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?

Only God, by grace, can effect salvation, but only faith can be the instrument of salvation’s reception.

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 to talk about good works playing any role in a reconciled relationship with God and at the same time acknowledge it as a sheer gift of God’s grace.

Grace Alone or Grace Only?

Does this mean, then, that Protestants affirm “gratia sola” (as Bishop Barron means it) and deny the value of good works, works of love, in a reconciled relationship with God? Not at all.

Even Luther heartily affirmed good works—not as a cause of reconciliation with God but as its natural and inevitable result. (See Luther’s A Treatise on Good Works.) For him, as for all Protestants, grace is the sole efficient cause of salvation. Faith is the instrumental cause of salvation: “by grace through faith.” But even the ability to exercise faith is a gift of God and therefore comes by grace.

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Protestants disagree among ourselves about whether faith itself is a gift (monergism) or whether it is the ability to exercise faith that is the gift (synergism). All agree, however, that, whatever the case may be, there can be no talk of human “merit” and no ground for boasting of salvation (except boasting of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ).

Bishop Barron digs deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of Luther’s doctrine of grace. In my opinion (and not all Protestants will agree about this), Luther was mistaken to adopt nominalism, the medieval philosophy that led to a denial of God’s eternal and unchanging nature and character. Certainly not all Protestants embrace nominalism. Whether even Luther embraced it as the bishop describes—making God and creatures examples of the same category of being—is debatable.

The bishop’s claim that God and the creature enjoy a non-competitive relationship of agency raises serious questions about God’s goodness and human evil. Surely sin and evil are solely the creature’s doing—not God’s. So there must be some element of competition in the philosophical sense between God’s agency and the creature’s—especially in view of sin and evil, which cannot be attributed to God.

Grace Through Faith

In salvation, however, there is no competition, but there is cooperation. Philippians 2:12–13 points to this paradox: “[C]ontinue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” This is the paradox of grace. The creature acts, but insofar as anything worthy is achieved in terms of salvation, everything good and glorious is attributed to God. English translations use “work” for both God’s contribution and the creature’s, but the Greek uses two different words. The thrust of the two verses together is cooperation between God and the creature with God’s agency supplying all the ability and deserving all the glory.

Bishop Barron quotes church father Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Protestants agree, but we like to point out that the Bishop of Lyon did not say anything there about the glory of the creature; the glory is all God’s. If a human being is made “fully alive,” it is solely due to God’s grace, even if the creature “contributed” assent through grace-enabled repentance and faith.

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For Protestants, both followers of Luther and of Wesley, gratia prima is not strong enough to prevent human boasting. Grace is not only primary; grace is all and everything, even if it is a gift to be freely received.

Does this Protestant account of salvation “by grace alone” denigrate the human? Not at all; it elevates the divine love for humans—that “God should love a sinner such as I. . . .” “Nothing in my hands I bring, only to Thy cross I cling” testifies of my helplessness, not my worthlessness.

So, in sum, gratia sola is true and right for all Protestants when we are looking at the effectual cause of salvation and even the ability to exercise faith in God. It excludes any possibility of talk of human merit in salvation. However, for many Protestants, it must be qualified so as not to exclude faith as the sole instrumental cause of salvation. “For by grace are you saved through faith,” not “by faith are you saved through grace.”

Unfortunately, even many Protestants do not understand the difference between grace as effectual cause and faith as instrumental cause of salvation. Only God, by grace, can effect salvation, but only faith can be the instrument of salvation’s reception.

Roger E. Olson is the Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Essentials of Christian Thought (Zondervan).

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