10 Marks of a Grace-Alone Church

Grace is a vital doctrine, not simply for the church’s theological confession but also for the church’s theological practice.

To be able to point Christians to a sovereign God who has revealed himself as gracious in Christ is perhaps the single most important thing that a pastor can do. When the problems of this fallen world close in on us, as they inevitably will, there can be a tendency to see our sin or our suffering or the evil machinations of the world around us as the last word. God’s grace in Christ says otherwise, and the church that takes that grace seriously will constantly point her people to that truth with the aim of reassuring them that, whatever comes to pass, God is both sovereign and gracious.

 

As we look back to the sola gratia cry of the Reformation, it is helpful to ask ourselves: What would a “grace alone” church look like today? What would characterize its life as a church? How might we recognize such a church when we see it?

The answer to these questions falls into two parts: doctrinal and practical. But these parts are closely connected. Here, I offer 10 points that show the interconnection and give hints as to the identity of a sola gratia church. A grace-alone church . . .

1. Takes sin seriously.

Grace is not simply a sentiment or attitude in God. It is God’s concrete response to human sin. This means a proper understanding of grace depends on a prior, proper understanding of sin and the human predicament.

If we attend church to feel good about ourselves or to learn some tips on how to live better, we are missing the point. Such attitudes indicate that we see the human problem as one of human psychology or a lack of knowledge. We fail to see where the real issue lies. Until we see sin as the problem, we won’t understand the nature of God’s prescribed solution. No grace-filled church will be unclear about the problem grace is meant to address.

2. Takes Christ seriously.

If sin is the problem, grace is not simply God’s benevolent decision to ignore it and pretend the fall never happened. Grace in the Bible, and among the greatest exponents of grace in the history of theology, is embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace is God’s action to deal with sin, in Christ and in the application of Christ to the individual by the Holy Spirit.

A grace-alone church will not just talk about grace; she will talk about Christ. If we speak of grace without speaking the name of Christ, we are not speaking biblically of grace. In the Bible, grace is so intimately connected to Christ that Christless talk is graceless talk.

3. Takes God’s priority in personal salvation seriously.

Predestination remains a contentious topic within the church, as ongoing debates within the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, indicate. The emphasis on the sovereignty of God’s grace we find in men such as Augustine and Calvin represents an important and non-negotiable aspect of the Christian gospel.

This side of glory we won’t be able to answer all the questions the doctrine of predestination raises. But Paul’s doxological statement in Romans 9 indicates that he, too, was acutely aware of the limits of human speculation in this matter. There comes a point when we must stop theologizing and speculating and simply declare God’s glory. A grace-alone church will unashamedly declare God’s sovereign priority over all of creation and his sovereign priority over the church and her people. Only in this way can ministers preach with confidence, knowing that it is not their eloquence that saves but the Spirit using the Word to bring people to Christ. Only in this way can pastors confidently counsel people, knowing that, whatever the problem may be, our sovereign, gracious God is in control.

4. Takes assurance seriously.

This was the point where the Reformers broke from the earlier anti-Pelagian tradition on grace. For them, God’s sovereign grace meant Christians could be confident that God was their God and would love and care for them until they were safely home.

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