Sola Gratia

Mar 31st, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Articles

Growing up in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), I was taught that the five solas were the central doctrines separating the Reformers from the Catholic Church, and that the convictions revealed in the five solas provided the impetus that triggered the Protestant Reformation. In this paper, I consider one such ‘sola’ — namely, sola gratia, or grace alone — from the Catholic point of view. I shall argue that properly understood Catholic teaching is not only compatible with the doctrine that salvation is by grace alone, but in fact entails that salvation is by grace alone. Thus, on at least this crucial point of doctrine, Reformed and Catholic theology do not conflict with one another. I begin by characterizing the doctrine of sola gratia as it is understood within the Reformed tradition, and then how sola gratia coheres within the Catholic framework.

Pinpointing a concise definition of sola gratia from the perspective of those Reformers who championed the phrase is difficult. Martin Luther never wrote, “Here is what sola gratia means…” Neither did Calvin or Zwingli. There is, however, a common thread running throughout the Magisterial Reformers’ writing on salvation and grace, and I believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith has successfully captured the core of the Reformed doctrine within the following passage:

III. Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, in as much as He was given by the Father for them; and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for any thing in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice, and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.1

From this we can put together a definition of sola gratia that most Reformed Protestants would accept. In short, according to Reformed theology, sola gratia is the teaching that justification comes by grace only. However, contrary to the captioned Westminster Confession of Faith statement, the doctrine of sola gratia is quite commonly formulated in such a way that salvation in its entirety, and not justification only, is a matter of ‘grace alone.’ For example, Westminster Seminary Professor Michael Horton describes this idea with the following statement:

The official teaching of the [Catholic Church] at the time [of the Reformation] was that grace is infused or imparted as a boost to help us live a holy life so that eventually we can go to heaven. But we have to make proper use of that grace …. So, in practice, the view was that we are saved by grace transforming us into holy people. To this the Reformers responded that salvation was to be viewed, before anything else, as God’s act of declaring righteous those who were, at that very moment, still unrighteous. Thus justification was not something the believer had to wait for until the end of life, but was declared at the beginning of the Christian life — the moment he or she trusts Christ alone for salvation from divine wrath. In other words, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. God does not give us the grace to save ourselves with his aid. He declares us righteous the moment we give up our own claims to righteousness and our own struggles for divine approval and recognize the sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness as our own.2

In addition to Horton, the following quotations from Reformed teachers express something quite similar with regard to the Reformed conception of sola gratia:

When we use the term “grace alone,” what we mean is that our salvation from the wrath of God – our deliverance from hell – is because of something good in God, and not because of anything good in us.3

God’s grace in Christ is not merely necessary but is the sole efficient cause of salvation. … We deny that salvation is in any sense a human work.4

If anything of human effort, whether it be physical, mental or otherwise, is added to the grace of God then our salvation is not by the grace of God “alone”. John 1:13 clearly states that our salvation does “not” come by our heritage, physical ability or mental agreement of any kind. The grace of God is the glory of God. Man must never share this wonderful and glorious gift that can only come from our Lord Himself.5

Notice how these quotations either treat salvation as simply justification, which makes progressive sanctification not part of salvation, or attempt to include monergism into their theology of progressive sanctification. As I will discuss later below, the Reformed confessional standards indeed maintain that progressive sanctification is part of the ordo salutis.

Clearly, then, the doctrine of salvation by grace alone is of utmost importance to the Reformed, and it is presented in the preceeding remarks as one of the chief differences between the Reformed and Catholic soteriologies.

In light of this apparent conflict, we must ask: What exactly does the Catholic Church teach about grace? We should first make an effort to insure that we understand the differences between the Catholic and Reformed theological terms, so that we avoid equivocation, and speak the same language. What does ‘grace’ mean? The Catholic conception of grace is not identical to that of the Reformed tradition.

The Catholic Church defines ‘grace’ in her Catechism as follows:

The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification.6

Our justification comes from the Grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.7

The Catholic Church dogmatically teaches that grace is a free, undeserved, gratuitous gift from God. It is important to note that the Catholic understanding of sanctifying grace does not limit it to divine favor, but refers also to a quality infused into the soul by which we are made partakers of the divine nature. This contrasts with the Reformed conception of grace as described by Michael Horton:

The medieval church taught that justification — that is, the declaration of acceptance before a holy God, was something that happened at the end of one’s life. Grace was always “on tap” to be drawn as necessary. … It assisted you in living an obedient, godly life to the end that you could finally be accepted before God when you died. The Protestant Reformers countered by arguing, with the Scriptures, that grace was not an energy boost to assist us in doing what we could do anyway, though less effectively, on our own, but that it was a favorable disposition, an attitude toward us on God’s part.8

As we shall soon see, Horton’s claim that according to the Catholic Church grace merely makes our own efforts more effective but that salvation can be achieved without grace represents a serious mischaracterization of Catholic dogma. But putting that to the side for now, we can at least perceive one of the main areas of disagreement between Catholic and Reformed theologies implicit in Horton’s comments.9

The disagreement follows the question, “What does grace do?” In the Reformed conception grace does everything pertaining to our justification, and we do nothing, except believe. If we end up doing anything at all then our justification is not by grace. But there is more to the Reformed conception of our salvation than justification. Sanctification is also included in the Reformed ordo salutis and sanctification includes human cooperation with grace. However, the fact that sanctification essentially involves human cooperation with grace generates an apparent conflict with the above statements in which “salvation by grace alone” is presented as involving the work of God only, to the exclusion of any human contribution. For if salvation by grace alone entails monergism, so that no human cooperation or contribution is admissible, then it follows that salvation cannot include sanctification, but must be restricted to only those elements in the ordo salutis (such as justification) which do not involve any personal movement toward holiness. However, Reformed theology is by no means antinomian, and no construal of the ordo salutis that excludes sanctification is consistent with the Reformed confessional tradition. Since sanctification must not be divorced from salvation according to Reformed theology, it follows that some aspects of salvation require human cooperation with grace.

Therefore in one respect, grace alone is understood by the Reformed tradition to apply broadly across the entire ordo salutis. On the other hand sola gratia is commonly conceived as applying to justification only. The former version divorces sanctification from salvation, if ‘grace alone’ is conceived monergistically. The latter version allows for man to cooperate with grace in sanctification, and thus with his own salvation. The latter version thus loses a principled basis for rejecting the Catholic understanding of the way we cooperate with the grace that is infused into our souls.

According to the Catholic conception, God’s grace frees us to participate in His grace. J.I. Packer describes this disagreement between Protestants and Catholics regarding cooperation with grace by stating:

Rome had said, God’s grace is great, for through Christ’s cross and his Church salvation is possible for all who will work and suffer for it; so come to church, and toil! But the Reformers said, God’s grace is greater, for through Christ’s cross and his Spirit salvation, full and free, with its unlimited guarantee of eternal joy, is given once and forever to all who believe; so come to Christ, and trust and take!10

However, just because something is easier, it does not follow that it is greater. Reformed Protestants say that God’s grace is great because all one does in the economy of justification is believe. But Universalists say that God’s grace is even greater because one does not even have to believe.11 Certainly Catholics and Reformed Christians agree that the Universalist conception of grace does not represent biblical orthodox Christian theology. Thus, the greatness of grace should not be measured by our degree of cooperation with it.

What underlies Packer’s concern that the grace of God cannot be aided by our participation is a particular philosophical presupposition, namely, that primary and secondary causes operate at the same causal level. Therefore the more that is done by secondary causes, the less is done by primary causes, and hence less glory is due to primary causes. This is what underlies Packer’s concern that the grace of God cannot be aided by our participation.

According to the Catholic Church, because we are truly infused with grace at baptism we are conformed unto Christ’s image and made alive to cooperate with God’s grace by working out our salvation with fear and trembling. Since we are a new creation, we are no longer dead in our trespasses. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Augustine in its chapter on Grace (Paragraphs 1996-2005) to describe this in greater detail:

Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.12

How does this compare to the Reformed conception of grace as it pertains to justification? The typical Reformed response to the Catholic Church’s teaching on grace and cooperation is that the Catholic Church is attempting to add something to God’s freely given grace, namely our cooperation. However, salvation is broader than justification, since salvation includes sanctification. And clearly, sanctification involves our active cooperation with grace, as A.A. Hodge makes clear in his discussion of the Reformed teaching on sanctification in the salvific scheme:

The evangelical doctrine of sanctification common to the Lutheran and Reformed Churches includes the following points: (1) The soul after regeneration continues dependent upon the constant gracious operations of the Holy Spirit, but is, through grace, able to co-operate with them.13

The Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith by Robert Shaw goes even further:

Antinomians maintain, that believers are sanctified only by the holiness of Christ being imputed to them, and that there is no inherent holiness infused into them, nor required of them. This is a great and dangerous error; and, in opposition to it, our Confession asserts, that believers are really and personally sanctified. Their sanctification includes “the mortification of sin in their members.”14

Therefore, the Reformed confessional standard teaches in explicit terms that sanctification involves our cooperation with grace. Since sanctification is part of our salvation according to the same confessions, it follows that salvation includes a measure of human cooperation with grace. If salvation is thus, then Catholic teaching cannot be incompatible with sola gratia simply because Catholicism affirms human cooperation in salvation. But even further, Catholic teaching is not only compatible with sola gratia, Catholic teaching entails sola gratia.

There are two criteria that sola gratia, properly understood, requires. The first is that God, not man, takes the initiative in drawing us to Himself and making it possible for us to respond to Him. The second is that every contribution that we make towards our salvation is itself a gift of grace.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church maintains these criteria in clear terms:

Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent.15

This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.16

The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it.”17

Since the dogmatic Catholic teaching meets both criteria for sola gratia, and since those criteria are sufficient for the truth of sola gratia, therefore the Catholic position entails and maintains sola gratia.

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  1. Westminster Confession of Faith CHAP. XI []
  2. Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, pp. 15-16 []
  3. Grace Alone: An Evangelical Problem? Kim Riddlebarger []
  4. Cambridge Declaration of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals []
  5. What is Sola Gratia? Sam Hughey []
  6. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1999 []
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1996 []
  8. Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, p. 165, my emphasis []
  9. Michael Horton writing in 2007:

    “Instead of speaking in biblical terms of our being “dead in sins,” “strangers and aliens,” “enemies,” “children of wrath,” “haters of God,” and so forth, we typically talk now about humanity as basically decent folks needing direction. Grace, in this scenario, becomes a PowerBar to help us continue our autonomous journey of self-salvation and mastery of life. Grace can be a lot of things: a substance infused into us to dispose us toward cooperating with God (the Roman Catholic position and, I would argue, the working assumption of popular Evangelicalism). It can be “released,” “injected,” or “appropriated,” by following certain secret principles (laws).”

    Notice how Horton misrepresents the Catholic position, by treating grace as a substance, and by conflating the distinction between the natural and supernatural end of man, as though grace merely helps us “continue our autonomous journey of self-salvation and mastery of life”. []

  10. J.I. Packer, Sola Fide: The Reformed Doctrine of Justification []
  11. Universalism holds that Christ’s death on the cross has entirely paid for the sin of humanity; hence, God’s wrath is satisfied towards all. Different varieties of universalism then go in different directions. Unitarian Universalism holds that many different religions all lead to God. Others teach that God’s love is sufficient to cover for sins, thus embracing some form of the Moral Influence theory of Abelard. For the universalist, justification is an event entirely in the past, accomplished on the cross; or else it is unnecessary altogether. []
  12. St. Augustine, De natura et gratia, 31:PL 44,264.  It is worth noting that in the captioned passage it is confirmed that according to Catholic theology we can do nothing without God which contrasts Horton’s statement which is captioned earlier in this paper from “Putting Amazing Back into Grace.” []
  13. AA Hodge as revised by BB Warfield, Sanctification []
  14. Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith []
  15. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1993 (emphasis mine) []
  16. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1998 (emphasis mine) []
  17. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2001 (emphasis in original) []
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