Why Sola Gratia?

Spout-offs Monday, February 11th, 2013


The fourth of six posts on the doctrine behind the new album.

Sola Gratia – salvation by grace alone. But salvation from what? To answer that, let’s take a detour through a related doctrine – total depravity.

Total Depravity is usually stated something like “human nature is inherently bad”. This isn’t a great way to put it, since “Human Nature” can be taken several different ways. A better way of stating it is that human nature is corrupted, meaning that, left to its own devices, it is totally unable to attain ultimate Good for itself.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of Luther’s day (and, arguably, to this day) was synergistic. It imagined God looking down, finding a little tiny bit of good in someone, and growing it by his grace. Salvation was thus something you could be cajoled into, if you can just get that first little bit of good into someone. Thomas Aquinas, the great Doctor of the Catholic Church, even stated it explicitly: “lawmakers [can] make men good by habituating them to good works.”

Sola Gratia, however, is monergistic: God doesn’t look for anyone with a small orientation to the Good, because there isn’t anyone. Rather, God himself instills that orientation – and always finishes what he starts (cf. Philippians 1:6). There’s nothing in us for God to work with, so he creates it, ex nihilo and unilaterally. Not against our will, but prior to it. The desire for Good is a gift of God – that desire is grace.

What this means is that salvation is totally supernatural. Not even 99% with a little kernel of our own natural good, but 100% supernatural. This, in turn, means – since salvation is entirely a work of God – that you can’t stack the deck for someone’s salvation. In other words, you can’t make someone else more likely to be saved by altering his environment. Now we can – and are indeed commanded to – be instruments of grace through evangelism. But the old idea of Compelle Intrare – “compel to enter [the Church]” in order that good habits might be established – is exploded.

The great sociologist Max Weber noted “the fundamentally anti-authoritarian tendency of the doctrine, which at bottom undermined every responsibility for ethical conduct or spiritual salvation on the part of [the institutional] Church or State as useless.” Likewise, C.S. Lewis observed that “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” Sola Gratia, with its pessimistic view of the goodness of man, might initially seem to be a dismal doctrine. But it comes not only with the good news of God’s grace to salvation, but also with the more immanent effect of sweeping away any justification for the moralizing tyranny which lay over Europe since even before the rise of Christendom.