‘Grace Alone’: Luther Nails It

A Protestant responds to Catholic critiques of ‘Grace Alone.’

Bishop Barron’s critique of the Reformation doctrine of sola gratia raises many questions. I will not endeavor to respond to all of his points. I certainly would not even attempt to defend everything Martin Luther said, did, or wrote. I will focus on the good bishop’s claims about grace in Protestant theology generally.

The crucial question seems to be whether “sola gratia,” within a Protestant perspective, means “gratia sola.” Does Protestant theology teach not only that salvation is “by grace alone” but also that it is “only by grace,” by which Barron seems to mean the exclusion of any human cooperation?

Protestants disagree among ourselves about the suitability of the language of cooperation. Lutheran and Reformed Protestants tend to discourage it to avoid any hint of Pelagianism (or semi-Pelagianism). Arminians and Wesleyans (e.g., Methodists) are not as shy about it—if it is understood correctly.

What all Protestants agree on is that if a person has a right relationship with God, forgiven and justified, it is not because of any personal merit that person can claim. Our main objection to Catholic theology is the implication (if not straightforward claim) that merit other than Jesus’ own comes into play in the sinner’s reconciliation and right standing before God.

Protestants do not see how it is possible to give any glory to the sinner before or after salvation and at the same time honor Paul’s telling the Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (2:8–9). Protestants do not see how it is possible ...

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