What is Reformed Theology? – The Five Solas

*This blog is part of a series I am writing on the Covenant Reformed Church website.

what-is-reformed-theology

It is time for us to take a deeper look into the theology part of Reformed theology. By now I hope we realize that Reformed theology is much deeper than simply the ‘5 points of Calvinism’, or predestination or simplistic ideas like that. It is an ancient, rich and deep faith that is based on centuries of biblical exegesis, biblical theology and systematic reflection. As a result of its commitment to exegesis, Reformed theology embraces the 5 solas of the Reformation – Scripture alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, Christ alone and the Glory of God alone. The Five Solas are five Latin phrases (sola meaning ‘alone’) that arose during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity. (For a history of the origin of each of these phrases see here.)

The Origin of the Five Solas  (Adapted from this source)

The five solas were developed in response to specific perversions of biblical truth that were taught by the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church taught that the foundation for faith and practice was a combination of the scriptures, tradition, and the teachings of the pope and his council; but the Reformers said, ‘No, our foundation is Scripture alone.’ The Catholic Church taught that we are saved through a combination of God’s grace and the merits that we accumulate through good works; but the Reformers responded, ‘No, we are saved by the grace of God alone.’ The Catholic Church taught that we are justified by faith and the works that we produce; our faith infuses us with righteousness from which our good works arise. But the Reformers responded, ‘No, we are justified by faith alone, which lays hold of the alien righteousness of Christ that God freely credits to the account of those who believe’; we are declared not made righteous. The Catholic Church taught that we are saved by the merits of Christ and the saints, and that we approach God through Christ and the saints who intercede for us. The Reformers responded, ‘No, we are saved by the merits of Christ alone, and we come to God through Christ alone.’ The Catholic Church believed that the glory for a sinner’s salvation could be attributed partly to Christ, partly to the saints, and partly to the sinner. The Reformers responded, ‘No, the only true gospel is that which gives all glory to God alone, as is taught in the scriptures.’

The Relevance of the Five Solas

The 5 solas are biblically gleaned and were in response to heretical and unorthodox teaching that emanated from the Catholic Church. Unfortunately the false teaching that prompted the 5 solas at the time of the Reformation continues to exist, though it takes different forms in todays church. Many in the church believe that:

  • Scripture alone is not enough. We need the revelation of God in listening prayer or prophecy. Others believe that we should not embrace the teaching of learned men in the past who have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to interpret Scripture. Our own community is enough to understand God correctly.
  • Grace alone is not enough. We need to be a good person, do the right things and avoid the wrong things in order for God to accept us. But when good works is seen to supplement grace, grace disappears.
  • Faith alone is not enough for us to receive justification. God will not accept us by faith alone, we need to supplement our faith with good works, tradition, obedience to Christian rules, or whatever. At the very least these keep us in ‘the faith’ preventing us from loosing our salvation at some point.
  • Christ alone is not enough. This is a necessary corollary belief to the above two. Most people wouldn’t dare say this, but their beliefs about grace and faith reveal that they do not believe the work of Christ is sufficient for their salvation.
  • God’s glory alone is not enough. Since we are working for our own salvation, we are expecting at least some of the glory. We might not say it this way, but our beliefs and actions reveal this to be so.

Thus the relevance of the 5 solas becomes apparent. As Bob Burridge states, “The essence of false Christianity is the denial that each of these stands alone. People freely talk about the Bible, Grace, Faith, Christ, and God’s glory. The problem many have is with the “sola” part. Only when these things stand alone, is the gospel seen as what the Bible says it is, rather that what many wish it to be.”

Or to put it into more ominous, yet absolutely correct, terms, “Truth mixed with even the tiniest error, is no longer truth. Adding to Scripture, supplementing Grace, looking to more than what Christ accomplished, or trusting in things other than the proper object of Saving Faith, produces a false religion and honors a false god. When these don’t stand alone the one True God is not honored in your life.”

The Meaning of the Five Solas

Scripture alone (sola scriptura)- This means that the Scriptures alone are the ultimate authority in the life of the believer and the church. It alone is to be our standard and our foundation. But, and this is key, Scripture alone does not mean Scripture only, which is the typical anabaptist understanding of Scripture. (See an earlier blog for an explanation of this difference and why solo Scriptura is dangerous.) Reformed theology is wanting and willing to engage with other interpreters of Scripture throughout the history of the church since it recognizes that the Spirit of God has been working in the church for centuries to aid God’s people in the interpretation of Scripture. As James Montgomery Boice explains, “Other sources of authority may have an important role to play. Some are even established by God such as the authority of church elders, the authority of the state, or the authority of parents over children. But Scripture alone is truly ultimate. Therefore, if any of these other authorities depart from Bible teaching, they are to be judged by the Bible and rejected.” Essentially sola Scriptura is reflects the desire to keep Scripture at the center of God’s people, while trying to keep out unbiblical tradition which are additions to the text.

Grace alone (sola gratia) – This is the recognition that God owes us nothing and that apart from him we would be left to our sins, our guilt and and our condemnation. This doctrine identifies that we are not able to save ourselves by anything that we do, nor are we able to assist God in saving us. Grace is not a power given to us to help us believe and save ourselves. Once again, James Montgomery Boice offers clarity. “If [God] does save sinners, which he does in the case of some but not all, it is only because it pleases him to do it. Indeed, apart from this grace and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that flows from it, no one would be saved, since in our lost condition, human beings are not capable of winning, seeking out, or even cooperating with God’s grace. By insisting on “grace alone” the Reformers were denying that human methods, techniques, or strategies in themselves could ever bring anyone to faith.”

Faith alone (sola fides) – This doctrine articulates that justification (right standing before God) is not earned by works, but is a declaration by God about a person who has faith in the work of Christ on their behalf. Thus faith alone is tied intimately to the Reformers understanding of justification. “Therefore, the declaration [of God in justification] is not in response to any spiritual or moral advances within the individual, but is an imputation of the perfect righteousness that God immediately requires of everyone who is united to Christ by faith alone.” (Horton) In justification we do not become righteous, but receive the cloak of Christ’s alien righteousness so that we are simul justus et peccator – simultaneously righteous and sinner. James Montgomery Boice summarizes, “We may state the full doctrine as: Justification is the act of God by which he declares sinners to be righteous because of Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.”

Christ alone (solus Christus) – The Reformers recognized one simple reality – it is either Christ alone through which our salvation comes, or it is “no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:6-7). Nothing can be added to the work of Christ – not Christ plus tradition; not Christ plus works; not Christ plus anything. His life, substitutionary death and resurrection was all-sufficient for our salvation.

Glory to God alone (soli Deo gloria) – This great statement sums up the other four. To put it simply, this phrase captures the idea that God is for himself and not for anybody else. It captures the biblical refrain that God does as he wills, including the revelation of himself in Scripture and in his redemption of a people unto himself for his own glory alone. It is the theological recognition that is stated by Paul in Romans 11:36, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Conclusion

Let me finish this discussion with an excellent summary of the 5 Solas by R.C. Sproul,

In a very real sense, though they spin on different axes, these five are one. The Bible alone is God’s infallible revelation of His glory, which reveals His grace in Christ, which becomes ours through the gift of faith. God’s grace is uniquely revealed in His Word, which reveals the work of Christ, which becomes ours by faith, all redounding to His glory. The solas are precise and potent affirmations of this truth—it’s all about God. They remind us not just how we might have peace with God but that peace with God is not the full and final end of all things. They remind us that the story of the Bible isn’t simply how we who are in dire straits can make it to safety and how nice God is to play such an important role in making that happen. Instead, they remind us that He is the end, and we are the means. The story is about Him and His glory more than us and our comfort. (source)

Soli Deo Gloria

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