October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This anniversary serves as a reminder that all of life—and especially our spiritual and theological lives—is situated within a historical context. For those who are in Christ, that context is directly influenced by the narrative of the church, or, what we know as “church history.”
For evangelicals, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation may be the most consequential commemoration of the 21st-century church. Millions of believers celebrate anew the historic recovery of the gospel of grace. As we celebrate, we reconsider the Reformation as a singular inflection point in the history of the church, and one from which we must continue to learn and grow.
This significant milestone reminds us of the great price our theological forebears paid. They fought the good fight; they finished their course; they rediscovered and proclaimed the faith. As evangelicals, we are sons and daughters of the Reformers.
Sola Scriptura, known as the formal principle of the Reformation, is the foundational sola, the authoritative source from which the other four solas are derived. To frame our understanding of Sola Scriptura, let’s first consider, more broadly, the Protestant Reformation, church schism, and the five solas as a whole.
Why Five Solas?
Why five solas and from where did they originate? The five solas are the theological distinctives that separated, and do separate, Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church. They are, in a sense, both the cause and the effect, or the precipitating and the resulting convictions of the Reformation. Though not packaged together in a clear summation of Reformation theology until later, each doctrine rose as a theological distinctive worthy of conflict in the 16th century.
How can a few Latin clauses be the foundation of a movement with the scope of the Protestant Reformation? In the history of the church, short phrases and small words have often caused big divisions.
Small Words, Big Divisions
When reviewing church history, one notices that the three major fractures of the past millennia have taken place over three very small words or phrases. In the 11th century, there was the great East and West Schism, separating the Orthodox Church of the east from the western Roman Catholic Church. Though there were multiple factors, including competing claims to the papacy, at its core was this one Latin word, filioque, the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son.
Post 1517, Protestantism began to fracture into what would become known as denominations. Four Latin words were at the heart of Protestant splintering, hoc est corpus meum, “This is my body.” Disagreement over what Jesus meant when he instituted the Lord’s Supper sent Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other Reformers in different directions.
The major inflection point, however, is the one which took place in 1517 and which continues to separate Protestantism from Roman Catholicism, the one little word in Latin, sola. The single word that was the driving force of it all was not fide (faith) or gratia (grace), it was first and foremost the word sola. Simply meaning “alone,” this lone word animated Reformers, then and now.
When this word, “alone,” follows the other five Protestant distinctives: Scripture, faith, grace, Christ, and the glory of God, massive ramifications for theology, for the church, and for your Christian life follow.
The Five Solas, an Overview
Let’s briefly consider the five solas, survey their importance, and set the stage for the articles to follow.
First, there is sola fide, which means salvation is by “faith alone.” We are saved by faith in Christ, not faith plus works. Faith plus works has never and will never equal salvation. Faith equals justification that results in good works, but our works do not contribute to or merit salvation.
Second, there is sola gratia or salvation by “grace alone.” We are saved by God’s unmerited favor—his goodness shown to us and received by us through faith in Christ’s sacrifice. This depicts salvation as a monergistic work where God works in our hearts. It is not a synergistic work where we coordinate God’s efforts with our own good works. Salvation is by grace alone.
Third, there is solus Christus, which reminds us salvation is through “Christ alone.” This refers to his sacrificial work, but it also refers to his priestly, mediatorial work. We do not go to the priest today. We celebrate and we thank our pastors, but we are not dependent upon them for a right standing with God, nor for access to him.
Fourth, there is soli deo gloria, which means that salvation is accomplished for “God’s glory alone.” Our salvation is for his glory; we are the beneficiary, but he is the one to be praised. As the Old Testament prophets declared, we are saved “for his name’s sake.” Salvation is of the Lord.
Fifth and finally, is sola Scriptura. By sola Scriptura we mean that “Scripture alone” is the final authority for our lives and for the church. Since God’s Word is inspired and true, it is our final and sufficient authority. In the articles to follow, we will unpack and apply this glorious doctrine.
Why the Solas Matter
The five solas are theological declarations—but they come with massive personal and congregational implications. If the solas are true, they provide the doctrinal infrastructure for our spiritual lives. They frame our Christian identities and ministries and are perennial touchpoints of theological and spiritual formation.
The solas are not peripheral matters, positioned to entangle us in needless, tertiary doctrinal squabbles. The solas are the essence of the gospel. When we embrace them, we embrace the gospel. When we articulate them, we speak the gospel. When we live consciously of them, we live in the power of the gospel.
Thus, the solas establish our Christian life, and they chart it forward. He who lives in light of the five solas will experience a more fulfilled and fruitful Christian life. Likewise, the church that establishes its ministries on the Reformation solas will experience the same.
Yet, at the root of it all is sola Scriptura, the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation. If we must focus our attention on one sola, as we will do here on the blog this month, I believe sola Scriptura is the lynchpin. Submit your life and doctrine to sola Scriptura and the rest of the solas will naturally follow.
Editor's Note: This originally published at JasonKAllen.com