I have recently been studying the lives of men such as John Hus, William Tyndale, John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others, who played a crucial role in the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. The Reformation stands as one of those singular events in history that changed the course of the church and the world. At the root of it all were five statements known as the solas which set a firm biblical foundation which girded and fueled the Reformation. The Latin word sola simply means “alone.” I want to briefly examine these five solas, which if grasped, will fuel our faith and place the glory of God in its proper place, in biblical truth.
“Scripture Alone.” This vital truth is foundational for the other four solas (that will covered later on) in that without this truth, truth would simply be relative and subjective. But if indeed God’s Word is truth and God’s Word is the final authority, then everything else must come under the scrutiny and subjection of the Word.
On April 17, 1521, Luther stood before a general assembly (known as the Diet of Worms) of the Holy Roman Empire, where he was asked to renounce his heretical ways and and retract his writings. He asked for time to think about it and it was given to him. The next day he appeared once more before them and said,
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.”
What Martin Luther had realized was that God’s Word was the final authority, not the pope or some council. It was the Word alone. It wasn’t (and isn’t) the Word plus traditions, or plus commentaries, or plus opinions, or plus cultures that contain the counsel of God. Far too long the Bible had been eclipsed by the Roman Catholic Church with other additives, but when that eclipse was removed, the brightness of God’s glory and majesty was evident to the common ordinary people as revealed in Scripture. The elevation of the Word over the Church had brought about the genuine faith of the people (cf. Rom. 10:17) which energized the Reformation.
“Christ Alone.” Christ is the gospel. At the heart of the gospel is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. In speaking of Jesus, Acts 4:12 makes it clear: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Only Christ can act as the Mediator between us and God through His atoning death (2 Tim. 2:5). It isn’t Christ and the sacraments. It isn’t Christ and rituals. It isn’t Christ and money. Christ alone is the unequivocal Savior! We as sinners come to Christ without anything through the small and narrow gate (Mt. 7:13,14); empty handed we fall before the Cross–we bring nothing to the table but a contrite and broken heart.
“Grace Alone.” In Ephesians 2:8,9, Paul says that we are saved by “. . .grace. . .through faith; and that not of [ourselves], it is a gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” God does not depend on our good deeds to save us. Our salvation is a sheer result of His divine grace on our lives. The poet Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) captured eloquently the grace of God on undeserving sinners in his hymn Not What My Hands Have Done:
Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
Your voice alone, O Lord, can speak to me of grace;
Your power alone, O Son of God, can all my sin erase.
No other work but Yours, no other blood will do;
No strength but that which is divine can bear me safely through.
Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest, And set my spirit free.
How beautiful is it to know that before the foundation of the world, God chose His elect to receive His grace (cf. Eph. 1:3,4). God knowing our state of complete bankruptcy (spiritually speaking), bestows on our hearts the gift of divine grace–unaffected by our actions. Our salvation is totally free and independent of our works which are like filthy rags before God (cf. Isa. 64:6b).
“Faith Alone.”Salvation is received by faith alone. In Ephesians 2:8, which we looked at with sola gratia, one cannot miss that we are saved by grace which is appropriated by faith. Faith as well is a gift of God. Faith alone is what saves us. It isn’t faith and our participation in Sunday School. It isn’t faith and our attendance at church. Isn’t faith and our baptism. Paul tells that we “. . .[have] been justified by faith” and as a result “. . .we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1,2, emphasis added). How liberating is it to know that we all come the same way. Whether rich or poor, whether healthy or sickly, whether outgoing or reserved, we all come to Christ the same way, namely, by faith alone. Our being made right with God was accomplished on the cross which we receive by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
“To the Glory of God Alone.” The climax of the Bible is reached when we see that all of history is for the glory of God. Every act of God–be it creation or salvation or whatever else–is fueled by God for His glory. The four previous solas set the foundation for this final apex of redemptive history. When we recognize that our salvation is clearly presented in Scripture, and that Christ is the Object of it where He is seen as the One who purchased our salvation on the cross, and that by only grace are we saved, and that that grace is appropriated by our faith, it is then when God receives the glory.
We are not the center of God. He does not bow down to our whim, we bow down to His awesome splendor. He is the center of all that we are. To Him be the glory–alone!
These five Latin phrases are more than object lessons in the history of the Church. They are to be personal truths that are derived from the Word of God. The Reformers saw it as such, and they unashamedly called the church to see its errors.
In speaking of the five solas, pastor of First Baptist Church of Mobile (Alabama), Steve Lawson, concluded with this exhortation:
If we are to see a new Reformation in our day, it will require a return to these same history-altering doctrines that once shocked the church. May God again restore such a commitment in His church. And may it begin with you.
Will we be known as such people?
[More Info: THE CAMBRIDGE DECLARATION]