Introducing the Five Solas of the Reformation

Phillip Westra / October 9, 2017

We use the Five Solas—Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone—to capture important and enduring themes of the Protestant Reformation. These slogans are positive correctives to teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Leading up to the 16th Century Reformation, the Roman Church placed the decrees of the pope and church councils above Scripture, sold salvific merit for money in the form of indulgences, and forbade Bible translations into common languages. Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses posting on October 31, 1517 was his first step toward reform. The Protestant Reformation developed over time and resulted in several sub-traditions (Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.). The “Five Solas” render some of the important convictions Protestants held in common.

The Reformers like Luther and Calvin did not use the phrases of the “Five Solas” with any kind of regularity. These five phrases did not become the slogans they are today until the 20th Century. Luther and his followers were known for advancing three “solas”—Scripture alone, grace alone, and faith alone. Mark Thompson documents one of the earliest uses of “Scripture alone” in Luther’s An Assertion of All the Articles from 1520.1 The first article of the Formula of Concord, completed 31 years after Luther’s death, begins with the following statement. “The only rule and norm…are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testament alone.”

Echoing Ephesians 2:8–9, Luther taught that justification is by the grace of God, not by human merit. He articulated such grace alone in Article 5 of the Augsburg Confession, which reads, “God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.” In the first article of Luther’s Smalcald Articles he states, “It is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us.” These are some foundations subsequent reformers build upon. All the Reformers embraced the Biblical teachings that Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5) and that salvation is ultimately for God’s glory (Philippians 1:11).

Locating the Solas in their historical context helps guard them against rhetorical inaccuracies. Scripture alone did not entail a rejection of supplemental belief statements like the Apostle’s Creed or the church’s need to teach Christians how to interpret the Bible responsibly. While good works are not a condition for justification, they are a consequence of being justified. James Payton summed it up accurately in his book Getting the Reformation Wrong when he wrote, “For Calvin and all the Protestant Reformers, we are justified by faith alone—but faith is never alone.”2 We could make a similar qualification that Christ alone was never meant to exclude our participation in the earthly body of Christ, the church (Ephesians 1:22–23). We should revisit the writings of the Reformers to clarify and nuance what they meant by “alone.”

Tragically, the Pro-testant label is sometimes equated with ideas that leaders of the Reformation such as Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Zwingli would have never advocated. For example, liberals point to the Protestant Reformation as supportive precedence to value theological innovation and cultural adaption over the established and unchanging “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). The “Five Solas” recover Christian essentials of salvation found in the New Testament and church fathers. These beliefs should unite Protestants today as they did during the days of the Reformation.

1Mark D. Thompson, “Sola Scriptura,” Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 154.

2James Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 127.

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