September 24, 2014

Five solas, two books

by Jesse Johnson

Painted by Stephen Procopio

Earlier this year my church went through a series on the five solas of the Protestant Reformation. In preparation, I went on a hunt for books that walk through them, explaining them and applying all five of them. I really only found two that I liked, and here I commend them to you:

The Case for Traditional Protestantism

Terry Johnson grounds his book in the past. Beginning with Luther, he briefly describes what the world was like before the Protestant Reformation. He then shows how the five solas turned that world upside down.

Johnson notes that the Reformation changed the world socially (by breaking down the wall between sacred and secular, and thus restoring a proper understanding of family, marriage, and daily life). It changed the world politically, eventually leading to democracy. It changed the world economically, by giving religious justification to a free market. It changed the world educationally by giving a religious mandate to teach literacy as a means of spreading truth.

But as radical as those changes are, they all pale in comparison to how the reformation changed the world for the gospel. This change is best understood in terms of the five solas.

Johnson then goes through each of the five one at a time (all but solo Christo—the term Johnson uses instead of solus Christus—have a verse attached to them for reference). He powerfully explains the concepts behind each one, and puts them in contrast to the Roman Catholic theology of the day. In fact, Johnson has friends from seminary who left the faith for Catholicism, and Johnson often refers to them and the arguments that led them into apostasy. He then gives a solid rebuttal, and explains how the doctrines of the reformation stand as an argument against the RCC.

This is an exceptional book, and one I recommend for both believers and Catholics alike. Not only does he compellingly lay out the differences between the two, but he does so in a way that is biblical and will cause even a mature Christian to grow.

Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?

While Johnson grounded his book in the past, James Montgomery Boice writes his with a focus on the present. The first third examines the state of evangelicalism in the year 2000, and Boice notes that there is much to lament. Pragmatism is on the rise, sermons on sanctification are few and far between, and churches have essentially become man-centered mish-mashes of luke-warm, seeker-sensitive, touchy-feely jargon.

And don’t get him started on the “worship.”

But Boice does this without coming across as the elderly man berating the kids next door. Rather, he writes from the perspective of a great-grandfather giving his parting advice to the world. In fact, this was Boice’s last book (his wife actually published it almost immediately after his death). Boice had been an evangelical leader for decades, and God placed him in a position to not only see the decline in church culture, but to sound the alarm.

What could possibly be the solution be for the church’s pragmatic drift? Well, for Boice there was only one cure: theology. He spends the last two-thirds of his book going through the five solas and bringing them to bare on the maladies of today’s evangelicalism. In the same way the reformation turned the world on its head in the 1500’s, those doctrines could cause a similar revolution in today’s world. Only now, instead of the Catholic Church, the gospel needs to free itself from the clutches of the seeker-sensitive, church-as-a-business-model.

It is not that pragmatism is the only modern enemy to the gospel. Boice takes on Dallas Seminary, Ryrie, Hodges, et. al, and labels their theology as a threat to sola fide, for example (142-43). But the theme that unites this work is a resolute belief that theology is medicine for the sickness in American evangelicalism.


These two books complement each other. While both men are/were Presbyterians (Johnson is Senior Minister of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah), their books have a very different feel. Johnson interacts with Luther, while Boice interacts with Piper. Johnson’s shows how the five solas are a revolt against Catholicism, and Boice shows how they should be the death knell for pragmatism.

While the Traditional Protestantism would be good to give to Catholics, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? would be good to give someone who is stuck in a lame pragmatic church, and is looking for something to feed their soul.

FWIW: here are the sermons from my church’s series through the five solas. Note particularly that Steve Lawson preached Solus Christus. Also, the first 40 pages of Boice’s book are free here.

How about you? Is there a book, blog post, or sermon series on the five solas you have found helpful?

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.
  • tovlogos

    Thanks for the work, Jesse. I’ll buy the books. Because I can’t answer affirmatively in response to your final question, these books are a good format to review these solid theological basics.

    “The first third examines the state of evangelicalism (which I see as tantamount to a political party) in the year 2000, and Boice notes that there is much to lament.” Amen.

  • Thanks for posting this, Jesse. In anticipation for Reformation Day, I haven’t decided if I should take 5 Sundays or do all 5 solas at once. Thoughts on that?

    • Five Sundays! Other wise, you are not really preaching a passage, but a thread I guess. Logical connections. I loved being able to have each one preached from a specific passage. If you do them all together, 10 min Luther intro, 5 min RCC conculsion…you have like 5 min each? That’s hardly going to hunt!
      I also moved Soli Deo Gloria to the front, and did that first. Then ended w Christ alone.

      • Karl Heitman

        Great advice! Thanks, Jesse. I’ll be listening to your series in preparation. Happy Reformation Day!

  • Scott Christensen

    “After Darkness, Light” edited by R. C. Sproul, Jr. is also a good book on the 5 solas. It also includes the 5 points of Calvinism (10 chapters in all).

    • Yeah, I really like that book too. Plus it has a chapter by MacArthur.
      But…the chapter on Sola Scriptura was really weird. I couldn’t really figure out its point, and it left me scratching my head. I read it many moons ago though, so maybe I should go dust it off again.