Today we are looking at the five distinctive principles of the Reformation, also known as the 5 Solas. Our aim as we study these principles is to see why the Reformation still matters today
He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic.
These were the words of the Roman Catholic theologian and Master of the Sacred Palace, Sylvester Prierias, in response to Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.
The whole of the Reformation is owing to the power of sacred Scripture—the written Word of God. Something so powerful must be handled with care. For Rome, this meant the clergy had to maintain exclusive control of the Scriptures. They were too mysterious and difficult for the commoner to handle, so they said. The authority of the Scriptures was then mediated through the authority of the Church.
The first and formal principle of the Reformation is captured in the Latin slogan sola scriptura. By this, the reformers were declaring that Scripture alone is our ultimate authority. According to this principle, the authority of the church and its traditions are necessarily subservient to the Scripture.
Rome taught that church tradition was equal to Scripture. The reformers insisted, on the testimony of sacred Scripture itself, that Scripture is over the church and its traditions. Indeed, they maintained that Christ ruled His church through His written Word.
This first principle of the Reformation is illustrated by the fact that virtually every major reformer is portrayed on canvas or by statue to be pointing to sacred Scripture.
One of the key rallying cries of the Reformation was that a sinner is justified sola fide—by faith alone. It was a clarion for the Gospel. It served as a direct counter against distorted medieval views of justification. For Luther, it was “the summary of all Christian doctrine” and “the article by which the church stands or falls.”
In it the biblical concept of imputation was revived, and human hearts came alive. This leading principle of the Reformation radically changed the way people understood Christ, the crucifixion, the human condition, merit, works, and faith. Rome insisted that good works were necessary for salvation. Though they taught that God’s grace prompted such work, nevertheless, meritorious deeds were a necessary condition of salvation.
The Reformation revived the scriptural teaching that a sinner is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ alone (Galatians 2:16). John Calvin would later summarize:
Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. … [Justification by faith alone] is the main hinge on which religion turns, so that we devote the greater attention and care to it. For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God (Institutes, III, xi, 1).
The Reformation celebrated the rediscovery of God in His amazing grace. Eyes were taken off of self and directed to the suffering Savior who by grace alone freely grants salvation to unworthy sinners who place their trust in Him. Rome taught that man has free will and is able to cooperate with God’s grace. As cooperating sinners labor to obtain as much grace as they can through the sacraments of the church, they would increasingly merit more grace. It was really a vicious system of works. At bottom, man contributed to his salvation, indeed, if he worked hard enough he could merit it. Christ’s merit was mingled with the supposed merit of the saints and was made available to sinners only through the church’s control. The church held the keys to the treasury of merit, like bankers, they distributed the treasury of merit through their channels of sacraments.
The Reformation insisted that humanity was fallen and rendered incapable of performing any saving good. Salvation begins and ends with God’s grace. God initiates and generously gives all that is needed to be reconciled to God.
In the old system, grace was largely conceived of as a sort of impersonal, metaphysical substance. The Reformation recovered the biblical concept of grace as personal, relational, and God’s free choice. Salvation is a gift from a loving God. The Reformation reminds us that sinners are saved by grace alone apart from works.
Tomorrow we’ll look at Solus Christus and Soli Deo Gloria.
These writings are from our Reformation resource website: reformation stewards.com. We encourage you to look at the resources available to learn more about the history of the Reformation to glorify God and increase our joy in Him!