The word that really matters is Sola. Whether discussing faith, grace, Christ, Scripture or the Glory of God it is this idea of “alone” which carries the most weight in this discussion. In terms of the Reformation Sola Gratia is very different than Gratia. Additionally, Sola Scriptura means something distinct than simply Scriptura. There’s a context for the Solas. Here’s what we mean. It would be a mistake to assume that the Roman Catholic Church denied the concept of grace. Indeed, they did not deny grace. To assume otherwise is a misrepresentation of history. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants believe that salvation is by grace. The real issue is and forever will be whether salvation is by grace alone, or by some additional means?
At the time of the reformation the real debate was over the instrument, or means by which the grace of God was received. Was it through the church? That is – was grace received via cooperation between man and the instrumentality of the church? Was grace mediated through the Eucharist? Was man saved over time as he partnered himself with the grace of God? Or, was grace an unconditional and immediate act of God on behalf of the sinner? Was the grace of God alone the essential cause of the salvation of sinners? Was it Sola Gratia (grace alone) or was it Simul Gratia (grace together with)? For centuries, Christians lived under the burden of the latter. Salvation was dependent upon the efforts of man cooperating with grace. The Reformation was the moment that “alone” came into view as the central issue and men were set free from the tyranny of the church.
There is a logical to the flow to the Solas. Sola Fide precedes Sola Gratia in the sequence for a very specific reason. The grace of God in Christ – which alone is the cause of salvation from sin – is received by faith alone because it cannot be accomplished by works. Grace (Christ) is received by faith. Sola Fide naturally assumes Sola Gratia. Sola Gratia naturally assumes Sola Fide. If salvation is by faith alone (and not by works) it must, therefore, be an act God’s grace alone. It cannot be otherwise. So when we confess that salvation is Sola Gratia – we mean something very specific. On the one hand, (positively) it is an affirmation that Christ is the exclusive object of our faith for salvation. On the other hand, it is to deny that any other instrument besides faith (works, the Church, etc.) leads to the justification of the sinner.