This month marks the 503rd anniversary of the birth of the Protestant Reformation; 503 years since a Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology published and presented ninety five propositions (“95 Theses”), expressing his points of contention regarding the sale of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s straightforward invitation to debate the practice of selling indulgences set in motion a dramatic recovery of the biblical Gospel, which had long been obscured amid centuries of innovative traditions in the Catholic Church.
Since the days of the Reformation, efforts to summarize the key doctrines that under-girded and supported it have often led theologians to the themes of what eventually came to be known as the “Five Solas.” The Five Solas are five biblical doctrines that the Protestant reformers were committed to recovering (despite their many differences) through their teaching and to applying in the establishment of new churches following their divisions with the Roman Church.
At the heart of the Reformation debates laid the matter of spiritual authority. Regarding the issue of spiritual authority in the church, the Reformers insisted that Scripture alone is the final authority of the church’s faith and practice. This is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
Regarding the matter of who sinners could trust to save them from God’s righteous judgment, the Reformers insisted that Christ alone is able and qualified to save sinners from the wrath of God. Solus Christus.
Then, regarding the way that Christ saves sinners from the wrath of God, the Reformers insisted that it is by grace alone and through faith alone in Christ, the only mediator between God and man. Sola Gratia and Sola Fide.
And, regarding the ultimate goal of a Christian’s salvation and daily life, the Reformers insisted that the goal of all things isthe glory of God and that alone. Soli Deo Gloria!
These doctrines are thoroughly biblical and are vital to the health of Christ’s people. Where these doctrines are denied, obscured, or simply taken for granted, there the spiritual health of Christians and Christian churches is in deadly decline. Yet, it is one thing to believe these truths, or even to preach them and teach them faithfully in our churches, but it is an entirely other kind of thing to live lives that are shaped by these truths from day to day. And it’s this very thought that provides the inspiration for this post.
It strikes me that a legitimate danger for those of us who believe and preach the Five Solas, is to merely believe and preach them. To treat them as mere doctrinal safeguards for our churches and not as vitally important principles to live by, is to actually violate them.
In fact, as I continue to revisit and reflect upon the Five Solas, I continue to see great value in using them for evaluating my own spiritual health. So, in this post I would like to offer five questions we could ask of ourselves in light of the Five Solas, to rightly asses the health of our souls.
First, am I immersing myself in the Bible?
If it is true (which it is!) that Scripture alone is the final authority and the only infallible authority of our faith and practice, then our spiritual health is directly tied to our interaction with the Scriptures.
Is meditation upon Scripture a part of your daily life, Christian? I’m not asking whether you have a regular “quiet time” here (whatever that is); I’m asking whether the word of Christ is dwelling in you richly (Colossians 3:16). Are you meditating upon it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2)? Are you looking into Scripture to grow in the knowledge of God? Are you learning more about yourself and the ways in which you need to change as you study it and think about it (James 1:22-25)? What words would you use to characterize your relationship to Scripture right now?
A Christian who believes in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, but who is not regularly dwelling in the Scriptures, is a walking oxymoron. Because the Scriptures are “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” equipping us “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), we ought to be feasting upon them regularly, to grow in our knowledge of and love for our gracious God.
Second, am I walking worshipfully with Christ?
The doctrine of Solus Christus proclaims that Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and is the only able and qualified Savior of sinners. Christ himself is our very “life” (Colossians 3:4). He is the very power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), who has become to us “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Just as we sing from time to time in our church, Hallelujah, all I have is Christ!
This being the case, a good question to ask ourselves is this: Am I abiding in Christ (John 15:1-11)? Well, are you, Christian? Are you living in daily dependence upon Christ your Savior? Are you coming to the Father through him in prayer? Do you regularly celebrate him and praise him for his grace? Are you responding to him in obedience when you read and hear his Word? Or, has your spiritual life become one of mere mechanics? Remember, apart from Jesus you can do nothing whatsoever of any eternal value (John 15:5). He is the bread of life (John 6:35); the bread we cannot live without.
Third, am I growing in humility and graciousness toward others?
How are sinners saved by Christ? By grace alone! We do nothing to merit salvation, for in fact we have no merit in ourselves to present to God to begin with. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
This grace utterly demolishes the foundation of all personal pride. Nothing in my hands I bring. Simply to Thy cross, I cling. Naked, come to Thee for dress. Helpless, look to Thee for grace. That’s the song of every Christian. We bring nothing to the table of our salvation, except the sins that put us in need of it. We have nothing to be proud of. Nothing about ourselves in which to boast.
So then, a person who truly believes in the doctrine of Sola Gratia should by necessity be a person who is growing in humility. Genuine belief in Sola Gratia gives birth to genuine humility. How are you doing in this area, Christian? Are you growing in gratitude for the grace of God? Are you growing less impressed with yourself? Are you becoming harder to personally offend? Are you growing in kindness toward others? Are you becoming more forgiving (Colossians 3:15)? This is what humility looks like in the life of a Christian. Are these characteristics present in your life? And does it look like they are increasing in you?
Fourth, am I resting in the sufficiency of Christ’s saving work?
The doctrine of Sola Fide teaches us that only way to be freed from the sentence of God’s eternal condemnation and to be pronounced righteous in his sight is to trust in Christ who alone is truly righteous and who died for his people on the cross. Justification is by faith alone in Christ alone (Romans 3:21-26, 28, 30).
The act of believing upon Christ for salvation is not the thing that is considered by God as righteous. Rather, Christ alone is righteous. He alone kept God’s law perfectly. He alone lived every day on this earth for the glory of his Father. He alone is the righteous one, and biblical faith is merely a resting on his righteousness for our right standing with God. God justifies sinners by faith, not because of their faith, per se, but because of the one in whom their faith rests; in Jesus Christ and him alone.
Foul I to the fountain fly. Wash me Savior or I die. That is the cry of genuine faith. Faith is as Terry Johnson puts it, “the empty hand that receives the gift of God” (Johnson, The Case for Traditional Protestantism, p. 85).
And this faith is not a one-time act. It is meant to be the general disposition of the Christian life. True faith in Christ is a persevering faith. True faith is believing upon Christ decisively (at conversion) and continuously (throughout the Christian life). We come to believe in him and we keep believing in him, “that by believing (present tense) [we] may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
So then, at least part of ongoing belief in Christ must involve ongoing confident resting in the righteousness of Christ and the sufficiency of his saving work on our behalf. Are you doing that, Christian? Well, when you see good fruit being produced in your life, does it make you proud or grateful? And when you are convicted of your sin, is your assurance of salvation shaken, or does it propel you to ruthless confession and repentance? Do you feel more worthy of God’s love when you experience victory over temptation, or do those victories increase your gratitude to Christ for saving you from sin? Questions like that will help you discern whether you are actively resting in the sufficiency of Christ’s saving work on your behalf.
Fifth, am I consciously pursuing the fame of God’s name in my daily life?
Soli Deo Gloria is a way to sum up the Bible’s answer to the question of God’s ultimate purpose for history, for saving sinners, and for creating each one of us. It is the glory of God alone and not the glory of any creature that is the ultimate purpose of everything that God does. This conviction is truly what drove men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer and others to pursue reform in the Roman Catholic Church of 16th C. Europe.
In a recent book on this doctrine, David Van Drunen explains it this way:
“The Reformers perceived that the perfect word and work of Christ – precisely because they are perfect – need nothing to supplement them. Anything that tries to supplement them, in fact, challenges their perfection and thus dishonors God’s word and work in Christ. [The Reformers saw that] If the Roman Catholic doctrine of authority and doctrine of salvation are true, all glory thus does not belong to God alone. And God, Scripture tells us, will share his glory with no other (Isa 42:8)” (Van Drunen, God’s Glory Alone, p. 15).
If God will share his glory with no other, then I dare not seek the glory of anyone or anything but his. The goal of my life must then be to “do all things to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). But this isn’t a novel idea. You’re likely convinced of this, as am I. But are we living like it? Are we living like God is glorious? Are we living like the glory of his name is what matters in this world, and that to pursue the glory of our own names is to commit treason against our Creator?
Are we worshipping him daily as the glorious God that he is? Are we beholding his glory in Christ and being changed by the sight of his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18) as we engage with his Word and walk worshipfully with his Son? Are we serving others by the strength and ability that God supplies “in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:10-11)? Are we engaged in evangelistic pursuits and evangelistic prayers, that he might be glorified all the more for his grace in Christ? These are some of the things that people do, who are consumed with his glory.
So then we see that the Five Solas are useful for diagnosing our spiritual health, just as they were useful for distinguishing the foundational principles of the Protestant Reformation. May God give us grace to ask and answer these questions with ruthless honesty, so that the Five Solas of the Reformation might not be merely believed and preached, but lived out to the glory of God, in all of our churches and each of our lives, individually.