How does God save sinners? This is one of the richest theological questions a person can ask, and the answer requires a mind-stretching and heart-enlarging quest that spans the whole of the Bible. The “how” of salvation takes us into the eternal counsels of the Triune God, through the covenant promises and relationships of redemptive history, culminating in the incarnation of the Second Person of the Triunity as the substitutionary and saving God-Man. Justification, imputation, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and the work of the Holy Spirit all factor heavily into answering this essential question of the Christian faith.
But there’s an important question that comes immediately after that, though perhaps one that is asked with less frequency or urgency. We may understand the orthodox formulation for how God takes a sinner from the domain of darkness and transfers them to the redemptive Kingdom of His Son (Col. 1:13), but it won’t mean anything to us unless we also ask, “Why does God save sinners in the first place?”
Have you pondered this puzzle? It brings our theology home and makes us confront the grand Gospel promises on a personal level. After all, what do I have to offer Him? What could I have or do that would add to God’s perfections? Why does He want me? The proper answer to this question should bring us to our knees in worship, and warm our hearts in love.
Perhaps children of the Reformation would answer immediately, “For His glory!” And with good reason, this answer entirely biblical. Consider what Paul writes in Ephesians 1: “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (vv. 4-6). But notice that God’s glory is wedded to another word here: grace. Yes, the ultimate outcome of our salvation is that God is glorified, but what specifically glorifies God is bestowing love and grace upon sinners who deserve neither. To borrow the Reformation slogans, we could say that while soli Deo gloria teaches us the purpose to which all of God’s saving acts point, sola gratia teaches us the motivation from which God’s acts flow.
An Old Testament parallel passage also underscores God’s love for sinners as the why of salvation:
“For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt”
In sweeping prose in the New Testament, Paul reminds us of God’s grace in salvation: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7). We learn here that salvation is not because of our works, even “good” works done in righteous obedience to God’s law; it’s according to His mercy. It’s not by our striving, but by His Spirit, who washes us pure and renews us. It’s not by our status, as though we have been born into the right family. Rather we’ve been adopted to become heirs of heaven. In a word, as verse 7 tells us, we are saved, we are justified, by his grace, and grace alone.
Building upon this truth, the Westminster Divines wrote that God’s decree of salvation comes “out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in [the Christian], or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto” (WCF, 3.5). Isn’t that a profound thing? When we answer the “why” of salvation, it has absolutely nothing to do with us. It has nothing to do with how good we were, or even how good we might become. It has everything to do with God’s love and grace. Why am I saved? Simply because God loves saving! God loves giving people what they don’t deserve! It puts a smile on His face to show steadfast love and mercy.
Why did sola gratia become a slogan of the Reformation? Why is this something worth reflecting on often? Because the human heart actually balks at this notion. How can that be, we might think, Grace sounds great! And indeed, the fact that we don’t need to do anything to earn salvation means that Christianity is the easiest of religions, Francis Schaeffer has said. But Schaeffer also turned right back around and said it’s also the hardest of religions for the very same reason. It robs us of that thing our sinful hearts want so badly: autonomy, control, credit. We must live life contented with God’s grace plus nothing, and that can be hard.
I think we understand that. Our sin nature still kind of cringes at this notion of saying, “Thy works, not mine, O Christ!” But it becomes easier the more we bask in the reality of what a “grace alone” kind of salvation really means for us. It means there’s no room for guilt. Grace drowns out guilt in the reality that my mistakes do not factor in at all to my eternal destiny. It means there will be no bill at the last day. There is no debt I will have to pay up on, because Jesus paid it all. And grace means the reason I’m saved—really, truly, fundamentally the reason—is because God is love, and He loves me. Only the one who embraces this teaching can really sing with conviction and meaning, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Because Jesus didn’t wait for me to come to Him. He didn’t ask me to get myself in order before I could be His. He just wanted me. And so He saved me.
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the author of The Christians True Identity and What Happens When We Worship. He is also a hymn writer, whose works can be found at www.HymnsOfDevotion.com.
Image: The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, by Rembrandt van Rijn (1645/1655). Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington; resized by MR.