Today's Broadcast

Grace Alone, Part 2

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Why is it that you are a believer and your neighbor who also heard the gospel is not? What is the difference between those who choose the gospel and those who reject it? To understand this, we first must look at what it is that the elect and non-elect have in common. In this message, Dr. Sproul teaches us the need for grace in the salvation of sinners, as he considers "Grace Alone."

From the series: God Alone

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Necessity of Grace

  2. devotional

    Grace Alone

  3. article

    The Battle for Grace Alone

The Necessity of Grace

We concluded our study yesterday by noting that the failure of Muslims to see man as depraved results from their deficient conception of the character of God. In Islam, God is viewed as arbitrary and His commands are not based on His nature, which remains totally hidden from man. While disobeying God is considered sinful to Muslims, it is easier for them to view such violations as mere faults since the commands themselves do not reflect God’s nature. If sin does not necessarily violate God’s basic nature, it is harder to understand why it would be as grievous as it actually is.

Furthermore, Islamic theology defines sin as an outward act only; it does not consider motives, thoughts, and desires as sinful. This is far different from the teaching given to us by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7). For example, our Lord makes it clear that even if a person never commits the physical act of adultery, that person is guilty of sin as soon as he looks upon another with lustful intent (5:27–30). From a biblical perspective, acts of sin are not just physical acts; we sin whenever we indulge a thought or desire that is contrary to the law of God.

Islam does teach about the existence of heaven and hell, arguing that a person will enter into heaven if his good deeds outweigh his bad ones. Because mankind is basically good, all people have the ability to do enough good deeds and are not in need of any outside intervention for salvation. In fact, the idea that mankind is fallen and in need of grace for salvation is abhorrent to Islam. Thus, many Muslims view Christianity as a religion that makes men weak.

If God did not require perfection of us, then we could indeed be saved by doing more good than bad. But as we saw yesterday, we must meet the standard of God’s holy character; therefore, even if we commit only one sin our entire life, we could never meet this standard. We could never do enough to pay the debt to an infinite God.

That is why we are in need of grace. And the Father, in His grace, sent His own Son to pay our debt. Jesus Christ manifested holiness perfectly, and His righteousness is imputed to us if we are in Him.

Grace Alone

Sometimes theologians speak of “the empty hand of faith” to emphasize the fact that we bring no works with us when we are justified but are rather declared righteous before God only by receiving His promise. Yet this “hand of faith” is not something we conjure up ourselves; we are only able to exercise faith if God gives that faith to us. As Paul writes in today’s passage, the grace and the faith that save us are not our own doing but rather divine gifts (Eph. 2:8–9).

The sola of the Reformation that we are examining today — sola gratia — stresses the initiative of God Himself in salvation as the one who must change our hearts and give us the ability to have faith. In our fallen condition we are dead in sin, unable to conform to the Lord’s will both inwardly and outwardly (v. 1). We want nothing to do with God; in fact, apart from His work we hate Him. The faith by which we are justified is our faith, but only because our Creator first gave it to us. All those to whom faith has been granted will come to exercise it (John 3:1–15), but if a person is not given faith, he will never be able to trust Jesus for his salvation. Regeneration precedes faith, not vice versa.

Most Western Christians today believe they are sinful and that grace is necessary for salvation, but they do not believe evil has so corrupted the will as to make them morally unable to choose Jesus. It is up to us, they argue, to assent to grace and choose Christ for salvation, and we can decide either way. This makes our decision the ultimate arbiter of our redemption. Scripture agrees that we must decide to follow Jesus, but it also says that those to whom God gives saving grace will most certainly make the right decision; only God exercises His sovereign prerogative to give grace to some and not all (Rom. 9:14–18).

Consider two people who hear the gospel but only one responds positively. No Christian would say that the one who chooses Jesus is more righteous than the other, but if both are equally able to make the right choice, logical consistency means that the one is saved because he did something good in his decision-making. But if sinners are unable to love God, faith must be a gift and not something we initiate to get God to love us. This is the importance of sola gratia.  

The Battle for Grace Alone

R.C. Sproul

The early part of the fifth century witnessed a serious controversy in the church that is known as the Pelagian controversy. This debate took place principally between the British monk Pelagius and the great theologian of the first millennium, Augustine of Hippo. In the controversy, Pelagius objected strenuously to Augustine’s understanding of the fall, of grace, and of predestination. Pelagius maintained that the fall affected Adam alone and that there was no imputation of guilt or “original sin” to Adam’s progeny. Pelagius insisted that people born after the fall of Adam and Eve retained the capacity to live lives of perfect righteousness unaided by the grace of God. He argued that grace “facilitates” righteousness but is not necessary for it. He categorically rejected Augustine’s understanding that the fall was so severe that it left the descendents of Adam in such a state of moral corruption that they were morally unable to incline themselves to God. The doctrines of Pelagius were condemned by the church in 418 at a synod in Carthage.

Though Pelagianism was rejected by the church, efforts soon emerged to soften the doctrines of Augustine. In the fifth century the leading exponent of such a softening was John Cassian. Cassian, who was the abbot of a monastery in Gaul, together with his fellow monks, completely agreed with the condemnation of Pelagius by the synod in 418, but they objected equally to the strong view of predestination set forth by Augustine. Cassian believed that Augustine had gone too far in his reaction against the heresy of Pelagius and had departed from the teachings of some of the church fathers, especially Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome. Cassian said that Augustine’s teaching on predestination “cripples the force of preaching, reproof, and moral energy…plunges men into despair and introduces a certain fatal necessity.” This reaction against the implied fatalism of predestination led Cassian to articulate a position that has since become known popularly as “semi-Pelagianism.” Semi-Pelagianism, as the name implies, suggests a middle ground between Pelagius and Augustine. Though grace facilitates a life of righteousness, Pelagius thought it was not necessary. Cassian argues that grace not only facilitates righteousness, but it is an essential necessity for one to achieve righteousness. The grace that God makes available to people, however, can and is often rejected by them. The fall of man is real and serious, but not so serious as Augustine supposed, because a certain level of moral ability remains in the fallen creature to the extent that the fallen person has the moral power to cooperate with God’s grace or to reject it. Augustine argued that the very cooperation with grace was the effect of God’s empowering the sinner to that cooperation. Augustine again insisted that all of those who were numbered among the elect were given the gift of the grace of regeneration that brought them faith. Again, for Cassian, though God’s grace is necessary for salvation and helps the human will to do good, in the final analysis it is man, not God, who must will the good. God does not give the power to will to the believer because that power to will is already present despite the fallen condition of the believer. Further Cassian taught that God desires to save all people, and the work of Christ’s atonement is effectual for everyone.

Cassian understood that predestination was a biblical concept, but he made divine prescience primary over God’s choice. That is to say, he taught that though predestination is an act of God, God’s decision to predestine is based upon His foreknowledge of how human beings will respond to the offer of grace. For Cassian, there is no definite number of persons that are elected or rejected from eternity, since God wishes all men to be saved, and yet not all men are saved. Man retains moral responsibility and with that responsibility the power to choose to cooperate with grace or not. In the final analysis, what Cassian was denying in the teaching of Augustine was the idea of irresistible grace. For Augustine, the grace of regeneration is always effectual and will not be denied by the elect. It is a monergistic work of God that accomplishes what God intends it to accomplish. Divine grace changes the human heart, resurrecting the sinner from spiritual death to spiritual life. In this act of God, the sinner is made willing to believe and to choose Christ. The previous state of moral inability is overcome by the power of regenerating grace. The operative word in Augustine’s view is that regenerating grace is monergistic. It is the work of God alone.

Pelagius rejects the doctrine of monergistic grace and replaces it with a view of synergism, which involves a work of cooperation between God and man.

The views of Cassian were condemned at the Council of Orange in 529, which further established the views of Augustine as expressions of Christian and biblical orthodoxy. However, with the conclusion of the Council of Orange in the sixth century (529), the doctrines of semi-Pelagianism did not disappear. They were fully operative through the Middle Ages and were set in concrete at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. They continue to be a majority view in the Roman Catholic Church, even to the twenty-first century.

The majority view of predestination, even in the evangelical world, is that predestination is not based on God’s eternal decree to bring people to faith but on His foreknowledge of which people will exercise their will to come to faith. At the heart of the controversy in the fifth and sixth centuries, the sixteenth century, and today, remains the question of the degree of corruption visited upon fallen human beings in original sin. The controversy continues. The difference between the Pelagian controversy and the issues with semi-Pelagianism is that Pelagianism was seen by the church then and now as a sub-Christian and indeed anti-Christian approach to fallen humanity. The semi-Pelagian controversy, though a serious one, is not deemed to be a dispute between believers and unbelievers, but an intramural debate between believers.

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