Few pursuits in life are more important than the pursuit of truth. What one believes to be true, especially about God, humanity, and the relation between them, will govern one's entire life-thoughts, affections, attitudes, actions, desires, and decisions. Most importantly, one cannot worship God rightly without right knowledge about who God is. Truth serves as "true north," orienting us in the right direction for our living, our being, and our worship. Truth is worth pursuing, worth wrestling with, and once found, worth fighting for.
Christians who live in the twenty-first century are privileged to stand behind a long line of those who have gone before us and given their entire lives and souls to the pursuit and defense of truth. Some of those to whom we are indebted are the reformers. Martin Luther, in particular, blazed the trail on which we walk today. His nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, marked the beginning of the Reformation. Luther's theses were a list of refutations of the power and efficacy of indulgences, which were being sold by Roman church authorities for the building of St. Peter's Basilica:
[The laity] ask, e.g.: Why does not the pope liberate everyone from purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls? This would be morally the best of all reasons. Meanwhile he redeems innumerable souls for money, a most perishable thing, with which to build St. Peter's church, a very minor purpose. (Thesis 82)Luther led the Protestant Reformation with bold intent to recover the identity of Christ's church, including its spiritual integrity, its authority (Scripture), and most of all, its message-the doctrine of justification. It was Luther's discovery of justification by faith alone in his study of the Book of Romans that caused him to rethink his entire life and system of doctrine. He wrote,
My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement "the just shall live by faith." Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning ... This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven. (emphasis added)The Reformation was not an overreaction to a squabble over whose understanding of salvation was better-the Roman Catholic Church's or Martin Luther's. The Reformation was a serious debate over whose understanding of salvation was right. In other words, the Reformation's primary concern was truth-truth about how salvation is accomplished and attained. In order to determine this, both Rome and the reformers were required to dig into the pages of Scripture and meticulously examine its teaching in lexical and grammatical detail. It testifies to the lengths they went in order to determine truth and falsehood. The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation can be called "a time for truth," when the reformers and the laity sought the truth formally, intentionally, and publicly.
Jesus declared in John 8:32 that "the truth will set you free," but what is the nature of this truth? For Luther, the truth not only freed him, it bound him. Before the imperial assembly at Worms (known as the Diet of Worms) in 1521, Luther refused to recant his view of salvation, declaring, "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason ... my conscience is captive to the Word of God." Scripture served as the "box" within which Luther could think and live with a clear conscience before God. Christians are to "think God's thoughts after him," and Scripture is the revelation of God's thoughts, will, and ways. Today, truth is still bound by the Word of God. But today it is uncomfortable and constricting to think of truth as binding. We have forgotten that truth often offends us before it frees us. Today we want to be freed by the truth without necessarily having to be bound by it. But part of truth's nature is its binding character. The writer to the Hebrews warns of the punishment that will result from ignoring the truth that we have heard-the message of salvation.
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Heb. 2:1-4)Once confronted by truth, one is bound to it. There are consequences for ignoring, dismissing, and rejecting the facts. The choice to ignore, dismiss, or reject the facts does not change them. The facts are the reality, and we are bound to reality simply by living within it. The truth frees us when we swallow hard and submit to it.
Today's version of truth not only allows but invites us to think outside of the box rather than within it. Some believers who want to remain within the box of orthodoxy would rather push the lines and enlarge the box than exclude anybody from it. But objective truth, by nature, must exclude and reject opinions which are incompatible with the facts. For Luther, truth disallowed the inclusion of some Catholic practices, particularly those of buying and selling indulgences; truth required rejection of unbiblical preaching and praxis, even if it came at a high personal cost. Following the Diet of Worms, Luther was pronounced a heretic, outlawed by the emperor. The modern quest for truth is qualitatively different from that of Luther's quest. Unlike Luther, we are willing only to be freed by the truth, but not to be bound by it.
What exactly is the box that defines orthodoxy today? What are the truths that both free and bind Christians? Where are the lines that protect orthodoxy against heresy?
The solas of the Reformation are the objective truths that define the Christian faith, not in comprehensive terms, but nevertheless, in critical terms. They are the espresso in a latte, if you will, and a latte without espresso is just a cup of milk. In other words, the solas are the indispensable doctrines of Christianity. They were the answer to the ultimate question asked during the Reformation: How are sinners justified? More specifically, is salvation a monergistic or synergistic work? That is, does God alone accomplish salvation? Or is salvation a cooperative effort between God and human beings? The answer to this question is not only what separates Protestantism from Roman Catholicism; it is also what separates Christianity from all other world religions. Salvation, or justification, is a monergistic work of God. That salvation is a work of God alone was explained by the reformers in what became five Latin phrases: Sinners are justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo), for God's glory alone (soli Deo gloria), as revealed by the authority of Scripture alone (sola Scriptura).
In an over-simplistic sense, one word (sola) divided the two parties (Rome and the reformers). While Rome affirmed salvation by grace, by faith, and by the work of Christ, it did not affirm salvation by grace alone (sola) through faith alone (sola) because of Christ alone (sola), which the reformers contended is taught in Scripture. According to Reformed theologian and church historian R. Scott Clark,
Confessional Protestants do not disagree with Rome over whether justification is by grace. Rome has always taught justification by grace. We disagree over the definition of grace. Protestants define grace as the unconditional favor of God and Rome defines grace as the infusion of sanctity or even the divine nature. Of course Rome also confesses justification by faith, and once again we disagree over the definition. Protestants say faith, in the act of justification, is nothing more than a trust or resting in Christ's finished work. Because it looks to Christ's finished work alone as the ground of justification, faith (receiving and resting) is the sole instrument of justification. Rome, however, defines faith as faithfulness or sanctification, i.e., cooperation with grace, and says that justification is sanctification whereas we confess that justification produces sanctification or fruit. Rome confesses we are justified because and to the degree we are sanctified and we confess that we are justified by Christ's righteousness imputed received through faith alone and that justification necessarily produces sanctity.This helps us to understand why the Reformation was just that: a reformation, a refining of Christian doctrines rather than an entirely new construction of them (of course, what was refined during the Reformation does redefine salvation entirely). It was in the details where the big differences between Rome and the reformers lay. All that is good about the Good News is tucked into this word: alone (sola).
The solas are the doctrines that will prove practical for addressing many of the challenges to truth that face the church today (for some of these specific challenges, see Eric Landry's article in this issue). Thus, every generation will profit from instruction in the Reformation solas.
Sola Scriptura declares the Protestant doctrine of Scripture: Scripture alone is the sole and absolute authority over what is true and necessary concerning salvation. Over against the modern tendency to reduce Scripture to a moral handbook, a guide for living, a history textbook, an ancient book of extraordinary stories, or even a "love letter" from God, Scripture is the inspired revelation of reality. It is the highest authority and standard by which we have to judge all traditions and truth claims. This view of Scripture, however, is waning. No doubt, believers and nonbelievers alike are willing to grant that the Bible is a source of truth, but fewer and fewer people are willing to grant that the Bible is the source of truth. Recovering the truth about the nature of Scripture-its infallibility,inerrancy, perspicuity, and sufficiency will strengthen believers' faith in Scripture and motivate their submission to it for all things concerning life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). Contrary to the advice being offered by psychologists and well-meaning counselors who argue that the truth about oneself can be altered and improved by confronting childhood experiences and by understanding "your story," returning to Scripture is the first step toward reinterpreting our lives according to reality.
In order to trust Scripture alone for "teaching, for reproofing, for correcting, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16, esv), believers must familiarize themselves with the content of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament. Rather than memorizing Bible stories and verses in isolation from their context, believers must learn the grand story in Scripture and learn to interpret the parts in light of the whole. Only when we learn to recognize Christ as the center of Scripture and the "star" of the redemptive story can we afford not to view reality through our own coming into the world but through Christ's.
The gospel that saves us from God's wrath and all forms of self-justification is found in the Bible. Without knowledge of the true gospel as recorded in the pages of Scripture, we can only compose our own (false) gospels, which offer a false salvation.
Solo Christo declares that Jesus Christ alone is given the credit for justifying sinners by living a meritorious life and dying a satisfactory death in their place. Solo Christo is in need of reiteration today for many reasons. Here are two:
First, the acts of confessing, repenting, forgiving, praying, and loving are often seen today, as in the medieval church, as contributing to our salvation. Christ's atoning work is thereby treated as a necessary but not entirely sufficient ground for our acquittal. For example, one Presbyterian pastor has exhorted his congregation to find freedom in forgiveness by confessing their sins-as though forgiveness is attained rather than acknowledged and received by the act of confession. Confession, as well as repentance, forgiveness, prayer, love, and all other benefits of Christianity are only effective because they are performed in Christ and on the basis of his atonement. It is worth restating that faith does not save; Jesus saves. J. I. Packer has observed:
One of the unhealthiest features of Protestant theology today is its preoccupation with faith: faith, that is, viewed man-centeredly as a state of existential commitment. Inevitably, this preoccupation diverts thought away from faith's object, even when this is clearly conceived-as too often in modern theology it is not. Though the reformers said much about faith, even to the point of calling their message of justification "the doctrine of faith," their interest was not of the modern kind. It was not subject-centered but object-centered, not psychological but theological, not anthropocentric but Christocentric.Faith is only as efficient as its object, and for Christians, the object of our faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ - not our faith in him.
Second, as long as believers seek for righteousness from any source other than the Righteous One, solo Christo will be a relevant doctrine. Where can the perfect righteousness that God requires be found? Who can provide it? According to the Reformation position, righteousness is found in Christ and we are made righteous by what Christ has done for us (external imputation). However, according to the Roman Catholic position (shared today by most Protestants), justifying righteousness is found in Christ and in us. That is, we are declared righteous by what Christ has done in us (internal infusion). The Westminster Confession of Faith states the Protestant position explicitly:
Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God. (Chapter 11, Section 1)Righteousness is found outside of ourselves in Christ and can only belong to us by God's gracious act of imputing, or crediting, it to us. Solo Christo frees us to accept the Apostle Paul's words to the Romans: "There is no one righteous ... no one who seeks God ... no one who does good" (Rom. 3:10-12) and to receive a righteousness from without that we could never produce from within.
Sola gratia declares that the basis for justification is God's grace alone. God's gracious nature is the efficient cause of spiritual life emerging from spiritually dead souls of sinners. Kim Riddlebarger has put it succinctly: "Our salvation from the wrath of God is because of something good in God, not because of anything good in us."
Sola gratia is a practical doctrine worth our attention so long as people (Christians included) hesitate to accept the sin and guilt of Adam as theirs-not hypothetically, but actually. So long as Christians hesitate to admit that they are totally depraved and therefore unable to desire God or choose him, sola gratia will defend the truth that sinners are always at the mercy of God, and God is never at the mercy of sinners.
That regeneration and every part of salvation is God's choice alone and not man's frees the believer's conscience from wondering whether he has done enough good for God to choose him. Sola gratia is what reminds us that humans are not able to earn or deserve salvation; salvation is "not from yourselves," guarding against any boasting of our works (Eph. 2:8, 9). The doctrine of sola gratia properly assigns all credit in the work of salvation to God. Not because of obligation or duty, but only because of his gracious character, God chose to send Jesus to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.
Sola fidedeclares that the means of justification is by faith alone, inviting sinners to rest in the meritorious work of Someone Else-namely, Jesus Christ. "Faith alone" is in contrast to the Roman teaching of faith as only part of, rather than the whole of, what is necessary for justification:
If any say that the sinner is justified through faith alone, in the sense that nothing else is necessary that cooperates to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not necessary for the sinner to prepare himself, by means of his own will, let him be anathema. (Council of Trent, Session 6.7, Canon 9)Reformation Christianity does not regard faith as a meritorious work of sinners but as an instrument by which they trust in the meritorious work of Christ and receive it as their own. J. I. Packer explains, "Faith is our act, but not our work; it is an instrument of reception without being a means of merit; it is the work in us of the Holy Spirit, who both evokes it and through it ingrafts us into Christ." Regeneration is a monergistic work of the Holy Spirit, not a synergistic (cooperative) work between the Holy Spirit and the sinner.
In sola fide, the very gospel is at stake, which is why it is said that the entire Reformation turned on this phrase. Luther went so far as to say that justification is the chief article of the church. R. Scott Clark has put it in stark terms: "What did Jesus mean when he hung on the cross and said, 'It is finished'? Did he mean 'It is finished'? Or, 'I've done my part, now you do yours'?" The battle cry of the reformers was "It is finished."
Soli Deo gloria declares that God's glory alone is the purpose of salvation. As stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (Question and Answer 1). However, ever since Cain built a city named after his son instead of his God (Gen. 4:17ff), and proud human beings constructed the Tower of Babel to "make a name for [them]selves" (Gen. 11:4), God's glory has been threatened by the pursuit of our own glory. Even Christians seek to establish empires, build kingdoms, and leave legacies in their remembrance. But for those in Christ, these are vain and futile pursuits, for "those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again" (2 Cor. 5:15). That God always has, always does, and always will receive his due glory rebukes those who abuse God's gifts by using them for their own selfish ends.
One little word, sola, allows both God and man to take their proper positions in redemptive reality: God as gracious, righteous, sovereign, self-sustaining Creator, and humanity as the ethically marred image of God, desperately dependent recipient of grace.
Today, Christianity, like truth, is being redefined in primarily subjective terms, such as it's being "personal," "helpful," and "practical." What needs to be recovered is not only an objective view of Christianity-that is, Christianity as true, not just personally beneficial-but also confidence in the objectivity of Christianity. Though many believers will readily affirm that Christianity is a factually true, historic faith, their confidence often lies not in the objective doctrines of the Christian faith; it lies in their subjective experience of the Christian life. In other words, objective truth today is only as valuable as one's subjective experience of it. Until the objective doctrines of Christianity are plainly presented to the modern church, believers cannot place their confidence in the facts.
Once believers learn the true gospel as articulated by the solas, they will be able to more easily sniff out false gospels, in the same way that they judge that a carton of milk is spoiled by knowledge of what good, fresh milk is supposed to smell like. The solas provide the measuring stick by which orthodoxy can be measured. Thus, it behooves every twenty-first-century Christian to invest time and energy in learning the doctrines formulated in the sixteenth century. In 2007, Modern Reformation will focus its attention on the Reformation solas in order that our current generation may reap all the benefits of the gospel that are offered in them.
Brenda Jung is managing editor of Modern Reformation.
Issue: "A Time for Truth: 15th Anniversary Issue" Jan./Feb. 2007 Vol. 16 No. 1 Page number(s): 19-23
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