I recently completed a series on the Five Solas of the Reformation. I always find it interesting the way people respond to this subject matter. If the person is familiar with the Five Solas they will usually be supportive and excited to talk about them. But that is rarely the case. Most people I have encountered within my time in church ministry have little to know clue what the Five Solas are. This unfamiliarity with such an important part of protestant history is lamentable.
The Reformation flame had kindled for some, of course, but was ignited by Martin Luther on October 31st, 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg church for discussion with the church leaders. He would ultimately be excommunicated and branded a heretic by the heretics in charge of the Roman Catholic Church. His “radical” position that every person should be able to read the Scripture in his or her own language and that that Scripture should take precedent over any teaching that stands in opposition to it transformed the spiritual landscape of his day. It also greatly affected who we are today as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.
Today you and I have the freedom to read Scripture for ourselves in our own language and are free to interpret it ourselves. What freedom we have in Christ! I will bet that you have more than one copy of God’s Holy Inspired Word in your possession. Do not take that for granted my friend. Read it. Cherish it. Drink it in. It was not always possible.
But back to the Five Solas. There was never a time when the reformers sat down and established these five doctrines. There was no council, no meeting, and no vote. But it became clear that these truths were at the core of the Protestant movement that broke away from the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church. These five truths are: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. These are five Latin phrases that mean: Scripture alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, Christ alone, Glory to God alone. A battle cry, of sorts, was developed that said: Scripture alone teaches salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone.
Here is a brief summary of what each of these doctrines means:
When the Reformers used the words sola Scriptura they were expressing their concern for the Bible’s authority, and what they meant is that the Bible alone is our ultimate authority not the pope, not the church, not the traditions of the church or church councils, still less personal intimations or subjective feelings, but Scripture only. Other sources of authority may have an important role to play. Some are even established by God such as the authority of church elders, the authority of the state, or the authority of parents over children. But Scripture alone is truly ultimate. Therefore, if any of these other authorities depart from Bible teaching, they are to be judged by the Bible and rejected.
The words sola gratia mean that human beings have no claim upon God. That is, God owes us nothing except just punishment for our many and very willful sins. Therefore, if he does save sinners, which he does in the case of some but not all, it is only because it pleases him to do it. Indeed, apart from this grace and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that flows from it, no one would be saved, since in our lost condition, human beings are not capable of winning, seeking out, or even cooperating with God’s grace. By insisting on “grace alone” the Reformers were denying that human methods, techniques, or strategies in themselves could ever bring anyone to faith. It is grace alone expressed through the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to Christ, releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from death to spiritual life.
The Reformers never tired of saying that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. When put into theological shorthand the doctrine was expressed as “justification by faith alone” the article by which the church stands or falls, according to Martin Luther. The Reformers called justification by faith Christianity’s “material principle” because it involves the very matter or substance of what a person must understand and believe to be saved. Justification is a declaration of God based on the work of Christ. It flows from God’s grace and it comes to the individual not by anything he or she might do but by “faith alone” (sola fide). We may state the full doctrine as: Justification is the act of God by which he declares sinners to be righteous because of Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.
The church of the Middle Ages spoke about Christ. A church that failed to do that could hardly claim to be Christian. But the medieval church had added many human achievements to Christ’s work, so that it was no longer possible to say that salvation was entirely by Christ and his atonement. This was the most basic of all heresies, as the Reformers rightly perceived. It was the work of God plus our own righteousness. The Reformation motto solus Christus was formed to repudiate this error. It affirmed that salvation has been accomplished once for all by the mediatorial work of the historical Jesus Christ alone. His sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for our justification, and any “gospel” that fails to acknowledge that or denies it is a false gospel that will save no one.
Soli Deo Gloria
Each of the great solas is summed up in the fifth Reformation motto: soli Deo gloria, meaning “to God alone be the glory” It is what the apostle Paul expressed in when he wrote, “to Him be the glory forever! Amen.” These words follow naturally from the preceding words, “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (v. 36), since it is because all things really are from God, and to God, that we say, “to God alone be the glory.”
So here is our cause for celebration at the end of October. We should be consumed with how to “church up” Halloween. Rather, we should be celebrating the wonderful gift God has given us through the Protestant Reformation. As followers of Christ we have much to celebrate. Let us not be tricked into celebrating as the world celebrates. Let us rather enjoy the treat that God has given to us.
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (ESV)