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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Five Solas

One of the things to come out of the Reformation was the Five Solas. You may have heard of them. The term "sola" is Latin for "alone" or only. Only it seems sometimes that good things come with clever misunderstandings. Intentional or not? I'll let you decide.

The Five Solas are sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria -- Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone. What could be clearer? Okay, maybe a lot. Look first at the obvious problem. How is it possible to say "alone" five times? I mean, doesn't that mean that none of them are alone? So I wanted to take just a moment to explain what these things do not mean, because I'm pretty sure that there is some confusion out there.

First, the purpose of these "alones" was to counter a specific teaching of the Roman Catholic Church of their day. Keep that in mind as you consider the individual components.

The first, sola scriptura, was the starting point of this opposition. While the Roman Catholic Church holds to three points of authority -- the Church, Tradition, and Scripture -- the Reformers argued that the Scriptures alone were the sole authority (See that word "sole"? Thus, "sola".) in matters of faith and practice. As such, this sola was the primary point from which the rest of the solas and the rest of the Reformation proceeded. Sola scriptura did not argue that there was no value in either tradition or the Church. It did not argue that the Scriptures were the sole source of knowledge or even authority in the realms of, say, civics or mathematics. These and other nonsensical accusations have been floated on this sola. It is a failure to comprehend (at best).

The second, sola fide, is popularly attacked because it is quite clear that we are not saved by faith alone. We are saved by faith, grace, Christ ... I mean, come on! There's a lot to this! Again, what we have here is a failure to comprehend ... at best. The point was to counter the Roman Catholic argument that we are justified by works. The Reformers, pointing to such passages as Paul's "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (Rom 4:3), argued that we are not justified (declared righteous) by any works. We are declared righteous by God on the basis of faith in Christ. The Roman Catholic view was that we are initially justified by faith but must proceed to actual righteousness if we are to be ultimately saved. That was justification by works. Thus, when the Reformers argued for sola fide, it was not that faith was the only thing required for salvation, but that faith was the only thing required for God to declare us justified. Nor is it an abdication of the need for works (a very common mistake in the Protestant realm). Luther was famous for saying that we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Faith has its results which, according to James, is demonstrated in works. Thus, sola fide is not a dismissal of the need for works, but a counter to the claim that works in some way save us.

As for sola gratia, the point was not that grace alone is required for salvation. Any casual reader of the Scriptures would know that we are saved "by grace through faith". Clearly that is not grace alone. This sola was intended to deny the Roman Catholic doctrine of merits. The Roman Catholics argued that it was possible to acquire sufficient merit so that God would be justly obligated to save us. Further, it was possible to achieve super merit that would allow others to make it to heaven based on this aggregated merit. Sola gratia was laid out in direct opposition to this doctrine. We are not saved by merit of any type. Grace is biblically defined as unmerited favor. It is God granting us favor that we haven't earned. Please note, however, that grace does not mean that the favor is not earned. "Oh, come on, Stan. Now you're just contradicting yourself." No, grace does not mean that the favor was not earned. It means that we didn't earn it. It means that sinful humans do not earn God's kindness. The Scriptures are clear that Christ did earn God's favor. "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." God said that about Him more than once. Jesus earned God's favor and, on behalf of the favor earned by Christ, God shows us favor that we don't merit. Thus, grace does not mean that the favor wasn't merited, but that it was not merited by the recipients -- us. Nor does sola gratia mean that grace alone is required for salvation. That is not what the Scriptures hold and that is not what the sola is for.

Solus Christus was aimed at the pope and others venerated by the Roman Catholic Church. The reference is not to justification, but to the sole mediator. We don't pray to Mary or the saints. We don't have the pope or the priesthood as go-betweens for the people to God. Christ alone is our mediator. Christ alone is our salvation. We are a priesthood of believers with no one between God and us except Christ Himself. Christ alone does not save. Christ is our sole Savior, but salvation requires God's grace granted through our faith in Christ.

The fifth sola, soli Deo gloria, says that we glory in God alone. That could probably stand by itself, but remember the point. It was intended to counter a Roman Catholic doctrine. The doctrine in mind here was the veneration of the saints. We do not offer glory to saints, to people, even to ministers or priests or bishops or the pope. God alone gets the glory. Anything else is idolatry.

Perhaps, having understood the intent of these Five Solas, you might not get led astray on their meaning. We are not saved by faith alone or grace alone. The Scriptures are not the sole source for knowledge, but the sole authority in matters of faith and practice. We are saved by faith apart from works, by grace that we did not earn but not apart from faith, by Christ as the only name given under heaven by which we must be saved, but not apart from the favor earned by Christ applied to those who did not merit it and on the basis of faith in Him. Anything less is a failure to comprehend and a minimizing of salvation, justification, and sanctification. In all cases, soli Deo gloria.


Craig said...

Every so often as I walk through whatever Habitat house I'm building, I write a quick SDG on a stud somewhere. I figure if Bach could do it on his music I can do it on my houses.

Stan said...

If we could live soli Deo gloria all the time, I believe that the largest portion of our difficulties and wrong thinking would be erased. I am convinced that this is our primary if not sole sin problem.

Craig said...

No argument from me.

Kameal Evangel Celestee said...

I am working through a lot of opposite doctines right now. this looks at what the Sola's mean and why they were written, I find this is a very anointed and inspired write up, a fair and honest view which comes right back to giving God the Glory. :-)