Unedited version of article published in Dialog 54, 3 (Fall 2015), 269-279.

             Since Reformation times, the phrase sola gratia has been used to affirm that the justification and salvation of believers depends solely upon God’s gracious activity in Jesus Christ and not upon any works or merits on their part. Can we go further than this, however, so as to affirm that absolutely everything that God does is grace? In other words, rather than referring only to the means by which human beings are saved, can the phrase sola gratia be understood as a divine attribute?[1]

In what follows, I will argue not only that we can and must answer these questions affirmatively but also that in traditional Christian thought, particularly in the West, the God that has been proclaimed has not been a God of sola gratia. From my perspective, the failure to conceive of God in this way has done tremendous damage both within and outside of the church and is in large part responsible for the crisis of faith that exists today. In order to address that crisis, we must rethink our understanding of God’s grace.

Grace as unconditional love

Although there have been various understandings of grace throughout the history of Christian thought, the Protestant view of grace as God’s undeserved love and mercy seems to reflect faithfully the biblical use of the term. By definition, grace is something given freely as a gift. Therefore, it cannot be merited, deserved or earned, since in that case it would depend on the one receiving grace rather than the one showing grace. We can therefore define grace as unconditional love, that is, love that is freely given independently of any merit or worthiness on the part of those receiving that love. Of course, while other definitions of grace are possible, this is the definition with which I will work here. This means that the question of whether sola gratia is a divine attribute can be restated in terms of whether God’s love is unconditional.

To address this question, we must take the further step of defining what love is. Again, while there are many different definitions and understandings of love, here I would like to follow the New Testament in defining love as a commitment to the well-being and wholeness of others.[2] On the basis of New Testament teaching,[3] Christian thought has traditionally affirmed that God loves all people without exception and therefore that to live in accordance with God’s will as defined through Christ is also to love all people. This means that when we love other people, we are to be concerned not only for the well-being of those people in particular but also for the well-being of others in addition to them. These “others” include ourselves as well, since God desires the same wholeness and well-being for each of us that God desires for everyone else. The healthy love of oneself must be distinguished from sinful selfishness, which involves seeking our own wholeness and well-being without seeking that of others as well.

As unconditional love, grace seeks the good of all persons, independently of what they do or fail to do. Nevertheless, grace takes different forms depending on the behavior of those loved. When they live and act in ways that contribute to their own well-being and that of others, grace takes forms such as affection, friendship, support and solidarity. All people, however, also inevitably act in ways that are harmful to others and to themselves. This is how sin should be understood: as thoughts, words and actions that destroy and undermine well-being and wholeness. When we sin against others, we do harm not only to them but also to ourselves. God commands us to refrain from sinful behavior not only for the sake of others but for our own sake.

Therefore, when grace encounters sin, rather than merely ignoring or overlooking it, grace must seek that, for the good of both the person sinning and those affected negatively by that sin, the sinful behavior come to an end. In this case, grace takes the form of exposing and denouncing sin and, under certain circumstances, actively taking measures to put an end to it. At the same time, this grace calls on those practicing sin to recognize the destruction and harm occasioned by their behavior and to mend their ways. In addition, such grace offers to those who recognize and renounce their sin the help and support they need to change their behavior. To act in these ways toward those who fall into sinful behavior is not in any way to act against them or contrary to their interests but to act in their favor and in accordance with their interests, as well as those of others.

Such an understanding of grace as unconditional love means that grace and love do not always take the form of accepting others or their behavior. When those who are harming others do not heed the call to change their ways and refuse to recognize the sinfulness of their behavior, even after they have been repeatedly confronted with the damage they are doing both to others and to themselves, grace is unable to accomplish its objective in those persons. Under those conditions, all that grace can do is to attempt to minimize or put an end to the harm caused by that sinful behavior so that those being affected negatively by that behavior may be delivered from the suffering it occasions in their lives. At times this may require the use of restraint or force to oppose sinful behavior so as to prevent those involved in that behavior from continuing to harm others together with themselves. While in these cases grace does not attain its objective of bringing those who insist on practicing sinful behavior to modify that behavior for their own good, to act to put an end to that behavior and the damage and suffering it is causing is an act of love and grace, since it is done for the sake of the well-being of others.

Forgiveness can be understood in two different senses. According to the first of these, when one is harmed by others, one renounces any attempt to harm them in return and instead continues to seek their well-being together with one’s own without bearing them any ill will or rancor. In this sense, one is always to forgive others and forgiveness must be unconditional. In another sense, however, one may seek the well-being of others by refusing to overlook what they have done and instead holding them accountable until they have recognized the sinfulness of their behavior, sincerely committed themselves to modifying that behavior, and begun to seek the help they need in order to change. Of course, to refuse to forgive in this second sense is an expression of love in that it arises from a commitment to bringing about the good of others, including those responsible for the sinful behavior as well as others who are affected by it.[4] What both of these forms of forgiveness have in common is that they arise out of a commitment to the well-being of others.

In much traditional Christian thought, justice is opposed to grace and mercy. This type of thinking tends to associate justice primarily with retribution and the punishment of wrongdoers. Following Scripture, however, we can instead define justice in terms of a state of well-being for all without exception. This involves distributive justice—all have what they need and are able to experience shalom, which involves being complete. In this case, to seek justice is an act of grace and mercy rather than being something contrary to grace and mercy. In biblical thought, to do justice is above all to care for those who are lacking what they need in order to be whole and to deliver them from any type of harm and oppression that is being inflicted on them by others. Of course, because one can only deliver those who are being oppressed from their oppressors by taking action against the oppressors when they persist in their sinful and unjust behavior in spite of repeated calls for them to desist from that behavior, justice at times must take the form of punishment and retribution. Yet, for the reasons just mentioned, this must not be seen as an act that is contrary to grace but rather as a response to a situation in which grace is not able to accomplish its objective, namely, that of bringing people to behave in ways that contribute to their own well-being and that of others instead of doing harm to others together with themselves.

Is the God of Scripture a God of sola gratia?

For centuries, the western Christian tradition has read the Scriptures on the basis of the idea that God’s justice is at odds with God’s grace and mercy rather than being an expression of that grace and mercy. It has also related the concepts of God’s holiness and perfection to the same understanding of justice so as to claim that, because God is just, holy and perfect, God cannot tolerate or forgive sin but must punish it. Retribution then becomes an end in itself and God must punish sin, not for the sake of human beings, but rather for God’s own sake.

A re-reading of Scripture on the basis of the ideas I have outlined in the previous section provides ample evidence that those ideas run throughout both Testaments of Scripture. Due to space limitations, of course, it is impossible to examine in any detail the biblical material here in order to consider that evidence. In very general terms, however, it can be said that the writers of both the Old and the New Testament books consistently present God as gracious in all of God’s dealings with human beings. While the God of Scripture undoubtedly punishes sin and injustice in both this world and the world to come, this punishment is viewed as having a number of positive purposes. In the present world, these purposes include correcting those who sin, dissuading others from sinning, stamping out sin or injustice before it can spread further, purging the earth, the land or a people from sin and evil so that an obedient, righteous remnant may be left, or delivering the oppressed from their oppressors. In many cases, of course, this involves ascribing to God activity that is violent and destructive. This can generally be seen to take place, however, only when God has attempted to establish justice and shalom in non-violent ways by pointing out to people their sin, warning them of the consequences of their deeds, and repeatedly calling them to repentance for their own good and that of others. As just noted above, however, at times God’s grace does not achieve its purposes of bringing people to live and behave in ways that contribute to their well-being and that of others and God is presented as having no alternative but to punish and even destroy. Numerous passages, however, portray God as being pained when punishment and destruction are necessary and as reluctantly inflicting suffering on human beings.[5]

In contrast to the Old Testament, the New Testament speaks of the post-mortem punishment of evildoers in a place of torment. This idea is even more problematic than that of divine punishment in the present world, since an other-worldly punishment can hardly be said to have a corrective or dissuasive purpose if the situation of those condemned is definitive. Undoubtedly, it can be argued that, if God is to bring about a new world free from evil, oppression, injustice and suffering, those who persist unrepentantly in behavior that harms others must be excluded from that world. Obviously, the threats of punishment in an afterlife have the purpose of bringing people to repent and change their ways in this world and thus are aimed at promoting justice in the present. Nevertheless, while it may not seem possible to reconcile with the idea of a purely gracious God the texts that speak of God condemning unrepentant evildoers to a place of torment following their death, such condemnation can be viewed in terms of God’s grace ultimately failing to accomplish its objectives in some people.

Today, of course, many of us regard as extremely problematic and even repulsive the idea that a gracious God would intentionally inflict pain and suffering on people on account of their sins, even if God’s actions are ascribed to some type of constructive or loving purpose. The corollary to such a belief, namely, that when people suffer it is because God is punishing them, is even more problematic. From our modern perspective, such a God seems heartless and cruel rather than loving or gracious.

It is important to remember, however, that the Scriptures were written by people who interpreted reality from a perspective that was very different from our own. Due to the advances in science and our modern worldview, most of us no longer understand things such as illnesses and natural disasters as divine punishment for sins. Instead, we regard such phenomena as having scientific explanations.

In contrast, those who wrote the Scriptures interpreted reality on the basis of the belief that God was ultimately behind all that took place. If this is presupposed, then the question that must constantly be addressed is why God causes or allows certain events to happen, especially events that result in human suffering. In their responses to this question, the writers of Scripture took as a starting-point their conviction that God was a God of pure love and grace. It then followed that God must have a loving purpose in all that God does. Therefore, when they experienced hardships, rather than concluding that God had abandoned them or that their God was capricious, selfish or unloving, they claimed that God was seeking to bring them back to obedience to God for their own good by testing and disciplining them, preventing evil and injustice from spreading further, or accomplishing some other gracious objective.

It is also important to recall that the context in which those who wrote the Scriptures lived was one of constant violence, cruelty, infirmity, death, destruction and suffering, all of which far exceeded what the vast majority of us experience today. If we recognize that most of the prophetic utterances concerning the misfortunes that the people would suffer on account of their sins are vaticinia ex eventu, describing hardships that people had already endured, it becomes even clearer that they sought to give meaning to the events that took place by interpreting them on the basis of the idea that God did indeed love them unconditionally and was attempting to accomplish some plan or purpose that was ultimately for their good.

In this regard, the beliefs expressed throughout the Scriptures concerning the God of Israel are fundamentally different from many other conceptions of the gods in antiquity. Those who composed the Scriptures believed that there was only one God, YHWH, and that, as the sovereign creator of all that existed, YHWH was not only good and gracious in all his works but was also not subject to the same types of needs and desires to which most of the gods of the nations were subject. Precisely because those gods had certain needs and desires, they were thought to demand for their own sake that human beings serve them in various ways. In general, what pleased these gods and appeased their wrath was simply that human beings satisfy their needs and desires. They therefore did not make ethical demands on their worshipers in the way that YHWH did of those who acknowledged him as their God. In contrast, whatever YHWH desired and commanded was not for his own sake but for the sake of human beings themselves. Throughout the Scriptures, what pleases God is that human beings seek shalom for one another, practice justice, and care for those in need. What provoked YHWH’s wrath was the failure to seek justice and shalom for all and, conversely, the only thing that could appease that wrath was a recommitment on the part of the people to obeying the commandments YHWH had given them for their own good and the good of others.

Of course, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the worship of other gods also provokes YHWH’s wrath. Yet this is because, in biblical thought, abandoning YHWH to serve idols involves abandoning the good commandments YHWH gave out of love for the people in order to adopt beliefs and practices that were unjust and oppressive. Because, unlike YHWH, the other gods were not gods of grace who were entirely committed to the well-being of human beings and demanded the same commitment from those who served them, worship of those gods was seen as incompatible with the worship of YHWH. Thus, just as YHWH was thought to demand obedience from the people for their own sake rather than his own, so also was he seen as a God who was jealous and prohibited idolatry, not for his own sake, but for the good of human beings themselves.

To affirm that the God of Scripture is a God of sola gratia is no doubt problematic in many ways. Yet one must also acknowledge that, when Scripture is read from the perspective of the ideas we have seen in the previous section, there is a great deal of evidence to support the claim that in general the biblical authors understood God in this way. Undoubtedly, they often present a violent God who acts in ways that we today find difficult to reconcile with the notion of a God of pure grace and love. It is important to distinguish, however, between divine wrath and divine violence. While we may find the latter of these ideas objectionable, there are good reasons for conserving the notion of a God who is aroused to anger by the refusal of human beings to practice justice, grace and mercy in the way that this God lovingly commands for the good of all. The difficulties arise when we conceive of this anger and indignation at sin and injustice expressing itself in acts of violence aimed at inflicting pain and suffering on human beings.

The God of sola gratia and Jesus’ death

In Western Christian thought, the idea that God is not free to act purely out of grace and love has been particularly tied to the penal substitution interpretations of Jesus’ death. According to these interpretations, although in God’s love God desires to forgive all people their sins freely and thereby save them, God’s justice will not allow this. Instead, it requires that satisfaction be made for human sins or that those sins receive their due punishment. This idea provides the basis for the claim that Jesus’ death was necessary for human salvation, since by virtue of his divinity and sinlessness he alone could satisfy the demands of God’s justice by offering up to God the necessary satisfaction or by dying in the stead of sinful human beings.[6]

Closely related to this interpretation of Jesus’ death is Luther’s idea of a “joyous exchange,” according to which the sins of human beings are laid upon Christ while Christ’s perfect righteousness is reckoned to sinful believers. This presupposes that, since God is perfect in justice and holiness, God can accept nothing but perfection from human beings. However, since such perfection is impossible for human beings, Christ must offer it to God in their stead. Once again, God’s love is constrained by God’s justice, holiness and perfection, which cannot tolerate sin. Such a view of God is also problematic in that this God does not care who endures the punishment due to our sins or offers up to God a perfect righteousness, but only that someone do so—in this case, Christ.

Among the Reformers, it was also common to affirm that in his death Christ “obtained” or “acquired” divine grace for believers and that, on account of Christ’s merit, we have a gracious God. These affirmations are found explicitly in the writings of Luther and Calvin and the Lutheran Confessions.[7] To speak in these terms is obviously problematic in that, if grace is a gift freely given, by definition it cannot be or earned or purchased, not even by Christ. Such affirmations further imply that, outside of Christ, God is not gracious. The notion that Christ endured God’s wrath in our stead, which is also prevalent in Reformation thought, even involves affirming that Christ must save us from God or that in Christ God must save us from God’s own self.[8]

As I have argued elsewhere in detail, these interpretations of Christ’s death are highly problematic and have no basis in the New Testament.[9] Instead, in the thought of the New Testament writers, including Paul, Jesus died for others and for their sins in the sense that he was put to death as a result of his commitment to forming an alternative community of followers who would be committed to living according to God’s will as redefined through Jesus. Rather than attempting to save his life when his efforts to establish this community led to the threat of death, Jesus remained faithful to that task and offered up his life to God seeking that what he had lived and was dying for might become a reality through him. God’s response was to raise Jesus from the dead and exalt him to God’s right hand so that the salvation Jesus had sought for others in accordance with God’s will might come to pass through Jesus.

Such an understanding of Christ’s death is entirely in accordance with the notion of a God of pure grace. All of God’s activity through Christ is aimed at bringing about the same type of unconditional love in human beings that we find in God and Christ. In this case, the reason why Jesus’ death was “necessary” and that God “did not spare his own Son, but delivered him over for us all” (Rom 8:32) was not that there was no other way in which it was possible for a perfectly just God to forgive sins. Rather, only by giving God’s Son over to death could God accomplish God’s objective of creating a worldwide community that would have as its basis an absolute commitment to doing God’s will by practicing the same love and dedication to the well-being of others that God had manifested in Jesus. If Jesus had been unwilling to endure the consequences of his work to establish such a community, he would then have been acting out of concern for himself rather than love for others. In that case, how could he ever expect his followers to be willing to love and serve others no matter what the cost? In the same way, had Jesus’ heavenly Father acted to spare his Son from death when the threat of the cross loomed as a result of the task he had commended to Jesus, then the Father would also have ultimately been more concerned for his own Son than for the creation of a people totally committed to loving and serving others as Jesus had. The cross is therefore the supreme symbol and expression of the love of God and God’s Son Jesus Christ because it represents the total self-giving of God and God’s Son, not in order to appease God’s wrath or make satisfaction to God’s justice, but in order to bring into being a community of people fully committed to practicing that same unconditional love for their own good and that of others.

Law and gospel

The idea that God always acts out of grace and unconditional love also seems to be in conflict with the traditional Lutheran teaching regarding law and gospel. According to this teaching, the law reveals our sin to us and shows us that we are subject to divine wrath and condemnation (lex semper accusat). Luther speaks of God’s law as a “cruel and powerful tyrant over the whole human race” and affirms that the law “brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ.”[10] What human beings therefore need, in the words of Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten, is “to get God off our backs.”[11]

The gospel is then understood as the proclamation that on account of Christ we have a gracious God who forgives the sins of all who come to faith in Christ. In essence, the “good news” is that in Christ God has saved us from God’s wrath and even from God’s own self or, to use Braaten’s metaphor, Christ has gotten God off our backs. Clearly, this angry God who was constantly “on our backs” does not appear to be a God of pure grace and love. Following traditional thought, for example, Lutheran theologian Werner Elert explicitly rejects the notion that God’s law is an expression of God’s grace and sees the law and the promises of the gospel as “irreconcilably opposed to one another.”[12]

It is possible, however, to understand the role of the law differently. Just as in Jewish thought the law was an expression of God’s love and grace over which the people were to rejoice rather than an impossible burden to bear, so also the law’s role in convicting us of our sinfulness should be understood as being in full accordance with God’s grace. The law, which in Lutheran thought is not the law given to Moses but that which is written on the hearts of all human beings,[13] defines God’s good will for us while at the same time showing us not only that we do not live according to that will but that, try as we might, due to our fallen condition we cannot. The problem to be addressed, then, is not that God cannot freely forgive or justify sinners but that we persist in sin, doing ourselves and others harm.

In order to explain law and gospel, Luther made use of the image of the physician who offers treatment to an ill patient.[14] Obviously, when the physician diagnoses the patient’s illness and prescribes treatment, she is not angry at the patient or seeking to do the patient harm. On the contrary, she is trying to help the patient and is on the patient’s side, acting out of concern for the patient and warning the patient of the consequences of failing to follow the treatment prescribed.

In the same way, the law can and should be seen as showing us our sin in order to compel us to seek help and salvation in a God who loves us unconditionally and wants nothing more than to deliver us from our sinful condition for our own good. In Philip Melanchthon’s words, “The law indicates disease, the gospel points out the remedy.”[15] Of course, due to our blindness and stubbornness, at times God must accuse and terrify us through the law, as the Lutheran tradition affirms, yet this can be seen as similar to the way a doctor sternly warns a patient that the patient’s situation is extremely grave and urgently requires treament. In this regard, Gerhard Forde draws the analogy of an alcoholic “reaching the absolute bottom where one can no longer escape the need for help.”[16] In order to help us, God needs us to despair of our own powers, capacities, merits and virtues because we cannot deliver ourselves from our fallen condition; only God can do this for us and in us through Christ and the Holy Spirit. In this case, what arouses God’s wrath is not so much that we sin but that, when we are confronted with our sin and the damage it does to us and others, we refuse to acknowledge that sin and our need for divine help and instead stubbornly persist in our sinful and harmful behavior.

Once we become conscious of our condition, we then turn to God in faith for healing, just as a person who is ill seeks treatment from a physician. Among many Christians, faith has been understood primarily as an intellectual assent to certain doctrines. In particular, people are called to have faith in the effectiveness of Jesus’ death for obtaining the forgiveness of their sins or to believe in the doctrine of justification by grace and not by works. Only those who affirm these beliefs are said to be justified and accepted before God. In reality, this is no longer justification by faith in the way Luther understood it but rather justification by orthodoxy of belief. Such an understanding is also problematic in that it raises the question of why God established faith in certain doctrines as the condition for salvation; there appears to be no necessary or intrinsic reason why faith in certain key doctrines should obtain forgiveness other than that God, for some unknown reason, determined that this would be the condition. In addition, such faith becomes the one “work” that we must fulfill in order to be saved.

For Luther and other Reformers, however, faith was primarily understood existentially as fiducia, that is, confidence and trust in God.[17] Perhaps it would have been preferable to use the phrase sola fiducia rather than sola fide to refer to the means by which we are justified and saved. What God wants is not simply that we believe certain doctrines to be true but that we trust solely in God and Christ for the healing and salvation we need. To do this, of course, we must believe that God is always gracious, not because Christ has obtained God’s grace for us or turned a God of wrath into a God of grace, but because by God’s very nature God is sola gratia. Such a God desires and commands that we trust in God, not for God’s sake but for ours, since only when we depend exclusively on God rather than ourselves can God heal and transform us through Christ.

One of the problems that has perpetually plagued traditional Protestant teaching is that, if justification and salvation are by faith alone, there seems to be no firm basis for insisting that believers must do good works. To claim that good works are necessary for salvation is to deny that we are saved by faith alone, yet to maintain that they are not neccesary for salvation seems to make them optional and irrelevant. Similarly, the widespread view of sinful behavior as something that is attractive and desirable leads people, including Christians, to wish that they could sin freely without facing any type of punishment as a consequence. Due to this view of sin, rather than being attracted to the Christian life, non-believers often regard it as a kind of oppressive existence or slavery in which one forfeits one’s freedom. The misunderstanding of sin, grace and forgiveness in traditional thought also raises the question of why people should not think that they can sin freely and then simply turn to God asking for forgiveness, knowing ahead of time that God will forgive them because God has promised always to forgive those who repent and have faith. Furthermore, to threaten people with divine punishment in order to deter them from sinning involves attempting to compel them to obey God out of fear rather than out of love for God.

These problems, however, disappear when we understand properly the intrinsic relation between faith and obedience and between sin and its harmful consequences. When we truly trust someone and believe that whatever that person tells us to do is for our own good, we will gladly and willingly do what we are told. Thus, when we trust fully in a God who is sola gratia, concerned only for our wholeness and well-being, we will do whatever that God commands us without hesitation. We will also seek to avoid sinful behavior, not out of compulsion or fear of divine punishment, but because we are convinced that in reality such behavior destroys true well-being and happiness and, for that reason, God has commanded that we avoid that behavior for our own good. Viewed from this perspective, our sin becomes a cause of consternation not only for God but for us as well. It is not only God who is angered by our sinful and oppressive behavior and deems it unacceptable but we ourselves, since we know that such behavior prevents us from experiencing the shalom God desires for all. We thus condemn our own sinful behavior just as strongly as God does and long for God to deliver us from that behavior.

It is important to stress, however, that the gospel proclaims not only that God forgives us through faith but also that God transforms and heals us through faith. Traditionally, it has been common to define the gospel simply in terms of the forgiveness of sins. In reality, however, this is only half a gospel. In itself, forgiveness does not accomplish transformation and bring wholeness. If our problem is that we need to live according to God’s will for our own good, simply forgiving sin by overlooking it can even be counter-productive. God could simply forgive all people their sins, yet that alone would not attain the objective of bringing them to live in a way that enables them to be made whole. That objective can only be obtained by transforming our hearts, which is what God does through Christ, the Holy Spirit, the proclamation of God’s word, the means of grace, and the sisters and brothers God has given us in the community of believers.

This new life, however, is once more God’s work in us rather than being our own work. Our obedience to God’s will is just as much a divine gift as God’s forgiveness. As we look to God in faith and trust, depending solely on God’s grace and power, God is able to transform us in the way God desires for our own good. The gospel is thus the joyful proclamation that, through Christ and God’s Spirit, God enables us to stop destroying our own lives and those of others and instead to begin to live in ways that bring us and others peace, joy, and wholeness. That, rather than merely divine forgiveness, is the heart of the good news.

Contrary to traditional Protestant teaching, the new life that God brings about in us through Christ also must be understood as the basis upon which God forgives us and declares us righteous. We are justified, not because Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us or because Christ satisfied divine justice in our place, but because through our faith in Christ God is at work transforming us into the people God wants us to be for our own good. As Luther taught in a number of passages, the righteousness God reckons to us is not that of Christ but our own future righteousness which will be perfected in the end through Christ’s activity in us.[18] Yet because this righteousness is not our own creation but that of God in Christ, it remains a iustitia aliena, coming from outside of us. Furthermore, what satisfies God’s justice is not Christ’s suffering and death but the fact that, as we cling to Christ in faith, Christ enables us to practice the justice God desires and demands for our own good. Undoubtedly, in the present life we continue to sin; yet God forgives and overlooks this sin by virtue of the transformation that God is graciously effecting in us through Christ and our faith in him. Justification is by faith, not because faith is the one work God demands in order to declare us righteousness, but because our faith, which is itself a gift of God’s grace, is the means by which God brings about in us the change God desires and demands for our own good and that of others. If God wants us to be perfect, it is for our sake, not for God’s. And if God accepts us in the present even though we are not yet perfected, it is because God knows that Christ will eventually complete his work in us as long as we continue to look to him in faith to receive the new life he graciously brings about in us.

Both the law and the gospel, then, are pure grace. Out of grace, God gives the law so that we may know God’s good will for us and yet also realize that, due to our enslavement to sin, we constantly live in ways that destroy our own well-being and that of others. Knowing that we are incapable of delivering ourselves from this condition, we look to God in Christ for all that we need in order to be changed into the persons God wants us to be for our own good and that of others. Thus, God’s call for us to repent is also grace. God’s command that we look to God and God’s Son in faith and trust is also grace, just as Jesus’ command, “Follow me,” is pure grace. Contrary to traditional teaching, this means that, like the law, the gospel is also an imperative, yet an entirely gracious one. Due to God’s love for us, God cannot simply remain passive and idle when God sees us acting in ways that destroy our lives and our happiness. Thus, not for God’s sake but for ours, God commands that in faith we depend solely on God for healing, transformation and forgiveness. From beginning to end, God is never against us but only on our side.

Implications of affirming a God of sola gratia

This understanding of God and the gospel represents a significant departure from traditional Western and Protestant Christian thinking. While, like any attempt to summarize the biblical teaching, it no doubt remains problematic on many accounts, it resolves and overcomes many of the difficulties raised by traditional Christian thought. However, it also has important implications, some of which we may briefly examine here.

The most important of these is that, unless we maintain that the essence of the one true God and the gospel which proclaims that God is grace and unconditional love—sola gratia—, we have no reason or basis for affirming that unconditional love must be at the heart of our dealings with one another as human beings. A God who does not love all people unconditionally and is not unconditionally committed to their well-being cannot expect or demand that human beings love one another in that way. It is only possible for us to love unconditionally if God does so.

The conviction that God is a God of sola gratia radically affects the way we view ourselves, others and the world. We see ourselves as people who are loved unconditionally, just as we are, by a God who desires nothing more than our wholeness and well-being. This enables us to love and accept ourselves as well in spite of our sinfulness, unworthiness and imperfections, none of which affect God’s unconditional love for us in any way. The only thing that this God asks is that in faith we acknowledge our brokenness and need for help and receive the help and grace offered to us in Christ. Similarly, the only thing that can make us unacceptable to God is our refusal to see ourselves as broken sinners who need to turn to God for healing and instead stubbornly persist in our destructive ways. A God who loves us unconditionally cannot accept our insistence on harming ourselves and others and thus, out of God’s absolute commitment to our well-being, demands that we recognize that we are diseased and in need of the healing that God graciously offers all.

That healing comes not only from God directly through God’s Son and Spirit but also through the sisters and brothers God gives us in the community of believers. Our belief in a God of sola gratia impels us to unite ourselves to others who share that same belief so that together we may begin to be restored to wholeness. The church must be understood in these terms: not primarily as an institution or organization but as a place where sinners congregate to find the help they need in God and one another. As believers gather together, they acknowledge and confess their sinfulness and brokenness and, under the guidance of God’s Spirit, join in solidarity with one another to let themselves be loved, strengthened, forgiven and transformed by God’s grace. This occurs as the gospel is proclaimed in Word in sacrament and made palpable in the love and support they receive from one another. Each believer becomes an embodiment of God’s grace for others.

At the same time, both as individuals and as communities, believers reach out to the world around them with that grace. Rather than seeing those outside of the Christian community in purely negative terms, as sinners who stand under divine condemnation and need to be converted to “become like us,” we see others as persons who share the same plight that we do, suffering from the same illness and addiction from which we also suffer, namely, sin. This puts us on equal terms with them, whether they share our faith in Christ or not. We are neither better nor worse than they are. Thus, rather than judging, rejecting or condemning them, we enter into solidarity with them as God in Christ has entered into solidarity with us, seeking healing for them at the same time that we seek healing for ourselves. As God loves us unconditionally and is fully committed to our well-being, so also we love others in the same way. For that reason, we place ourselves alongside of others and stand with them rather than in opposition to them. As sinners, we are just as much in need of God’s forgiveness and transforming power as they are—no more, and no less.

            We also share with others our conviction that the healing and restoration to wholeness of which all of us stand in need is to be found in the God of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that our aim is to convert them to our beliefs. While we rejoice greatly when others come to find help, healing, and wholeness in our midst and join us in becoming both recipients and instruments of God’s grace in the community of those committed to following Christ, we recognize that, as the Augsburg Confession states, it is the Holy Spirit alone who “effects faith where and when it pleases God….”[19] It is therefore not our task or responsibility to bring others to faith but only God’s. Our task is merely to share God’s grace and unconditional love with others in concrete ways in faithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Following Scripture and our Christian tradition, we also recognize that the God of sola gratia in whom we believe has been active and present not only in the community of Christ’s followers but among people everywhere at all times throughout history. Therefore, while on the one hand we believe that healing and wholeness are found uniquely and especially in Christ, we rejoice over the fact that there is also healing and wholeness in other communities and faith traditions that acknowledge God’s unconditional love. We therefore not only respect them in their differences but seek to establish dialogue with them so that we may learn from one another by sharing our stories and experiences of the different ways in which the God of sola gratia has been active and present in our midst. Our commitment to seeking the wholeness and well-being of others also moves us to join together with others who share that same commitment in order to work side by side for peace, wholeness, reconciliation, and justice in our world. We work not only with other Christians but also people of other faith traditions and even those who do not belong to any faith tradition, as long as they too are committed to loving and serving others unconditionally, seeking only their wholeness without pursuing other selfish or hidden interests or attempting to manipulate others for their own ends.

At the same time, our commitment to the well-being of all moves us to struggle against injustice and oppression in our world. Out of love, we seek to expose, unmask, and prophetically denounce all forms of sin and evil not only in society and the world but also in our own midst, where sin and evil are also present. We especially speak out against the injustice and oppression carried out in the name of love for others or justified on the basis of the false gods human beings have created for themselves. This involves insisting that any God who is not a God of sola gratia but instead oppresses, enslaves, or excludes people is not the true God, whether this God is proclaimed by Christians or non-Christians.

Yet because as fallen sinners we are often blinded by our limitations and ignorance, none of us can claim to possess or know the truth in its fullness. This means that, as we seek to identify and oppose sin and injustice in our world and in our own midst and to expose the false gods in whose name that sin and injustice are being committed, we must do so in constant dialogue with others, listening to their perspectives as we share ours. Since we stand alongside others and under God as their equals rather than above them as their superiors, we must avoid any type of paternalism, manipulation, or control over others. Whenever we insist on defining unilaterally what is just and unjust or determining for others what they need, we inevitably end up doing harm rather than good, thus acting contrary to love.

As I indicated at the outset, I am convinced that in our understanding of God and the gospel in our Western Christian tradition and in the doctrine we proclaim and teach, we have conserved many elements that represent a denial of the God of sola gratia and thus continue to do great harm. This is true of some of the central teachings of our faith, including our understanding of law and gospel and the work of Christ. For this reason, I would argue that the crisis that Christianity is facing in the world today is not simply due to demographics, the growth of secularism, a changing worldview, a faulty ecclesiology, or other factors to which that crisis is commonly attributed. Rather, it is due to the defective gospel that we have inherited and continue to proclaim, a gospel that is not truly the gospel of Jesus Christ because it does not proclaim faithfully a God of sola gratia and unconditional love. In other words, at its root, the crisis we are facing as Christians is not ultimately ecclesiological or ethical but theological. And until we resurrect the true God of Scripture and of Jesus Christ, the God of sola gratia that our traditional doctrine has obscured and at times even denied, that crisis will only continue and worsen. For that reason, our most urgent task is to purge the gospel we proclaim of the mistaken and oppressive elements it still contains and to grasp and articulate correctly what it means to believe in a God of unconditional love. Only in that way can we truly hope to serve successfully as God’s instruments to bring justice, wholeness and well-being into our lives and those of others, which is the ultimate goal and purpose of God and the gospel.


[1] Of course, to speak of sola gratia as a divine attribute requires understanding the Latin phrase in the nominative rather than the ablative case, according to which it is properly translated “by grace alone.”

[2] See, for example, Lk 10:25-37; Rom 14:19; 15:2; 1 Co 10:24, 33; Phil 2:1-8.

[3] See Matt 5:43-48; Lk 6:27-36; Rom 12:9-21; 1 Tim 2:3-4.

[4] One can find both types of forgiveness, for example, in Matt 18:15-35, where in the same context Jesus teaches his disciples they they are always to forgive others (18:21-35) but also that, under certain circumstances, forgiveness is to be denied (18:15-18, 32-34).

[5] See, for example, Ps 81:11-16; 89:31-34; Lam 3:32-33; Isa 48:18-19; Ez 18:23, 32; Hos 11:1-9; Matt 23:37.

[6] On these points and what follows, see my book Redeeming the Gospel:The Christian Faith Reconsidered (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 35-37, 51-54, 62-64.

[7] See, for example, the Augsburg Confession, Articles V, XII; Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article IV, 145, 163, 178, 222; Luther’s Large Catechism 2:54 (Explanation of Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed); Luther’s Works, American edition (hereafter LW), eds. Jaroslav J. Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955-1986), 30:3, 29; 32:227-28; 33:280; 36:298; 52:241, 252-53; 53:82; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II, 17:3-5.

[8] See, for example, LW 12:126-27; 25:382; 26:355; Calvin, Institutes, II, 12:4; II, 16:2-5; III, 13:4.

[9] See my book Redeeming the Gospel, 62-81. On what follows, see 91-99, 193-199.

[10] LW 26:370; 31:54.

[11] Carl E. Braaten, Justification: The Article by which the Church Stands or Falls (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 105.

[12] Werner Elert, Law and Gospel, trans. Edward H. Schroeder (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 8, 28.

[13] On this point, see LW 1:277-78; 25:19-20, 187, 377; 35:168, 173; 40:92, 98; William H. Lazareth, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 113, 153-58, 225-230.

[14] See, for example, LW 25:336; 31:51. See also Timothy J. Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997), 67-68.

[15] Philip Melanchthon, Loci Communes 4:4, in Melanchthon and Bucer, ed. Wilhelm Pauck, Library of Christian Classics 19 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 71.

[16] Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 95.

[17] On this aspect of Luther’s thought, see Birgit Stolt, “Luther’s Faith ‘of the Heart’: Experience, Emotion, and Reason,” in The Global Luther: A Theologian for Modern Times, ed. Christine Helmer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 131-50.

[18] See especially LW 27:227; 32:28; 34:153; Karl Holl, “Die Rechtfertigungslehre in Luthers Vorlesung über den Römerbrief mit besonderer Rücksicht auf die Frage der Heilsgewißheit,” in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1932), Vol. 1, 119-125.

[19] Augsburg Confession, Article V.