Sola Scriptura

He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic.

These were the words of the Roman Catholic theologian and Master of the Sacred Palace, Sylvester Prierias, in response to Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses.

The whole of the Reformation is owing to the power of sacred Scripture—the written Word of God. Something so powerful must be handled with care. For Rome, this meant the clergy had to maintain exclusive control of the Scriptures. They were too mysterious and difficult for the commoner to handle, so they said. The authority of the Scriptures was then mediated through the authority of the Church.

The first and formal principle of the Reformation is captured in the Latin slogan sola scriptura. By this, the reformers were declaring that Scripture alone is our ultimate authority. According to this principle, the authority of the church and its traditions are necessarily subservient to the Scripture.

Rome taught that church tradition was equal to Scripture. The reformers insisted, on the testimony of sacred Scripture itself, that Scripture is over the church and its traditions. Indeed, they maintained that Christ ruled His church through His written Word.

This first principle of the Reformation is illustrated by the fact that virtually every major reformer is portrayed on canvas or by statue to be pointing to sacred Scripture.

We may summarize the differences as follows.

RCC Evangelical
Tradition and Scripture Scripture over Tradition
Scripture proceeds from the Church The Church proceeds from Scripture

Sola Fide

One of the key rallying cries of the Reformation was that a sinner is justified sola fide—by faith alone. It was a clarion for the Gospel. It served as a direct counter against distorted medieval views of justification. For Luther, it was “the summary of all Christian doctrine” and “the article by which the church stands or falls.”

In it the biblical concept of imputation was revived, and human hearts came alive. This leading principle of the Reformation radically changed the way people understood Christ, the crucifixion, the human condition, merit, works, and faith. Rome insisted that good works were necessary for salvation. Though they taught that God’s grace prompted such work, nevertheless, meritorious deeds were a necessary condition of salvation.

The Reformation revived the scriptural teaching that a sinner is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ alone (Galatians 2:16). John Calvin would later summarize:

Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. … [Justification by faith alone] is the main hinge on which religion turns, so that we devote the greater attention and care to it. For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God (Institutes, III, xi, 1).

Sola Gratia

The Reformation celebrated the rediscovery of God in His amazing grace. Eyes were taken off of self and directed to the suffering Savior who by grace alone freely grants salvation to unworthy sinners who place their trust in Him. Rome taught that man has free will and is able to cooperate with God’s grace. As cooperating sinners labor to obtain as much grace as they can through the sacraments of the church, they would increasingly merit more grace. It was really a vicious system of works. At bottom, man contributed to his salvation, indeed, if he worked hard enough he could merit it. Christ’s merit was mingled with the supposed merit of the saints and was made available to sinners only through the church’s control. The church held the keys to the treasury of merit, like bankers, they distributed the treasury of merit through their channels of sacraments.

The Reformation insisted that humanity was fallen and rendered incapable of performing any saving good. Salvation begins and ends with God’s grace. God initiates and generously gives all that is needed to be reconciled to God.

In the old system, grace was largely conceived of as a sort of impersonal, metaphysical substance. The Reformation recovered the biblical concept of grace as personal, relational, and God’s free choice. Salvation is a gift from a loving God. The Reformation reminds us that sinners are saved by grace alone apart from works.

Solus Christus

Christ saves. Without Christ there is no salvation (John 14:6). Faith apart from Christ is worthless (Acts 4:12). The key concept the Reformation restored to the preaching of the Gospel is substitution (2 Corinthians 5:21). There would be no justification by faith alone without Christ and His substitutionary sacrifice (Romans 3:24-26). The Gospel is good news fundamentally because God has done in Christ what man cannot do for himself (Romans 8:1-4).

Rightly understood, Christ is at the center of the Reformation. He is the Incarnate Word of Sola Scriptura, the object of Sola Fide, the provision of Sola Gratia, and the delight of Soli Deo Gloria.

The Reformation preached that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). John Calvin summarizes the meaning of Solus Christus:

We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him” [1 Cor. 1:30]. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects [Heb. 2:17] that he might learn to feel our pain [cf. Heb. 5:2]. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal. 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge (Institutes, II, xvi, 19).

Soli Deo Gloria

God is the goal. Creation exists for God’s glory. Salvation exists, first, for God’s glory. All things serve this one supreme end—Soli Dei Gloria. The meaning of this slogan captures the champion aim of the Reformation, namely that in all things, whether religious or otherwise, life is to be lived for the glory of God alone.

By returning to God’s Gospel in the Scripture, salvation was rediscovered to be a work of God in Christ alone, given by grace alone, received by faith alone, and all for the glory of God alone. God alone deserves all of the praise and glory for the salvation of sinners.

This revived perspective gives a profoundly new outlook on all of life. While it most immediately pertains to matters concerning salvation by grace through faith in Christ apart from works, it most certainly touches all of life. In fact, Luther countered the thinking of his day by applying vocatio (Latin for “calling”) to all the professions and roles of life. According to this view, being a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, a son, or a daughter all was an appointment by God to be stewarded for His glory. No longer were we to think that only the clergy worked for the glory of God, for the Scripture says, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Soli Deo Gloria became a Reformation summary of life. Everyday life was to be lived coram Deo (“before the face of God”).

Living for the glory of God purifies and delights the soul. It is the only orientation of life that answers our very design and purpose. Soli Deo Gloria redirects our world to be rightly God-centered with deep-seated meaning and satisfaction. The Reformation restored to humanity the reality that sunsets, stars, mountains, music, food, love, and a host of other natural gifts of God ring with His glory for our joy.