is what prompted Him to create the universe. Grace is what sent Jesus to the cross. Grace is what continues to work through us, transforming us more and more into who God wants us to be.

Now I realize that this may seem contrary to your own experiences, but this is what we believe. And you may be wondering what Lutherans believe when it comes to faith. After all, according to Paul, we’re saved by grace, through faith. So next week, we’ll tackle the next of the solas.

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