In order to obey the unfinished task we received from our Master—to make disciples of all nations—we need a sola gratia gospel. The message that God saves by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is the only gospel that brings people from darkness to light, the only good news that produces true followers of Christ, and the only hope for the sinner. Salvation is by grace and grace alone.
Defining the Term
“Do you need God’s grace to be saved?” If you would ask this question to a Roman Catholic or a Muslim or a Mormon or a Jew or a Seventh-day Adventist or a Neo-Pentecostal, they would most likely all answer, “Yes!”
Yet, when those religions articulate their doctrine of salvation, it’s evident that though they might entertain the concept of grace, it is not the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone. That’s why defining the term “grace” is so important in our proclamation of the gospel. Our goal is not that people would simply say “yes” to a preformatted question, but that they would embrace God’s grace on God’s terms as defined by Scripture.
The Reformers’ articulation of sola gratia was that salvation is a gift from God, and the sinner makes no contribution at all to his salvation. This truth is beautifully seen in Ephesians 2:4-9. Grace is the gift of God (v. 8), and God’s rich mercy and great love are the causes (vv. 4, 7). No human work cooperate with grace, otherwise we would have something to boast (v. 8). This grace is received through faith alone (v. 8) in Christ alone (vv. 5, 6, 7).
Defining the terms means that we proclaim a gospel whose clear message is that the cause of salvation is totally and decisively in God himself, apart from any human work before, during, or after one embraces the gospel. Good works follow genuine faith, but they are never the grounds for salvation. The Roman Catholic Church did not deny the necessity of grace through faith in Christ. Their problem was not with “gratia,” but with the “sola.” The exclusivity of God’s work and the extinction of man’s work as the ground for salvation is where we as Protestants depart from Roman Catholic doctrine.
Theologian John Frame defines God’s grace “as his sovereign, unmerited favor, given to those who deserve his wrath.” This definition helpfully sets up grace in the context of sin. Apart from an understanding of human rebellion and our utter helplessness before a holy Creator, grace doesn’t make sense. Affirming our sinfulness might not be popular, but it’s the necessary backdrop for the radiance of the glory of the sola gratia gospel to shine powerfully.
We deserve God’s wrath. In Christ, we receive God’s love. This is grace.
We are called to proclaim and protect the gospel of grace, and we do it first of all by defining what we mean by grace. Whether evangelizing in a one-to-one conversation or preaching to a group of people or training leaders, we must strive for precision in our language. We need a well-defined sola gratia gospel.
Denouncing the False
We also proclaim Christ and protect his gospel of grace by denouncing its false versions. In the spiritual war in which we are engaged, we need both an offensive and a defensive strategy. Paul urges Titus to appoint elders who are able “to give instruction in sound doctrine (offensive) and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (defensive; Titus 1:9). We must not only define what we mean by “grace,” but also what we don’t mean. We expose false teaching not because we love disputes and divisions, but because a false gospel doesn’t save people and ultimately attacks the glory of God. This reality explains Paul’s zeal in his rebuke to the Galatians: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). A different gospel is not gospel at all. Denouncing the false is a matter of love for God and love for people.
My context in Brazil is heavenly influenced by prosperity heresy. Even churches belonging to historical denominations are not immune to it. While there is a large spectrum of prosperity messages with different emphases, the core idea is that God wants to give earthly wealth and health to his children. All you need to do to access this prosperity is to have faith and give money to the church.
While there are many problems with prosperity theology, a catastrophic problem is its understanding of God’s grace.
- Prosperity preachers suggest that the source of God’s grace (blessings) is one’s obedience (specially on giving) instead of Christ’s finished work.
- They see the goal of grace as earthly riches, whereas the New Testament emphasis is on heavenly, spiritual riches (Eph 1:3; 2:6-7, Col 1:3-5) and Christlikeness (Rom 8:28-29).
- They see suffering in this life as a sign of God’s disapproval, whereas the exact opposite is true in some situations (Mat 5:10-12), and Scripture also frequently sees suffering as one of the means that God uses to graciously bring us near to him (Psa 119:71, Col 1:24).
Prosperity theology’s perspective on the goal, source, and means of God’s grace is not true to Scripture. It inculcates in peoples’ minds a distortion of God’s free grace in Christ.
Therefore, one implication for us in the mission field is to be aware of the most influential worldviews in the culture and to make sure that we articulate the gospel of grace in a way that distinguishes it from the other messages. Well-traveled questions like “What would you say to God if He asks you why He should let you in His heaven?” are still helpful when trying to assess where someone’s hope of eternal life is.
Delighting in the truth
We define the term and denounce the false for the purpose of delight. We proclaim and protect the gospel of grace so that God’s glory and people’s salvation are secured. Spiritual delight is born in the womb of truth. Our goal in proclaiming sola gratia is that sinners might taste and see that grace really is amazing. The sola gratia gospel is the only message that ensures assurance for the sinner and glory for the Savior.
We are saved because God rescued us in sovereign grace by faith in Christ alone. No human cooperation. No personal collaboration. This message is the only gospel we have according to Scripture. May we proclaim and protect the sola gratia gospel for the glory of God and the delight of the nations.
 Frame, Systematic Theology, 244.
 For an excellent critique of the prosperity gospel in the context of missions, see John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad!, 21-31.