Next month marks a significant anniversary of a crucial turning point in the church’s history. Five hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformation began. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses or arguments to the door of the Wittenberg Church in Germany. Disturbed by the false teachings that had crept their way into the church of that day and several superstitious practices which were present, he called the church back to the Word of God to be reformed. Unfortunately, the church had lost sight of many biblical truths, especially ones that involved our salvation. They had added teachings that were not found in the Bible. They even were selling something called an indulgence which claimed to grant the forgiveness of sins and entrance into heaven for those who purchased it. Luther and the other Reformers that followed him sought to recover the truths of the gospel that were lost and expose the additions for what they were; falsehoods that distorted the truth. Their teaching to combat such falsehood can be summarized with five “sola” (latin for “alone”) statements. With this being such a milestone anniversary and such biblical truths just as necessary for us to be careful not to lose today as well, I thought it might be beneficial to look at each of them briefly.
The first of these “sola” statements is known as sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”). It is the teaching that Scripture ALONE serves as our sole authority for all matters of faith and practice. The Catholic Church had claimed that the teachings of the Pope and the tradition of the Church were on par with Scripture. What the Pope said had equal binding authority as God’s word. The Reformers rightly pointed out that everyone, including the Pope, and the entire church itself, are all under the highest authority of Scripture since it alone can rightly claim to be God’s final word on all matters that it addresses. Being the very words “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16) recorded by men “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), they serve as determinative for what we are to believe and how we are to live our lives. There is no one or nothing else we need to look to for finding out what God has said to us.
Sola gratia (“Grace alone”) serves as another one of these “sola” statements which summarize the biblical teachings of the reformers. “Grace” by definition is a gift given that one does not deserve. It has often been described as “unmerited favor.” While the Catholic Church taught that salvation is of grace, they also said that one must work in cooperation with the grace that God supposedly infused in them at their baptism as infants in order to merit or earn salvation. It wasn’t fully of grace but only partially. But according to Scripture, which alone serves as our authority on these matters, our salvation is ALL a result of God’s grace. It is a gift that He has given that cannot be earned by us in any way. The apostle Paul is crystal clear that “He saved us, NOT BECAUSE OF WORKS DONE BY US IN RIGHTEOUSNESS, but according to His own mercy” (Titus 3:5). There is nothing at all we must do to earn our salvation because there is nothing that we CAN DO to earn our salvation. All that we have earned from God is judgment, not favor. We are not righteous in and of ourselves and, as Isaiah reminds us, even the righteous deeds that we think that we do are tainted by our sin (Isaiah 64:6). If it wasn’t a gift of God’s grace, then none of us would be saved.
Along with our salvation being “by grace alone,” it is also “through faith alone,” which leads us to the next of these statements, sola fide (Faith alone). How do we receive the grace that God has shown us in the sacrifice of His Son? Only through placing our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and that what He has done is enough to reconcile us to God in light of our sins which separate us from Him. The only place that a person’s works have in their justification (being declared righteous before God) is serving as evidence that they have been justified by their faith. If you would like to demonstrate that in a mathematical equation, it would look like this: “faith + nothing = justification → works.” Though the Catholic Church did not deny that faith played an important role in one’s salvation, they also taught that there were certain works that must be done in order to achieve a righteous standing before God. To also put it in the form of an equation, it would be “faith + works = justification.” The position of "works" in such an equation makes all the difference. However, Romans 3:21-4:25 argues that our righteous standing before God cannot in any way be based on our works but only through faith in what God has done for us in the perfect sinless life and substitutionary sacrifice of His Son. Any deeds that we may attempt to do just won’t cut it or can add anything to it. Instead, it has to be looking away from ourselves to what Christ has done.
Whereas the Bible makes clear that there is only “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5), the Catholic Church added His mother Mary as another mediator. In fact, they began to treat her as if she was an additional person of the Trinity. Eventually, they claimed that she was born sinless herself, had a special ascension to heaven, and should be prayed to in order to get to Jesus. This was the reason for the fourth sola, solus Christus, that “Christ alone” is who we are to look to in order to bring us to God. That He is the only “way” to God and that “no one comes to the Father except through” Him (John 14:6). Furthermore, no priest is needed for us to go to because Jesus Himself serves as our Great High Priest interceding on our behalf before the Father (Hebrews 4:14-5:10). We have direct access to God through Christ and Him alone. No other mediator in addition is necessary.
Since all of our salvation is a complete work of God and, as it has been so well put, “we contribute nothing to it except for the sin which makes it necessary,” all glory for salvation must be given to God. There is no glory that we ourselves can share because we cannot take credit for any part of it. We cannot pat ourselves on the back that we have been saved because it has not been on account of us. It is a great gift of God’s amazing grace alone through our faith alone in His Son alone and what He has accomplished on the cross all according to His Word alone. This is why the final “sola” is soli Deo gloria (“to God alone be the glory”). Something that cannot be claimed with the Catholic view since it adds so much of the effort and will of man with it.
The church during the Middle Ages came to where it was all on account that it had forgotten these precious important truths. We would do well to make sure that the same doesn’t happen to us today. Woody Allen once said, “History repeats itself. It has to-nobody listens the first time around.” However, in many ways these five truth statements need to be heralded just as loudly now as ever before as far too many seem to have forgotten them, thinking that salvation somehow does depend on us, at least a little bit instead of being fully and completely a sovereign work of God Himself. So let’s not forget the Reformation but pray that God would continue to reform His Church until we all come to share and rejoice in these truths. As R. C. Sproul has said, “The Reformation is not over. It cannot be over and must not be over until all who call themselves Christians have one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. The cause of sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria remains the cause of and for biblical truth.”
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. ~2 Timothy 2:15
- I am a young man who is following God's call into pastoral ministry. I have been so blessed with the privileges which the Lord has granted me. I am blessed to serve the Mt. Joy congregation in Mt. Pleasant, PA. I am constantly humbled and amazed at what the Lord is doing in my life.