July 2, 2014

5 questions and the 5 solas

by Jesse Johnson

ImageThe 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 FideFaith alone

Solus ChristusChrist alone

Sola ScripturaScripture alone

Sola GratiaGrace alone

Soli Deo GloriaGod’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?

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Dennis

    Amen brother

  • Daryl Little

    An excellent and simple article. II found it to be quite helpful.

    I’ll be reposting this.

  • Doc B (J B Boren)

    You really probably shouldn’t leave out the part about the 5 solas being a response to the Remonstrants. They weren’t a direct response to Roman Catholicism, but to Arminianism.

    • True. that would be a great future post. Thanks JB.

    • JB, you’re thinking of the Canons of Dort, the “5 points” – ie, doctrines of grace – that were a response to the Remonstrance of the 17thcentury and post-Reformation. Though they make a good response to Rome’s semi-peligianism too! The 5 solas were an earlier rebuttal of the Reformers toward Rome, as Jesse explains, which can be seen in that Rome anathematized those who hold them at Trent.

      Though a post(s) on them would be helpful and fun, Jesse.

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  • Judith Anne Warren-Brown

    So true. But Catholic theologians and teachers have become sophisticated in presenting their understanding of salvation. Just read any of their apologetics. I think in this discussion one needs to talk about the process of sanctification in the person’s life because that piece is what Catholics target. They see our understanding of salvation as a form of antinomianism. Also, Catholics believe that salvation is by faith, the work of Christ, and grace like we do. The difference is in the word “alone.”
    I think Protestants misrepresent the Catholic understanding in that Catholics believe in salvation by works which is Pelagianism. They do not. They believe in merit. So again we need to explain the Sanctification piece along with Salvation by grace through faith alone.

    • Jon Loewen

      Care to explain the Catholic difference between works and merit? Isn’t it a distinction without a difference?

    • If they don’t believe in faith alone, that would mean they believe in works based salvation. There’s no in-between. Otherwise, grace is no longer grace (i.e., UNmerited favor). You agree? Are you Catholic or former?

      • Judith Anne Warren-Brown

        Jon and Karl, Catholics believe in ontological or real righteousness which is a quality of the soul when one does righteous acts because of the grace of God. Its opposite is when unrighteousness and sin become a quality of the soul when one does unrighteous acts. In other words guilt and innocence and righteousness and unrighteousness are seen as objectively real properties of the soul. Protestants do not talk about the soul in this way. In other words a sinful soul is dark and dirty, a righteous soul is clean and bright. Souls become clean and righteous by the infusion of sanctifying grace to it through the sacraments of Baptism, Confession, and Eucharist especially ( a soul in a supernatural state). Souls can loose all sanctifying grace through mortal sin and thus be condemnable (a soul in its natural state). God’s actual grace kicks in at this point urging the sinner to repent. (Sanctifying grace is part of the soul; actual grace is God’s prompting to confess and seek reconciliation.)
        Now this grace which is infused into the soul of a person through the sacraments enables a person to do works of righteousness which originate from the grace which was merited and made possible through Christ’s death. So God’s grace which was channeled into the soul enables the person to do works of righteousness in order to merit justification and eternal life. In other words by doing the works of righteousness the person gains merit which is a reward for the righteous works.
        Please go to “Catholic Answers/Grace: What It Is And What It Does” and “Catholic Answers/Reward and Merit” for an explanation of their understanding of this issue. I do not agree with the Catholic view at all, but it is good to get an understanding of it in order to understand how to counter it.
        Blessings, Judith

        • Judith Anne Warren-Brown

          I like this from R.C. Sproul on justification:
          Roman Catholics: Justification = Faith + Merit
          Reformed: Faith = Justification + Works
          Antinomianism: Faith = Justification – Works.

          • Judith, after all that explanation, you’re still left with salvation by works. I used to be Catholic, by the way.

        • Thanks Judith. This is the most clarifying part of your post:

          “So God’s grace which was channeled into the soul enables the person to do works of righteousness in order to merit justification and eternal life.”

          That really captures the antithesis between the two views.

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