Pastor John Samson
I was recently involved in a friendly discussion with a fellow Christian minister. I was talking about the teachings that sparked the Protestant Reformation, when out of nowhere, it seemed, my minister friend said, “The Holy Spirit is not stuck in the 16th Century. He has moved on. Why don’t you?”
I was a little taken aback to hear this, especially from a minister, but I then realized that he is perhaps speaking for many when he wonders why people like myself are enamored with the Reformation almost five centuries on. Many wonder about the relevance of the Reformation, and see no obvious relationship between that time and our own.
So, is it the case that I am seeking to go back in time and live in the 16th Century? Was that an era that simply thrills my soul?
Hardly! I can assure you that I have no desire to re-establish the dress, fashion, music or mindset of the 16th century. Those days are long gone and I am actually very thankful for that. However, there is a big difference between the time of the Reformation and the central truths of the Bible which the Protestant Reformation brought back to the Church. Here I would have to admit that I strongly desire that the Church comes back to these Bible truths. In this, I hold up my hands, and admit that I am guilty as charged. Modern day believers are largely ignorant of the issues and in this regard, I earnestly pray that the Holy Spirit will bring a new reformation back to the forefront of the Church in our day.
So, if I haven’t moved on, the question is, has the Holy Spirit? Many would say that He has. Yet, it is because I believe it is the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scripture and led His Church back to the truth of the Gospel during that Reformation era that I say, “No, I don’t believe He has in any way moved on.” Here’s why: I believe that the central truths of the Reformation are the central truths of the Bible.
The Holy Spirit is certainly leading His Church into other secondary truths in our day (secondary only in relationship to that which is primary – the truth about God and His Gospel) but He is NOT leading His people away from the Bible or the truths of the Gospel.
One of the slogans of the Reformation was “Semper Reformanda” or “Always Reforming” and we should always seek to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead as He reveals to us what Scripture says, and shows each of us our man-made traditions. We all have our traditions. Some of them are good (when the tradition agrees with the Scripture), some of them are bad, because Scripture clearly denies them. In this regard, let God be true and every man a liar.
Jesus was very clear about this when addressing the Pharisees and scribes saying: “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition…. thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.” Mark 7:8, 9, 13
In that we are always to be reforming to His Word, the Holy Spirit’s work goes on in our time, but it is NEVER, EVER, EVER at the expense of the Gospel itself. We are never to abandon the truth of the Gospel for the sake of ecclesiastical unity. To do so would be to deny the Lord who brings us unity in the first place. Agreement on minor issues are not important for the unity we enjoy as Christians, but we should never compromise the Gospel. The Gospel is not something that can be altered, modified or adjusted without severe consequences. The book of Galatians affirms this (Gal 1:6-10). Preaching a different Gospel may seem “relevant” to people, and might make them happy, but Scripture declares that it brings the anathema of God (Gal. 1:8, 9). I want to try to avoid that if at all possible!
In some ways, it has to be said that the Holy Spirit has moved on. He continues to lead His people into all truth. Yet, as regards to the Gospel, I don’t believe the Holy Spirit has moved on, nor will He ever.
In five simple slogans known as the Five Solas, I believe the Reformers brought us back to the heart of the Gospel. The Bible has not changed one iota since the 16th Century, and neither has the Gospel that the Bible proclaims. When we move beyond the Bible, we move away from the Holy Spirit who inspired it. Some people would say that the Holy Spirit has moved on. With all that is in me, I must humbly but strongly disagree. It is indeed sad that most Christians think these things to be irrelevant, when in all reality there could be nothing more relevant to the Church and our world.
Briefly then, let me enumerate these five solas of the Reformation. Luther and his reformers had 5 main slogans, all using the word “SOLA,” which is the Latin word for “ALONE.” It was this word “ALONE” that designated the true biblical Gospel and set it apart from all other pretenders. The cry of these Reformers was not simply FAITH!, GRACE!, CHRIST!, THE SCRIPTURE!, or THE GLORY OF GOD! (All embracing a false Gospel could do that.)
Instead, the cry was FAITH ALONE!, GRACE ALONE!, CHRIST ALONE!, SCRIPTURE ALONE!, THE GLORY OF GOD ALONE! With Scripture alone as the sure foundation, the Reformers affirmed that justification is by grace alone, received through faith alone because of Christ alone for the glory of God alone.
The central or material issue was Justification by faith alone (Latin: Sola Fide). Yet often overlooked is another controversy which was equally as serious for the life of the Church. The formal issue (the structure in which the whole debate ensued) was the issue of final authority – who or what speaks for God? It was here that Luther and the Reformers believed that Holy Scripture alone is the infallible rule of faith for the Church.
SOLA SCRIPTURA – SCRIPTURE ALONE
Sola Scriptura, means Scripture alone. This does not refer to simply “me and my Bible in the woods” so to speak, or interpreting the Bible in any way we choose to do so. This doctrine does not seek to negate the authority of the Church and of biblical eldership. Scripture teaches us to submit to godly leaders who have the rule over us (Heb. 13:17). Nor does it refer to Scripture in isolation. What sola Scriptura refers to is the idea that Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church.
Though God has set teachers and other offices in the Church, they are not to exercise dominion over the Bible, but to submit themselves to it. Only the Scripture is theopneustos or God breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), and every idea, thought and doctrine needs to have its foundation in Scripture to carry the weight of Divine authority and bind the human conscience.
Regarding false prophets and false teachers, Isaiah 8:19, 20 says, “When they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.”
The law and the testimony is a reference to the Scripture. If a false teacher says something that cannot be substantiated by sacred Scripture, he/she may claim to be bringing new light, but actually there is no light present there at all. It is the entrance of His Word that brings light.
SOLA FIDE – FAITH ALONE
The material principle of the Reformation was Sola Fide, meaning “by Faith alone.” This was the material or substance of the preaching of the Reformers. The formal principle “Scripture alone” was the principle that Scripture alone (and not Church tradition) is the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church. This was the principle by which “Faith Alone” is affirmed, as well as the other solas. That is because these doctrines are the doctrines of the Bible.
Against the background of a Europe filled with the traditions of men, including priestly absolution, penances, indulgences, pilgrimages, prayer to the saints, etc., Luther and the Reformers made the bold cry of “Faith alone.” This did not mean faith in isolation, or a dead faith that produced no works. This referred to a vibrant, living faith, for only a living and not a dead faith would result in justification. Faith without works is dead, and a dead faith will not save anyone (James 2:17).
Sola fide then was the belief that faith alone is the instrument of justification without any meritorious works of man added to it.
Rome believed (then as it does now) that justification is by grace, through faith and because of Christ. What Rome does not believe is that justification is by faith alone, or by grace alone, or by Christ alone. For Rome, justification is by grace plus merit, through faith plus works; by Christ plus the sinner’s contribution of inherent righteousness. In contrast, the Reformers called the Church back to the one true Biblical Gospel: Salvation is by God’s grace alone, received through faith alone, because of Christ alone, based on the Scriptures alone, to the Glory of God alone.
In Romans 3:28 the Apostle Paul declared, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
Romans 4:4-5 says, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Many other scriptures would affirm this as the heart of the Gospel (Rom. 3:21 – 4:5; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8, 9; Phil. 3:9). Martin Luther called the doctrine of justification “the article of the standing or falling Church.” That is, in his estimation, a church preaching the doctrine was “standing,” and one not preaching it was, or had already, fallen.
SOLA GRATIA – GRACE ALONE
Sola Gratia means Grace alone. Surely everyone who had a Bible would affirm this truth at the time of the Reformation. Well firstly, not everyone had access to a Bible, and secondly, no, that is not the case at all.
A pure Pelagian (a follower of the British monk Pelagius) would argue against grace as a necessity, believing that man, apart from God’s grace, had the inherent power within himself to raise himself up by his bootstraps to become pleasing to God. But surely Rome would agree with Grace alone, wouldn’t it? No, not at all.
The religions of man are usually comfortable with the idea of God’s grace being necessary. Rome has always believed that, as do the Mormon Church in our day (2 Nephi 25:23), but as my friend Dr. James White states so well, “The issue has never been the necessity of grace. It has always been the sufficiency of grace!”
The question is this: Is grace able to save or is it merely a help to save, with man’s will being the final deciding factor?
The Reformers affirmed that grace actually saves. Grace alone meant grace at the start, grace to the end, grace in the middle, grace without fail, grace without mixture, grace without addition, grace that allows no boasting, grace that precludes all glorying but in the Lord.
It is here that we get into the arena of monergism (one working) v. synergism (more than one party working) regarding salvation. All the Reformers were monergists, believing that God’s grace is the essential deciding factor that enables a person to believe. As Augustine, who without doubt was the greatest theologian of the first millennia of the Church said, “God chooses us, not because we believe, but that we may believe…”
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:12, 13
“For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” Phil 1:29
Apollos “greatly helped those who had believed through grace.” Acts 18:27
“So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” Romans 9:16
“But it is by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.” 1 Corinthians 1:30-31
Grace alone is affirmed by these and other scriptures, including:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Eph. 2:8, 9
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Rom. 11:6
SOLUS CHRISTUS – CHRIST ALONE
The next sola was Solus Christus, the affirmation that it is Christ alone who saves. It is not Christ plus someone or something else.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” John 14:6
“by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead – by this name this man stands here before you in good health. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:10, 12
In all reality the doctrine of justification by faith alone is really theological short-hand for justification by the work of Christ alone. There was a double function at work in this regard. Christ not only died an atoning death for our sins, but we need to remember that He also lived a sinless life. If all that was necessary for our justification was the death on the cross, Christ could have come to earth on Good Friday, died on the cross for us, and three days later, risen again. However, for more than 33 years, Christ was tempted in every way like us, yet He was without sin (Heb. 4:15). Christ is the only One who can say that He loved His Father perfectly in life, with all His heart, soul, mind and strength and fulfilled the entire demands of God’s law.
At the cross then, all our sins were laid on Him (though of course, He remained the holy and spotless Lamb of God, in and of Himself) and as our sin bearer, He was punished in our place. As the angel declared to Joseph in Matthew 1:21, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24).
Isa 53:5, 6 says, “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”
But that is far from all that took place. There was a double imputation. Not only were our sins imputed to Christ and He bore their punishment for us, but positively, the righteousness of Christ was imputed to us. The punishment due to us came upon Him, and the pleasure of God due to Jesus’ obedience to every jot and tittle of the law came upon us. That is because the righteousness of Jesus Christ is one that has fulfilled the entire law of God. 2 Cor 5:21 declares, “He (God) made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (Christ).”
The righteous demands of the law (the requirement of total obedience) was met by Christ alone who becomes the righteousness of the believer (1 Cor. 1:30). The work of Christ is perfect in every respect, and perfect in every aspect. The righteousness now enjoyed by the believer is an alien one (one that comes from outside of himself) for it is the righteousness of Christ Himself. It is a gift, not something earned (Rom. 5:17), and is the cause of our rejoicing in the direct presence of the Lord. As believers in Christ, we’ve been made righteous with a righteousness that has never known sin. Hallelujah!
“But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:30, 31) We are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.
SOLI DEO GLORIA – TO GOD ALONE BE THE GLORY
The final sola was Soli Deo Gloria, which means “to God alone be the glory!”
Again, wouldn’t everyone agree with this?
Well, no, because at the time of the Reformation there was much attention given to Mary, to the saints, to the lighting of candles, etc.. In Medieval Catholicism there was massive confusion due to the plethora of idols, who for all practical purposes, became almost minor deities.
Even the young Luther, in 1505, in the midst of the thunderstorm that threatened his life, prayed to Saint Anne. As a lightning bolt struck just feet away from him, in fear of his life, he shouted, “Save me Saint Anne and I will become a monk.” Saint Anne was the patron saint of miners, and seeing that Luther was from a mining family, it seemed natural to him to pray to Saint Anne to save him from impending death. Luther, in surviving the storm, kept his vow to Saint Anne, gave up his studies to become a lawyer (much to the anguish and consternation of his father, Hans) and joined the monastery. The young Luther’s devotion to the saints (before his conversion to Christ) was typical of that era.
God will not share His glory with another (Isa. 48:11). Salvation was designed to give God’s glory the maximum amount of exposure. It resounds to the praise of the glory of His grace (Eph 1:6), according to the riches of His grace (v. 7), to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory (v. 12), with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory, (v. 14).
Only God gets glory for our salvation. Human merit (or works) plays no part in a person’s salvation but are merely the by-product, or fruit, of a relationship with God, established by God’s grace alone (Eph. 2:8 -10).
The five solas are relevant in all ages, because they are truths that can be clearly demonstrated from sacred Scripture. To many, these doctrines are mere historical novelties – interesting milestones and beliefs of a former era. Yet, as far as I can see, it is very much apparent that we need these same biblical, Holy Spirit inspired correctives in our own day.
The 16th Century is one very different to our own. We may strongly disagree with the burning of heretics at that time, and perhaps even be shocked by the very hostile rhetoric that flowed freely between those who disagreed on these issues. Yet at the same time, we must try to understand a culture so removed from ours where people believed the Bible was the Word of God; that heaven and hell were real places; and that doctrine actually mattered.
Today, many want to hear a positive or affirming message when they come to a Church. They certainly don’t want to hear about the majestic holiness of God, or the wrath of God against sin. I am not sure how popular the Apostle Paul would be if he was enabled to preach on Christian television in our day and taught from Romans Chapters 1 – 3. What do you think?
In 2 Timothy 4:1-5, Paul gave Timothy this charge: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
Perhaps the greatest sign that all is not well in our day is the fact that God may well be giving the people what they want – preachers who will tell them what their itching ears want to hear (verses 3, 4 above). Could it be that this, by itself, is God’s judgement? I’ll let you, the reader decide.
I don’t believe the Holy Spirit has moved on from the central truths of the Reformation. In fact, I believe He is calling His Church back to the proclamation of these doctrines that once shook the world.