What Does It Mean to be Saved by Grace Alone?

Question
What does it mean to be saved by grace alone?
Answer
Thanks for your question. A brief definition of "grace" is "undeserved favor." In context, the word "alone" means grace + nothing else at all. But why would a person need undeserved favor to be saved?

Our Need of Grace Alone

All mankind fell away from God in the person of Adam in the Garden (Gen. 3; Rom 5:12-21). As the words of Lazarus Spengler's hymn, "All Mankind Fell in Adam's Fall," goes:

All mankind fell in Adam's fall,
One common sin infects us all.
From sire to son the bane descends,
And over all the curse impends.

In addition, none of us is innocent. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). Everyone sins, has sinned, and will sin. We're not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. Sin is our very nature (Jer 17:9; Psa 51:5; 58:3). And it is even worse - everyone loves sin (John 3:19) and is a slave to it (John 8:34). Moreover, unless it is remedied sin has a devastating cost associated with it as well - eternal death (Gen 2:17; cf. Dan 12:2; Matt 25:46; Rom 6:23; Rev 20:11-15).

Sin separates one from God (Isa 59:2). Sinners are God's enemy (Rom 8:7-8; Col 1:21; cf. Eph 2:12). The Bible teaches that because of sin, we are spiritually dead (Eph 2:1-3). This means that there is not even a hint or spark of spiritual life within the unregenerate person. A spiritually dead person can't assist himself in regards of their own salvation. Why? Dead means dead - absolutely no life. Those with no life in themselves can do nothing to help themselves.

Personal works mean absolutely nothing in regards to regeneration (Isa 64:6; Rom 11:6). Even doing our very best is not good enough, as God expects absolute perfection (Matt 5:48); perfection in what we should and should not do according to Scripture. One is not saved because they may seem to be better than someone else. God doesn't grade on a curve. Prior to regeneration everyone of our works are spiritually dead, as they come from an evil heart of unbelief (Matt 7:17-18; 12:33-35; cf. John 15:4). Good works of the unregenerate earn nothing for a person spiritually. We don't and can't earn our own salvation (Rom 3:27-28; 4:4-5; 11:6; 2 Tim 1:9).

Something must transpire outside the sinner in order for them to become regenerate (John 3:1-8). Jesus says that we must be "born again" (John 3:3, 5, 7). Being born again is a work of the Spirit of God (John 3:5-8). It's not based upon what we do, but what God alone does (John 6:44, 65; cf. John 3:27; 6:37-40). We don't deserve anything, but God in his love, mercy, and grace (Rom 5:8) eternally changes his people from ones who are spiritually dead to ones who are spiritually alive (Eph 2:4-9).

So, regeneration is totally an act of grace alone (Tit 2:11). It is something God alone does. God alone changes the undeserving sinner. He alone brings them from the utter darkness of their trespasses and sin into the marvelous light of his loving merciful salvation (Col 1:13). He is the one who gives life to a dead sinner (John 4:14; cf. Isa 55:1; John 8:36). God alone saves the lost (Psa 3:8; 62:1; Jonah 2:9).

Some Affects of Grace

Because of his grace, God in the Great Exchange, takes the believer's filthy rags of righteousness (Isa 64:6) and exchanges them for the perfect righteousness of Christ (2 Cor 5:21). Upon the Cross, Christ substituted his death for the believer's. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:3, "For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh." Whose flesh bore the just condemnation of the believer's sin? Christ Jesus'! Whose sins were condemned? Not Christ, who is sinless, but the believer's. As Paul writes, "And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Rom 4:5). So, when a believer places their faith in Jesus Christ alone, they are counted as righteous. The perfect righteousness earned by Jesus Christ is imputed to the one who believes. In turn, the believer's sins are imputed to Jesus Christ who made complete satisfaction for them by bearing the full wrath of God against his people upon the Cross (Rom 5:1). This is the Great Exchange.

Following the grace of God in election/predestination (Rom 8:29-30, 33; 9:11, 20-21; 11:7-10, 28; Eph 1:3-4, 11; cf. Matt 11:25-27; 13:11-16; 24:22, 24, 31; Mark 4:11-12; 13:20, 22, 27; Luke 18:7; John 6:37, 66; 10:26-30; 17:6, 9, 11-12; Phil 1:6; 2:13; 2 Tim 2:10; Tit 1:1; 1 Pet 1:1; 2 Pet 1:10; 2 John 1:1, 13), effectual calling (John 6:44, 65; Acts 2:47; 13:47-48; Rom 8:30; 1 Pet 2:9), and regeneration (John 1:13; 3:1-8; 2 Cor 5:17; Tit 3:5; cf. 1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18) comes conversion. This involves the person being given and employing the free gifts of faith (Eph 2:8-9) and repentance (2 Tim 2:25-26). Believers are then justified (Rom 4:4-5; 5:18-19) and adopted into the family of God (Rom 8:15-16; Eph 1:5; Gal 4:4-5; cf. John 1:12-13). They are sanctified (1 Cor 1:30). They are set apart to be "blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation" (Phil 2:15). While not yet in a state of absolute perfection in this world (1 John 1:8-10), grace changes a person (2 Cor 5:17), his works (Mat 25:34-40), lifestyle (1 Thess 4:7), and worship (John 4:24), et. al. So, the golden chain of grace takes the now beloved from election to glorification (Rom 8:29-30). Grace will accompany the saint through everything in life, death, and eternity (Rom 8:35-39).

As the reader may observe, being saved by grace alone means more than mere mortal words can say. John Newton may have come the closest in his hymn called, "Amazing Grace."

Amazing Grace, by 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.

'Twas 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 hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we'd first begun.

Have you been saved by grace alone?

Related Topics:

What is the ordo salutis?
Original Sin
Salvation by Grace
All of Grace
A Gospel Summary
Catholics and Justification?
Calvin: No Salvation without Sanctification!

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).