The Solas and Advent: Sola Gratia
As we meditate upon the Advent of our Lord in the light of the three solas of the Reformation, we turn our attention tonight to the second sola, Sola Gratia, meaning that we are saved solely by the grace of God—and not just by His grace, but by His grace in Christ. In this Reformation principle, as in the other two, it is through Christ, our Saviour that everything finds its focus—its heart and center. In Christ, the Father directs and mediates His love for us. As we heard in the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”
Our forgiveness and salvation begins with the Father’s love—His grace for all the world. He beholds us in our sin and iniquity; He beholds the terrible fate that we would all justly suffer because of our sin, and He did not —does not—want this for any of us. Even in our sinfulness—in our rebellion and hatred toward Him—our dear Father loves us still. Saint Paul writes that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and, as we heard this evening, “God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” In truest, most holy love, He made us and He wants none of us to perish. He wants you to be His own and live forever with Him in His glorious kingdom.
We Lutherans understand that the grace of God means His love for us. The reason why “grace alone” is one of the Reformation Solas, is to correct the entirely different meaning that grace had taken on in the Church of Rome—a wrong understanding that remains in place among Roman Catholics today. To them, the grace of God is not simply the love that God has for us, the love that moved God to send His Son to die for us to save us. To them it is a mystical quality—perhaps you might say that they see it as the very essence of God. And I can understand why they think this, for the apostle John, in his first epistle, does say quite clearly that, “God is love.” Saint John, however, is speaking in the sense of relationship. As God relates to us, it is all a matter of His love for us. His love—His grace—is not, as believed by those others, a substance that He infuses into a person, like a magic potion, so that good works can be done to earn or merit salvation. Grace, or the love of God, is how our heavenly Father deals with us to save us, apart from our works. And so it is that, immediately after proclaiming that, “God is love,” Saint John writes, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.”
Writing a few decades earlier than Saint John, the apostle Paul also speaks about the wondrous love of God, saying, as did John, that you are saved by grace—that it “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Good works have a place in your life; that’s for sure. You have been “created in Christ Jesus,” that is, made a new creation through Holy Baptism—delivered from sin and death—that you may do good works that help your neighbour and give glory to God. It is simply the way of faith—the way of being a Christian that you do good works. Your works, however, merit you nothing. And your works are good only because they are sanctified in Christ, washed clean in His shed blood through your baptismal union with Him. Apart from this, they are but filthy rags.
When this holy season of Advent draws to a close, and, in spirit, you find yourself bending low before the manger, gazing upon our God in the flesh, you will behold the love of God for you made manifest. He is born to be your Saviour; He has come into this world to “cast all [your] sins into the depths of the sea”—to “tread your iniquities underfoot.” And Jesus has come to do this for you because your heavenly Father “delights in steadfast love.” You do not deserve His grace, but He gives it anyway—fully and freely in Christ—because it is His nature to do so.
God’s grace for you, dear friends, not only is the reason for your salvation and for the new life of sanctification that you have in Christ, it also provides you with something sorely needed by everyone in this world so shaped and directed by sin and death. And that’s peace of heart and mind. Turning again to the First Epistle of Saint John, we read that, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Of course, the apostle is most immediately referring to the fear of judgment—of being judged guilty by God and condemned because of our sins. “For fear has to do with punishment,” he says. But in knowing that we have peace with God—in knowing that there is no condemnation for us because of His love for us in Christ, the evil and wickedness of this world are cast in a different light.
In one of my favourite hymns, “I Walk in Danger All the Way,” the majority of the words from the pen of the hymn writer are pretty bleak, conveying the reality of life the way it is in this world. But despite all the words speaking of the devil plotting against me, death pursuing me, and, as the title says, that I walk in danger all the way, there’s a real sense of peace and hope in this hymn that trumps all the bad things of the world, for I am reminded in the hymn that Jesus is with me all the way and that within His wounds I find a stay—in His suffering and death for me I have a sure and safe refuge against all the bad things of life that cause me sorrow and seek my harm. And so do you. The love of God in Christ is your sure hope for right now as well as for eternity.
Sola Gratia—by the grace of God alone, apart from good works, you are forgiven all your sins and have life and salvation. By grace alone, your dear Father in heaven regards you as His own dear child. By grace alone, God humbled Himself and was made man—a baby lying in a manger for you—a sacrificial Lamb to die for you. And by grace alone, you are given the Holy Spirit to comfort you with the Good News of Salvation and to keep you, by this Gospel, in the true faith unto life everlasting. It’s all by grace—grace alone, dear friends—for you. In the name of Christ, in whom the love of God is made manifest for you and for the whole world. Amen.