So Fred Phelps, infamous Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, is in the news again. From all the reports online he’s close to death. There have also been many reports that he was excommunicated from his church back in August 2013 – though for reasons as yet unknown. Should Phelps pass away soon it will be the end of a sad chapter in independent Baptist church history.
For someone who claimed to be reformed theologically what he taught and how he lived could not have been further from those truths.
I didn’t intend to start this series of posts on such a low note, but Phelp’s life and ministry bring into sharp contrast what is reformed theology generally. What are its distinctives, and importantly, what are its implications.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be taking a look through the ‘5 Solas’ of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 a young Catholic priest by the name of Martin Luther came to the conclusion that the Catholic church’s teaching on indulgences and faith was wrong. Initially wanting a more scholarly debate on the issue, a series of events lead Luther’s excommunication. A melting pot of powerful political backers, various social movements, and the invention of the printing press kept Luther’s ministry going and increased his influence and teachings in ways not felt by other previous reformers. Luther’s influence, as well as that of other Reformers who followed, changed Western society as we know it today.
To summarise the Reformer’s basic theological principles, and especially to contrast them to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the ‘5 Solas’ emerged. They are catchy and work well as memorable slogans.
The 5 Solas, Latin for ‘alone’, are as follows (in no particular order):
Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone
Sola Christus – Christ Alone
Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God Alone
The format of this series is going to be fairly simple. A brief introduction will be followed by a basic definition, scriptural backing, and its implications.
And as you can see from the above banner, we’re starting with Sola Gratia – Grace Alone.
Here’s a basic definition as provided by Theopedia:
By grace alone is from the Latin Sola gratia, one of the five Solas of the Reformation emphasizing that our justification before God and our resulting salvation are both solely by the sovereign distinguishing grace of God and not dependant on any action or condition provided by man.
Ephesians 2:1-9; Romans 3:22b-25, 5:15; 2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 3:7, Hebrews 2:9, 1 Peter 1:3-10
What does Sola Gratia mean (implications):
- It acknowledges that apart from the divine initiative of God alone, salvation is impossible to achieve by human effort or merit
- It means that we cannot add anything to God’s work of salvation on the Cross – we come with empty hands
- It means that Christians have total security and assurance of faith, for grace does not rest on the performance of religious duty but on God alone (cf Romans 8)
- It gives the Christian sure footing in our fight against sin – though we are not yet free from the presence of sin, we are freed from the reign of sin
- It forms the basis for our ongoing sanctification – Christians are not saved by grace and live by works, but God working in us to save and transform
What does Sola Gratia not mean (impossible implications):
- It does not mean that we are free to sin more and more that grace might increase (cf Romans 6:15-23)
- It does not nullify the necessity for faithful perseverance in faith, but grounds all perseverance in the news of underserved security and assurance of faith by grace
- It does not mean that God’s salvation is cheap – grace is given freely at the truly expensive cost of His Son
Put simply: Grace alone is the only sufficient basis for the start, end, and middle of Christian faith and living. It is without fail, cannot be added to or mixed with anything, allows for no boasting, and ultimately leaves all glory to the Lord. (reworded from here)