The Protestant Reformation threw the Christian world into chaos. At the beginning of the 1400’s the Pope’s authority was absolute and the only means of salvation were the sacraments given under his auspices. There was a secular/sacred distinction that was ironclad, meaning that the priests and laity lived in practically two separate worlds. There was no concept of church membership, corporate worship, preaching, or Bible reading in the churches. And as far as doctrine was concerned, there was no debate—the creeds and declarations from Rome (and soon to be Avignon) were the law.
Things had been this way for six hundred years. In a world where life expectancy was in the 30’s, that is essentially the same as saying that the church had been in the dark forever.
But if you fast-forward to the end of the 1500’s, all of that had been turned on its head. The absolute nature of the Pope’s rule and vanished—in large part owing to the Babylonian Captivity of the church (the 40 year period were two rival popes both ruled, and both excommunicated each other—finally to both be deposed by a church council). Church councils themselves had contradicted themselves so many times that their own authority was openly ridiculed. The Holy Roman Empire was no longer relevant, and the political world had simply passed the Pope by.
Protestants found themselves in the wake of this upheaval, and there was one major question to be answered: what, exactly, was this new kind of Christian? What did a Protestant believe? The reformation had followed similar and simultaneous tracks in multiple countries, yet at the end of it all the content of Protestantism was pretty much the same. On the essentials, German, English, Swiss, and Dutch Protestants all stood for the same theology. But what was it?
It was easy to understand the beliefs of Catholicism—all one had to do was look at their creeds and the declarations from their councils. But Protestants were so named precisely because they were opposed to all that. So what council would give them their beliefs then?
This is where the five solas came from. These were five statements about the content of the Protestant gospel, and by the end of the 1500’s, these were the terms which identified Protestantism. These five phrases are not an extensive statement on theology, but instead served simply as a way to explain what the content of the gospel was to which Protestants held.
Sola Fide—Faith alone
Solus Christus—Christ alone
Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone
Sola Gratia—Grace alone
Soli Deo Gloria—God’s glory alone
These five solas still live on to this very day. They define what the gospel is for evangelicals worldwide, and also provide a helpful summary—a cheat sheet even—of what marks the true gospel from a religion of works. But historically, these five solas make the most sense when viewed from the perspective of answering the question: what do Protestants believe? In fact, each one of these five is an answer to a particular question:
What must I do to be saved? Sola Fide
The gospel is not a religion of works, but a religions of faith. You can’t do anything to be saved—rather, God saves you on the basis of your faith, which is itself on the basis of the work of Christ on your behalf. Protestants believe that you don’t work for your salvation, and that nobody is good enough to deserve salvation. But thankfully salvation does not come on the basis of works but instead on the basis of faith.
Sola fide declares that In addition to faith, you can do absolutely nothing in order to be saved.
What must I trust? Solus Christus
In a world with deposed Popes in the unemployment line, this question has profound importance. Keep in mind that for six hundred years, nearly every European would have answered that question by pointing at the sacraments. You trust them for your salvation. Perhaps some would point you to the church, the priest, of even to Jesus himself. But only a Protestant would say “trust Jesus alone.”
Solus Christus is a simple declaration that salvation is not dispensed through Rome, priests, or sacraments. There is no sense in putting hope in extreme unction, purgatory, or an indulgence. Instead it comes through Jesus alone.
What must I obey? Sola Scriptura
When the Council of Constance deposed both Popes, this question took on a sense of urgency. If a council is greater than a Pope, then does one have to obey the Pope at all, or is it better to simply submit yourself to the church as a whole? Are believers compelled to obey priests in matters of faith?
Sola Scriptura says “no.” In matters of faith, believers are compelled by no other authority than that of Scripture. There is no room for a mixture of history and tradition—those cannot restrain the flesh and they cannot bind the conscience. Instead, believers’ only ultimate authority is the Bible.
What must I earn? Sola Gratia
Is there any sense in which a person must earn salvation? For the Protestant, the answer is obvious: NO! Salvation is of grace…ALONE. It is not by work or merit. God didn’t look down the tunnel of time and see how you were going to responded to the gospel, then rewind the tape and choose you. He does not save you in light of what you did, are doing, or will do in the future. Instead, his salvation is based entirely upon his grace.
What is the point? Soli Deo Gloria
What is the point of the Reformation? Why are these doctrinal differences worth dividing over? Because people were made for one reason, and one reason alone: to glorify God. God is glorified in his creation, in his children, in the gospel, and most particularly in his son. The highest calling on a persons’ life (indeed, the only real calling in a person’s life) is that he would glorify God in all he does. Nevertheless, we always fail to do that. Yet God saves us anyway through the gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria is a reminder that by twisting the gospel or by adding works to the gospel, a person is actually missing the glory that comes through a gospel of grace and faith, through Jesus, and described by Scripture. The first four questions really function like tributaries, and they all flow to this body—God’s glory.
Do you think these five solas retain their importance today, five hundred years later? Are they still adequate for describing the gospel of Grace?