Today is the four hundred and ninety-third anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, a young German theology professor named Martin Luther nailed his famous Ninety-Five Theses to the wooden door of the Wittenburg Castle church. Little did he know that this would spark a movement which would change the face of church (and even world) history, forever.
In fact, R. C. Sproul tells us that “Luther’s posting of such theses was not a radical act, nor did it desecrate the church’s door. Announcements were posted there routinely, making it a sort of community bulletin board. It was customary for the university faculty to hold discussions of theological import, and these discussions were announced in this manner. Luther penned the theses, not in the German vernacular, but in Latin. This vindicates Luther’s later claim that he originally intended to offer the theses for theological discussion, not to create a public uproar.”[i]
It is true that Luther’s contentions with the Roman Catholic Church were serious. The Roman church had corrupted the pure gospel of Christ by claiming that observing the sacraments was essential to a person’s justification before God. Baptism conveyed the initial grace of justification which could be lost by committing a mortal sin. The sacrament of penance was the second plank of justification, in that it would restore grace for those who had shipwrecked their souls through sin. Connected to the sacrament of penance was the sale of indulgences. People were told that they could save relatives from thousands of years of suffering in purgatory, not to mention deliver their own souls, if they would give alms according to the dictates of their priest. Such perversions of God’s word (and there were many more) moved Luther to pen his famous theses, one of which said, “They preach human folly who pretend that as soon as money in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”[ii]
But though Luther’s words were sharp, one biographer described him as “a man climbing in the darkness a winding staircase in the steeple of an ancient cathedral. In the blackness he reached out to steady himself, and his hand laid hold of a rope. He was startled to hear the clanging of a bell.”[iii] And did the bell ring! Within only weeks, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were known throughout Germany, and the Reformation had begun.
While I don’t affirm everything that Luther or the other Reformers taught, I am very thankful for their courageous and faithful heralding of the pure gospel of Christ as expressed in the five sola’s: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solos Christos, and Soli Deo Gloria.
Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
Fundamental to the teaching of the Reformers was the Word of God. Sola Scriptura began to hold sway over and against the Roman Catholic teaching which gave authority to church and tradition that was equivalent (and even superior) to the Bible. The Reformers believed that the Bible was God’s Word, inspired by God’s Spirit, and thus fully accurate and authoritative. The results of this conviction were history-shaping. Possessed by a holy fear of God and reverence for His Word, the Reformers set themselves to master the original languages of Greek and Hebrew.
The undo allegorical (as opposed to literal) interpretation of the Bible which was common to Rome was curtailed, and a new era of expository preaching began. John Calvin especially left a legacy of Biblical preaching that few (if any) men since has rivaled. For example, he began preaching through the book of Acts on August 25, 1549, and ended in March of 1554 – nearly five years later! He preached 46 sermons on the Thessalonian letters, 186 on the Corinthians, 86 on the Pastorals, 43 on Galatians, 48 on Ephesians, 159 on Job, 200 on Deuteronomy, 123 on Genesis, and 353 on Isaiah! His sermons and commentaries are still being read today by preachers and scholars alike.
Of course, the greatest and most enduring effect of the Reformer’s Sola Scriptura conviction was their fervent labor in getting the Word of God into the language of the masses – for “how could the public acquire a knowledge of the truth, asked William Tyndale, ‘except ye scripture were playnly layd before their eyes in their mother tonge?’”[iv] In large measure, we owe our access to the Bible in our language today, to the faithful labors of such men.
Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
In stark contrast to the works-based doctrine of salvation taught by the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers believed that sinners are saved by grace alone. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion explicitly taught this grace-oriented theology, reaching back to Augustine, and ultimately to the Scriptures. Perhaps no passage better expresses this conviction than Paul’s familiar words from Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (ESV)
Sola Fide (Faith Alone) and Solos Christos (Christ Alone)
Akin to Sola Gratia, was Sola Fide, which emphasized that justification was through faith alone in Christ alone (Solos Christos, the fourth sola). Luther described this as “articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae - the article with and by which the church stands, without which it falls.”
We receive justification from God by faith alone. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). This joyful declaration is the summary of Paul’s argument in Romans 3 and 4. One of the key paragraphs reads, "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:21-26).
Having established that all men are sinners (v. 23), Paul points to the cross as the solution to the mess sin created. God displayed his crucified Son before the world as an exhibition of his righteousness (v. 25). His wrath against sin was poured out on Jesus and satisfied. God justifies us on the basis of Christ’s life and death for us through faith alone.
Through the work of Christ, God’s glory has been vindicated. His honor has been upheld. His righteousness has been displayed. The debt of sin has been paid. This is the meaning of the cross. And all this is received by faith. Paul describes “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” and says that God has put Christ forward “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” This was to declare God’s righteousness “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (vv. 21, 25, 26).
Faith is believing in and relying upon God. It is “not a work, but a relinquishment of all work, an unqualified trust in God who gives life to the dead (4:17), who raised Christ from the dead (4:24), who in Christ gave ‘a righteousness from God.’”[v]
Justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. God accepts us as righteous not because of anything we do, and not even because of anything he has done in us, but solely because of what Jesus Christ has done for us.
Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)
The final sola is the great underlying reason behind the importance of the first four. The Reformers knew the Biblical truth that: “from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36, ESV). They were held captive by a passion for God’s glory, and a conviction that He Himself would “not give [His] glory to another” (Isa. 48:11). And they knew that to depart from the Word of God and compromise the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, was to cast contempt on God’s glory. John Calvin, writing to the Catholic Cardinal Sadolet, thus said: “You . . . touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us . . . . Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished.”[vi] Oh, that we had such concern for the glory of our Savior!
My prayer is that this brief remembrance of the Reformers and the great truths they preached will stir within your heart a passion to faithfully spread this glorious gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We need a host of Luther-like men today - and a host of churches to stand behind them in their proclamation of the gospel. Were the Reformers perfect? No. Did they have some obvious faults? Yes. But considering the time in which they lived and the darkness from which they were delivered, they were very great men.
When Luther stood before the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521, and was asked to recant his books and repudiate the “errors” they contained, he uttered these famous words: “Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe . . . Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise . . . God help me. Amen.”[vii]
[i]R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 60
[iii]Roland Bainton, quoted by R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987), 108
[iv]New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 565
[v] Herman Bavinck, with the Greek words omitted, in Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, gen. ed., John Vriend, trans., Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008) 211.
[vi]Quoted by John Piper, “The Divine Majesty of the Word: John Calvin: The Man and His Preaching” (Minneapolis: Desiring God Ministries, 1997).
[vii]Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: New American Library, 1950), 144