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The Five Solas: Understanding the Reformation
The Protestant Reformation
In my experience, most evangelicals don’t have a very good understanding of the Protestant Reformation, its history, its theology, or its lasting effect. I don’t say that to disparage anyone, but to acknowledge that most Protestant denominations don’t emphasize their history, their connection with other Protestant denominations, or their differences with Catholicism. As a result, many of us have a skewed idea of what connects and divides the various Christian denominations around the world.
If you were to ask many Protestants what separates them from Rome, they will likely have only a very surface understanding. They don’t recognize the pope as the head of the universal church for instance, or they don’t have priests or go to confession. If they are from a credobaptist tradition, they might add that they don’t baptize infants. In fact, for many Baptists (either by title or by practice), peadobaptist denominations appear to have more in common with Rome than they do with them. That is of course absurd, but we can forgive people for their ignorance when they have never been taught otherwise.
In truth, all Protestant denominations have much more in common with one another than any of them do with Rome – at least they did when they were founded. That doesn’t mean that the differences that do exist are insignificant or imagined, they are just less severe than those with Rome.
While many Christians may naively assume that their tradition represents the only true Christian churches, it is rare that they would say that other Christian denominations are anathema because of what they believe. To name something anathema is to declare someone outside of the grace of God; outside of the Church. It is to declare that an idea is absolutely contrary to the Gospel; that it will carry those who hold it to Hell. It is a proclamation of damnation. Just as when Paul said that anyone who brought a Gospel contrary to what had been delivered to the saints was to be accursed, or anathema (Galatians 1:8-9).
There is a big difference between believing that someone is wrong in what they believe or how they live out that belief and believing that they are outside of Christ and under the judgment of God because of it. That is the difference between the division between different Protestant denominations and all Protestantism and Rome. And before anyone accuses me of slinging mud at Rome, it is Rome that has declared Protestants to be anathema, or at the least the key doctrines of the Protestant Reformation to be anathema.
The Five Solas of the Protestant Reformation
In just a moment we will take a look at the fundamental doctrines, The Five Solas of the Protestant Reformation. First, I want to make clear that it is these doctrines that evoked a response from Rome in the Council of Trent to clarify their official doctrine, and in places double down and declare the driving theology of the Reformation to be anathema. The Roman Church solidified the permanent divide between them and the Protestants, not the other way around. Those declarations of Trent stand to this day.
To help us better understand the need for the Protestant Reformation, let’s look at the doctrine that was at the heart of the Reformation. Most often this is summarized by the Five Solas, or five statements that encapsulate the heart of justification and salvation. It is these five doctrines that put the Reformers in the crosshairs of Rome.
There are different ways that the Five Solas are ordered, though it probably makes sense to start with Sola Scriptura which is Latin for Scripture Alone. This doctrine really underlies the others, because it establishes the authority by which anything can ultimately be known to be true.
Sola Scriptura teaches us that the Bible, in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments are the ultimate and only inerrant foundation for all orthodoxy and orthopraxy. That is to say that the Bible is the one ultimate authority on all belief and practice. And that number of books in the Bible does not include the apocryphal books included in the Roman version.
The Bible is the ultimate authority. Rightly interpreted, the Bible is the final word. Included in the belief of Sola Scriptura is the idea that Scripture is knowable – we are able to utilize careful study methods, or hermeneutics, to understand the real, intended meaning of the author. That meaning is from God, and we are obligated to believe and obey it.
This means that the Scriptures hold authority over any earthly body, including church councils and the leadership of any church. The individual studying the Bible can be confident they are standing on God’s Word, even if that puts them at odds with popes or prefects.
2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV)
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
The Roman understanding was quite different. They believed that since the Church was needed to recognize and validate what was allowed into the canon of Scripture, then the Church ultimately had an authority greater than Scripture. In addition to that, it was believed that the Scriptures were too complex and nuanced even for most priests to understand. As a result, only the wisest and most learned of their ranks could rightly understand the Bible, and ultimately a special grace had to be bestowed on the pope himself to be the ultimate authority on right interpretation.
You can see the chasm between these positions. What has the ultimate authority, church councils, the pope, or the Holy Scriptures? The Protestant Reformers rejected Rome’s hold over God’s Word. They recognized that God was the one who made clear which books were to be included in canon, that list formed mostly organically as Christians in history understood which letters were genuine, where they had come from, and when they had been written. Later additions, such as the Apocrypha, were never given the kind of mass acceptance that the genuine books of the Bible had been given.
To the question of where do we go to get the final answer about God and what He requires from man, Rome named the church in its hierarchy, and the Reformers clung to the Word of God alone.
The next sola that we will look at is Solus Christus, or Christ Alone.
John 14:6 (ESV)
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
There is only one God – eternally existent in three persons – and there is only one way to God, Jesus. Salvation is, as is taught in Scripture, exclusively in Christ. There is no other way to be saved, and there is no salvation outside of Christ.
The difference between the Reformers and Rome was not that Christ was essential to salvation, but whether or not He was enough. Could someone be in Christ and outside of the formal and established church? Again, this was a debate on the extent of Rome’s authority.
Rome taught that there was no salvation outside of the Church. The Protestant Reformers said that salvation belongs to Christ alone, and that if you believed on Him you would not be put to shame. Because they were committed to the authority of Scripture over that of the pope, the Reformers acknowledged that according to God’s Word there could be salvation outside of Rome, though not outside of Christ.
The third of the Five Solas we will talk about is Sola Fide, Faith Alone. This is primarily concerned with our justification – how we are made righteous. The Reformers taught that Christians are declared righteous by the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to them on account of their faith in Christ. There is in fact a double imputation in salvation – Jesus took on the sin of all believers, and in turn, He placed His righteousness upon them.
Romans 3:28 (ESV)
28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Romans 5:1 (ESV)
1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Rome did, and continues to believe that faith is necessary, yet justification is not something that is imputed completely because of faith, but is obtained though faith, works, and the sacraments. This is no small distinction. Either we are declared righteous by faith in Christ, or we must be made righteous in this life. The Reformers understood that man could never become righteous in this life, our only hope was that God, on account of His Son, declared us righteous – even as Scripture declares.
The fourth sola is Sola Gratia, Grace Alone. This is of course closely tied with the sola, Faith Alone, above.
Ephesians 2:8–9 (ESV)
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Grace means unmerited favor. We have been saved by the unmerited favor of God. Underlying this doctrine is the realty that we could never do anything to earn, or merit God’s favor. No amount of good works could possibly pay the debt that is owed and then obligate God to do anything for us.
Luke 17:7–10 (ESV)
7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ”
Even if we could perfectly do all that we were commanded to do, we would only have done our duty. We would not have earned anything from God. Why? Because we don’t start from a neutral, or free position. We are born slaves of sin, and if we are in Christ then we have been redeemed at a cost we could never repay. In that position, the most we could ever do is what we should have done. And we all know that we are far from perfect slaves to our Lord.
Rome taught and still teaches that through infusions of grace through the sacraments, along with good works, a person could earn God’s favor and blessing. They teach that there is a treasury of merits that had been earned by faithful saints who had come before. That treasury could even be made available to those who had need of extra merit, who had fallen short themselves.
This is no small difference. It is in fact a different Gospel. Either salvation is by Grace – the unmerited favor of God – by faith, apart from works, or it requires the cooperation and exemplary living of men to take advantage of the help that God gives and to add to what was begun. Either God saves and saves completely, or He dangles something out there for us if we could but strive hard enough after it.
Soli Deo Gloria
All this leads us to the final of the Five Solas, Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God Alone. This is the natural outflow of a Gospel that understands all of salvation as the work of God. God justifies, God sanctifies, and God will glorify. By grace He gives faith, and by that faith He unites the sinner to His Son. Not by the works of men, so there is nothing to boast in save the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The Protestant Reformation, at its heart, was about a recovery of the biblical Gospel, with the right understanding that everything is ultimately about the glory of God. He is God, it is right that all of creation, and especially the salvation of fallen humanity, should be a celebration of His glory, His majesty, His power, and His love.
The whole of the Christian life is about glorifying God. That is proper and good. As the first two questions of the Baptist Catechism state: Who is the first and best of beings? God is the first and best of beings. What is the chief end of man? Man’s Chief end is to glory God and to enjoy Him forever.
Colossians 3:17 (ESV)
17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)
31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
Teach Your Family About the Five Solas of the Reformation
Teach your family about the Five Solas of the Protestant Reformation by utilizing this engaging, Gospel-rich resource from Reformed Faith and Family: The Five Solas: Signs to Follow on the Narrow Path Family Bible Study.
The Five Solas: Signs to Follow on the Narrow Path Family Bible Study
This unique 7 day family Bible Study contains more than 50 pages of structured history and Bible-based lessons, fun activities, and corresponding educational crafts that teach the Gospel using The Five Solas, the slogans popularized by the Reformers during the Reformation of the Church.
Like what you see? Read more!
Caleb Stomberg is husband to Lindsey and father to their seven children. He is pastor at Legacy Reformed Baptist Church in East Grand Forks, MN. Caleb enjoys woodworking, hunting, and anything Tolkien.