Grace Alone is part of the “Five Solas Series” edited by Matthew Barrett. Each sola is given its individual volume, with Grace Alone written by well-respected Reformed theologian and professor at Westminster Theological Seminary Carl Trueman. As a church historian, Trueman is well-equipped to cover and explain the events and theologies surrounding the Reformation. The author agrees with B. B. Warfield’s view that the Reformation was the triumph of Augustine’s view of grace over his view of the church (pp. 18, 52). Trueman wants to distance himself from the modern antinomianism movement flying under the guise of grace, because it misses the point of why grace is needed (p. 17). Grace is needed because sin is real. He writes, “Sin is violent, lethal rebellion against God, and biblical grace is God’s violent, raw, and bloody response” (p. 31). As a result of sin our need is not spiritual healing but spiritual resurrection (p. 41).
One of the great strengths of this particular volume is the author’s deep comprehension of church history. Trueman is well studied in the theological debates prior to and during the Reformation. For example, while not unaware of the deficiencies in the doctrines developed by Thomas Aquinas (p. 109), he is able to show that Aquinas had much to offer Protestantism, and that the Reformed understanding of faith did not emerge from a vacuum in 1517 (see pp. 91-109). As might be expected, much attention is devoted to Martin Luther (pp. 111-132) and Trueman sees Luther’s Bondage of the Will, a response to Erasmus’s Diatribe on Free Will, to be his single greatest work. In Bondage Luther developed his view on the impotence of the human will in matters of salvation and the clarity of Scripture (pp. 111-113). Luther, ever the champion of sola fide, even believed that faith is a gift from God, for if faith stems from our own efforts it is merely smuggling works through the back door (pp. 131, 141). However, Trueman warns that Luther could go too far at times. When boxed in by Erasmus concerning the nature of God, Luther resorts to drawing a distinction between God as He is revealed in Scripture and His hidden nature. In essence Luther says that the hidden nature of God can contradict what Scripture reveals about God. To draw such a conclusion, however, undermines our assurance in who God is (pp. 130-132).
Later, Luther’s disciple Melanchthon drifted from Luther’s teachings on the will and fell more in line with Erasmus, resulting in the doctrine of predestination shifting to Reformed circles (p. 133). At this point John Calvin dominated the theological landscape (pp. 133-153). Calvin’s contributions, including the eventual divide with Arminius, are detailed in chapter six.
Having discussed sola gratia in Scripture and history, Trueman turns to the second major part of the book: sola gratia in the church. Trueman views the church, the Word (including preaching), the two sacraments and prayer as the means of grace, which are the instruments God uses to communicate grace to His people. A chapter is dedicated to each of these four means of grace.
The author believes the church has been trivialized in much of modern evangelicalism and reminds the reader that “doing church” does not fit the biblical paradigm. Rather the church is a temple, the body of Christ, and His bride. The Word is the principle means of grace and, when preached accurately, “rewires our minds” (pp. 192-193). Prayer not only changes our wills to be in conformity with God’s will (p. 225), but also is the divinely appointed means whereby God achieves His gracious purposes (p. 226). Concerning the sacraments, Trueman provides helpful overviews of the Reformation era debates. He aligns with Calvin’s view on pedobaptism (pp. 205-207) and the spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper (pp. 207-215). And while I disagree with Trueman in these areas and do not embrace his attempts at supporting these views, I do appreciate his clear representation.
Grace Alone is an excellent historical and theological guide to the vital doctrine of sola gratia. The author is clearly in the Reformed Covenantal camp and therefore some readers will take exception to some of his views; nevertheless there is much value in this work.
Grace Alone, Salvation as a Gift of God by Carl R. Trueman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017) 261 pp, paper $21.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher Southern View Chapel