Last week we discussed what it means that we are a Protestant church.

(By “Protestant” I mean the broad umbrella of denominations born from the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. Pretty much every church that’s not Catholic is Protestant, so this includes Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, etc. Of course, there is great diversity in doctrine among these denominations but all trace their origins to this monumental period of history. FPC, as a part of the Presbyterian Church in America, is more self-consciously committed to the doctrines of the Reformers than most other Protestant denominations.)

First, here’s a brief (and fun!) history of the Reformation.

We talk about the “Five Solas” of the Reformation. These are the five “alones” the Reformers taught to call the Church back to a more pure embrace of the Gospel preached by Christ and the Apostles. Let’s look at each of these.

1. Sola Fide, by faith alone. A sinner’s justification (his being-made-right-with-a-holy-God) is based on faith alone, not faith + good works, as taught by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).

The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Question 33) summarizes the Reformers’ teaching compactly:

“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

Notice the language. Justification is an “act.” It is not a process. This is precisely how the RCC thought of justification. It is becoming right-with-God by faith + the Sacraments + good works. Thus, a person is only as justified as she is sanctified. In RCC theology, there is no assurance of salvation.

Westminster also uses the language of “imputed”—which is so important. This word means “credited to our account.” We who are hopelessly indebted to God for our sins are credited Christ’s riches, riches that we can never exhaust. His righteousness is not deposited into our account in small deposits, in response to our good works; by faith we are declared to be forever that which we are not yet in ourselves—perfectly holy and acceptable before God.

2. Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone. The Scriptures alone are our authority for life and doctrine. This means we reject all human authorities (whether a church, the popular philosophy of the day, our own logic) when they stand in contradiction to the Scriptures.

The RCC taught there were two authorities that bound the conscience of Christians—the Scriptures + the Tradition of the Church (including the Ecumenical Councils, the declaration of Popes as the heirs of Peter’s authority). This two-fold nature of authority is vital for understanding and engaging well with our Roman Catholic friends. When you charge some belief they hold is not in the Bible, they might well agree with you. Because they regard the Roman Church as the only authoritative interpreter of the Scripture, that which the Church teaches is to be regarded equally with Scripture.

The Reformers rejected the RCC’s claim to stand alongside Scripture as an authority binding the consciences of Christians. They based this rejection not only on the fact that much of the Church’s tradition contradicts the teaching of Scripture, but that the tradition, in so many places, contradicts itself. The Reformers valued the tradition of the Church but believed Scripture alone as the final and only authority.

3. Sola Christus, through Christ alone. The only mediator between a holy God and sinful humanity is the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Reformers taught “the priesthood of all believers”—that all people, great and small, young and old, rich and poor, have equal and direct access to God through Christ. This was in distinction from the RCC’s teaching and practice of treating mere human beings, both living and dead, as mediators of God’s grace. They rejected the practice of praying to saints and Mary as foreign to the Gospel. They bridged the chasm that had developed between the laity and clergy with the teaching that all Christians have immediate access to God’s pardoning grace and love through Jesus.

4. Sola gratia, through grace alone. The Reformers held that our salvation, from beginning to end, depends upon God’s grace and nothing in us. Faith, the “instrument” of our justification, isn’t something we conjure up—it is a gift of grace. All our days, from the moment of our justification into eternity, his grace upholds us and keeps us. We will persevere to the end not ultimately because of ourselves, but because of his purpose.

Although the RCC recoils at the accusation that its doctrine minimizes God’s grace, that certainly is its effect. If God’s grace merely makes it possible for me to work for my salvation, my salvation is to some degree a reward and not a gift. Consider Paul’s zeal to uphold the doctrine of grace alone:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

5. Sola Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone. By this the Reformers summarized the effect of their doctrine: that God alone receives the glory, since he does all the work. Paul, in the passage quoted above, makes this connection directly:

“…not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9).

The practical effect of RCC doctrine (not to say it’s intended) is to share God’s glory with man. If, to some degree, I receive my salvation as a reward for my obedience, I have reason to boast over others and before God.


My prayer is that the “Five Solas” would shape the life of FPC in real ways: that sola fide would make us humble people, that sola Scriptura would cause us to ache for the Word, that sola Christos would deter us from exalting any human leader, that sola gratia would make us hopeful and thankful, that sola Deo gloria would deepen our worship of the only true and living God.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *