The Five Solas of the Reformation
Part 1 of 6
The Roots of the Reformation
Jer. 3:6-15, 22–4:2
The LORD said also unto me in the days of Josiah the king, Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot.
And I said after she had done all these things, Turn thou unto me. But she returned not. And her treacherous sister Judah saw it.
And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot also.
And it came to pass through the lightness of her whoredom, that she defiled the land, and committed adultery with stones and with stocks.
And yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah hath not turned unto me with her whole heart, but feignedly, saith the LORD.
And the LORD said unto me, The backsliding Israel hath justified herself more than treacherous Judah.
Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the LORD; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the LORD, and I will not keep anger for ever.
Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed against the LORD thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to the strangers under every green tree, and ye have not obeyed my voice, saith the LORD.
Turn, O backsliding children, saith the LORD; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion:
And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding. . . .
Surely as a wife treacherously departeth from her husband, so have ye dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel, saith the LORD.
A voice was heard upon the high places, weeping and supplications of the children of Israel: for they have perverted their way, and they have forgotten the LORD their God.
Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold, we come unto thee; for thou art the LORD our God.
Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains: truly in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.
For shame hath devoured the labour of our fathers from our youth; their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters.
We lie down in our shame, and our confusion covereth us: for we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God.
If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the LORD, return unto me: and if thou wilt put away thine abominations out of my sight, then shalt thou not remove.
And thou shalt swear, The LORD liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness; and the nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory.
This passage recounts Jeremiah’s second message of his book (the first in 2:1-3:5). He tells the story of two sisters, Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom). Israel had committed spiritual adultery against God, that is, the worship of idols, specifically, the fertility cult of the ancient world. God waited for her to return, but she refused to do so, so He gave her a bill of divorce and sent her away (v. 8), a clear reference to the destruction and the Assyria captivity in 722 BC. In spite of the object lesson that this provided Judah as she watched this scene, she did not learn from it, would not turn away from idolatry, and also was taken into captivity, this time by the Babylonians in 605-602 BC.
Two words stand out in this passage. One is the word backsliding, which appears seven times (vs. 6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 22 [twice]). The Hebrew words used in these verses (shôbāb and meshûbâ) are very strong, indicating apostasy, backsliding, and turning away from truth, not occasionally but rather as a way of life. The other word that stands out is return (or returned), which appears five times (vs. 7, 12, 22, 4:1 [twice]). In its simplest sense, the Hebrew (shûb) means to return, to restore, to go back, as when, for example, Abraham’s descendants in their fourth generation would return to Canaan (Gen. 15:16).
While this passage is, of course, Jewish, it nonetheless provides a picture for the church to consider. As we will see in a moment, before the Protestant Reformation, the Church had drifted far from God and His revelation in Scripture. In his commentary on Revelation, Harry Ironside provides us with one of the best summaries of Roman Catholicism ever written:
Romanism is Christianity, Judaism, and Heathenism joined together; and the Lord abhors the vile combination. God gave Rome space to repent, and she repented not. Go back to the days of Savanarola (Italy), Wickliffe and Cranmer (England), John Knox (Scotland), Martin Luther (Germany), Zwingle (Switzerland), Calvin (France)—all those mighty reformers whom God raised up throughout the world to call Rome to repent of her iniquity, but she repented not. If she had any desire to get right with Him, she would have repented in the sixteenth century [emphasis added].
That last statement is extremely important, as we will see. Contrary to popular thought, Roman Catholicism is not Christian and has never repented from her idolatry. As the passage before us illustrates, then, the Church, like Israel, was apostate in the extreme and was in need of a return to God.
At the root of the Reformation were five key truths, all of which began with the Latin word sola, meaning “alone.” They were:
· Sola Scriptura, the Scripture alone
· Sola Gratia, grace alone
· Sola Fide, faith alone
· Solus Christus, Christ alone
· Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone be glory
We could put these together in one statement that summarizes the true, biblical Christian faith:
It is Scripture alone that declares that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, by which God alone is glorified.
The Reformation, and Christianity itself, in fact, can in no way be understood apart from these truths.
That is what this series is about—it is about the very core of the Christian faith. Without these truths, Christianity does not exist. To pervert even one of them, is to destroy all of them, for they are, indeed, one indivisible truth. These truths also enable us to evaluate the church as a whole and individual churches in particular. The existence of these truths reveals the orthodoxy of the church (or a church), while their absence, on the other hand, reveals, to use a biblical image, ichabod, “the glory is departed” (I Sam. 4:21). As we will see, much of the glory of God has departed from the church (and churches) simply because these truths have all but vanished.
* * * * *
Before dealing with these five principles, however, it is absolutely essential to examine briefly the state of the church prior to the Protestant Reformation. Sadly, few Christians even know what the Reformation was, much less the issues involved. If you asked the average Christian, “What was the Reformation?” appallingly few would be able to define it. If you asked them, “Well, are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” they would no doubt say “Protestant,” but they would not be able to tell you why. If you investigated further by asking, “What exactly are you protesting?” they might say, “The Catholic Church,” but they would not be able to elaborate on what is wrong with Catholicism, especially because many evangelicals are saying that Protestants and Catholics are the same, that we are all “brothers and sisters in Christ.”
What, then, was the Reformation about?
To say that the church at that time was in sad condition is the height of understatement. Just as it is darkest before the dawn in our physical world, there was a thick veil of darkness over the church and even society itself. Gone were the simplicity of faith, the fervency of love, and the assurance of hope that was true of the Apostolic Age. There was no joy, no peace, no certainty, and certainly no truth. Outwardly, there was pomp and regal display, but inwardly there was emptiness. Worship was hollow and “preaching” was devoid of content. Sermons were not in the language of the people but were in Latin, which amounted to little more than “profane and vain babblings” (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:16) because only scholars understood it, leaving the people in ignorance and superstition.
Beautiful cathedrals were built in the Middle Ages (more accurately the Dark Ages from the 5th to the 15th centuries), but within their walls lived no truth whatsoever. The gravest of errors were taught (and are still taught) by the Roman Church. Added to the two simple ordinances establish by the Lord Jesus (which were never meant for a means of salvation but were only memorial in nature), the Roman Church founded a seven-fold sacramental system that it says is the way God’s grace and merit are earned by the sinner. Those sacraments are: holy order of the priesthood, infant baptism, confirmation as a youth, marriage as an adult, receiving mass (eating Christ’s literal body and drinking His literal blood) regularly throughout life, penance for confessed sin throughout life, and extreme unction on one’s deathbed (also called anointing the sick and Last Rites). As is made clear in its own Baltimore Catechism, Catholicism teaches “that among the chief means provided by Christ for our sanctification are the sacraments. They are outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace. . . . When the sign is applied to the one who receives the sacrament, it signifies inward grace and has the power of producing it in the soul.” Salvation in Catholicism, therefore, is not by faith but by works, by the infusing of grace into man by means of his practicing the sacraments.
Added to the sacramental system was (and is) the teaching concerning purgatory, adopted into the Church about 600 AD. Here is a place, somewhere between heaven and hell, in which the soul passes through the fire of purification before it enters heaven. All believers, it is taught, even the highest clergy but excluding the martyrs, are still encumbered with some degree of sin and must go to purgatory for a certain amount of time, usually several thousand or even millions of years, until all sin is purged, after which they are translated into heaven.
This lead to another teaching, limbus patrum, that is, “limbo of fathers.” The literal idea of limbus is “fringe or border,” and the basic idea in the word “limbo” is “a state or place of confinement.” So the teaching in the term limbus patrum, which was chosen in the Middle Ages, refers to a place on the border of Hell that, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, was the place where “the just who had lived under the Old Dispensation, and who, either at death or after a course of purgatorial discipline, had attained the perfect holiness required for entrance into glory, were obliged to await the coming of the Incarnate Son of God and the full accomplishment of His visible earthly mission. Meanwhile they were ‘in prison’ [awaiting] the higher bliss to which they looked forward.”
A similar teaching is limbus infantium (“children’s limbo”), which is the place where unbaptized infants go, according to Rome; since they weren’t baptized, they can’t go to heaven, but because they have done no wickedness, they go a place of happiness and no “positive pain.” This is why infant baptism is so strongly emphasized to parents, so that they will be able to see their children again in Heaven. If I might go from preaching to meddling for a moment, we have adopted practically the same thing in the Protestant ceremony called “baby dedication.”
One’s time in purgatory can be reduced, Rome taught (and still teaches), by doing penance to make up for sins committed and to try to gain “indulgences,” that is, remissions of sin. Just prior to the Reformation, the selling of indulgences had reached epidemic proportions. By paying a fee to the Church, one could buy forgiveness of sins not only already committed but also even for sins not yet committed. Most of Luther’s famous “95 Theses” that he nailed to the church door in Wittenberg dealt with the unconscionable abuse of indulgences by infamous John Tetzel.
Particularly troubling was (and is) Catholicism’s teachings concerning Mary. She is considered to be the “Co-Redemptrix” with Christ, that is, she cooperates with Christ in the work of saving sinners. While the Vatican II council (1963-65) brought certain reforms, it changed nothing of Catholicism’s underlying theology. In that council it was stated that Mary was “used by God not merely in a passive way, but as cooperating in the work of human salvation through faith and obedience. . . . She conceived, brought forth, and nourished Christ. She presented Him to the Father in the temple, and was united with Him in suffering as He died on the cross.” In other words, while the Church does not teach that Mary literally died for our sins, it does teach that by giving birth to Christ, nurturing Him through life, and even suffering with Him on the cross, she indirectly contributed to the work of salvation. Putting it bluntly, Mary was elevated to goddess status, just as Semiramis was in Babylon, Ishtar in Assyria, Astarte in Phoenicia, Isis in the Egypt, Aphrodite in Greece, and Venus in ancient Rome.
Further still, Mary is also considered to be “Mediatrix,” that is, she now dispenses God’s grace and blessings to the spiritually needy. Again, Vatican II reaffirmed:
This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross. This maternity will last without interruption until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. For, taken up to heaven, she did not lay aside this saving role, but by her manifold acts of intercession continues to win for us gifts of eternal salvation.
By her maternal charity, Mary cares for the brethren of her Son who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led to their happy fatherland. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix.
Not only was (and is) Mary central to the Roman system, but also of great value is the veneration of and prayers to the saints, something that again comes from paganism. There are almost as many saints and saints’ days as there are days in the year. There was a saint for virtually every business, age, calling, and vocation. Even nations had their patron saints. These saints, it is taught, have a surplus of good works that can benefit people on earth and can be prayed to and asked for aid in sickness and misfortune.
As if all that were not appalling enough, nothing was (and is) more characteristic of the Roman system, however, and more typical of paganism, in fact, than the veneration of relics and statues of the martyrs. Blatantly shaking its fist in the face of God, who commanded, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image [or] bow down thyself to them” (Ex. 20:5-6), Catholicism does just that. Relics include supposed pieces of the cross, bones of martyrs, pieces of the silver coins Judas took for betraying Christ, pieces of cloth woven by the Virgin Mary, and even vials of milk from her breasts. By visiting and venerating such relics, worshipers are promised less time in purgatory. There is also the veneration of statues of Mary and the saints by kissing them, bowing down to them, and burning candles and incense before them. And if I may meddle a little further, what do we do in churches today? We have “candlelight services.” What is the matter with us? Are we ignorant or just rebellious? All of this is without argument totally pagan in origin. Among the Egyptians, for example, the God Osiris was venerated by relics. There were sepulchers of that martyred god all over Egypt, all containing an arm, a leg, or even a skull, all of which were claimed to be genuine. Idols! And if I may meddle one more time, what do we do at Christmas time? We pull out our “nativity scenes” and place them on the church lawn.
Doctrine always works out in practice, so it is not surprising that the lifestyle of the clergy at the time of the Reformation was as perverted as its theology. Elated upon seeing the city of Rome in the distance on his journey there in 1510, Martin Luther fell to his knees and cried, “Salve! Sancta Roma [Hail to thee, Holy Rome!] thrice holy for the blood of martyrs shed here.” But upon touring the city the next day, his estimation soon diminished. While he had pictured streets filled with Christians and holy sites teeming with godly pilgrims, what he found was the very opposite, a city permeated by wickedness, a place overflowing with vice and corruption. The clergy was the worst of all. He saw no poverty or self-denial among them, just money and luxury. Cardinals lived in sin with their mistresses, while some considered themselves virtuous simply because they confined themselves to women. Pope Julius II lived in splendor, was at the time waging war with France, and had just returned from laying siege to another town.
The light, however, was about to dawn. In southern Europe, the fifteenth century Renaissance, which means the rebirth of culture or learning, finished setting the stage for the Reformation. While it brought about intellectual development, the movement turned to Humanism to try to find meaning to life. The cry of the Renaissance was man is the center of all things; he can do whatever he wills and can accomplish anything to which he sets his mind. The seed of this was actually planted in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas (1227-74), the Roman Catholic Schoolman who mixed Christian thought with pagan thought, especially Aristotle (a pagan). By teaching that while man fell in his will, his intellect did not, the inevitable result was the idea that man could think his way out of his problems. This tainted the Church as well. No longer was the Bible the authority; rather the Church became the authority. We should also interject that that idea is still with us today, even among Evangelicals. While we give the Bible lip service, it is far from being the SOLE authority in all that we believe and do in the Church; we look to our intellect, our understanding, and our ideas. We have never wholly escaped Thomas Aquinas, who is still studied today as one of the greatest thinkers of Church History. Additionally, right in line with Humanism, Renaissance thought further tainted the church by adding human works to the work of Christ for salvation.
At first, Humanism seemed true and workable. The art and architecture of the Renaissance, for example, especially in Florence, Italy, is breathtaking to this day. Michelangelo’s statue David still stands as the ultimate statement of the Renaissance. It pictures man as supreme in his own strength and breathtaking beauty. Likewise, the incredibly brilliant Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) truly epitomized Renaissance man; he was not only an artist, but also a chemist, musician, architect, anatomist, botanist, and mechanical engineer. His accomplishments still stagger the mind 500 years later. It’s especially significant, however, that Leonardo himself, near the end of his life, saw the inevitable failure and ultimate defeat of Humanism.
There is a staggering paradox here that truly sets the stage for the Reformation, namely, thinking does not lead to the Truth. While René Descartes (1596–1650) said, “I think, therefore I am,” that means nothing. While a man might “be,” he is still lost in his “being.” Truth is not discovered; Truth is revealed. Man can never discover Truth; only God reveals Truth, and He reveals it in one place only. He reveals it not in visions, dreams, or “meditative states,” rather in Scripture alone.
While this was happening in the south of Europe, however, another movement was arising in the north. Men there struggled with the same questions of morals and life, but they came to a conclusion, and therefore results, that were the polar opposite of Renaissance man. As had the forerunners of the Reformation—John Wycliffe (c. 1320–84) and John Huss (1369–1415)—the Reformers started with God, not man. As Solomon tells us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7), so unless we begin with that presupposition, we can know nothing. So by starting with God, no man, the reformers first realized that man is not the center of all things but rather is a depraved creature who fell in his entire being. That principle, in fact, is at the very foundation of biblical salvation doctrine. If one does not believe that, he does not believe in biblical salvation doctrine. Every false teaching—whether it be Arianism, Pelagianism, Arminianism, or any other—has at its core an unbiblical view of man. Every one, in fact, views man as having either not fallen at all and is basically good, or that his fall was only partial, that there is at least a little good in there somewhere. In stark contrast, the Reformers recognized the biblical teaching of man’s totally fallen and perverse nature, that his entire being—his intellect, emotions, and will—is hopelessly depraved.
No passage sums this up better than Ephesians 2:1-3. When it says that man is “dead in trespasses and sins,” it means that he is in a hopeless state. Can he respond to God in his own strength? No, for he is dead. Can he in and of himself believe the Gospel without God’s intervention? No, for he is dead. Man must be regenerated before God then gives him the faith to believe (Eph. 2:8-9; cf. Jn. 6:65; Acts 18:27; Phil. 1:29). Unless we start here, we do not have the Christian faith.
The reformers also considered the Bible as the Word of God and the only authority over men’s lives. By removing Humanism from their thought, the Reformers rediscovered the Truth of the Gospel. The leaders of the Reformation were men such as Martin Luther (1483–1546) in Germany, who nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg (Oct. 31, 1517), John Calvin (1509–64) in Switzerland, who wonderfully outlined biblical Truth in his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, and John Knox (c. 1513–72) in Scotland, who said the Catholic mass was idolatry and whose preaching turned that country upside down. Indeed, these men called Catholicism what is was (and still is).
When one reads the reformers, the Puritans, and their descendants, he gets the impression that when those great leaders used the word “papacy,” they spit it out of their mouths because they understood its true nature. I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, if I may be so bold, that anyone who does not truly and deeply loath Roman Catholicism is not a true, biblical evangelical. It is the worst perversion of Christianity ever conjured up by Satan himself and fostered upon man, but still there are those who while calling themselves evangelicals still want to embrace that satanic system.
While the Reformation was far from perfect, it truly did bring the Church out of the darkness that had ruled for 1,000 years and was the first major attempt to return to biblical Christianity. Its primary accomplishments were the bringing back of salvation Truth and a return to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Neither is this series meant to glorify the reformers themselves, rather to point out that they returned to Scripture and its doctrines of salvation.
Disastrously, those truths are again being challenged in our day even from within the ranks of Evangelicalism. Some so-called evangelicals maintain that the Reformation was the most tragic mistake of Church History, that it split the Church and destroyed unity. Such teaching from so-called evangelicals is beyond comprehension. When we advocate embracing a system that is pagan in its origin and blasphemous in its practice, we have abandoned true Christianity. “Pastor, do you hate Catholics?” you might ask. Certainly not! On the contrary, they are lost and in need of salvation. They are a true mission field. No, it is not Catholics we hate, rather the Catholic system we loathe, for it is Satan’s greatest tool of blinding men of the truth of the Gospel.
So, what drove the Reformation? What were the key truths that powered it? It was the “five solas.” It was the return of the core truths that
Scripture alone declares that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, by which God alone is glorified
that fueled the Reformation and returned light to a world that had been in darkness for a thousand years. In a day when even so-called evangelicals are saying that the Reformation was a mistake, these truths need to be reemphasized and proclaimed loudly like never before since the sixteenth century. To abandon these truths is to return to darkness and even to deny the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the remainder of our series, therefore, we will examine these five solas to see what they provide for us:
· Sola Scriptura, the Scripture alone — our Only Model
· Sola Gratia, grace alone — our Only Method
· Sola Fide, faith alone — our Only Means
· Solus Christus, Christ alone — our Only Mediator
· Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone be glory — our Only Motive
As these biblical truths fueled the Reformation, they are desperately needed again today to revive a dying evangelicalism.