What are the Five Solas of the Reformation?

As part of the ‘500 Project’ we have asked a range of contributors from across the spectrum to stimulate and challenge our thinking. We won't always agree with all they write, but that’s the point. This piece is by Rev Norman McAuley, the Minister of Greenwell Street Presbyterian Church.

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Martin Luther had entered the monastic life out of fear for his life. On July 2nd 1505, on the way home from law school, he was caught in a thunderstorm and hurled to the ground by lightning.

“Help me, St. Anne; I will become a monk!” He feared for his soul and did not know how to find safety in the gospel. So, he took the next best thing, the monastery. He spent many years struggling with his guilt and the idea of righteousness meditating day and night until,

“I began to understand [that] the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. Here a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.”

On 31st October 1517, he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg wanting to challenge the abuses of the Roman Catholic church and call it back to the scriptures. However, the church was not for changing. In 1521, Luther was summoned before the Diet of Worms where he thought he would be discussing his writings. Instead, it was a heresy trial and he was called upon to renounce what he had written on penalty of excommunication. His words have been well inscribed in the minds of many a Christian believer since,

"Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God's word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this, I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me."

It was his emphasis on scripture alone that brought about the other emphases concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Five Solas

The five Solas are five Latin phrases that were popularised during the Protestant Reformation which emphasised the distinctions between what the early Reformers believed the scripture to teach and what the Roman Catholic Church was declaring. The word sola is the Latin word for “only” and was used in relation to five key teachings that defined the biblical emphasis of Protestants. Each of these solas arose as a corrective to the errors of the Roman Catholic Church but, at the same time, were to be positive biblical declarations that marked the essence of the Reformation.

1. Sola scriptura emphasises the Bible alone as the source of authority for Christians, rejecting both the divine authority of the Pope and confidence in sacred tradition. Only the Bible was inspired by God. Anything taught by the Pope or tradition that contradicted the Bible was to be rejected. Sola scriptura also fueled the translation of the Bible into German, French, English, and other languages, and prompted Bible teaching in the common languages of the day, rather than in Latin. In this way, the good news of Jesus Christ could be read by the ordinary people.

2. Sola fide emphasises salvation as a free gift. The Roman Catholic Church of the time emphasised the use of indulgences (donating money) to buy status with God. It was the sale of these indulgences that was the catalyst for the 95 theses. Good works, including baptism, were seen as required for salvation. Sola fide stated that salvation is a free gift to all who accept it by faith. Salvation is not based on human effort or good deeds.

3. Sola gratia emphasises grace as the cause of our salvation. In other words, salvation comes from what God has done rather than what we do. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

4. Solus Christus, “through Christ alone,” emphasises the role of Jesus in salvation. The Roman Catholic tradition had placed church leaders such as priests in the role of intercessor between the laity and God. Reformers emphasised Jesus’ role as our ‘high priest’ who intercedes on our behalf before the Father. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus is the One who offers access to God, not a human spiritual leader.

5. Soli Deo Gloria emphasises the glory of God as the goal of life. Rather than striving to please church leaders, keep a list of rules, or guard our own interests, our goal is to glorify the Lord. The principle of soli Deo Gloria is found in “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Here is the very purpose in our living.

The five solas of the Protestant Reformation offered a strong corrective to the faulty practices and beliefs of the time, but, more importantly, they remain relevant today. Here is the gospel of Jesus Christ by which we must be saved. Here is the only way whereby we can know peace with God and the hope of life, blessed and everlasting, hereafter.

Where do you stand?

The Rev Norman McAuley is Minister of Greenwell Street Presbyterian Church, Newtownards.