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Lest We Forget: The ‘Solas’ of the Reformation

Category Articles
Date June 13, 2008

Rudyard Kipling realized that when nations rise to wealth and power, just like ancient Israel in Deuteronomy 8, they are inclined to forget God. He immortalized this reality in his poem ‘Recessional,’ written on the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

What is true of nations is equally true of the Church. Easily and quickly we forget where we came from and what made us great. One such thing that lies forgotten in the distant and cluttered halls of evangelical minds is the Protestant Reformation. It was not by accident that something divine, heaven-wrought took place 490 years ago in Wittenburg, Germany that literally shook the world. Energy should be expended and every endeavour made to remember the history and cherish the purpose and doctrine that great movement of God in the sixteenth century gave us. It must be remembered that the Protestant Reformation was nothing more than an attempt to restore apostolic Christianity and teaching. And while that which we so dearly love, preach and defend is called the Reformed Faith – along with its many associate synonyms such as Calvinism, Sovereign Grace, the Doctrines of Grace – it is nothing more than a return to biblical and apostolic teaching and practice. The Reformed Faith changed the face of the world, especially the church and western civilization, and we are enjoying its fruits today. But, sadly we have forgotten.

The Renaissance readied the stage for the Reformation. With its blooming, the mediaeval culture became enlightened and the Arts flourished. Men began to think in a freer manner. Science and medicine advanced, even though men like Galileo were checked and threatened. Meanwhile, the religious scene was in a darkness that could be felt. John Calvin described it as ‘very miserable, and almost desperate.’1 There had been pre-Reformation reformers such as Wycliffe, Hus, Jerome of Prague, Savonarola and other such luminaries, but the light of Christ, for the most part, was still extinguished. Roman Catholicism dominated Europe and wherever its claws had their damning grip the Scriptures were chained, priestcraft and superstition ruled, and the common man was stifled and suppressed. Fear of papal damnation bound and controlled the minds of the people. The public worship of God, which did nothing to alleviate their fear and help them on to know Christ, was nothing more than mysticism and theatrical nonsense. Many times in his treatise on The Necessity of Reforming the Church, John Calvin used the words ‘theatrical exhibition,’ ‘vain theatrical show,’ ‘showy ceremonies,’ and ‘frivolous performances.’2 A survey of the contemporary Christian scene will reveal that there is not too much difference between the worship then and now.

Calvin described the state of the Church, namely Roman Catholicism, as being one where impiety was commonplace. ‘. . . Impiety,’ he said, ‘so stalked abroad, that almost no doctrine of religion was pure from admixture, no ceremony free from error, no part . . . of divine worship untarnished by superstition.’3 He continues by saying,

Ambition as well as audacity has so far prevailed, that the truth of God lies buried under innumerable lies, that all his [Christ’s] institutions are polluted by the basest corruptions; his worship is in every part vitiated, the doctrine of faith is wholly subverted, the sacraments are adulterated, the government of the Church is turned into barbarous tyranny, and in the place of Christianity is substituted a dreadful profanation.4

Notice how he concludes by positing some strong penetrating assertions, ‘The light of divine truth has been extinguished, the word of God buried, the virtue of Christ left in profound oblivion, and the pastoral office subverted.’5 And he says, ‘We may safely denounce an anathema on the whole theology of the Pope, for it wholly obscures the true light.’6

While the picture may have looked dark and gloomy, behind the backdrop of this picture God was preparing a great and lasting work that could not be stopped by the hands of men. The Father was making sure that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church that Christ was building (Matthew 16:18). It began with a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. The nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg in 1517 generated the spark that lit the fire of the Reformation. Luther only intended his theses to be a catalyst for debate, not a cause for disruption. However, his boldness spread throughout every centre of scholastic learning like wildfire. Luther’s biographer Myconius claims that the contents of the 95 Theses were known throughout all Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe within one month. This was without the means of modern communication and mass media.

From there, the rest is history. The debate was on and division would occur. Diets were called, armies alerted and the work of reform begun. Luther would write tracts and treatises, preach, defend himself, be excommunicated from Rome, be captured and held in safety, and translate the Scriptures into German. When called upon to recant, recant this German monk did. But not in the way you think. In a letter to his friend Spalatin he wrote, ‘Previously I said the pope is the vicar of Christ. I recant. Now I say the pope is the adversary of Christ and the apostle of the Devil’7 Again in his ‘Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull,’ where he speaks against indulgences, he writes,

I was wrong. I admit it, when I said that indulgences were ‘the pious defrauding of the faithful.’ I recant and say, ‘Indulgences are the most impious frauds and impostors of the most rascally pontiffs, by which they deceive the souls and destroy the goods of the faithful.’8

Also in the same treatise, he defends the writings of John Hus, that were condemned by the Pope, saying,

I was wrong. I retract the statement that certain articles of John Hus are evangelical. I say now, ‘Not some but all the articles of John Hus were condemned by Antichrist and his apostles in the synagogue of Satan.’ And to your face most holy Vicar of God, I say freely that all the condemned articles of John Hus are evangelical and Christian, and yours are downright impious and diabolical.9

Calvin and others were converted, and shortly thereafter followed in Luther’s footsteps. The culture and social strata of mediaeval Europe would be changed by the religious winds of reform blowing over the continent. A new day of religious freedom and propagation of the saving truth of God would dawn. The saving gospel of Christ would emerge from the throes of Satan in an unprecedented and unparalleled way not seen since the days of the Apostles.

How did this come about? How would the Reformers overcome, to quote Calvin, this ‘species of foul and insufferable tyranny?’10 They overcame the darkness of the centuries through their message. They knew the only way to defeat Rome’s pernicious error was with the message of truth. Truth was the means by which falsehood was to be confronted and slain. Having been sovereignly regenerated and converted, the Reformers had seared into their souls a love for the eternal truths of God.

Where were they to find the truth of God? They turned in their battle against error to that which had so long been kept from the common man – the sacred Scriptures. Their message was direct and penetrating. While they negatively denounced the atrocities of Rome, they positively set forth a clear and clarion message. They said many things, which never left their hearers or readers in doubt as to where they stood. The summary of their message is encapsulated in what is called the five ‘solas’ of the Reformation. I intend in the remainder of this article to briefly expound these ‘solas,’ and, as much as possible, let the two main Reformers (Martin Luther and John Calvin) speak for themselves in these matters.

Sola Scriptura – The Scriptures Alone

It was to the Scriptures that everything must rise or fall. ‘God rejects, condemns, abominates,’ voices Calvin, ‘all fictitious worship, and employs his Word as a bridle to keep us in unqualified obedience.’11 Tradition and decretals must come under the scrutiny of the light of God’s Word and be judged thereby. Like the prophet Isaiah says it was ‘to the Law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’ (Isaiah 8:20 NKJV).

You cannot read the writings of the Reformers without becoming profoundly aware of their reliance on the infallible Scriptures. Though they were quite conversant with the patristic Fathers and ‘traditions,’ the Word of God permeated their writing and was everything to them. Having lived so long in the darkness of human tradition, they, like the Psalmist, found the Word of God to be their chief delight (see Psalm 119:16). Not only was it their chief delight, it was their sword and shield with which they pierced the hearts of their enemies and defended themselves again the Adversary’s onslaughts. It was their battering ram by which they knocked down the walls of falsehood. It was the foundation upon which they built all their beliefs and the standard by which everything was to be judged. The Holy Bible was their only rule of faith and practice. The Reformers’ primary complaint against the theologians and polemicists, who attacked them, was the Romanists’ neglect of Scripture. In his reply to the papal bull condemning Lutheran doctrine, Luther wrote, ‘ . . .this bull condemns me from its own word without any proof from Scripture, whereas I back up all my assertions from the Bible. I ask thee, ignorant Antichrist, dost thou think that with thy naked words thou canst prevail against the armour of Scripture?’12

I will never forget attending a missions conference and hearing a noted Reformed Baptist speaker ask this question, ‘Above all others, what is the one point that all Calvinists wish to get across to men?’ While he momentarily paused, I thought to myself, ‘What could it be? Is it the sovereignty of God? Unconditional election? Particular redemption? The glory of Christ? What? Surely it must be one of these.’ Quickly he answered his rhetorical question with this reply, ‘The one point, above all others, the Calvinist wishes to get across to men is this: the Word of God, all of the Word of God and it alone!’13 Not part of the Word, or some of the Word of God, or most of the Word, but all of the Word of God. The Scripture, and it alone, is the means God has ordained to lead sinners into the way of life and Christians into the path of blessing.

This is what the Reformers desired above everything else. They longed for everyone, from the Pope to the ploughman, from the King to the kitchen scullion, from the magistrate to the maid, to submit to the government and rule of all of the Word of God and it alone. Hence, Sola Scriptura!

Solo Christo – Christ Alone

What is Christianity without Christ? Blinded by the guile of Satan, Romanists substituted the veneration of Mary for the person and work of Christ. While the Reformers honoured Mary, just as the Scriptures honour her, they knew she was a sinner in need of a Saviour just like everyone else. According to Rome, the saints assisted Mary in the work of redemption. Calvin was quick to observe that ‘. . .passing by Christ, the only Mediator, each betook himself to the patron who had struck his fancy, or if at any time a place was given to Christ, it was one in which he remained unnoticed, like some ordinary individual in a crowd.’14 To further confuse minds, Rome carved images with its own hands and taught the people that the essence of God resided in them. The Saviour was eclipsed by the brightness of the idols’ gold. ‘Hence, divine honours were paid to images, and prayers everywhere offered to them, under the pretense that the power and deity of God resided in them. Hence, too, dead saints were worshipped exactly in the manner in which of old Israelites worshipped Baalim.’15 All of these unbiblical, usurping mediators were an abomination to the Reformers. For while these surrogates appeared to be necessary and good, they were in reality an attack against Christ.

The Reformers responded to Rome’s diabolical actions by constantly exalting Christ in their preaching and writings. Luther made Christ the centre of his writings, just as he found Christ to be the centre of Scripture. ‘Everything,’ says Luther, ‘depends on the article of Christ, and everything is involved in it. Whoever has this article has everything; and Christians must engage in the severest conflict on its behalf and must forever strive and struggle to remain loyal to it.’16 Because Christ and his salvation had been long kept from them, the Reformers passionately preached him as the only Saviour of sinners and the centre of the Christian life. They refused to allow anything to usurp his rightful place as the only Mediator between God and man, and as the only One who has authority and power on earth to forgive sin (see Mark 2:10).

The men God raised up for the hour did not mince words when it came to the person and work of Christ. ‘There is no part of our salvation which may not be found in Christ,’ they boldly proclaimed.17 ‘The whole gospel is contained in Christ.’18 He was precious to their souls and they refused to allow Mary, saints, angels, images, priests or anything to share in the glorious work of reconciling sinners to a thrice holy God. ‘Christ is the beginning, middle and end . . . nothing is, or can be found, apart from him.’19 ‘For God has made everything depend on this Man, has directed everything, has turned everything, has given everything into His hand.”20 Everything for the Reformers revolved around Christ, and him alone. ‘Solo Christo’ was their cry.

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone

How were sinners made right with God? This question has perpetually plagued man from Job’s day to ours. Adam and Eve thought the fig leaves, cut down with their own hands, would cover them from the all-scruitinizing eye of God. They reasoned and thought their own works would make them acceptable before God. It is not surprising, then, that Cain followed in the first example of his parents. Rome quickly perverted the apostles’ teaching of salvation by grace alone, and added to it the meritorious efforts performed by the faithful. These deeds included the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist or the mass, penance, extreme unction, orders and matrimony; along with a host of other works such as prayers for the dead, repetitious chantings, almsgiving and other works of supererogation.

These things the Reformers could not abide. Their minds and hearts had been enlightened by the Holy Scriptures and they knew the truth that sets men free. From first to last, they proclaimed salvation was by grace alone. Calvin knew the fountainhead of salvation sprang from eternity past and God’s eternal decree. ‘Salvation,’ he taught, ‘ought to be ascribed exclusively to his [God’s] election, which is of free grace.’21

The Reformers understood that man’s fall in Adam left him so helpless and without any spiritual power that nothing could recover him from his fallen state but the sovereign, almighty grace of God. Man’s will was not untainted, non-depraved, but hopelessly bound in sin along with every other part of his fallen humanity. Luther saw man’s inability as the key to understanding redemption. Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Catholic apologist and humanist, wrote in great depth defending free will in order to attack Luther at this point. Luther said that Erasmus was the only one who truly understood him and that is why he wrote, in response to Erasmus, what is perhaps his most famous book, The Bondage of the Will.

To mix free will with grace was to corrupt grace and defile the whole of true salvation. Calvin rightly analyzed, ‘For any mixture of the power of free will that men strive to mingle with God’s grace is nothing but a corruption of grace. It is just as if one were to dilute wine with muddy, bitter water.’22 The Reformers knew that man could not attribute believing in Christ as an act of his own power, for ‘faith itself is a part of grace.’23 Even the good works that a Christian does are a result of the grace of God operating within him. As Calvin so pointedly reminded us, ‘Whatever is praiseworthy in our works proceeds from the grace of God.’24

Salvation from beginning to end must be of grace. If anything was added to it, then it would be polluted and thus cease being the salvation of the true and living God. That is why the Reformers were so zealous for Sola Gratia.

Sola Fide – Faith Alone

Once grace was established as the way God saves sinners, how then was this salvation to be received? How was one to obtain the salvation of God and be made just in His sight? The Reformers likewise spoke on this issue with a united voice. God has clearly established in the Scriptures the means or avenue whereby his salvation is received. It is through faith alone.

Naked faith, as opposed to works of any sort, was that which pleased God and by which sinners were saved. From a thorough exegesis of the Scriptures, the Reformers knew that ‘the contrite heart abjures the idea of merit, and has no dealings with God upon the principle of exchange.’25 Faith in one’s works, hoping thus to be made acceptable in the sight of the Lord, would damn the soul forever. Faith alone, in Christ alone, was the only thing that would bring a sinner into the presence of God safely. Even the faith by which a sinner apprehends the mercy of God and receives Christ as Prophet, Priest and King is a gift of God sovereignly given (see Ephesians 2:8-10 and Philippians 1:29).

The fruit of faith is justification. Without any equivocation, Luther asserts, ‘The article of justification, which is our only protection, not only against all the powers and plottings of men but also against the gates of hell, is this: by faith alone in Christ, without works, are we declared just and saved.’26 It is this article of justification by faith alone that made the hearts of the Reformers strong and caused Luther to declare that by it the Church stands, and without which it falls!

The object of faith was not prayers, tears, works, Mary, the saints, the Church or even faith itself, but in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘But when faith performs its proper office,’ declares Luther, ‘it looks to absolutely nothing except Jesus Christ, the Son of God. . . . It does not say: What have I done? Which sins have I committed? What have I merited? It rather says: What has Christ done? What has Christ merited?’27 It was not even ‘for the sake of faith but for Christ’s sake that faith and salvation are given to us.’28 The Reformers understood that it was not faith that saves, but Christ that saves. Faith was simply the hand that receives the Saviour. Nothing was to be added to faith or come in between faith and Christ. Anything that did was damnable.

Luther summed up the whole Reformation attitude by saying, ‘This is the reason why we so greatly extol faith: it brings me divine works, yea, the works of the Lord Jesus Christ, namely his suffering and dying, and makes them my own. Our works are nothing in comparison. We owe him the honour that he is everything and we are nothing.’29 For the Reformers, it could be nothing but Sola Fide!

Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God Alone

With ‘the light of divine truth . . . extinguished, the word of God buried, the virtue of Christ left in profound oblivion,’ the glory of God was stripped from the Church.30 Rome would speak of the glory of God, but knew nothing of its reality or of its motivation. The religious state was in such a sorry condition at the time of the Reformation that Calvin could report, ‘There is scarcely one among a hundred who makes the manifestation of God’s glory his chief end.’31 Man was exalted and human pride was flattered. Saints, martyrs, popes and prelates were given the preeminence. ‘In word, indeed, they concede to God the glory of all that is good, but, in reality, they rob him of the half, or more than half, by partitioning his perfections among the saints.’32 Through its entire system of righteousness by works, Rome had grossly violated the 8th commandment by stealing glory from God.

Luther clearly understood the chief end of man. ‘The works of the man in whom God dwells and lives serve only to render praise and honour to him and to ascribe everything to him.”33 Calvin, too, saw that not only our election,34 but the very end of our existence was for the glory of God.35 Following Paul’s lead, the Reformers were zealous that everything was to be done for the right reason and for the right purpose (see 1 Corinthians 10:31). This was true in all matters of religion and life. Both the salvation of sinners and the damnation of men brought glory to God (see John 13:31). And the whole of life, from the day of one’s birth to the day of one’s death, along with everything in between, was to be governed by this one overriding motive – the glory of God alone. Hence, in their hearts and minds, in public and private, in their ministerial labours and by the hearths of their homes, their watchcry was ‘Soli Deo Gloria.’


What did their message accomplish? Did these ‘solas’ of the Reformation have an effect on the world of the Reformers? Allow me to give you the thoughts of the secular historian, Will Durant, who was no friend of Christianity or the Reformation. He had this to say in praise of the fruits of the Reformation:

Meanwhile the hard theocracy of Calvin was sprouting democratic buds. The efforts of the Calvinist leaders to give schooling to all, and their inculcation of disciplined character, helped the sturdy burghers of Holland to oust the alien dictatorship of Spain, and supported the revolt of nobles and clergy in Scotland against a fascinating but imperious queen. The stoicism of a hard creed made the strong souls of the Scottish Covenanters, the English and Dutch Puritans, the Pilgrims of New England. It steadied the heart of Cromwell, guided the pen of blind Milton, and broke the power of the backward facing Stuarts. It encouraged brave and ruthless men to win a continent and spread the base of education and self-government until all men could be free. Men who chose their own pastors soon claimed to choose their governors, and the self-ruled congregation became the self-governed municipality. The myth of divine election justified itself in the making of America.36

Durant’s unregenerate heart would not allow him to see Reformed theology as the continual foundation for spiritual and social reform. Notice, in a grieving statement with which I strongly disagree, how he deprecates Calvin and the doctrine of predestination.

When this function had been performed, the theory of predestination fell into the backwaters of Protestant belief. As social order returned in Europe after the Thirty Years’ War, in England after the revolutions of 1642 and 1689, in America after 1793, the pride of divine election changed into the pride of work and accomplishment; men felt stronger and more secure; fear lessened, and the frightened cruelty that had generated Calvin’s God gave way to a more humane vision that compelled a reconception of deity. Decade by decade the churches that had taken their lead from Calvin discarded the harsher elements of his creed. Theologians dared to believe that all who died in infancy were saved, and one respected divine announced without causing commotion, that ‘the number of the finally lost . . .will be very inconsiderable.’ We are grateful to be so reassured, and we will agree that even error lives because it serves some vital need. But we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.37

It is sad that Durant’s sentiments basically mirror the mind of present day Christendom, and many evangelicals in particular. I must be quick to add that they do not reflect those who truly love the gospel of the grace of God. Durant was a blinded fool and did not see or understand what the Scriptures principally teach. Yet, in his blindness, Durant could not help but see the effects of the message of the Reformers.

I have only been able to give you a thumbnail sketch of the of the Reformers’ main points of doctrine. But in conclusion, notice the exclusiveness of these ‘solas.’ It is not just Scripture, or Christ, or grace, or faith or glory to God. Inseparable and accompanying each of these heaven-revealed principles is the word alone. Nothing is to be added to Scripture, Christ, grace and faith, nor is God’s glory to be shared with anyone or anything. This is what the Reformers wanted to convey and this is the legacy they left for us to carry on.

These five ‘solas’ thundered forth by the Reformers brought about and sustained the Protestant Reformation. They are the message by which we shall also win the day in which we live. In a time in which increasing pressure is put upon Protestants, and Baptists in particular, to compromise, let us never forget them, forsake them or cease to proclaim them. May we, as long as God gives us breath, preach from the housetops: Scripture alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God alone be the glory!


  1. John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church [TNORTC] (1543; reprint ed., Audubon, NJ: Old Paths Publications, 1994), 1.
  2. Ibid., 16-19.
  3. John Calvin, ‘Reply to Sadoleto’ in Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 49.
  4. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (originally printed for the Calvin Translation Society, Edinburgh, Scotland; reprint edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), Hebrews (vol. 22), xxi.
  5. John Calvin, ‘Reply to Sadoleto,’ 49.
  6. John Calvin, Commentaries, 1 John (vol. 22), 179.
  7. Quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1950), 179.
  8. Ibid.,165.
  9. Ibid.
  10. John Calvin, TNORTC, 4.
  11. Ibid., 11.
  12. Martin Luther, ‘Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist’ quoted in Bainton, Here I Stand, 162.
  13. Stuart Olyott, from a sermon entitled ‘Calvinism and Missions’ preached at the annual Reformed Baptist Missions Service Convention in Bremen, IN, 1989; tape transcript.
  14. Calvin, TNORTC, 8, 9.
  15. Ibid., 70.]
  16. Quoted in Ewald M. Plass, ed. What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 148.
  17. Calvin, Commentaries, Acts 14-28 (vol. 19), 247.
  18. Calvin, Commentaries, Romans (vol. 19), 19.
  19. Calvin, Commentaries, Colossians (vol. 21), 146.
  20. Quoted in What Luther Says, 202.
  21. Calvin, Commentaries, Isaiah 33-66 (vol. 8), 21.
  22. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), II.v.15.
  23. Calvin, Commentaries, Romans (vol. 19), 217.
  24. Calvin, Institutes, III.xv.3.
  25. Calvin, Commentaries, Psalms, Psalm 51 (vol. 5), 306.
  26. Quoted in What Luther Says, 701.
  27. Ibid., 496.
  28. Ibid., 489.
  29. Ibid., 289.
  30. Calvin, ‘Reply to Sadoleto,’ 49.
  31. Calvin, Commentaries, Psalms, Psalm 109 (vol. 6), 291.
  32. Calvin, TNORTC, 7.
  33. Quoted in What Luther Says, 538.
  34. Calvin, Institutes,
  35. Calvin, Commentaries, Psalms, Psalm 115 (vol. 6), 358.
  36. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, 11 vols. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), 4:489.
  37. Ibid

Earl Blackburn is Pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Shreveport, LA.
Taken with permission from the Founders Journal 70, Fall 2007, pp. 23-33.

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