In the early fifth century, a theological controversy occurred that would forever shape the thinking of the church. In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo wrote in the form of a prayer the words, "Give what Thou commandest and command what Thou will." The British monk Pelagius was upset by these words, believing that they would give Christians an excuse for not obeying God. Pelagius believed that if God commanded something, man was naturally (apart from grace) able to do it. He believed that this was possible because he also believed that Adam's sin had only affected Adam. All human beings are born in the same state in which Adam was born, capable of either obeying God or disobeying Him. If they obey, their good works merit salvation. If not, they deserve God's punishment.
Augustine, on the other hand, taught that Adam's sin has dramatically impacted all of his descendants. The Reformed churches followed Augustine in their rejection of Pelagianism. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, has a clear explanation of the doctrine of original sin. By our first parents' sin:
[T]hey fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions (6.1–4).
Since the fall, all human beings are born in this fallen state with their wills (the will being one of the faculties of soul and body) in bondage to sin. Because of the fall, we are born spiritually dead, unable to choose or will the good (Rom. 3:10–12; 5:6; Eph. 2:1).
Although Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy at a number of councils, including the third ecumenical council in 431, it has raised its head in various forms ever since. By the late medieval period, the Church of Rome had fallen into a type of semi-Pelagianism. The justification of the sinner was seen as a kind of synergistic, cooperative work between God and the sinner. The doctrine of sola gratia was the Protestant response to this.
The Protestant doctrine of sola gratia is found in all of the major Reformed confessions. It underlies everything said regarding human nature, election, calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, and more. The point that the Reformers wanted to make in the sixteenth century is the same point that Augustine made in the fifth: we are not saved by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. The fallen sinner is not a drowning man who merely needs to do his part by reaching out to grab the life preserver tossed by God. No, the sinner suffers from a far more serious condition. He cannot grab a life preserver because he is not merely drowning. He is a cold, dead, lifeless corpse on the bottom of the sea. If he is to be saved, he will not be able to cooperate with God. His salvation will an act of pure grace—and grace alone—on the part of God (Eph. 2:8).
There are numerous books that can help us grasp some of the more important points taught by those who proclaim sola gratia. The following are a good place to begin.
- Augustine, Selected Writings on Grace and Pelagianism.
This book contains Augustine's most important writings related to the Pelagian controversy. These writings were mined heavily by the sixteenth-century Reformers.
- Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will.
This work was Luther's response to Erasmus's book On Free Will. In it, Luther argues that fallen man is unable to come to God because the fallen will is in bondage to sin.
- R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God.
In this work, Dr. Sproul presents a clear and succinct case for the biblical doctrine of gracious election. This book has helped many come to an understanding of the biblical doctrine of election.
- John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied.
Murray's work looks at Christ's work of atonement and the application of its benefits to the believer by the Holy Spirit. He shows how the work of redemption is all of grace from beginning to end.
- Sean Michael Lucas, What Is Grace?
The word "grace" is one of those words Christians use a lot, but do not always understand. In this booklet, Dr. Lucas provides a clear explanation of its meaning.
This article is part of the Top Books on the Five Solas collection.