Acts 5:27-29 (KJV)
27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them,
28 Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.
29 Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.
Martin Luther before the Assembly at Worms in 1521
Since Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain Reason — and not by Popes and Councils who have so often contradicted themselves — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and I will not recant.
Here I stand.
I can do no other.
God help me.
The Protestant Reformation
Five hundred years ago a great controversy was brewing in the Christian world. A Catholic monk named Martin Luther posted on a church door a list of 95 reasons that men could not be forgiven their sins by paying money to the church. This was known as the 95 Theses. The document proved to be the flame that started Protestant Reformation.
The Roman Catholic world, led by Pope Leo X and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, attempted to silence Martin Luther. Their attempt failed, and the western Christian world divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The reformers’ disagreements with the Roman Church can be summed up by something called the Five Solas of the Reformation (Five “Alones”).
- Scripture alone
- Christ alone
- Faith alone
- Grace alone
- Glory of God alone
The word “alone” (“sola”) was a key disagreement between the reformers and the Roman Church. The Roman Church believed in these things, but instead of saying “alone”, the Roman Church would say “and”. They claimed that something needed added to each of these things to be effective.
All Protestant Christians can proclaim that they believe in salvation by Christ alone, through faith alone, by grace alone, according to scripture alone, for glory of God alone.
In this lesson, we will examine each of the five solas and explain the difference between the teachings of the Roman Church and the churches or the Protestant reformation.
When the Roman Cardinal assigned to interrogate Martin Luther at his trial asked him by what authority he objected to the teachings of the church, Martin Luther proclaimed that it was on the authority of scripture. The seed of belief in “Scripture Alone” laid in his answer.
The Roman Catholic Church believed in other sources of authority that were equal to the bible, including tradition, words spoken by the pope, and statements issued by church councils. Through those things, the Roman church adopted new teachings which were not contained in scripture. On that basis, the church introduced the doctrine of indulgences, by which people could be forgiven of their sins by paying money to the church. Indulgences was just one of many teachings created by the Roman church which had no basis in scripture. Purgatory, confession, penance, transubstantiation, prayer to the saints, are all examples of teachings with no basis in scripture. And those are just a few of the teachings they created which could not be found in scripture.
The reformers belief in “Scripture Alone” did not mean no value was placed on tradition or the historic writings of church teachers. But it did mean that all other sources were subjected to the ultimate authority of the scripture. The reformers rejected any teaching that could not be clearly supported by scripture. And their statement of “Scripture Alone” was how they explained their belief.
“…though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed…Galatians 1:8
Throughout history, men have sought to add or take away from scripture. However, the bible gives us a clear explanation that the bible, as it is currently written, is a complete document. It contains everything we need for our lives, (2 Pet 1:3) it is the faith delivered to us once and for all time, (Jude 1:3), and anyone who modifies, takes away, or adds to it, is at risk of being cursed. (Gal 1:8, Romans 22:18)
Some professed Christians have added or removed from holy scripture by giving the writings or words of later teachers equal or greater authority than scripture. Some have added to scripture overtly, like the Roman Church which plainly admits to adding to scripture. Others do add to scripture covertly, adding or removing from scripture while still claiming believe in “Scripture Alone”. It often takes the form of special supernatural revelations that have been received through special experience, but have no basis in scripture.
When we abandon the authority of scripture, we will naturally find something else to look to as the authority of our faith. Most groups who abandon “Scripture Alone” end up looking to a special teacher or leader with new divine revelations and new special teachings that cannot be understood through the plain reading of scripture. But any group who abandons the belief in “Scripture Alone” is repeating the mistakes of the past and giving up one of the great truths that was so prized by the protestant reformers.
The reformers identified another significant problem in the teachings of the Roman Church. Their teachings obscured and diminished the saving work of Jesus Christ. According to the scripture, the work of salvation was wrought entirely by Christ on the cross, (Heb 10:12-14) and Christ alone is mediator between God and man. (1 Tim 2:5)
The Roman Church created a system that broke the direct connection between Christ and the believer. To be forgiven of sin, they insister that a believer had to confess their sins to a priest who would absolve them of sin of Christ’s behalf. Prayers were made to saints or to Mary, who they believed would intercede with Christ on their behalf. Average Christians were forbidden from reading bibles, and people were only permitted to hear the “authorized” interpretation of scripture. The Roman Church and its leaders did not believe on Christ alone, and inserted men between the believer and Christ.
Other professed Christians similarly reject “Christ Alone”. They do so by saying salvation or eternal life can only be obtained through knowing special men or special teachers, or by encouraging dependence on men, rather than Christ. Instead of directing people to read their bible and cultivate a personal relationship with Christ, they direct people to listen to only their own teachings and create dependency on themselves. In so doing, they insert another mediator between the believer and God and obscure Christ in the same way the Roman Church did. Like the Roman Church, they will go so far as to say there is no salvation outside of membership in their special group, and no way to obtain salvation outside of their own methods and formulas. In so doing, they add themselves to the equation for salvation and reject “Christ Alone”.
It is important to remember, people are not saved by the church. The church has no ability to save anyone. The church is what is being saved. The true church proclaims the gospel and points people to Christ. The true church and the true servants of God do not insert themselves between Christ and the believer.
While “Scripture Alone” and “Christ Alone” was the authority to which the reformers appealed, “Faith Alone” was primary cause of the reformation. The belief in “Faith Alone” is what caused Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses in the first place, wherein he objected to the forgiveness of sins through the payment of money.
Martin Luther was convinced by the bible that forgiveness of sins and salvation came through “Faith Alone”, and not through any other means. No work could merit forgiveness or salvation. Paying money to the church (indulgences) or doing special works (penance) could never bring justification. (Ephesians 2:8). “Faith Alone” means that no work was required for salvation, only faith in Christ and his saving work.
“Faith Alone” did not mean that sanctification and holiness have no place in the life of the believer. But it meant that those things were products of salvation, not requirements for it.
But just like the Roman Church, some groups will go so far as to tell sinners they cannot be saved without first performing certain works in their life. For some, instead of seeing holiness and sanctification as a something that occurs in the life of a person who has already been saved, they see holiness and sanctification as something to be obtained before Christ will save. But we are saved by faith alone, and our salvation is not dependent on our works.
But I determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified.1 Corinthians 2:2
Others insist that special knowledge and special revelations are required for salvation, while the Apostle Paul made clear that only the knowledge of Jesus Christ and him crucified was adequate to bring salvation. (1 Cor 2:2, 1 Cor 13:2)
For matters of salvation, we can look to the bible for answers. When Peter was asked on the day of Pentecost what was necessary for salvation, he did not give them a list of works to perform. He did not give them special mysteries to memorize and understand. He simply called them to demonstrate their faith in Christ through repentance and baptism in his name, and that would be adequate for them to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and salvation. (Acts 2:38, Ephesians 2:8)
For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of ourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works lest any man should boast.Ephesians 2:8-9
While “Faith Alone” indicates what is required on our part to obtain salvation, “Grace Alone” proclaims lost mankind’s inability to obtain salvation any other way.
We can only be saved by God’s grace, a free and unmerited gift from God. Salvation is otherwise impossible. No man is capable of self-redemption. No man is capable of contributing anything towards his own salvation. No man, through any amount of works or knowledge, could ever merit salvation or contribute to it. (Romans 7: 18-25, Phil 3:4-9)
Salvation that is dependent on works or knowledge, rather than faith, is a salvation that must be earned, and it is not a free gift. A “salvation” that is earned is not really a salvation at all. It is a false salvation. A humble and contrite believer will admit their total dependence upon Christ for salvation, and not through any personal merit or efforts.
The Roman Church made salvation into something that had to be earned. While teaching that Christ secured forgiveness of sins through his sacrifice, they taught that forgiveness had to be earned through penance, confession, and works. Monks, like Martin Luther, who strained under the demands of the church locked themselves away in monasteries, abandoned all worldly connections, and spent decades of their lives memorizing the teachings of the church hoping to merit salvation.
Fortunately, Martin Luther added reading the bible to the list of things he did on a daily basis. This decision was profound, because in reading the bible Martin Luther discovered much of what he believed and had been taught by the Roman Church had been wrong, and was set free. Martin Luther was overjoyed when he was released from the bondage his church had placed on him. He realized he was saved by God’s grace, and that his endless toil to earn salvation had been a pointless dead end. (Phil 3:4-9)
Glory of God Alone
The final sola is central to the other four. It defines an attribute of God and a reason for which he gave scripture, sent Christ, and offered salvation as a free gift to those who believe. He did so for the “Glory of God Alone”.
God glorifies himself and make known his greatness through his word, through his plan of salvation, through his love, and through the witness of his church. The chief purpose of all he has done is that he might be glorified for it and through it, so that everyone may know the greatness of our God.
When you see men and systems who focus glory on themselves, and on their own special teachers, you can clearly see that the glory of God alone is not part of their beliefs. True churches and true servants of God will point you to Jesus Christ, not to themselves.
A Strong Foundation
The Protestant Reformation endured and succeeded because it built on a strong foundation, grounded upon scripture and Jesus Christ. Though it was beset by floods of persecution, attacked by armies of opponents, and many of its leaders were captured and executed, the Protestant Reformation set in motion a return to biblical teachings and values that has endured to the present day.
Christians today can learn important lessons from the reformers about how we can ground our faith in something that will endure and something that will withstand persecution and the determined assault by the enemy.
God blessed the reformation and it prospered. It would be foolish for a church which owes its existence to the fires lit by the Reformation to abandon the central themes of the Reformation. To quote the Apostle Paul:
For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.– Galatians 2:18
For Martin Luther and the other reformers, to abandon the truths of the bible that so many fought and died for would be unthinkable. It is unthinkable to you?
The “Nevers” of the Gospel: A Prayer of the Puritans
May I never fail to come to the knowledge of the truth,
never rest in a system of doctrine, however scriptural,
that does not bring or further salvation,
or teach me to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts
or help me to live soberly, righteously, goldy;
Never to rely on my own resolutions,
but be strong in thee and in thy might;
Never cease to find thy grace sufficient
in all my duties, trials, and conflicts;
Never forget to repair to thee
in all my spiritual distresses and outward troubles,
in all the dissatisfactions experience in creature comforts;
Never fail to retreat to him who is full of grace and trust,
the friend that loveth at all times
who is touched with feelings of my infirmities
and can do exceeding abundantly for me;
Never confine my religion or extraordinary occasions,
but acknowledge thee in all my ways;
Never limit devotions to particular seasons
but be in they fear all the day long;
Never be godly only on the sabbath or in thy house,
but every day abroad and at home;
Never make piety a dress but a habit,
not only a habit but a nature,
not only a nature but a life
Do good to me by all they dispensations,
by all means of thy grace,
by worship, prayers, and praises
And at last let me enter that world where is no temple,
But only thy glory
In Jesus name, I ask it
The Valley of Vision: A collection of Puritan Prayers Edited by Arthur Bennet, 1975
- Can you name a way in which the Roman Church or another group abandoned “Christ Alone”?
- The Five Solas (Alones) were both a simple way the reformers could express their disagreements with the Roman Church, and also an answer to the important questions asked by the reformation. Can you answer each of the their questions?
- What must I do to be saved?
- Whom must I trust?
- What must I obey?
- Can you name any ways in which the Roman church or other groups attempt to add to the gospel and diminish the saving power of Christ?