Today as many celebrate Halloween, Protestants all over the place celebrate the day that Martin Luther and others in his wake, asserted the true good news of the cross of Christ in the face of the Roman Catholic Church, that had long-since forgotten the riches of God’s grace in Christ.
The Events of the Reformation
On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther published his 95 theses – 95 assertions against the Roman Catholic Church – and then he nailed them a copy to the door of the Wittenburg Castle church. The printers would soon spread these documents, in both Latin and German, throughout Germany, a game-changing moment that was, in many ways, the start of what we now call the Reformation.
Martin Luther had whacked a hornet nest with a stick.
The Roman Catholic Church gave him chances to take back what he had said. He didn’t take those chances. Then finally they called him to task before a Catholic Church council in Worms, Germany where they asked him finally to recant. To this he replied: “My conscience is a prisoner of God’s Word. I cannot and will not recant, for to disobey one’s conscience is neither just nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
What were these 95 theses all about?
The 95 theses were fundamentally about a shift from the glory of man’s pursuit of God to the glory of God’s pursuit of man in the cross. The Reformation was all about the cross and our proper response to the cross. The cross of Jesus is where the powerful God who made heaven and earth hung powerlessly on a Roman execution device. This thinking was almost completely opposite to Roman Catholicism – instead of thinking that man can trust themselves, making their own efforts the basis of their standing before God, Luther maintained that man must trust God, and Christ’s work alone as the sole ground of our acceptance by God. Likewise, instead of thinking that what we do matters most before God, Luther protested that what matters most is what God has done for us – God suffered for us. We can’t add to the accomplishment of Jesus in order to save ourselves!
The Five Solas
Out of this movement of reform, there were “five solas” that developed in response to specific ways the Roman Catholic Church had distorted God’s truth. “Sola” is Latin for “alone.”
First, the Roman Church taught that the foundation for faith and practice was a combination of the scriptures, church tradition, and the teachings of the pope and the Catholic councils. The reformers rejected this and said, “No, the foundation of our faith is Scripture alone! Sola scriptura!” Only the Bible has the authority to tell us what God wants – not the Bible in combination with the traditions and authorized interpretations of the Church.
Second, the Catholic Church taught that we are saved through a combination of God’s grace, operating beside the merit of our own good deeds and penance, and also the extra good deeds that the saints before us achieved. To this the reformers said, “No! Grace alone saves us! Sola gratia.” Salvation is not ultimately based on our actions – it is based on the kindness and compassion of God.
Third, the Catholic Church taught that we are saved, that is, we are acceptable before God, because of the combination of our faith and our works. Belief in God matters, but we need good actions to supplement our belief if we are going to be saved. To this, the reformers responded, “No, we are justified by faith alone! We are saved only by faith! Sola Fide!” It is our faith, our trust in God, and only our faith that grabs a hold, so to speak, of the righteousness of Jesus that is credited to us. Faith alone, apart from good deeds, is what makes us completely righteous before God.
Fourth, the Catholic Church taught that we are saved, not by Christ alone – in his death and then his resurrection – but also by the good merit of the saints, and Mary, who have gone before us and who pray for us. To this the reformers said, “No, we are saved only by the good deeds, the merit, of Jesus Christ. Christ alone saves – not Christ plus the saints and Mary. Solus Christus! Christ alone. We must approach the Father only through His Son, Jesus.”
Finally, the Roman Catholic Church said that the praise for salvation – the glory that results – is shared between Christ, Mary and the saints, and the sinner himself or herself. In response the reformers said, “No, the Bible teaches that God alone is glorified when we are saved. All the glory goes to God. Sola Deo Gloria!”
Why is this so important?
It is important that we know about these five solas because the Reformation isn’t over. The Roman Catholic Church still needs to come to a strong, full-throated position on the extravagant, do-nothing-do-add-to-it, grace of God. They still need a Reformation! If I could sit down tonight for a few minutes and talk the pope, what I would tell him is exactly that – you guys still need a reformation. It’s high time you embraced the five solas.
But on a more personal level, the reality is that we all need a mini-reformation every day. Every morning my sin wakes up right beside me and it says, “Forget the Bible today! Trust yourself! Rely on your own actions to move forward! Glorify yourself!”
The five solas are a daily war in the heart of the Christian. Will we trust the Bible or our experience? Will we trust God’s grace, through faith, or will we trust in our own good actions to be saved? Will we approach God through Jesus alone or are we going to rely on some other thing, some other “saviour,” to get to God – our reason, our emotions, our actions? Are we going to exalt ourselves as we strive to be the best, the coolest, and the smartest, or are we going to give the glory to God alone in all aspects of life?
We need these five solas – every day – we ought to wake up in the morning and think: “YEAH! FIVE SOLAS AGAIN TODAY! JESUS IS MY SAVIOUR! GOD GETS THE GLORY!”