Five solas for the 21st-century church
The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, reckoned from when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and their successors sought to reform the church, to return it to a Biblical standard of faith and practice that had been obscured under centuries of tradition. By God’s providence, they touched off a movement that has shaped church history and Western culture down to the present.
Of course, 500 years have shown that the Reformation wasn’t a one-time event. As the reformers themselves pointed out, the church must be semper reformanda, always reforming.
Nevertheless, their core principle of the five solas – salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone – remains the central truth on which the church stands or falls. Now as in every era, this truth comes under fresh forms of attack, both from the outside culture and from within the church itself.
Sola scriptura (Scripture alone)
At the time of the Reformation, the church had existed for about 15 centuries. Over that long span, it had grown from a persecuted minority in Palestine to become the dominant cultural force in Europe. It had accrued beliefs and practices that were neither taught in the Scriptures nor in harmony with them. In fact, the church had come to regard its own traditions, as well as the rulings of its councils and leaders, to have equal authority with Scripture.
As a corrective, the reformers insisted that the Scriptures, as God’s immutable written Word, are the church’s sole authority for faith and practice. Naturally the 66 books of the Bible aren’t an exhaustive catalogue of all knowledge. However, by the light of the Holy Spirit, they contain all that’s necessary for individuals to know God and understand His will for them.
In the 21st century, the church is no longer the dominant cultural voice in Western society. It has been displaced by secularists who view the Bible as a dusty tome full of outmoded ideas no longer palatable to the modern mind. At best, they’ll allow that it contains some useful ethical teachings: do unto others, love your neighbour, don’t judge. Beyond that, the truth claims of Scripture about history, nature, miracles and the person of God are dismissed as ancient mythology.
More than a few within the church have succumbed to this cultural pressure. They claim they want to follow Jesus as their example, while rejecting whole swaths of Scripture that don’t sit well with current fashionable beliefs. And yet, Jesus Himself taught that the Scripture could not be broken (John 10:35). He claimed that the entire scope of Holy Writ was ultimately about Him and His Gospel (Matthew 5:17-20; Luke 24:27, 44-48; John 5:46-47).
Now as always, the church can only stand on its sole pillar of authority: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Sola fide (faith alone)
As fallen creatures, we humans have a natural impulse to save ourselves, to atone for our own sins and try to earn favour with God. This impulse lies at the heart of every religious system outside of the Bible. By contrast, the Gospel declares that we’re accepted by God not because of what we’ve done but because of what Christ has done for us on the Cross. We’re justified (declared righteous by God) on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice, and we receive this by faith – in other words, by simply trusting Him for it (Matthew 20:28, 26:27-28; John 6:25-58; Acts 10:43; Romans 3:9-5:1; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
Such a counterintuitive doctrine has always been at risk of corruption within the church. Paul’s impassioned letter to the Galatians bears this out. In Luther’s time, this truth had been submerged under layers of duty and religious observance that drove the reformer’s conscience to despair. It was only as God opened his eyes to the implications of Romans 1:17 – “the righteous shall live by faith” – that he began to experience the freedom and joy of knowing Christ.
Faith remains a popular topic in contemporary culture, but it has little to do with the faith of the Scriptures. It finds common expression as faith in oneself, or even faith without an object – it doesn’t matter what you believe, just believe – as if faith were some mystical power or meritorious act in itself.
But faith in faith is a meaningless concept, a dog chasing its own tail. Everyone has faith and exercises it daily, whether to get in their car, buy groceries, take medication or dress for the weather. Even the most evil person believes their actions are justified or will bring them some benefit.
The only value of faith lies not in its strength but in its object. The Scriptures abound with examples of flawed, inconsistent faith that was nevertheless secure because it was in God. In the Gospel of Mark, the father of a demon-possessed boy cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” and received a gracious response from the Lord (Mark 9:14-29).
The church cannot have an effective voice in the culture if it is merely a people of faith and nothing more. It must be a people of faith in Christ.
Sola gratia (grace alone)
If faith is the channel through which God saves and blesses, then grace is the river that flows through that channel. It is the source, the effective power that accomplishes God’s purposes. As the reformers came to define it, grace is God’s unmerited favour, His merciful and kind actions toward sinners who deserve only His justice.
Then as now, this is a vital truth to grasp, because the church is always prone to think of grace in ungracious ways. Much like faith, grace gets reduced to a mystical property infused into believers or a cooperative effort between God and humanity. If we make a sincere attempt to believe and obey, God will respond with more grace in a quid pro quo arrangement.
This, of course, is precisely the opposite of what grace means. That’s why the Apostle draws the contrast between works that earn wages and grace that comes free from the giver (Romans 4:4-8, 16; 11:6). As he sums it up, “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.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
In other words, every aspect of our salvation from beginning to end, including the grace we receive and our ability to respond to it, is a gift from God, born entirely of His initiative. As Paul puts it, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Romans 9:16)
There’s a story about a young soldier in Napoleon’s army who had committed a serious offence and was facing military justice. His mother came before the great general to plead mercy for her son. Napoleon informed her that the soldier’s crime didn’t deserve mercy. “That may be so,” the mother admitted, “but that’s why it’s called mercy.” Napoleon agreed and let the young man go.
All of us are tempted to smuggle our own efforts into our standing before God, even in subtle ways. But if God’s favour to us depended in any way on our actions or sincerity or intentions – in short, on anything we’ve ever done or might ever do – then we’d all be condemned under His judgment. If we know anything of our own hearts, we know this to be true. Recognizing God’s sovereign grace not only honours Him, it liberates us to respond to Him out of joyful gratitude.
Solus Christus (Christ alone)
Of all the solas, this one would appear to be a no-brainer for most Christians, especially those from an evangelical tradition. And yet, it too has been subverted in various ways throughout church history. Once again this is to be expected, given fallen human nature. Deep down, everyone knows they need a mediator between themselves and God. This is why every religion has priests or those who function in a priestly role. The word “religion” itself means to bind back together, to repair the broken relationship between the human and the divine.
According to the Scriptures, “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 2:5) The Apostle Peter affirms that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Nevertheless, over the centuries before the Reformation, the church managed to elevate its martyrs and clergy, among others, to a mediatory role between Christ and His people. Modern Christians aren’t immune to this temptation, either. We often place our pastors, our prominent leaders and other mature believers on a pedestal, seeing them as closer to God than the rest of us, their prayers more effectual.
But the reformers would remind us, as they did the church of their time, that we all have equal access to God through Christ. No one is as worthy, as acceptable to God, or as ready to be gracious to us as Jesus.
In the current Western zeitgeist, steeped as it is in relativism and pluralism, nothing is so offensive as an exclusive claim to the truth. And yet Jesus said of Himself, without equivocation, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) Holding to this truth and speaking it in love will remain one of the great challenges facing the church in the 21st century.
Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone)
This is the sola that sums up the other four, giving purpose and meaning to all of them. Everything in the created order – the universe, history, humanity and the entire plan of salvation – exists for the glory of God. Human benefit is a wonderful by-product, but it’s not the central motive for God’s activities.
In the Old Testament, God reminds His people that He didn’t choose them because they were greater or better or more numerous than the nations around them. He chose them and continued to bless them for the sake of His own name and glory (Deuteronomy 7:7-8; Isaiah 48:9-11).
In the New Testament, Paul reiterates that not many in the church are wise or noble or powerful by human standards, so that no one might boast except in God (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). He explains that the eternal purpose of salvation since before the creation of the world is to glorify the kindness and grace of God (Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:4-7). He asserts that God’s acts of mercy as well as of judgment bring Him glory (Romans 9:14-24). And he concludes, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
During the Reformation, this truth encountered resistance in a church accustomed to thinking of its faith as buttressed by human merit. Nowadays, it’s as likely to come under attack from a surrounding culture committed to individualism and self-determination. As products of that culture, 21st-century Christians are prone to a similar line of thinking. Our theology and worship can become man-centred rather than God-centred. We come to view church life as an avenue for self-improvement rather than for honouring and pleasing our Lord.
To counteract this tendency, the Apostle gave the church a simple but all-encompassing command: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
In the words of the Westminster Catechism, the chief end of man – or in the modern vernacular, the meaning of life – is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. That’s as true today as when it was written centuries ago, and it will remain so until the end of the age.
Sources and further reading
The Cambridge Declaration of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, modern restatement of the Five Solas, formulated April 20, 1996, posted by Theopedia.
James Montgomery Boice, “The Five Solas of the Reformation,” excerpt from Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), pp. 65-149, posted by Reformation Theology, September 9, 2010.
Justin Holcomb, “Five points from the past that should matter to you,” Christianity.com.
Jesse Johnson, “5 questions and the 5 solas,” The Cripplegate, July 2, 2014.
Scott Keith, “Just what are the Five Solas of the Reformation?” 1517 The Legacy Project, October 27, 2016.
Ed Stetzer, “What are these ‘Five Solas’ and why do they even matter?” Christianity Today, February 25, 2017.