by Johnathan Arnold
A housewife, truck driver, mechanic, or accountant may wonder how much difference a few Latin phrases from 500 years ago could really make in his or her life. When I was first seeking God and devouring all the information that I could about the things of the Lord, I remember stumbling upon an article on the five solas. Soli Deo Gloria stood out to me, and I even had it engraved on a watch that I received for my high school graduation. At that time, I barely understood the historical or theological significance of these truths. I only knew that in an amazing way, they summarized everything I had been reading in the Bible.
Today, I'm more convinced than ever that these are the foundations of our faith. These are the truths that we must keep ever before us. These are the truths that are just as relevant today as they were 500 years ago.
The Five What?
The word sola, Latin for “only” or “alone,” highlights the reductionist nature of the reformer’s theology. When a mountain of Catholic traditions and religious red tape was keeping people from God, the reformers called the church back to the primitive Christianity of the New Testament. Manmade add-ons had diluted the gospel, so the reformers looked to Scripture alone as the final authority for doctrine and practice. The Catholic understanding of merit was tied too closely to good works and human initiative, so the reformers pointed people to grace alone through faith alone.
The Latin slogans we call the solas were organized at a later time to capture the heart of the reformers' theology. Grace, faith, and Scripture alone were the original solas; ”Christ alone” and “the glory of God alone” were then added. The reformers wouldn’t have been able to list the three or five solas, but the whole of their work flowed out of a conviction that we are saved by (1) grace alone, through (2) faith alone, in (3) Christ alone, to (4) the glory of God alone, according to (5) Scripture alone.
The Formal Principle: Sola Scriptura
Scripture alone as the final rule and authority for all things is called the "formal principle" of the Reformation because it is the source of Reformation theology. While we respect tradition and our faith is informed by history, everything is secondary to Scripture and subject to being tested. This necessarily implies the full inerrancy of Scripture.
Catholics, on the other hand, look at tradition and creeds as binding and worthy of devotion equal to that which is given to Scripture. For this reason, Scripture over tradition is still a dividing point for Protestants and Catholics. Only the eternal Scriptures are a fully trustworthy foundation for the organization and organism we call the church. In Luther's words, “Every institution in which men and women are not unceasingly occupied with the Word of God must be corrupt.”
Furthermore, the reformers believed that everyone has the right to read and interpret this Scripture for themselves. This was not to promote subjectivity or undermine good scholarship and the God-ordained role of teachers in the body of Christ, but to protect God’s people from being blown about by every wind of doctrine. In Catholicism, the Pope and bishops are still able to make interpretations (either in the form of writing or tradition) that are binding on the church and above being questioned.
The Scripture For All People
For centuries, low literacy rates and the inaccessibility of Scripture meant that only religious leaders and Latin scholars had access to the Word of God. The workaday person who wanted to know what Scripture said was forced to rely on a church authority. The reformers’ confidence in Sola Scriptura led them to make Scripture more accessible. John Wycliffe, forerunner to the Reformation, blazed the trail by translating the Bible into English.
It was Luther’s German Bible, however, that had the most far-reaching effects. It was read or listened to by scores of Germans. Luther said, “This German Bible (this is not praise for myself but the work praises itself) is so good and precious that it’s better than all other versions, Greek and Latin, and one can find more in it than in all commentaries, for we are removing impediments and difficulties so that other people may read it without hindrance.”
Later, William Tyndale offered a better English translation with the first chapter and verse divisions. This paved the way for the King James Version in 1611, one of the most reliable versions to date.
Today, Protestants still encourage Bible reading. Read the Bible! Study the Bible! Cherish the Bible! Study Bibles line the shelves of Christian book stores and over two billion Bibles have been distributed by the Gideons alone because a few men caught a vision for the power of Scripture in the hands of the people. After his German Bible was widely distributed, Luther was "only concerned that there won’t be much reading in the Bible, for many people are tired of it and nobody clamors for it any more." In 1545, the year before his death, Luther urged, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scriptures.”
What Qualifies as "Scripture" in "Scripture Alone"?
Another disagreement between Catholics and Protestants centers around the canon of Scripture. In other words, what actually qualifies as the "Scripture" referred to in "Scripture alone"? The Old Testament contained in the 66-book Protestant Bibles is based on the Hebrew Bible. Catholics, on the other hand, recognize several additional books as “deuterocanonical,” part of a “second canon” additional to the Hebrew Bible. This includes books like 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Baruch, and Ecclesiasticus. Protestants question the legitimacy of these books and consider them “apocryphal” or “obscure” and “non-canonical”; thus, they are called the Apocrypha.
The Scripture referred to in “Scripture alone” is the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, inspired by God and free from error in the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. These Scriptures contain everything necessary for man to be saved and live a life pleasing to God.
The Material Principle: Sola Fide
“In my heart reigns this one article, faith in my dear Lord Christ, the beginning, middle and end of whatever spiritual and divine thoughts I may have, whether by day or by night." (Martin Luther)
The material principle that flows from the formal principle is justification by faith. Faith in Christ as the only way to be saved is the central doctrine of the reformation and the Christian faith. Sola Fide is inseparable from Sola Gratia and Solus Christus:
God freely gave the gift of His Son, whose finished work on the cross is our only hope for redemption. By placing our faith in His Son and resting in His work, we lay hold of God’s gift of grace.
When Luther contended that “we find no rest for our weary bones unless we cling to the word of grace," he understood this "clinging" as saving faith. Faith holds, trusts, and perseveres. A desperate and continual casting of oneself upon the Son as one's only hope is the nature of a faith that saves. John Wycliffe urged, “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on His sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than His righteousness.”
We have no merit of our own to earn or supplement our salvation. Salvation is available independent of good deeds. While the Catholic system of merit bases man’s sanctification on good deeds and works of charity, the reformers point us to Christ’s finished work as the source of righteousness. Romans 1:17 had a tremendous impact on Luther’s life: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Righteousness is a gift, not something that we earn or work our way into. Faith continues to be the key ingredient in our progressive and entire sanctification.
Of course, Wesleyans go a step further than many of the reformers in saying that this righteousness which we access by faith is actual righteousness or imparted righteousness. By faith, Christ not only covers our sin but actually makes us righteous. Christ not only declares us "not guilty," He actually makes us holy!
“Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on His sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than His righteousness.”
Faith Alone? What About Works?
While justification by faith is a significant theme in gospel-centered books like Romans and Galatians, some point to books such as James to suggest that our faith must be supplemented by works. Martin Luther, himself concerned about the implications of James, was overzealous in calling it a “strawy epistle,” or an “epistle of straw." However, he did not flatly deny its canonicity and only viewed it this way in comparison to more gospel-centered books. In fact, James does not contradict Paul’s writings, but rather confronts people whose "faith" is nothing more than mental assent or shallow belief. Genuine faith, the kind that lays hold of Christ and His salvation, always produces fruit.
The counsel of Scripture is clear: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). In Luther's preface to the Epistle of Romans, which led to Wesley's warm heart experience of salvation, he writes that “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” Elsewhere, he says, “Faith is the 'yes' of the heart, a conviction on which one stakes one's life.”
Read also Faith Alone by Nathan Purdy.
French, Henry F. Martin Luther’s Table Talk: Abridged From Luther's Works, Volume 54. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017.
Piper, John. "Martin Luther: Lessons from His Life and Labor." Desiring God.
Luther, Martin. "Preface to the Epistle to the Romans."
Luther, Martin. "From Luther's Introduction." Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians.
Mathis, David. "The Gospel of James: Open Letter to Martin Luther." Desiring God.
Calhoun, David B. J. "John Wycliffe: The Morning Star of the Reformation." C. S. Lewis Institute.
Schreiner, Thomas. "Justification + Faith = Nothing." The Gospel Coalition.
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