FIVE SOLAS OF THE REFORMATION


The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is no doubt the greatest event in the history of the Church and perhaps of the modern world after Pentecost. For this reason, towards the end of October every year, many Reformed and Protestant Churches seek to commemorate the event. The defining moment of the Reformation, after all, was October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed the famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg.

There are many ways to appreciate the Reformation. But perhaps the most important way is to consider its major theological propositions. And thankfully, there is an easy way of remembering the Reformation by the use of five Latin watchwords. We call it the five-solas, though if we want to be fastidious, they are not really all solas: Sola Scriptura; Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solo Christo (or Solus Christus) and Soli Deo Gloria.

Let's consider these five doctrinal propositions.

Sola Scriptura: Our Only Foundation

16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:16-17).

As it may be said that the seed of the Reformation first began to germinate when Martin Luther began reading the Bible in the original languages, so it may also be said that the Reformation began to bloom fully as Luther uttered those immortal words of his at the Diet of Worms in April 1521:

“Unless I am convinced by testimonies of the Scripture or by clear arguments that I am in error-for popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves-I cannot withdraw, for I am subject to Scriptures I have quoted;  my conscience is captive to the Word of God. . . . Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So help me God”

What Luther verbalised that day was but an eloquent expression of the most foundational principle of the Reformation. The Reformation was indeed wholly founded on the Word of God only: Sola Scriptura! All the Reformers, like Luther, rejected the idea that tradition, councils and popes are equally or more authoritative than canonical Scripture. They did not reject all traditions, but sought to build every Reformation principle they advocated upon the objective foundation of the Scripture.

Thus, the Reformation saw the rejection of many unbiblical Roman Catholic doctrines such as purgatory, transubstantiation and the use of images in worship. Through the Scriptures, the Reformers insisted that there are only two instead of seven sacraments. They asserted that there is no scriptural basis for maintaining a hierarchical distinction between clergy and laity. They condemned the veneration of Mary, saints and angels as idolatrous. They overturned the Romish idea of an infallible apostolic succession. It is for this reason that the Reformation was essentially anti-papal.

However, it should be carefully noted that though the Reformers insisted that the Bible is the sole and final authority for determining doctrine and life, they did not believe that the Church should do away with teachers or with Creeds and Confessions. The me-and-my-bible-only attitude belonged to the Anabaptists, not to the Reformers. The Reformers understood that the Spirit of Illumination is given to all believers throughout the ages, and that at various times, He does endow the church with faithful teachers who are more gifted and qualified to interpret the Scripture than others. Also, often at such times, by the providence of God, due to situations of conflict or controversy, the Church would be compelled to develop Confessions and Creeds to express what she believes the Scripture teaches in a more definitive way. For this reason, Reformed communions wrote and adopted a number of Confessions of Faiths such as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards.

These Reformed Confessions and Catechisms (which incidentally have a high degree of doctrinal agreement with each other) are deemed authoritative to the Church as subordinate standards to the Bible. They are received by the members of the churches adopting them with the attitude of the Berean Christian-with all readiness of heart, and then searching the Scriptures to see if they be so (Acts 17:1). Reformed believers may with great confidence regard the truths in their Confessions as true unless proven wrong. Those who regard the Confessions suspiciously as wrong unless proven true are approaching the Confessions with an anabaptistic principle rather than the Reformed Sola Scriptura.

 

Sola Gratia: Our Only Method of Salvation

“Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).

While this aspect of the Reformation, like all other aspects, may be seen as subordinate to the aspect just discussed, it is helpful to examine it separately because this is an area that is practically denied in many segments of Protestant Christianity today with the infiltration of Arminianism into the Church.  During the Reformation it was not so. All the Reformers believed that sinners are justified (forensically declared righteous by God) and saved wholly by grace through faith alone. This aspect was the most characteristic feature of the Lutheran Reformation, and was pronounced by Luther to be the article by which the church stands or falls.

Through the rediscovery of Augustinian theology, the Reformers unanimously agreed that man is totally depraved, and that apart from the grace of God, all will perish.  Pelagianism which teaches that man is by nature neutral or even good was regarded as a damnable heresy.

Works do not earn us any merit for salvation at all, for all our righteous deeds are but filthy rags in the sight of God (Isa 64:6). We are saved only by the grace of God: Sola Gratia! Man does not contribute to his salvation at all. It is all of grace: “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt” says Paul (Rom 4:4). By this grace, the sinner is sovereignly regenerated and enabled to have faith and good works (Eph 2:8-10). This grace is given to whomsoever God chooses, and it always accomplishes what it is intended to do, even the salvation of the elect. Thus, it is best not to use the term ‘Common Grace' as if there is a species of grace which does not deliver. Grace alone saves and grace always saves. Sola Gratia!

This high view of God and our indebtedness to Him, together with the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God formed the basis of the Christian life of the believer under the Reformation umbrella.

Sola Fide: Our Only Instrument of Life

8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:9-10).

Although accounts regarding Luther's point of conversion to the Protestant Faith varies, it is an undisputed fact that the words that had the most impact on him was “The just shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:17; Gal 3:1; Heb 10:38). It was only when the full implication of this verse dawned upon him, that Luther began to repudiate the Romish doctrine that both works and faith are meritorious necessities for our salvation. If man is totally deprave, how could any work be sufficient to merit him salvation? Even our righteous deeds are filthy rags in the sight of God (Is 64:6)! But the just shall live by faith! We are saved only because Christ lived a perfectly righteous life on our behalf, and then suffered and died in our place for our sin. We are saved, in other words, by Christ through His removal of our demerit by His death and by His giving us His merits by His life. Our faith does not save us, though it is an instrumental means of our salvation. It is a gift of God by which we are united to Christ. Works does not serve this purpose. All who are saved are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. In other words, no one who does not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ can be regenerated and so saved by his own righteousness and good works. The fact is: Only the righteousness of Christ imputed to the elect makes him acceptable and the means by which the elect sinner may consciously receive this righteousness of Christ is through faith as spiritual hands. Thus the Reformers insist that we are saved by faith alone: Sola Fide!  

Luther's attack against the sale of Indulgences in 1517 was based on this doctrine. This is hinted in the Ninety-Five Theses which he posted on the door of Wittenberg. For example, thesis thirty-six says: “Every Christian who feels true compunction has right of plenary remission of pain and guilt, even without letters of pardon [i.e. indulgence]” (Schaff, History, 7.162 [§32]). True compunction can only come through regeneration and faith.

The bearing of this doctrine on the Calvinistic and Zwinglian Reformation is that the churches were brought back to New Testament simplicity where external rituals and forms were mostly done away with. However, the Reformers were always careful to teach that good works follows regeneration. For example, in his Institutes, Calvin teaches that “free will is not sufficient to enable man to do good works, unless he be helped by grace, indeed by special grace, which the elect receive through regeneration” (ICR  2.2.6).

The heart that is regenerated by God's grace will not only believe but begin to do good works. Good works never precede justification; but regeneration produces faith, faith receives justification, and justification makes the works produced by the regenerated heart acceptable to the Father through the sanctifying of the Holy Spirit.

Solo Christo: Our Only Mediator & King

“For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).

The Reformers taught on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:5 that there is only one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. Salvation is not to be found through the Church. Man must go directly to God through Christ. The priests do not qualify to be mediators; neither do Mary, departed saints nor angels. And conversely, no one can come to the Father or have fruition in Him except through Christ Jesus. The Lord Jesus himself says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6). This is the doctrine expressed in the words Solo Christo, Christ alone is our mediator.

This is a very important Reformational principle which was especially developed by John Calvin. He says “Christ is the beginning, middle, and end - that it is from Him that all things must be sought - that nothing is, or can be found, apart from Him” (Comm. on Col 1:12).

Elsewhere, Calvin writes:

When we see that the whole sum of our salvation, and every single part of it, are comprehended in Christ, we must beware of deriving even the minutes portion of it from any other quarter. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that he possesses it; if we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, we shall find them in his unction; strength in his government; purity in his conception; indulgence in his nativity, in which he was made like us in all respects, in order that he might learn to sympathise with us: if we seek redemption, we shall find it in his passion; acquittal in his condemnation; remission of the curse in his cross; satisfaction in his sacrifice; purification in his blood; reconciliation in his descent to hell; mortification of the flesh in his sepulchre; newness of life in his resurrection; immortality also in his resurrection; the inheritance of a celestial kingdom in his entrance into heaven; protection, security, and the abundant supply of all blessings, in his kingdom; secure anticipation of judgement in the power of judging committed to him. In fine, since in him all kinds of blessings are treasured up, let us draw a full supply from him, and none from any other quarter (ICR  2.16.19)

Calvin furthermore, taught that Christ is our mediator according to a threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King. As our Prophet, He reveals God's will for our salvation; as Priest, He is both our Propitiation and our Intercessor; and as King, He is our Redeemer, Defender and Ruler (see WSC  23-26). The Lord Jesus Christ in other words, is not merely a historical figure, but our all in all.

If we live and think Solo Christo, then every aspect of our life will be affected. We will live as did the apostle Paul: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Solo Christo, as such is the unifying theme of the ministry of every of the magisterial Reformers. Oh that it may be the unifying theme of every Reformed congregation and Reformed believer too!

Soli Deo Gloria: Our Only Goal

“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).

This is the principle of life expressed in the answer to the first question of the Westminster Larger Catechism: “Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever.”

The reason for our existence as individuals and as a church is the glory of God.  We are saved so that we may glorify God joyfully and freely. Worship is not primarily for our enjoyment, but for the glory of God. We must walk together as a church not only for our own encouragement, but for the glory of God. We must evangelise and be witnesses, not so much out of pity, but out of a deep desire for God's glory through the conversion of sinners in the world, and through sinners gathered up to praise the Lord with us (see Ps 67:3-5).

It was because the Reformers saw that glory must be ascribed to God alone and that God must be glorified according to His self-revelation and the means He has appointed, that they cared not to please men (Gal 1:10) as they sought to bring the Church back to biblical purity. We may say that it was the principle of Soli Deo Gloria that drove the Reformers on in their work. The glory of God was their chief, and we may say, ultimately the only motivation to carry the crosses laid upon them! For they understood that there is no higher purpose for the existence of the church than the glory of God: “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Rom 11:36).

If we are to remain a Reformed or Reforming Church, then this principle must be upheld tenaciously. As more and more churches become people-centric or market sensitive, the pressure will be immense to do things to please man rather than to please God. But as soon as we begin to compromise on Soli Deo Gloria in order to retain members and to attract others, we cease to be a Reformed Church, and by and by, we will cease to be a church of Christ altogether!

Conclusion

Beloved brethren and children, as Reformed believers, we must not only be familiar with the five points of Calvinism. We must be familiar and we must live and breathe corporately and individually the Five Solas! Sola Scriptura! Sola Fide! Sola Gratia! Solo Christo! Soli Deo Gloria! Amen.  

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