Alone at Last!
At your core, have you secretly wondered if you are doing enough to get to Heaven? You may have a quick short answer to the question, but do you still wonder… even sometimes?
At the time preceding the Protestant Reformation, people were well aware of their guilt before God. The problem was that the religious institution of the day, though teaching about both guilt and forgiveness, offered no assurance of forgiveness. The result was that the religious faithful were being made more dependent on the many prescribed religious rituals, and more willing to pay money for the forgiveness they so desperately wanted. The multitude of methods was as confusing as it was oppressive. And so, people were destined to live their whole lives wondering what would happen when they stood before God at the judgement. Had they done enough?
It was in this context that the Reformation was born. And when we look at the essential teachings of the Reformation, we see that they can be summarized in five assertions, combining a noun with the adverb, alone (or sola, in Latin). These assertions are unique because, though the medieval religious tradition agreed with all of the nouns, it did not agree with the adverb, alone, attached to each assertion. We call them, then, The Five Solas. Continue reading to learn what they were!
Martin Luther’s fear, like those of many of his contemporaries, was wondering if he had done enough. He spent many hours in the confessional, trying to remember every last sin, and many days of fasting and prayer, yet never finding relief. But finally, he discovered hope in the Bible’s message! It may be hard for us to imagine how paradigm-shifting this was for him. But in Luther’s day, the Bible was hidden under layers of tradition, and it was only when Luther saw the clear teaching of the Bible that the light dawned.
And this brings us to the first sola of the Reformation:
1. We find God’s message from the Scripture alone! (in Latin, Sola Scriptura)
The truths of the Reformation were formed from the pure teaching of Holy Scripture. This assertion, therefore, has been called the formal cause of the Reformation—not because it is formal rather than informal, but because the Bible alone supplied the form of teaching out of which the darkness of superstition was banished by the light of Scripture.
But, of course, Luther hadn’t set out to find the form and foundation of theology. His quest was much more practical and closer to his heart: How can I be sure that I am right with God? Using Biblical terms, we could ask:
How can I be saved from God’s just wrath against my sin?
How can I be justified before God, so that He can see me as measuring up to His righteous standard?
How can I be reconciled to God, so that the enmity between us can be taken away and replaced by peace and familial love?
The answer to all these questions is the same, and is given most clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
These verses mention two things that are related to our salvation. First, God alone must “make it happen.” We are dependent entirely on His free, unearned and undeserved grace—grace plus nothing. Grace is God’s favor shown toward those who, instead, deserve His wrath. This, then, is the second sola of the Reformation:
2. Our salvation is by grace alone! (Sola Gratia)
And second, These verses explain that the guilty sinner receives salvation by faith alone. That is, faith is both the necessary and the sufficient condition for receiving salvation. If faith were only necessary (but not sufficient), there might be additional things required for receiving salvation. This is what the medieval religious tradition taught—that faith was necessary but not sufficient; salvation also required the sacraments, works of penance, the saints, and ultimately the church’s absolution. But because the Bible teaches that faith is also the sufficient condition, it is all we need; faith alone is required! When God saves us, He begins a good, life-long work in us (called sanctification), but our standing before God and entrance into this new life (called justification) is through faith alone. So, the third sola of the Reformation:
3. Our salvation is received through faith alone! (Sola Fide)
These two assertions (grace alone and faith alone) are considered the material cause of the Reformation, because they were the fundamental content (the “material,” so to speak) that encapsulates the core message of the Reformation. The Church’s message—to individuals and nations—is that our salvation from God’s wrath, our justification before God’s righteousness, and our reconciliation to God, is by grace alone through faith alone. If the church remains true to this message, it stands tall and strong; if it compromises or loses this message, it falls and becomes irrelevant.
But faith must have an object. We are not called to “have faith in faith,” or to “just believe”! We have to ask, “In what are we to believe?” Romans 3:24 gives us the answer: we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The whole Old Testament pointed to the coming perfect sacrifice—the Lamb of God Who would take away the sin of the world! The Bible teaches that this “Lamb”—none other than Jesus Christ—lived a perfect life, satisfying all of God’s righteous law (called His active obedience), and then died as a substitute for guilty sinners (His passive obedience). The Bible uses a judicial and financial metaphor. We are justified because our sin was imputed to His account, and His perfect righteousness is imputed to ours: “For [God the Father] made [Jesus], who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). This leads us to the fourth sola of the Reformation:
4. Our faith is placed in Christ alone! (Solus Christus)
Finally, God does things for a reason. Just as we, as His image-bearers, have a purpose—an end result—for which we begin and fulfill a task, so God, in the great task of redemption, has an intended goal. Why did God plan to create the world, allow the fall, and provide salvation, all before any of it existed? The answer is expressed in Ephesians 3:9b-11: “God … created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now [with the coming of Christ] the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church [by the salvation of innumerable multitudes] to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places [the angelic “audience”] according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God is bringing glory to Himself through the whole plan of redemption! What He does, He does for His own sake, and He will not give His glory to another (Isa. 48:11; 42:8). God alone gets the glory! “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever” (Rom. 11:36). And this is the fifth and final sola of the Reformation:
5. Our salvation is to the glory of God alone! (Soli Deo Gloria)
And so, these Five Solas are a summary of Reformation teaching, and provide a good foundation for our faith and good clarity as a supplement to the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds: From the Scripture alone we learn that our salvation is by God’s grace alone, received through faith alone in Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone!
“How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him?” (Heb. 2:3). Have you experienced this “great” salvation? Are you sharing it with others?