Five Solas

The five solas are the pillars on which the Reformation stood and prevailed and they historically underpin the great Protestant confessions of faith.

  • Sola Scriptura — Scripture alone
  • Sola Gratia — Grace alone
  • Sola Fide — Faith alone
  • Solus Christus — Christ alone
  • Soli Deo Gloria — Glory to God alone

Sola Scriptura — the statement that the Bible alone is the guide for faith and life, was the starting point. The Medieval Roman Catholic Church held that the Church’s authority was above that of the Bible; only an infallible church could interpret the Scriptures. The Pope, as the holder of the keys of the Kingdom of heaven in direct line from St Peter was the custodian of Apostolic doctrine and truth. The Bible was available in European Christendom only in Latin and interpreted by the priests. Early Reformers like Wycliffe, Tyndale and Hus believed that the Scriptures were the only source of God’s truth and that God’s word must be made available in the common tongue of the people. “No man is to be credited for his mere authority’s sake,” said Wycliffe, “unless he can show Scripture for the maintenance of his opinion.” Martin Luther, standing pre-condemned at the Diet of Worms in 1521 declared, “I am overcome by the Scripture texts which I have adduced, and my conscience is bound by God’s word.” The Westminster Confession of 1647, compiled at the end of the tumultuous 130 years of the Reformation period as the statement of Reformed faith, states “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, does not depend on the witness of any person or church, but entirely on its author, God (who is truth itself), and is therefore to be received, because it is the Word of God.”

Underpinning this reliance on “Scripture Alone” is the confidence that the Bible is inspired (God-breathed; 2 Tim 3:16) infallible and inerrant (fully truthful and without mistakes; Psa 119:160; John 17:17) authoritative and sufficient. The latter is critical; it is Scripture alone that provides authoritative and infallible guidance for faith and life. There is no need for external or additional authorities such as a pope, church, special anointing, additional revelation or particular education, but the essentials of salvation are clear and accessible to all. But some of the more radical reformers believed that they had personal guidance from the Holy Spirit which was of greater authority than Scripture. Conversely, the eighteenth and nineteenth century rationalists of the Enlightenment held that human reason was the final authority for faith and life, and that whatever in Scripture conflicted with human reason (such as the miraculous) was to be discounted. Both of these fallacies have had a lasting influence on the Protestant movement. But the mainstream, evangelical (Gospel-focused) Protestants held to the Bible as the source of truth, and this is reflected in the confessions of faith of the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican churches, and others (whether adhered to by all members or not).

There was a need to steer between the twin problems of a too individualistic approach (“I go with my own interpretation”) and a swing back to an authoritarian ecclesiastical position (“Believe this because the church says it!”). Because of the plethora of ideas and the different agendas brought to bear on the Bible, each denomination set in writing a statement of faith which was to be normative for that group. Such statements were not intended to replace the Bible, but to clarify the understanding of that group, and assented to by clergy and laity alike. When examined, these statements have more in common than the aspects in which they differ, particularly in respect to the nature of God and the plight of sinful humanity, and the solution God provided. This solution is the euangelion, the Gospel, and its key features are stated in the remaining five Solas.

Sola gratia — by grace alone. In contrast to the Roman Catholic concept of infusion of saving grace through the sacraments and augmented by works, the Bible states,

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

The Reformers recognised the truth that humans are inherently sinful since Adam, dead in sins and could by no means save ourselves. No effort of our own, no works can save us, we deserve only punishment. But God in his grace saves us in Christ by imputing his righteousness to us, even while we were sinners (Rom 5:8). Not only did this oppose Roman Catholic sacramentalism and the abuse of indulgences, but it negated any works- or merit-based concept of salvation. Calvinists and Arminians disagreed about the role of human free will in the context of God’s sovereignty, but the nexus of the Gospel remained grace over works. But there is an ever present danger of making good works, which are the result of the workings of God’s Spirit in the justified sinner’s heart, the cause rather than the consequence of our approval with God. Doctrines To Be Rejected by Christadelphians, number 24 is that “The Gospel alone will save, without the obedience of Christ’s commandments.” Obedience is commanded, yes, as the response to God’s grace and enabled by the Spirit. Obedience pleases God, but when we fail to please him, he remains faithful and forgiving.  “In this conflict [flesh against Spirit] the remaining corruption may greatly prevail for a time, but through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the part that is reborn overcomes, and so Christians grow in grace by making holiness complete in the fear of God,” explains the Westminster Confession.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).

This saving grace is not infused into us because of our own merit, nor through any act, sacrament (eg baptism or the Lords supper) or work; it is apprehended by faith.

Sola Fide — Through Faith Alone. By God’s providence, this was a turning point in the life and understanding of Martin Luther. From hating and fearing the wrath of a “righteous God” and despairing of his salvation, he at last understood what Paul meant: “For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). This righteousness, of justification, the “not guilty” verdict, comes from God, not from our own efforts. It is not something to be earned by works but by holding out the empty hands of faith. Thus God justifies the sinner; “Simultaneously justified and a sinner,” observed Luther. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). This faith is not a mere intellectual assent to a list of doctrines, an acknowledgement of do’s and don’ts and correct apprehension, but a living faith in the person of Jesus Christ (John 3:16–17; 5:24; 6:40; Rom 10:9) who did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Faith is not a meritorious work, but a throwing of ourselves at the foot of the cross and crying, “have mercy on me, a sinner!” — such is justification (Luke 18:13–14).

Solus Christus — Christ alone. There is no other name under heaven by which we are saved (Acts 4:12). Faith in Christ is the conduit for saving grace, as an empty cup receives life-giving water. Christ came into the world to save sinners, and he is the focus of God’s plan from every perspective:

[His Son] in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:14–20)

Gone was the perceived need for any intermediary; the Virgin Mary, the intercession of saints, the work of human priests in dispensing sacraments; the priesthood of all believers was recognised under the great High Priest, “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18). Furthermore, no pomp, no ritual, no works, no added contribution from ourselves. We can add nothing to the completed work of Christ. “Christ stepped in,” said John Calvin, “took the punishment upon himself and bore the judgement 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.” The work of redemption was all of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:14; 1 Pet 1:2) and because of this the Christian has assurance, to the glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria — Glory to God alone. The Reformers recognised the sovereignty of God over every aspect of life, all life to be lived for his glory (Phil 2:10–11). The Westminster Shorter Catechism poses the question, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:1–2).

No longer was life to be divided into the sacred and the secular, the priestly and monastic classes having special favour. The focus was not the glory of the church, but of God. This was the end point of Christ’s saving work and is to be the purpose of this life as well as the next (1 Cor 10:31; 1 Pet 4:11; 2 Pet 3:18; Rom 11:36).

Such is the legacy of the Reformation, rooted in the wholly scriptural doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. This is the focus of the Christ-centred, gospel-centred church; not external appearances, not conformity to statements of faith per se, or the rules of men, not ritual or tradition, or humanism or secularism or rigid introversion. These hallmarks of the original Apostolic faith are not new, they are the way God has always operated with his people in his sovereignty. Yes, they were discovered anew by God’s grace in the Reformation, but they also need to be renewed in the hearts, lives and communities of his true Ekklesia today.

 

Further reading:

http://www.theopedia.com/five-solas for links to

Donald K McKim, Theological Turning Points: Major Issues in Christian Thought (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1988)

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy 1978 http://www.theopedia.com/chicago-statement-on-biblical-inerrancy

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