If I said that a flower grows only by fertiliser, and only by water, and only by sunlight, you would get confused. What I should say is that a flower grows not only by fertiliser but also by water and sunlight. That makes sense. If fertiliser, water, and sunlight are required for growth, the flower won’t grow on one of those alone. It will grow not only by one, but also by the other two.
Some people say that a person is saved by grace alone. But they also say we are saved by faith alone. And they will also add that we are saved by the redemptive work of Christ alone. That is confusing, because if grace, faith, and Christ save us, these three, then how can one of them alone save us? We ought to say not only by grace but also by faith and the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross. These three are essential, so we are not saved by grace only, nor by faith only, nor by the cross only.
These three are not the complete list of things that the Bible says we are saved by. But they are the ones to which the word “only” is commonly attached, so for the sake of simplicity, we will just leave the list incomplete at these three for now.
Now I could say something like, “Jesus is the only way to heaven” or, “I can be saved only if I believe in Christ” or “I cannot be saved by any means other than God’s grace” These statements are true, but they do not mean that I deny as essential all the things associated with Jesus, or his sacrifice, or my faith, or God’s grace.
I mean that there is no other way to be saved than to be saved by grace. But there are many things associated with grace. There is the cross, the gospel, faith and obedience, repentance, perseverance, hope, love, prayer… The list is long. Do you dare say that any of these is unnecessary? Do you dare say that any one of them alone will save?
Notice the subtlety here. When one says, “Salvation is by grace alone and nothing else” we can understand that statement in two ways. It is ambiguous. We might understand it to mean that naked grace saves us, unconditional grace without any other thing attached. Or we might take “grace” to include all that is associated with it, grace with all its conditions.
The first meaning is a wicked doctrine. It would exclude even the cross of Christ and it would not require sin to be repudiated. The Devil loves that meaning, and he is welcome to it! The second meaning is true, but why express it ambiguously? Why not say something like, “We cannot be saved by any means other than God’s grace and all its conditions”? That is clearer.
We can make this even clearer. God would save no one by grace if Christ had not obeyed God even unto death. That was a condition of grace. God would save no one by grace if they did not receive Christ crucified by faith and obedience to his commandments. That is a condition of grace. Could we stop talking about grace alone and unconditional grace? Could we go back to saying “Not only but also”?