October 31, 2016

The Big Five Doctrines of the Reformation

by Clint Archer

reformation-wall-in-genevaHave you ever wondered why people call themselves “Reformed”? The word “reformed” generally means “improved”—as in, desperate parents may send an incorrigible adolescent to a reformatory school to get them back in line; politicians promise economic reforms to undo the damage of their predecessors. In theological circles, the word is written with a capital, and acts as a self-designation for those who consider themselves to be direct doctrinal descendants of the progenitors of the Reformation, namely Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, et al.

For example, plain vanilla Baptists get upgraded to “Reformed Baptists” if they embrace not only the tenets of Baptists, but also the doctrines for which the Reformers risked life and limb.

Exactly 499 years to the day (October 31, 1517) the Catholic priest, Martin Luther, nailed, to the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church, his list of 95 things the Catholic Church needed to reform/improve in order to be faithful to what the Bible teaches.

Reformed folk today come in various subspecies: some don’t hold to all five tenets of the Calvinist TULIP* scheme, others have shed the Reformers’ eschatology and ecclesiology, such as infant baptism. But all who brandish the prefix “Reformed” will share a profound commitment to the five slogans of the Reformation that functioned as the five-fold battle cry of essentials around which all Reformers united.

Ironically, these five mottos are commonly referred to by their Latin monikers. I say it’s ironic because the Reformers were committed to translating the Scriptures and theological writings out of the elitist Latin language and into any and every vernacular tongue imaginable. But the description of this commitment has come to us in Latin: Post tenebras lux,(after darkness light).


Any visitor to South Africa’s Kruger National Park wants to see the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo. Though there are countless species to keep career game wardens busy for a lifetime, nothing trumps the satisfaction of spotting the Big Five.

Here is a quick primer on the doctrinal biggies of the Reformation, the so-called “Five Solas.”

  1. Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura)

While the Catholic church taught that authority lies in two main sources: the Scriptures (Old & New Testaments) and the magisterium (the official dogma of the Pope and his councils), the reform Luther wanted was that the church should recognize only one source of revelation: Scripture alone.

See 2 Pet 1:21; 2 Tim 3:16; Mark 7:7; 1 Cor 4:6.

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith articulates it this way:

Those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.” (1689 BCOF, Ch 1, Par 7).


  1. By Grace Alone (Sola Gratia)

Where the Catholic church taught that salvation came to an individual by means of Christ’s work on the cross and man’s work in response (including necessary sacraments such as baptism into the Catholic church and communion administered by an authorized Catholic), the Reformers insisted that salvation came by one means: God’s free, unmerited favor initiated by him, or simply put, by grace alone.5solas

Ephesians 2:8-9 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.

See also, Titus 3:5; Romans 3:24


  1. Through Faith Alone (Sola Fide)

Similar to the previous one, this doctrine emphasizes that the instrument by which grace is administered is not faith in combination with the practice of certain sacraments, but faith alone. Good works follow salvation from sin, but those works are not accounted as the means of saving grace.

Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.” (1689 BCOF ch 11, par 1,2)


  1. Through Christ Alone (Solus Christus)

Integral to the Catholic system of salvation is the role of priests. These are men who mediate between sinners and the Savior. The Reformers emphasized that anyone can go directly to the Savior, and that he is the only needed mediator…

1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

Although priests did have a mediatorial role in the Old Testament, once Christ came he fulfilled that role once for all and is the only needed mediator (Heb 7:23-25). Especially relevant today is that this doctrine is the opposite of the Catholic assertion that Mary occupies an office of “co-redemptrix” alongside Christ.


  1. To God’s Glory Alone (Soli Deo Gloria)

Johan Sebastian Bach famously signed the written score of his compositions with this Latin dedication. The Reformers were ardent about reserving all glory for God (á la Jude 25) and not sharing it with deceased saints, Mary, the Pope, or anyone who occupied an elevated position in the Catholic system. See Isaiah 46:5-11.


Please remember I called this post a primer. This is not meant to satiate your hunger for Reformation knowledge; it is meant to whet your appetite. But you do well for now if all you know about Reformed theology is that the Bible is the sole authority, grace is all that saves you, by nothing but faith, through Christ’s work alone, and exclusively for God’s glory.

Happy Reformation Day.



* Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Thomas_A

    I’m not a Calvinist, but I embrace these doctrines and appreciate the boldness and commitment to Scripture these men displayed. I guess in one sense I’m reformed, too. =)

    • Bismarc

      You are not a Calvinist, but you are.

      • Go easy on him…no one *chooses* to be a Calvinist 😉

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  • Jaina

    I’m sorry if this is an ignorant question, but I grew up attending a non-denominational church and I’m afraid we never learned much about theology. I’ve been trying to catch up on my own but it’s a long road.

    Do people who embrace reformed theology reject the early church creeds? Or are those accepted but not considered authoritative?

    • Jane Hildebrand

      Hi Jaina, I will leave that answer to someone more qualified, but I did want to say that I was like you with a limited understanding of deeper theology, but since reading the Cripplegate the last few years I have learned so much! So, just wanted to say “welcome” and stay on board. You’ll be glad you did. 🙂

      • i have learned a lot from this site too! The secret weapon is the search bar. Type in any theological topic or term and you’re bound to find something informative. That’s what I do 😉

        • Jane Hildebrand


    • Hi Jaina, that is a really good question. The term “Reformed” can be thought of as a spectrum. The more of the Reformer’s teachings and practice one holds to, the more one would claim the title Reformed. The term also spans many denominations. So a Presbyterian Reformed person would hold to what Presbyterians teach out infant baptist (which is also what the Reformers taught), while a Reformed Baptist would differ from the Presbyterians and Reformers on infant baptism, but they would both agree with the soteriology (salvation doctrine) of the Reformers. In that sense Presbyterians are “more Reformed” than Reformed Baptists.

      This is a long way of answering your question: “Reformed” by itself doesn’t necessarily imply an acceptance of, or denial of, the early church creeds. You’d have to be specific about which creed and which Reformed group within a denomination to know if that group held to that confession.

      I hope that helps.

      • Jaina

        Thank you so much for taking the time to respond, that was a very concise, informative response.

        The more I learn about theology the more I discover how little I know.

  • I hope that this coming year leading up to the 500th anniversary will encourage more conversation on the Reformation, and thus opportunities to proclaim the Gospel.

    • Oh, it will…if nowhere else, CGate will oblige!

  • Elijah Windle

    What better time than the 500th anniversary of the Reformation for a renewal of its godly principles?
    Just read one of the latest articles in Christianity Today entitled “Does Protestantism Need to Die?” It is disheartening to see the postmodern and ecumenical movements deny the legitimacy of doctrinal fidelity.
    Keep posting great content here, we need it!