The Five Solas

Posted On December 12, 2017

A few years ago, I ran across a comic strip in which one of the figures says, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” This comic is a humorous, albeit somewhat cynical, play on the well-known quote by American philosopher George Santayana (1863–1952) who wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is a well-known and widely used quote because there is much truth in it.

The truth that Santayana grasped is abundantly illustrated in the history of the modern evangelical church. We are a people who have forgotten our roots, and in many cases, we really don’t seem to care. The church exists in a world of rapidly changing technology, a world in which almost everyone has been assimilated into the incessant chatter of social media and real-time updates on everything from world politics to what your friend had for breakfast this morning. If we are to be relevant, or so we think, we too must be a people of the new and the now.

The consequences of such ideas in the church are there for all to see. Numerous polls indicate widespread biblical and theological illiteracy. Numerous professing Christians do not grasp the contents of Scripture. Those who have read the Bible very often have no idea what it means and how the various parts go together. A recent study sponsored by Ligonier Ministries indicates that a large percentage of professing Christians unwittingly hold views regarding the Trinity, Jesus Christ, sin, and salvation that are technically heretical.

We are not in a good place, but we are not the first to be in such a position. The people of Israel forgot the past with disastrous consequences. The medieval church forgot the past with disastrous consequences. But what do you do when you realize you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along your journey? You go back and seek to find the correct path. We should not view the past as something that is gone and therefore useless. We should look at the past more like the way someone on the second floor of a building looks at the foundation. The foundation was built before the remaining structure. It was built in the past. But the foundation is not something that can be discarded without catastrophic results.

In this article, I want to look briefly at some of the old paths, some foundational doctrines—namely, the five solas of the Reformation (sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus christus, soli deo gloria). When the medieval church lost her way, the rediscovery of these fundamental doctrines during the Reformation helped the church regain her footing.

Sola Scriptura

What do we mean when we say that we believe in sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone? Like all of the solas, a proper understanding of the doctrine requires a certain amount of context—both historical and theological. In the first place, we need to understand that the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura arose within the context of the late medieval Roman Catholic church and its teaching. It was a response to perceived error in the teaching of the Church. So what was it that the Reformers found objectionable?

The dispute with Rome was not over the inspiration or inerrancy of Scripture. Rome affirmed both doctrines. The problem, instead, was due to the fact that over the course of many centuries Rome had gradually adopted a view of the relation between the Church, Scripture, and Tradition that effectively placed final authority somewhere other than the Word of God. Tradition was conceived of as a second source of revelation, and the Pope and Roman magisterium were viewed as the final authority in matters of faith and practice.

The Reformers wanted to call the Church back to a view of the relation between Scripture and Tradition that was found in the early Church. They believed that the Bible itself taught such a view. The Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, or the Reformation doctrine of the relation between Scripture and tradition, affirms that Scripture is to be understood as the sole source of divine revelation, the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative norm of faith and practice. What Scripture says, God says (2 Tim. 3:16). Scripture is to be interpreted in and by the church, and it is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith (Acts 15).

Among evangelicals there is a common misunderstanding of sola Scriptura that views the Bible not only as the sole final authority but as the sole authority altogether. In other words, the Church, the ecumenical creeds, the confessions of faith, are largely dismissed even as secondary authorities. It is the “No creed but Christ” or “No creed but the Bible” attitude so prevalent in the Church today. Of course, those who assert such slogans fail to realize that a statement such as “No creed but Christ” is itself a creed—a statement of what one believes.

Those who espouse this misunderstanding of the Reformation doctrine are often unaware that it is not the view of the early church and it is not the view of the magisterial Reformers. In fact, where one most often encounters this view historically is in the writings of various heretics (e.g., the Arians of the early church, the Socinians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, etc.). This bad version of biblicism has been the source of innumerable false doctrines.

Sola Fide

Often referred to as “the material cause” of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification sola fide (by faith alone) was a key point of debate between the Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and it has remained a point of disagreement ever since. Martin Luther and his followers expressed the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone by teaching that it is “the article by which the church stands or falls.” Was Luther correct in affirming the central importance of this doctrine? In order to answer this question, we must grasp the meaning of justification itself as well as the differences between the Protestant and Roman Catholic doctrines.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is most clearly expressed in the Decree Concerning Justification produced in the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent in 1547. According to this Decree, fallen human beings are “made just” through the “laver of regeneration.” In short, the instrumental cause of justification (being made just) is baptism. Justification is said to involve remission of sins and “also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man.” Justification is not by faith alone, according to the Council of Trent, because hope and charity (i.e. love) must be added.

The Reformers rejected the ideas that justification means “making just” by a faith that is not alone and that it is accomplished through the instrument of baptism. But why? In order to answer that question, we must have some understanding of the basic issues underlying the debate. The first point to observe is that God is absolutely just and righteous, and He will judge the world in righteousness. So, what is the problem with this? The problem is that although God is perfectly just and righteous, we are not. We are fallen, sinful, unjust, and unrighteous creatures (Rom. 3:9–18). This raises an infinitely serious question for each of us: How can I, an unjust sinner, stand before our infinitely righteous and holy God at the final judgment?

Rome offered one answer. In order for a person to be declared righteous by God, he or she first has to be made righteous by God. As we saw above, justification for Rome means to be “made just.” The following is something of an oversimplification of a much more complicated doctrine, but at its heart, the Roman doctrine of justification includes the idea of sanctification and renewal. The grounds of justification, the basis upon which the declaration of righteousness is made, therefore, is an infused righteousness. It is a grace that is infused, or poured, into our souls. If a person cooperates with this infused grace, he or she is renewed and sanctified. The person cooperating with grace, therefore, has an inherent righteousness. One can lose this state of grace through mortal sin. However, if this happens, the sacrament of penance is a means by which a person can be restored to a state of justification.

According to the Reformers there were serious problems with the Roman doctrine. In the first place, the standard of God’s judgment is absolutely perfect righteousness (Matt. 5:48). He cannot require less without denying Himself and His own holiness. A person cannot be declared righteous and survive the judgment of God, therefore, on the grounds of anything less than perfection. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, however, only one man has ever lived a life of perfect righteousness, and that One is Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:15). The Reformers argued, therefore, in opposition to Rome’s idea of infusion for a doctrine of double imputation. To impute something means to reckon it legally. The doctrine of double imputation means that our sin is imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us (2 Cor. 5:21).

It is also important to note here that for Rome, justification is by faith, but it is not by faith alone. For Rome, faith is necessary, but faith is not sufficient. Recall that for Rome, the instrumental cause of justification is baptism. The Reformers argued, on the contrary, that the sole instrument of justification is faith, and that even this faith is a gift of God. It is by grace (Rom. 3:28; 5:1; Eph. 2:8).

The Reformed doctrine of justification is clearly expressed in the classic Reformed confessions and catechisms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Westminster Larger Catechism, for example, provides a concise statement of the biblical doctrine:

Question 70: What is justification?
Answer: Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

Sola Gratia

In the early fifth century, a theological controversy occurred that would forever shape the thinking of the Church. In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo wrote in the form of a prayer the words: “Give what Thou commandest and command what Thou will.” The British monk Pelagius was upset by these words, believing that they would give Christians an excuse for not obeying God. Pelagius believed that if God commanded something then man was naturally (apart from grace) able to do it. He believed that this was possible because he also believed that Adam’s sin had only affected Adam. All human beings are born in the same state in which Adam was born, capable of either obeying God or disobeying him. If they obey, their good works merit salvation. If not, they deserve God’s punishment.

Augustine, on the other hand, taught that Adam’s sin had dramatically impacted all of his descendants. The Reformed churches followed Augustine in their rejection of Pelagianism. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, has a clear explanation of the doctrine of original sin. By our first parents’ sin:

[T]hey fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions (VI.1–4).

Since the Fall all human beings are born in this fallen state with their will (one of the faculties of soul and body) in bondage to sin. Because of the Fall, we are born spiritually dead, unable to choose or will the good (Rom. 3:10–12; 5:6; Eph. 2:1).

Although Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy at a number of councils, including the third ecumenical council in 431, it has raised its head in various forms ever since. By the late medieval period, the Roman Catholic Church had fallen into a type of semi-Pelagianism. The justification of the sinner was seen as a kind of synergistic, co-operative work between God and the sinner. The doctrine of sola gratia was the Protestant response to this.

The Protestant doctrine of sola gratia is found in all of the major Reformed confessions. It underlies everything said regarding the state of the fallen sinner, election, calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, and more. The point that the Reformers wanted to make in the sixteenth century is the same point that Augustine made in the fifth. We are not saved by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. The fallen sinner is not a drowning man who merely needs to do his part by reaching out to grab the life preserver tossed by God. No, the sinner is in a far more serious condition. He cannot grab a life preserver because he is not merely drowning. He is a cold, dead, lifeless corpse on the bottom of the sea. If he is to be saved, he will not be able to cooperate with God. His salvation will be an act of pure grace, and grace alone, on the part of God (Eph. 2:8).

Solus Christus

When we discuss the Reformation slogan solus Christus, it is important to understand the precise point of dispute. The Reformers did not reject the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of the person of Christ. Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology were not the issue, and the theologians of the Reformed churches readily used the biblical and theological arguments of patristic and medieval theologians to defend traditional Trinitarianism and Christology.

The problem, then, was not the person of Christ. The problem was the work of Christ. The debate centered on the sacramental system that Rome had constructed, a system in which the grace of Christ was mediated to the people through an elaborate system of priests and sacramental works. Through this sacramental system, the Roman church effectively controlled the Christian’s life from birth (baptism) to death (extreme unction) and even beyond (masses for the dead).

Martin Luther and other Reformers realized that this elaborate system of works obscured the person and work of Christ as it was so clearly taught in Scripture. Luther argued that the papacy, through this sacramental system, had usurped the prerogatives of Christ, making itself the dispenser of God’s grace. Christ alone, and not the Church, however, is our only Mediator (Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 181). As Huldrych Zwingli proclaimed, “Christ is the only way of salvation of all who were, are now, or shall be.” In Article 54 of his Sixty-Seven Articles (1523), Zwingli explicitly contrasts the Roman sacramentalist view with solus Christus: “Christ has borne all our pain and travail. Hence, whoever attributes to works of penance what is Christ’s alone, errs and blasphemes God.” The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that Christ alone is the object of our faith: “the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (XIV.2).

The Reformers and their heirs were intent on proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). They recognized that because Christ is the only way of salvation for man, He is central to the message of the Bible (Acts 4:12). Their books were Christ-centered. Their sermons were Christ-centered. Their worship was Christ-centered. All of this was in stark contrast to the man-centered religion of late medieval Roman Catholicism. If we are to see a new Reformation in our day, we too must believe and confess the biblical doctrine of solus Christus.

Soli Deo Gloria

Soli Deo Gloria is not precisely parallel to the other four solas because in one sense, it is both the beginning and the end of the other four. The Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures to the glory of God alone. Christ humbled Himself to the point of death and was raised and exalted to the right hand of the Father to the glory of God alone. Grace and mercy are offered to rebellious sinners to the glory of God alone. Justification is by faith alone to the glory of God alone. Soli Deo Gloria, therefore, is central.

It is important to understand that when we talk about God’s glory, we are talking first and foremost about an attribute of God. As the Westminster Confession of Faith explains: “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself.” He is the God of glory (Acts 7:2). He also manifests His glory in the works of creation and redemption, most significantly in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8).

God also glorifies Himself in and through the church. We as believers are called to do whatever we do to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). We are to use our gifts to serve one another “in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:10–11). The Psalms are filled from beginning to end with ascriptions of praise to the glory of God, and this demonstrates where the focus of the church’s worship should be. Worship does not exist for our entertainment. Worship exists for the glory of God alone.

A rediscovery of the five solas of the Reformation is an important part of getting back on the right path.


Dr. Keith Mathison is professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College.