The five “solas,” expressed in concise Latin, are theological convictions of the Reformers. They are:
- Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone
- Sola Gratia, by Grace alone
- Sola Fide, by Faith alone
- Solus Christus, Christ alone (or Solo Christo, through Christ alone)
- Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God alone
The Battle Cry of Reformation
The first three solas – Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide – are the core of reformation convictions. Scripture alone, not papal edicts nor church traditions, is the ultimate authority for Christian faith and living. God’s Grace alone, not human merits, is the source of our salvation. And Faith alone, not works, is the means of salvation. We’re saved by God’s grace alone, through faith alone.
These three all point to Christ, hence Solus Christus, Christ Alone. Through Christ all the glory goes to God, Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone the glory. There you have them, the five solas.
Among the five solas, Sola Fide – justification by faith alone – was the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation. In a time when the church claimed to be the sole agency of salvation, that it alone held the key to heaven, Luther and other reformers cried out their objections. No, we’re not justified by fulfilling the church’s requirements. We’re justified by faith, and faith alone! This conviction set them on a collision course with the church. There were debates and trials, confrontations and power struggles, battles and wars. A tumultuous time lasted for decades in Europe. When all was over, the truth that we are justified by faith, and faith alone, was deeply rooted in believers’ conscience once again.
The Heart of Christianity
The heart of Christianity is our relationship with God. Not rules or regulations, sacraments or ordinances, buildings or organizations, not even ministries. What matters to God is our relationship with him.
God wants his wayward children to return to him. He wants us to have a loving relationship with him. He is our Father, he loves us. What he wants from us is not formality, but genuine relationship. Not thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him. (Micah 6:7-8)
People in Luther’s time, and in ours too, often mistake Christianity to be a religion of appearance. All is well as long as you keep up the appearance. Be baptized, go to the services, pay your dues, and you are good to go. Oh, it does not matter if you don’t have a relationship with God, just keep up the appearance. Luther found no satisfaction in this kind “Christianity.” He longed for a loving relationship with God.
The Great Chasm
There is a problem with returning to God. God is holy, sinful man can’t just “return to him.” A great chasm has been created by our sins, rendering it impossible for us to return to God. We need to fill the chasm before we can do anything. But how? How can we fix the problem of sin?
The solution is in the blood of the sacrificial lamb. God allows sinful man to come to his presence if a lamb is sacrificed in his place. A man places his hands on the lamb to transfer all his sins. It is then killed on the altar. The lamb died in place of the sinful man so he can live. At the cross, Christ the true sacrificial lamb bearing all our sins, offered himself unblemished to God once and for all. By his blood our sins are forgiven. By his death the great chasm is filled. We are now free to return to God.
Luther knew all of these. He knew that he was a sinful man and he needed to have faith in Christ in order to be saved. What he didn’t know at that time was he needed ONLY faith. The church taught him salvation is through faith in Christ, but not faith alone. In order to be saved you need to have faith, and good works, and baptism, and sacraments, and penitence, and…
Luther was in trouble. He wanted to have assurance for his salvation, but no matter how hard he tried he just could not have it. His upbringing did not help. He had a stern father who would whip him for the smallest offense. It’s impossible for him to please the father. He always did something wrong. Always falling short. He carried with him that sense of inadequacy to the monastery, where he started the career of a monk. He did good works, prayed, fasted, confessed his sins, but still there’s no assurance.
The failure of the church to teach that salvation is through faith alone added to Luther’s plight. There were so many things to do, so many obligations to fulfill. How could a person ever be sure about his own salvation? Luther stood before his heavenly Father and found himself wanting.
The Burden of the Law
When the gospel was first preached to the gentiles there were many new converts. They were eager to follow the way of Christ. Then there were the Judaizers, Jewish Christians who taught that converts must observe the law of Moses, along with faith in Christ, in order to be truly saved. They went to the young churches with their teachings and people were confused. Was faith in Christ not enough? Should I be circumcised? Paul stood up to them whenever possible, arguing salvation is by faith alone and nothing else. For this reason we have Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the testimonies of apostles the council came to the conclusion that it was not right to put the burden of the Law upon Christians. Faith in Christ alone was sufficient. (Acts 15:28)
Today we know salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. We owe this understanding to Luther. This biblical truth was lost to God’s people for hundreds of years, Luther rediscovered it through his study of the Bible. He found out that all God requires for salvation is our faith in Christ. Anything beyond that is “the Law,” a burden which has been taken away by Christ. There is no need, indeed no justification, to add to Christ’s finished work on the cross by anything else we do.
The Righteousness of God
The key to Luther’s discovery was his understanding of the meaning of “the righteousness of God.” To him “the righteousness of God” was always “the demands of God.” To be righteous in God’s eyes you had to fulfill the Law, to do all the church required of you. Then, one day when he was preparing for a lecture on the book of Romans, he discovered the true meaning of “the righteousness of God.”
For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
In the gospel the righteousness of God is not a demand, but a gift of grace. It’s not earned, but received. Through your faith in Christ God freely gives HIS righteousness to you. He places HIS righteousness upon you. When he sees you he no longer sees a sinful man, but HIS own righteousness. It is through your faith in Christ you have gained access into the grace in which you are now standing. (Romans 5:2)