by Rev. Stephen Preus

M26b-smallA watchword conveys the heart of one’s beliefs. Listen to the politicians and you’ll hear their watchwords repeated frequently, posted on podiums, even etched on hats. The heart of what they believe is proclaimed for all to hear, printed for all to see.

The heart of the Lutheran Church’s beliefs is the doctrine of justification, the teaching of how we are declared righteous in God’s sight. For years the Lutheran Church has used watchwords to articulate this doctrine:

A sinner is justified by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) for the sake of Christ alone (solus Christus), a truth revealed to us in Scripture alone (sola Scriptura).

Each of these “solas” will be considered in the next few articles, beginning with the first of these watchwords: grace alone (sola gratia).

When we speak of grace we must first ask the question: What is grace? Grace is God’s undeserved favor (favor Dei) toward sinners.[1] Grace is God’s unmerited good intention, His loving disposition toward those who have gone astray and are “dead” in sin and “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1, 3). Grace, then, is something in God, not in man. So we hear that “Noah found favor [grace] in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8).

However, God does not declare us righteous and free from guilt in a vacuum, as if He just ignores our sin. No, we have a great debt we owe God due to our sin, a debt that must be paid. God’s justice demands it. Yet this is a debt none of us can pay.

So, God in His inestimable grace planned for our salvation. For God’s grace is more than a disposition in God. God’s grace is also active—active in Christ. In His grace God sent forth His Son to become flesh and pay the debt we owe Him. God sent Christ Jesus to offer His righteous life in exchange for our sinful lives upon the cross and to take upon Himself the guilt of our sin, our debt. Jesus Christ paid for the sin of the world “with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” Through God’s grace alone we sinners are forgiven and justified because of Christ (propter Christum).

XIR23264 Martin Luther's Sermon, detail from a triptych, 1547 (oil on panel) by Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553); Church of St.Marien, Wittenberg, Germany; Giraudon; German, out of copyright

This means that there is nothing in us and nothing we do that moves God to forgive us. God is gracious to us because of Jesus Christ and because of Him alone. St. Paul writes: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7). This gives such comfort to sin-stricken consciences, for God’s grace is not earned by what you do but is given freely by a generous God. For this reason Scripture constantly speaks of God’s grace as the reason for our salvation in opposition to our works: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Again, St. Paul writes, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6). To be saved by grace alone means you do not save yourselves. Christ does. Christ has. It is finished! (John 19:30)

In addition, this grace of God extends to everyone. Grace is universal (gratia universalis).  Scripture teaches that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). And on Jordan’s banks John the Baptist cried of Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) No one is excluded from God’s grace in Christ.

God shows Himself to be gracious to us through specific means, namely His Word and Sacraments. Martin Luther sums up what instruments God uses to reveal His grace:

Cranach Means of GraceGod is superabundantly generous in His grace: First, through the spoken Word, by which the forgiveness of sins is preaching in the whole world. This is the particular office of the Gospel. Second, through Baptism. Third through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourth, through the Power of the Keys. Also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren….[2]

By showing Himself gracious to us through the Gospel God creates faith in our hearts that clings solely to His grace in Christ.

From the beginning, in the middle, and to the end, you are justified by God’s grace alone. To be justified by God’s grace alone is a great comfort to the Christian conscience, comfort centered in God’s love for us in Christ Jesus, our Lord. A watchword conveys the heart of one’s beliefs. God grant that this watchword be proclaimed for all to hear, printed for all to see, and take deep root in our hearts as we celebrate the Reformation.

By grace! On this I’ll rest when dying;

In Jesus’ promise I rejoice;

For though I know my heart’s condition,

I also know my Savior’s voice.

My heart is glad, all grief has flown.

Since I am saved by grace alone.[3]


The Rev. Stephen K. Preus is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Vinton, IA.


[1] In Scripture grace can refer to results God works in man, too (cf. 1 Peter 4:10-11; 2 Corinthians 8:1). However, Scripture never speaks this way in relation to the doctrine of justification.

[2] SA III IV (McCain, Second Ed., 278).

[3] Lutheran Service Book 566:6.