The Five Solas

This sermon is quite different from my ordinary sermons because there are five short sermons (sermonettes, if you will) rather than one full-length exposition. Since Reformation Day fell upon a Sunday this year, I took a one-week break from studying The Gospel of Mark to have a Five Solas Sunday. The way service was structured was that five short sermons were delivered, and each was followed by the singing of a hymn that captures the essence of that Sola. Only Scripture, Faith, and God’s Glory are below since Grace and Christ were preached by our church’s two other elders.

A BRIEF WORD ON THE REFORMATION & THE FIVE SOLAS

Let us begin with a quick word about why we celebrate the Reformation and why we uphold the Five Solas. Unlike the restoration movements of the 1800s that claimed to be restoring the church to its apostolic roots after it fell into apostasy shortly thereafter, the Reformation was exactly that, a reform. Luther and the other Reformers (such as Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin) were not intent on separating from Catholicism but on reforming both its doctrine and practices. The hard separation came from the Catholic side of the conflict as the Reformers and their followers were anathematized (pronounced to be damned).

For their part, the Reformers largely believed that Roman Catholicism had gradually departed from the truth of Scripture and the example of first several centuries of the church. Calvin, particularly, freely cited the church fathers (such as Augustine, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and even Medieval theologians like Bernard). Indeed, as we recently read, Calvin suggested that his readers turn to Cyprian’s On Mortality in further exploring how Christians can be free from the fear of death. It is no wonder, then, that “later Reformed pastors and theologians would identify themselves not as Calvinists but as ‘Reformed Catholics.’”[1]

Therefore, while we associate the Five Solas with the Reformation, they were not invented there. Like the Trinity or the deity of Christ, the Five Solas are readily found in God’s Word and were long presumed by the church but were only explicitly articulated later out of necessity. Indeed, we celebrate and remember the Reformation because it continues still to this day. Semper reformanda (always reforming) must be the practical model of all congregations. Until the church collectively and wholly stands in the physical presence of our Lord upon the New Earth, there will always be reformation to undergo. Therefore, let us dive into the brief studies of these glorious truths, each followed by worship of the God who has saved His people from their sins at the cost of His own Son.

SCRIPTURE ALONE

All Scripture is God breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

2 Timothy 3:16 ESV

When we think about the Reformation, we likely first think about the battle around justification by faith alone and Martin Luther’s famous posting of the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. Of course, we call October 31st Reformation Day because that day was very much the start of the Reformation (although had no such grand intentions at the time). And while no one argues that salvation through faith alone was not the material principle of the Reformation, sola Scriptura (or Scripture Alone) was the very much the formal principle. It was the foundation that Luther and the other Reformers leaned upon as they made their case for sola fide.

We see this clearly in another of the most famous scenes from the Reformation. In 1520, Luther was called to a diet in Worms to defend his writings from the past three years. But rather than giving Luther a chance to argue his case, they simply demanded that Luther recant his writings. After taking twenty-four hours to pray, Luther returned with this answer:

Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.[2]

This gives us a great glimpse into what we mean when we affirm sola scriptura, Scripture Alone, for we mean that Scripture is our supreme authority. Of course, we do not deny the importance of creeds and confessions,[3] yet they are only helpful in so far as they affirm what the Bible has already spoken. Indeed, we studied through the Apostles’ Creed back in 2019, not because it is authoritative in and of itself, but because we believe that it accurately summarizes the core doctrines found within Scripture. In other words, while Scripture is not the only authority, it must certainly be the supreme authority by which all things are judged.

But why do we give to the Bible such a prestigious place? Are we, as some would accuse, replacing the Holy Spirit’s place within the Trinity with the Scriptures? By no means! We ultimately submit to Scripture above every other authority precisely because “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable…” (2 Timothy 3:16). Scripture is supremely authoritative because it is the Word of “the blessed and only Sovereign” (1 Timothy 6:15). Simply put, as we read Scripture, we hear God speak. And what we hear God speak in His Word, we must also obey whole-heartedly.

Furthermore, there is no conflict between obeying the Holy Spirit and obeying Scripture, for the Spirit Himself authored God’s Word (2 Peter 1:21) and who opens our eyes to behold the glorious realities of Scripture (Psalm 119:18).

Let us, therefore, structure our lives (as well as the church) according to the Word of God, not according to our own preferences. Let us yield to its instruction with every fiber of our being. Regardless of the afflictions or temptations that come our way, let our plea be as Luther’s was: “my conscience is captive to the Word of God… God help me.”

FAITH ALONE

Nor I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Romans 1:16-17

Here we come to the explicit battleground of the Reformation: are we justified by faith alone or by both faith and works? For Luther, how we are justified became the all-important question, especially given that Scripture also speaks of the justice of God against the unrighteous. He had a particularly difficult time with the final phrase of Romans 1:17, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther later reflected on his breakthrough moment:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.[4]

Luther, at last, beheld the wonder of the gospel, that God does not justify sinners through a mixture of faith and works. Instead, He justifies by grace through faith in Christ.

Perhaps the largest problem for Catholics was their definition of justification, which included sanctification. We would whole-heartedly affirm that works are necessary for sanctification but not for justification. Indeed, as Calvin wrote, justification is when “a man is said to be justified in the sight of God when in the judgment of God he is deemed righteous” (475); sanctification, on the other hand, is the daily process by which we die to self and live to Christ. Justification initiates sanctification and is entirely the work of God. As Paul said, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25).

Christ accomplished our salvation. He granted it to us by His grace. We now receive it by faith. We are justified, therefore, through faith alone as the sole vehicle of our redemption. Our good works contribute nothing. We can only take hold of the hem of our Savior’s saving robe. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Through faith we cling to the righteousness of Christ, and the Father counts it as our own.

Let us, therefore, cast aside all boasting, for it is worthless, and let us trust solely in the works of Christ for our salvation. Let us fix our faith upon Him to justify us with His perfect righteousness before the Father.

GOD’S GLORY ALONE

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11

The final Sola, soli Deo gloria, is, in many ways, the pinnacle of the Five Solas. David VanDrunen notes:

Our focus so easily becomes self-centered, even when we ask the same important questions that occupied the Reformers: Where can I find God’s authoritative revelation? How can I escape the wrath of God? What must I do to be saved? The other four solas provide necessary and life-changing answers to such questions, but soli Deo gloria puts them in proper perspective: the highest purpose of God’s plan of salvation in Christ, made known in Scripture, is not our own beatitude, wonderful as that is. The highest purpose is God’s own glory. God glorifies himself through the abundant blessings he bestows upon us.[5]

God is the fitting recipient of all praise because he is the Blessed One from Whom all blessings flow. He alone is worthy of the constant cry of the seraphim: “holy, holy, holy, is the LORD God almighty, and the whole earth is full of his glory.” The Creator owns His creation. The Potter deserves the worship of the living vessels He has made.

Yet God receives a particular glory from being the Author and the Finisher of our salvation. Although we can find this in countless passages of Scripture, two stand out. First, in Ezekiel 36, God promises to give His people new hearts and new spirits, and He proclaims that He will do so “not for your sake… but for the sake of my holy name” (v. 22). Second, after recounting the humiliation of Christ that resulted in our salvation in Philippians 2:5-8, Paul then continues:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11

We obviously receive the wondrous benefit of salvation in Christ, and we will also be glorified in some measure in the life to come. However, the greatest result of Christ’s saving work is that God is further glorified, that He is seen as ever more glorious. And, indeed, He is! Medals and trophies are not given to bystanders but to the victors. Likewise, wages are given to workers. In the same way, as our salvation’s Author and Finisher, God alone receives the glory for it. If we contributed even 1% to our salvation, then one out of every hundred songs in worship should be sung in praise of ourselves. We do not, however, contribute even the slightest percentile.

God alone has given us His Word, even though we do not naturally desire to hear Him. God alone has saved us by His grace, even though, like the angels who rebelled, we fully deserve His undivided wrath. God alone has justified us in His holy sight through faith, imputing the merits of Christ upon us. God alone has sent forth Christ to be our Redeemer, to be the only Mediator who can bridge the gap between us and God. Therefore, God alone receives the glory in our salvation, both now and forevermore.


[1] Michael Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life, 35.

[2] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 185.

[3] Sola scriptura is not a call for the dangerous error of biblicism.

[4] Bainton, Here I Stand, 65.

[5] David VanDrunen, God’s Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life, 16.

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