THE 5 SOLA’S OF THE REFORMATION
We want to affirm our commitment to historic confessional Christianity by reasserting the vital notions of the authority of Scripture, Christ-centered faith, gospel grace, justifying faith, and God-centered living.
The fivefold Reformation creed of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Solus Christus (Christ alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone), Sola Fide (by faith alone) and Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone) summarises must drive the church again as they once did.
All five of these convictions are necessary in order to be faithful to what God has revealed in his Word.
A central cry of the Reformation was salvation by grace. Though the Roman Catholic Church taught that Mass is a “sacrifice [which] is truly propitiatory” and that by the Mass “God . . . grant[s] us grace and the gift of penitence, remits our faults and even our enormous sins,” the Reformers returned to the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Our righteous standing before God is imputed to us by grace because of the work of Christ Jesus our Lord.
In contrast to the doctrines of self-merit taught by Rome, sola gratia and the accompanying doctrines of grace—total depravity, unconditional election, particular redemption, and perseverance of the saints—were preached by all the Reformers throughout the Protestant movement. As the Baptist Confession of 1689 says,
Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified; and did, by the sacrifice of himself in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead the penalty due unto them, make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in their behalf. . . . Their justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.
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 wilful 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 “material principle” of the Reformation was justification by faith alone. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”
The Genevan Confession likewise pointed out the necessity of those justified living by faith saying,
We confess that the entrance which we have to the great treasures and riches of the goodness of God that is vouchsafed us is by faith; inasmuch as, in certain confidence and assurance of heart, we believe in the promises of the gospel, and receive Jesus Christ as he is offered to us by the Father and described to us by the Word of God.
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 Reformation called the church back to faith in Christ as the sole mediator between God and man. While the Roman Catholic Church held that “there is a purgatory and that the souls there detained are helped by the intercessions of the faithful,” and that “saints are to be venerated and invoked” and “their relics are to be venerated,” the Reformers taught that salvation was by Christ’s work alone. As John Calvin said in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, “Christ stepped in, took the punishment upon himself and bore the judgment due to sinners. With his own blood he expiated the sins which made them enemies of God and thereby satisfied him. . . . We look to Christ alone for divine favour and fatherly love!”
Likewise the Heidelberg Catechism, asks, “Do such then believe in Jesus the only Saviour who seek their salvation and happiness in saints, in themselves, or anywhere else?” It answers, “They do not; for though they boast of him in words yet in deeds they deny Jesus the only deliverer and Saviour: for one of these two things must be true that either Jesus is not a complete Saviour or that they who by a true faith receive this Saviour must find all things in him necessary to their salvation.”
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.
The doctrine that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority was the “formal principle” of the Reformation. In 1521 at the historic interrogation at the Diet of Worms, Luther declared his conscience to be captive to the Word of God saying, “Unless I am overcome with testimonies from Scripture or with evident reasons—for I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils, since they have often erred and contradicted one another—I am overcome by the Scripture texts which I have adduced, and my conscience is bound by God’s Word.”
Similarly, the Belgic Confession states,
We believe that [the] holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. . . . Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures nor ought we to consider custom or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God. . . . Therefore, we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule.
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.
Soli Deo Gloria
The Reformation reclaimed the Scriptural teaching of the sovereignty of God over every aspect of the believer’s life. All of life is to be lived to the glory of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” This great and all consuming purpose was emphasized by those in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to reform the church according to the Word of God.
In contrast to the monastic division of life into sacred versus secular perpetuated by Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers saw all of life to be lived under the lordship of Christ. Every activity of the Christian is to be sanctified unto the glory of God.
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 Romans 11:36 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.”