The Five Solas

Five Hundred Years and Still True

This year we commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, commonly associated with Martin Luther nailing ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. The movement unwittingly launched so long ago has ended up having enormous influence over the past five centuries. Politically, socially, economically, culturally, and in many other ways, the Reformation has helped to mold the world we live in today. But in the midst of recognizing the undeniably wide-ranging impact of the Reformation, we need to remember that it began with and was built on specifically religious concerns dealing with faith and practice.

As the church in the West had passed through the Middle Ages, much well-intended religious clutter had overlaid the message about peace with God through Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the apostles and taught by early church leaders. Nobody was trying to obscure that message; it’s just that lots of other religious “stuff” (practices, advice, expectations, decisions and declarations by church leaders, etc.) had so demanded attention that by Luther’s time even a monk committed to the sternest way of life and Christian fidelity imaginable could not find that original message.

By the time of Luther, a couple of centuries of pained Christians had already been crying out for renewal and reinvigoration of the church from head to toe, but it took the anguished search of someone desperate to find peace with God to kick-start a movement that neither he nor anyone else could have controlled or foreseen. Luther’s search, along with that of many others who became fellow Reformers, served to get rid of the extraneous clutter and rediscover that precious message. Among the many significant steps toward greater clarity in teaching and practice, five bold affirmations—the five solas—especially stand out as a synopsis of what the movement came to be all about.

Sola gratia — “By grace alone”

Recognizing that our feverish endeavors cannot commend us to God, we rely on divine grace—God’s unmerited goodness toward us in his overarching, never-failing love for us in Christ. We rely and depend on God’s grace for our righteousness in Christ, for daily provision, and for all the needs we have in life and in death.

Sola fide — “By faith alone”

We are not accepted by God because of any good works we have done or could do; we have no merits to offer as payment for the righteousness we need to come before him. That righteousness is received by faith alone, and we are justified by faith alone—faith in the incarnate Son of God who lived, suffered, died, and rose again to achieve righteousness for us. While that faith impels us to serve God as faithfully as we can—to “do good works”—nothing we do can win the righteousness we need to come before God. Jesus Christ has won that, and we receive it by faith alone.

Solus Christus — “Christ alone”

Christ alone is our Savior. We do not rely on others to bring us to God. We need no mediator between God and us other than Jesus Christ. He is all our righteousness and our only hope.

Sola scriptura — “Scripture alone”

Scripture, the revealed and written Word of God, is the divine authority for our life and teaching. Everything else—the ancient creeds, the faithful teaching of great Christian leaders from the early church—carries less weight for us than God’s Word. These lesser authorities are still superior to our private judgments, but they must be measured and normed by the ultimate norm: Scripture itself, which unfailingly and clearly proclaims God’s unmerited love for us in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria — “To God alone (be) glory”

Since God has made all things, controls them all, and in divine love sent his Son to become the Savior of all those who will believe through the power of the Holy Spirit, this glorious Triune God alone is the one to be praised and honored.

These five core affirmations, in which all the Protestant Reformers joined, express the fundamental emphases of the movement begun so long ago when a monk nailed some theses to a church door in Germany. Little did (or could) Martin Luther know then that he and a striking group of fellow travelers were initiating a movement that would respond so clearly and effectively to the long-standing clamor from faithful Christians for the church to get back on track. None of them could see down the corridors of the following five hundred years to today or anticipate what would arise from their endeavor to be faithful to God in their day, seeking to find anew and proclaim afresh the message originally entrusted to the apostles.

During the Reformation itself and in the five hundred years since it began, the core affirmations have found expression in sermons, confessions, liturgies, and hymns. We confess “by grace alone” as we take the beloved words of “Amazing Grace” on our lips. As we sing “And Can It Be,” we profess justification “by faith alone.” We affirm “Christ alone” with the stirring stanzas of “Not What My Hands Have Done.” “Teach Me, O Lord, Your Way of Truth” draws us into the proclamation of “Scripture alone.” And “To God Be the Glory” enshrines “to God (alone) be glory.” These and hundreds of other hymns and songs over the past five centuries have enabled Christians to confess and proclaim the core affirmations of the Reformation, which called the church in that day long ago and us today to sing with the ancient church the Te Deum: “Holy God, We Praise Your Name.” With the faithful of the ages, we rest on and delight in the message of peace with God through Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the apostles, taught by the early church, and rediscovered during the Reformation.

As heirs to the work of these stalwarts of half a millennium ago, we must strive to be faithful to God, holding fast to their insights expressed in the five solas, seeking to get rid of whatever clutter may have piled up among us in the intervening five hundred years, and rediscovering and proclaiming afresh the power and comfort of the apostolic message in our day as the Reformers did in theirs. May our commemoration this year of the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation lead us also into ever greater faithfulness to the Triune God, who leads us today as God did the Reformers five centuries ago. Soli Deo Gloria!

James R. Payton Jr. is professor emeritus of history at Redeemer University College and is the author of Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (IVP Academic, 2010).