Grace Alone -- Salvation As a Gift From God

What the Reformers Taught ... And Why It Still Matters

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Carl R. Trueman
Editor(s): 
Matthew Barrett
Five Solas Series
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Zondervan
    , April
     2017.
     272 pages.
     $21.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780310515760.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Grace Alone is divided into two parts: part 1 is an exposition of God’s grace in Scripture and in the writings of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Part 2 is an exposition of God’s grace emphasizing the fact that the Christian Church’s existence is a result of God’s gracious action, and that God’s grace is given through the means of grace.

The first chapter focuses on God’s grace revealed in the Old and New Testaments. This revelation includes God’s gracious actions toward Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the Israelites, Jonah, the Ninevites, and through the Old Testament sacrificial system. The Old Testament sacrificial system is viewed by author Carl R. Trueman as a system of grace in that God took the initiative to reveal to sinful human beings how they should “relate to him” in order to be saved (29).

The Old Testament sacrifices were prophetic and were fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary’s cross. The saving work of Christ is God’s gracious answer to human sin. God’s grace is not sappy sentimentality but God’s nitty-gritty answer to human sin and damnation.

Two chapters deal with Augustine’s influence and his theology of grace and predestination. Augustine believed that God is sovereign, and that human beings were chained to sin, thus God needed to graciously intervene if sinners are to be saved. Trueman contrasts Augustine’s theology of grace with Pelagius’s free will, works oriented theology to show that human beings are not spiritually free but are bound in sin. Human beings do not have the ability to change their spiritually dead condition, for it is God’s gracious work which saves. Still today Augustine’s writings help the church to see the depravity of sin and the desperate need for God’s grace.

The anti-Pelagian-sovereign-grace-predestinarian theology of Thomas Aquinas is viewed by Trueman as a continuance of Augustine’s theology, and in line with anti-Pelagian Reformation teaching. Aquinas’s influence in these areas is seen in “seventeenth century … Reformed orthodoxy” (109). Trueman also recognizes areas where Aquinas is at odds with Reformation theology.

Trueman sees an intimate connection between Luther’s understanding of “predestination” and “the formal cause of justification,” both are “external to the individual.” Luther understands “grace” as “outside” of the individual “in the action of God.” For Luther, justification is “a declaration of God” that is “outside” the self. Faith is also the work of God, not a human work. Faith receives God’s grace given “in word and sacrament” (124). The denial of human free will in matters of salvation is part of Luther’s theology of grace.

The conflict between Luther and Erasmus revolves around questions of whether there is room for an act of human free “will,” or a “human work,” in the area of salvation (125). If so, then salvation would no longer be an assured and reliable act of God’s grace. Trueman views Luther in the anti-Pelagian line of Augustine and Aquinas, but struggles with Luther’s view on the hidden will of God (127-131). Trueman fails to see that in the Bondage of the Will, Luther sets aside God’s hidden will because all that can be known of God’s will is revealed in his Word, which emphasizes grace in Christ.

Calvin also moves theologically in Augustinian anti-Pelagian thought. Salvation must be all of grace lest works become part of salvation. Trueman credits Calvin with focusing predestination solidly in Christ. This includes double predestination. Double predestination stands in contrast to the Lutheran Confessions which state that predestination is centered solely in Christ’s saving work. Lutherans credit Christ with the salvation of human beings, but human beings are responsible for their own damnation (Formula of Concord XI “Election”). For Trueman, the anti-Pelagian predestination theology of Calvin and other reformers stands in contrast to today’s Reformed Arminian free will theology.

In the second part of the book Trueman states that the existence of the church is an act of God’s grace. God called the Church into being, and he preserves its existence by grace. Through the Church, God pardons sin by the grace of Christ, and moves believers to lives of faith and good works.

God’s grace is given to sinners through the means of grace—God’s Word and the sacraments. For the Reformers, God’s Word is creative and powerful “because it is spoken by God” (177).

Trueman states that Lutherans and Protestants are not unified in their beliefs about the sacraments. His book emphasizes the fact that “baptism is first and foremost an act of God,” and that God is the active agent in baptism (197). Trueman sees the Lord’s Supper as more than a memorial, but rather as an actual “means of grace” (213).

Trueman has a challenging exposition of prayer as both a human response to God’s action and as “a means of God’s grace” (218). Not all readers of Grace Alone will agree that prayer is a means of grace.

Grace Alone, is one in a series of five Zondervan books on the Reformation solas - Grace Alone, Faith Alone, God’s Word Alone, Christ Alone, and God’s Glory Alone. These books have been published as a result of the series editor’s belief that “many in evangelical churches today have never heard of” the five solas, and that their content and meaning are either “foreign” or “offensive” to many modern churchgoers (9). Editor Matthew Barrett also believes that the content and meaning of these five solas are relevant and needed in the church today.

The inroads that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism [MTD] (Christian Smith, Soul Searching, Oxford University Press, 2005) has made in the beliefs of Christians, as well as the findings of Steven Prothero (Religious Literacy, HarperOne, 2007), and Ross Douthat (Bad Religion, Free Press, 2012) are evidence of widespread religious illiteracy, even among Christians. The inroads of MTD and Golden Rule Theology (Nancy Ammerman, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes, Oxford University Press, 2013) emphasize being good as the way to heaven. These examples are further reasons of the need for Trueman’s book, the necessity for faith to be built on a clear exposition of God’s grace, and the biblical teachings of the Reformation. Trueman’s book will help accomplish that goal.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Armand J. Boehme is associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carl Trueman is professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous books, including The Creedal imperative: Histories and Fallacies; Goods Rush in Where Monkeys Fear to Tread; Republocat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative; Reformation Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow; John Owen: Reformed, Catholic, Renaissance Man, Minority Report; and The Wages of Spin. Trueman is also a contributor to Reformation21 where he writes from a Reformed vantage point.

Matthew Barrett is tutor of systematic theology and church history at Oak Hill Theological College in London. He is the executive editor of Credo Magazine, as well as the author and editor of several books, including Salvation by Grace, Four Views on the Historical Adam, and Owen on the Christian Life.

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