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Martyred for the Gospel

Martyred for the Gospel
The burning of Tharchbishop of Cant. D. Tho. Cranmer in the town dich at Oxford, with his hand first thrust into the fyre, wherwith he subscribed before. [Click on the picture to see Cranmer's last words.]

Collect of the Day

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.
The Collect.

O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Daily Bible Verse

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Doctrine of Grace Alone: Sola Gratia in Scripture and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion


During the Protestant Reformation the primary language used by the western side of the Christian Church was Latin. Out of that reform movement to correct areas where the Roman Catholic Church had moved away from the teaching of Holy Scripture and from the church fathers as understood from the biblical perspective, five Latin phrases arose which summarized in capsule form what the Reformation movement was all about. One of those slogans was sola gratia or grace alone.


What exactly is the doctrine of grace alone? In order to give a complete answer one must look both to Scripture and to church history. Actually, the issue raised goes all the way back to the time of Paul in his debates with the Judaizers (See Galatians 1:6-9). However, the problem of justification by good works occurs again in the 4th century in the controversy between Augustine, bishop of Hippo in north Africa, and the followers of Pelagius in Britain. In laying a background for this discussion the Scriptures must first be examined.


Moreover, the issue of grace has as much to do with the doctrine of original sin as with the issue of merits or good works. The premise in the Bible is that when Adam and Eve rebelled against God a curse came upon them and upon all of their descendants, that is all of humankind. The curse was that spiritual and physical death would result if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:



"...then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." (Genesis 2:7-9, ESV)


"The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”" (Genesis 2:15-17, ESV) 1


So the biblical view of grace must first understand that humankind became totally corrupt or tainted by sin in every area of the human nature, including the ability to think and reason clearly. Moreover, the gifts allowing humankind to think without the influence of sin are removed and both man's thoughts and his will are corrupted:


"The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." (Genesis 6:5, ESV) 2


The essence of the created human nature would include all that makes us human. However, to summarize in capsule form, the human nature is basically three elements: intellect, will, and emotion. Most theologians would include that the human nature is both a physical body and an immortal soul unified in one human personal being. For the purposes of this essay the tripart view of the human nature, body, soul, and spirit will be rejected because it seems to be based more in Greek philosophy than a biblical view of humanity. It is the biblical emphasis on the creation of humanity, both male and female in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), rather than philosophical definitions which should dominate our theological thinking. However, it must be admitted that some philosophical and theological definitions are unavoidable. For the Christian any understanding of the human image and likeness it must be recognized that in the eschatological judgment those who are lost will face God's punishment in both body and soul:


"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28, ESV) 3


Thus, there is a legitimate point that there is a unified human nature which is composed of both body and soul which, according to Paul's theology, can only be separated at death. (See 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10). Even those who are credited with righteousness and inherit eternal life are raised from the dead in a new and glorified body. (See 1 Corinthians 15; Luke 24:36-42). In other words, a proper understanding of the image and likeness is a holistic one rather than trichotomist.


Only in the context of the human image and likeness being totally and completely tainted and corrupted by sin can we understand the necessity and purpose of God's grace. It is precisely because of Adam's forfeiture of God's supernatural gifts, which enabled humanity to choose only good and not evil, that humanity has become corrupted by original sin and has become actually sinful in thought, word and deed, in what is done and left undone. (See “A general Confession...” in 1662 BCP). To put it in biblical terms, humankind has become corrupt through and through such that the image and likeness of God within the human nature is almost unrecognizable. (Genesis 6:5; Psalm 51:5, 10; Psalm 58:3; Isaiah 48:8). Humans have become slaves to sin until Christ frees them from that slavery. (Roman 3:10-18; Romans 6:16-20; John 8:31-38).


This would bring us to the controversy between Augustine of Hippo and the school of Pelagius. Augustine understood from his own conversion experience that humanity is in bondage to sin. When Augustine read Romans and Galatians he understood that mankind was in such slavery as to be spiritually dead and in complete subservience to original and actual sins. The problem was so severe, according to Augustine, that only God Himself could intervene. Pelagius, on the other hand, was more concerned with antinomianism and lawlessness because his observations in Britain were that many Christians were using grace as an excuse and an opportunity for sin. Pelagius therefore emphasized man's ability to choose by free will between doing good and doing evil. The problem with Pelagius, however, is that he went so far in the direction of human freedom that he denied original sin and the depravity of the human race.


In response to Pelagius, Augustine's treatise on nature and grace says that if humankind is inherently righteous by nature then individuals ought to be able to actually do what is righteous and therefore they do not need a Savior:


Chapter 2 [II.]—Faith in Christ Not Necessary to Salvation, If a Man Without It Can Lead a Righteous Life.

Therefore the nature of the human race, generated from the flesh of the one transgressor, if it is self-sufficient for fulfilling the law and for perfecting righteousness, ought to be sure of its reward, that is, of everlasting life, even if in any nation or at any former time faith in the blood of Christ was unknown to it. For God is not so unjust as to defraud righteous persons of the reward of righteousness, because there has not been announced to them the mystery of Christ’s divinity and humanity, which was manifested in the flesh. (1 Timothy 3:16). For how could they believe what they had not heard of; or how could they hear without a preacher? For “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” But I say (adds he): Have they not heard? “Yea, verily; their sound went out into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.” (Romans 10:17-18). Before, however, all this had been accomplished, before the actual preaching of the gospel reaches the ends of all the earth—because there are some remote nations still (although it is said they are very few) to whom the preached gospel has not found its way,—what must human nature do, or what has it done—for it had either not heard that all this was to take place, or has not yet learnt that it was accomplished—but believe in God who made heaven and earth, by whom also it perceived by nature that it had been itself created, and lead a right life, and thus accomplish His will, uninstructed with any faith in the death and resurrection of Christ? Well, if this could have been done, or can still be done, then for my part I have to say what the apostle said in regard to the law: “Then Christ died in vain.” (Galatians 2:21). For if he said this about the law, which only the nation of the Jews received, how much more justly may it be said of the law of nature, which the whole human race has received, “If righteousness come by nature, then Christ died in vain.” If, however, Christ did not die in vain, then human nature cannot by any means be justified and redeemed from God’s most righteous wrath—in a word, from punishment—except by faith and the sacrament of the blood of Christ. (From A Treatise on Nature and Grace, Chapter 2).

Without going into a detailed and lengthy discussion of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, it should be noted that Paul himself said that man's ability to reason by nature and by the light he has in and of himself is insufficient to lead him to salvation:

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened." (Romans 1:18-21, ESV) 4 (See Article 18).


This brings us to the doctrine of grace in the Reformed confessions of faith, most specifically, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. The original Forty-two Articles of Religion were composed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1553. However, under Elizabeth I some of Cranmer's views were softened and thus the Forty-two Articles were edited and reduced to Thirty-nine Articles, though the Cranmerian view of the sacraments were essentially kept--though the anti-Lutheran views of the Lord's Supper were softened but not completely removed. (See Article 29).. Be that as it may, the soteriological portions of the Thirty-nine Articles are essentially Augustinian and were influenced to a large degree by the Lutheran confessions of faith such as the Wurtemberg Confession. Where appropriate comparison between the Forty-two Articles and the Thirty-nine Articles will be made.


For the sake of organization reference will be made to Articles 9-18 which deal with grace and with the issues of original sin and “personal” religion. In particular, the order which Cranmer chose for the Forty-two Articles and the later editors chose for the Thirty-nine Articles is important. The significance of the logical order of Articles 9-18 is that the reformers begin with the doctrine of original sin in Article 9 and the issue of grace is mentioned immediately afterwards in Article 10.


In essence sola gratia means that since humankind is spiritually dead and in bondage to the sinful nature only a supernatural intervention can restore what was lost in the fall. Calvinists call this irresistible grace but the Articles call it “prevenient” grace. In fact, this is where John Wesley got the term he used in the 18th century to justify his Arminian views, including universal atonement rather than particular atonement. For Wesley, particular grace given to individuals would limit the potential for salvation for all humankind. So Wesley's view is a return to semi-pelagianism whereby every single individual receives prevenient grace so that the will is again free enough to choose to accept or reject Jesus Christ. According to Wesley, all men receive a grace that only works for less than 30% of the human race--if we are generous in calling all who are members of a visible Christian church “Christian.” The Calvinist view or the Augustinian view, however, is that election precedes regeneration and as such God gives particular grace or irresistible grace beforehand to those he chose to save. Thus, grace is given beforehand or “preveniently” to those whom God has elected unconditionally before the creation of the world. In other words, when God gives the elect his unconditional grace; such grace is always efficacious and always brings the elect to conversion and saving faith. It should be carefully noted that the 42 Articles of 1553 and the 1563/1571 versions preceded the Arminian controversy of 1618-19 when the Synod of Dort finalized the Dutch Reformed response to the five points of the Remonstrants. Thus, the Arminian party is a later development after the finalization of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion in 1571.


But sola gratia also means an exclusion of any credit or merit given to sinners on account of their good works. Grace precedes faith and thus even our faith is a gift of God and even our repentance is a gift of God preceding any actual believing we do. The Scriptures make this clear, especially in the epistles of Paul:


"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But 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—by grace you have been saved—" (Ephesians 2:1-5, ESV)

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV) 5


Paul's great discourse on predestination and election ends with the doctrine of total depravity in Ephesians 2:1-3. Thus, in Paul's theology sinners are indeed spiritually dead and unable to raise themselves from the dead or even to respond to the Gospel at all (Colossians 2:13-14). For Paul it is literally God who makes the sinner live again “even when we were dead in our trespasses.” Even Luke places our ability to repent in the hands of God who sovereignly bestows that gift of repentance:


"When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”" (Acts 11:18, ESV) 6


Article 9 clearly says that pelagianism is to be rejected. Sin is more than just sinning the first actual sin and following in the footsteps of Adam. Rather sin, according to Cranmer and the Thirty-nine Articles, is the very corruption of the human nature and the divine image and likeness. This corruption can only be overcome by God's unconditional grace which is sovereignly bestowed upon His elect. Article 10 tells us that the condition is so bad that a man is completely unable to turn to God or to render himself willing to accept Jesus Christ or even exercise faith. Not only that but any good works done prior to becoming a true believer in Christ are unacceptable to God because they are not done in faith and because God's standards are not lowered so that sinful humans may meet a lowered bar of the moral law. (See Article 13). The sinner cannot have a good will or do good works unless Christ works in the sinner's heart beforehand.


Since the whole of humanity is fallen in Adam, only a fully human and fully divine second Adam could redeem the human race from original sin and all actual sins. Furthermore, this fully divine man must also be sinless and perfect so as to be a lamb without blemish for the perfect sacrifice atoning for the sins of all the elect scattered throughout the world. Jesus Christ is this perfect man. (See Article 15).


It follows therefore that salvation and justification before an omnipotent and absolutely holy God must be accomplished for the elect because they are weak and powerless in their sins and completely unable to turn to God. (See Jeremiah 17:9-10; Romans 5:6; Romans 8:7; John 15:5). It is an irresistible grace that draws the elect to Christ when they hear the voice of the good shepherd. (See John 6:37; 5:25; 10:3-5).


It is grace alone which regenerates and effectually calls the elect to saving faith. It is grace in the beginning, grace in enduring and persevering to the end, and grace will lead the sinner home. And this grace is bestowed before the sinner believes and is in fact the cause and source of his ability to believe in the first place. In the words of the Calvinist and Reformed Anglican, John Newton:


Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

(From Amazing Grace).

1 The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

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