Sola Gratia: Grace Alone for the Weary Student

I have a folder in my computer titled, “Recommendation Letters.” Some are letters for National Honor Society, others are for students’ colleges and university applications, and others for scholarships or even job applications. While I am genuinely proud of my students and truly hope the best for them in all of these endeavors, I am often concerned about the pressure they are under to excel and succeed. I sometimes wonder if the grace we proclaim in church remains a good idea, but nothing more, because all other spaces our teenagers inhabit determine value according to performance.

Smart kids are accepted into the National Honor Society and receive academic scholarships. Athletic kids get their varsity letter (and hopefully a collegiate scholarship). Talented kids land the lead in the school play. Beautiful and popular kids are named homecoming queen and earn superlatives by their peers in the yearbook. The message is clear: “You are what you do.”

But what about everyone else? What about the kids who simply blend in? Who affirms the teenagers who struggle because their home life is a train wreck? Is the teenager who keeps making stupid decisions truly worth less than those who are high achievers? Is there any good news for losers and failures and fools who can’t seem to turn things around?

One of the rally cries of the Reformation was Sola Gratia, “Grace Alone.” This is the proclamation that salvation entirely and completely comes as a gift of grace, not by any effort of our own. This gospel of grace is a message that issues a direct rebuke to the claim, “You are loved because of what you do.” It instead proclaims, “You are loved because God loves you.”

In the midst of increasingly high expectations, teenagers need to hear the gospel of grace alone. As Jared Wilson writes in The Imperfect Disciple, “Jesus is looking specifically for the people who can’t get their act together.”

Dead Without Grace

We are hopeless apart from the grace of God. This is a foreign message to teenagers today. Just think about all the motivational phrases they’ve heard from parents, coaches, and teachers, then consider the slogans each year around graduation season. None of them reflect the Christian teaching of original sin or total depravity.

Biblical teaching, however, says, “You were dead in sins and trespasses,” and that we were “by nature, children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1-3). I remember one of my Bible professors saying the opening words of Eph. 2:4 contained one of the “biggest buts” in the Bible – “BUT GOD, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4–5).

The gospel of Sola Gratia proclaims grace to those who are dead. They haven’t won any awards and they aren’t in the starting lineup. Scholarships and applause are far away. Amazingly, God’s grace comes to those who are not merely lost, but dead.

BUT GOD… who is rich in mercy, great in love, and by grace… we have been saved.

That’s not even a complete sentence, but chew on it for a moment. We received the grace of God when we were dead in our sins. The only thing we contribute to our salvation is our sin; and everything we add to our sanctification is the direct result of the enlivening power of God’s grace!

Grace is a Gift, Not a Discounted Purchase 

The message of grace continues in Ephesians 2:8-9, “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.” Because of the message they receive at school, at home, and from their culture, too many students think they need to purchase salvation at the cost of godly behavior – they imagine the cross is how God put his grace on sale at a price we could actually afford. Sola Gratia reminds us that grace is completely undeserved (or else it isn’t grace!).

We were saved by grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone. In our efforts to help students grow into maturity in Christ, we need to be clear that grace is the cause and our sanctification is the effect. As we proclaim the grace of the gospel in the church, we need to remember the counter-gospel (“You are what you do”) is being taught and enforced literally everywhere else they look.

As you serve, counsel, and teach students, help them see how this counter-gospel launches us into seeing our need for the gospel of grace. Because of our sin, we desperately need a Savior to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. God placed our judgment upon Christ Jesus even while graciously giving us his righteousness.

Mike McGarry is the Director of Youth Pastor Theologian, has served as a Youth Pastor for 18 years in Massachusetts, and has two youth group aged kids at home. He earned his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published three books – most recently, “Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith.” Mike is committed to training youth workers to think biblically about what youth ministry is and to training them to teach theologically with confidence. You can connect with him on social media @youththeologian.

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