Section navigation

The Case for Traditional Protestantism: The Solas of The Reformation

Category Articles
Date April 25, 2005

(This is an extract from the recently published book by Terry L. Johnson)


How may a man be made right before God? We are justified by faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo), the Protestant Reformers answered. This conviction – sola fide – based upon solo Christo, was the principle cause of the sixteenth-century call to reform the church. Justification by ‘faith alone’ in ‘Christ alone’ has historically been recognized, according to J. I. Packer, ‘as one of the two basic and controlling principles of Reformation theology’. He explains, The authority of Scripture was the formal principle of that theology, determining its method and providing its touchstone of truth; justification by faith was its material principle, determining its substance.

Packer employs the categories of logic to help us distinguish the core of the Reformation debate. The ‘formal’ dimension of an argument has to do with its ‘form’, that is, with the rules of debate, the sources from which arguments can be drawn, the authorities that are to be regarded as legitimate. The Protestants argued that Scripture alone was the final authority in the debate. The Roman Catholics argued that the church, its hierarchy, its tradition, and its normative interpretation of Scripture were sources that could also be cited as equally legitimate. Agreement was never reached on the ‘formal’ issue, and Protestants and Roman Catholics remain divided today over which sources are regarded as authoritative in theological debate.

The ‘material’ issue, the core theological ‘matter’ over which they disagreed, was that of justification. Again, Roman Catholics and Protestants could not agree about either the nature of Christ’s atonement or the means by which its benefits are received. But it was the heart of their debate.

Calvin described the doctrine of justification by faith alone as ‘the principle hinge by which religion is supported’, and Luther described it as the articulus stantis vel cadentis, ‘the article by which the church stands or falls’.[1] It was his conviction that ‘This article is the head and cornerstone of the Church, which alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves and protects the Church; without it the Church of God cannot subsist one hour.’It was this article of faith more than any other which brought the Reformers into conflict with medieval Roman Catholicism. ‘It was the substantive and core issue of the debate’, says R. C. Sproul. Calvin, in his debate with Cardinal Sadoleto (1477–1547) said justification by faith was ‘the first and keenest subject of controversy between us’. Remove the knowledge of this doctrine, he argued, and ‘the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion is abolished, the church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown’. It was faithfulness to this article of faith that determined the outcome of the conflict. ‘At the beginning of our preaching,’ Luther said, the doctrine of Faith had a most happy course, and down fell the Pope’s pardons, purgatory, vows, masses, and such like abominations, which drew with them the ruin of all Popery . . . And if all had continued, as they began to teach and diligently urge the article of Justification – that is to say, that we are justified neither by the righteousness of the Law, nor by our own righteousness, but only by faith in Jesus Christ – doubtless this one article, by little and little, had overthrown the whole Papacy.’

Luther correctly saw that if sinners are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, then the whole system of salvation rooted in priest-operated, church-based religious works would collapse. A new, Christ-centred, faith-based Christianity would arise from its ashes.

Not only was sola fide central to the Reformation and its success, but it still addresses the fundamental question that each of us must answer today. After all, life is short and eternity is long. One day I will stand before God. I cannot escape this encounter. It will take place. How can I be made right in his eyes? Or to give the question a biblical ring, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Answer: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved’ (Acts 16:30–31). Believe. We are ‘made right’ not by living a moral life (it would never be moral enough), or by good works (they would never be good enough), or by religious deeds (they would never be pious enough), but by faith alone in Christ alone.

We should not view this conflict as a remote history lesson, unrelated to ministry. It is instead the heart of the gospel and the key to mission today. Since the Reformation every subsequent season of fruitful ministry has seen a renewed emphasis on justification by faith alone. The preaching of the great evangelists, whether John Bunyan (1628–88), George Whitefield (1714–70), John Wesley (1703–91), Jonathan Edwards (1703–58), or Charles Spurgeon (1834–92), demonstrate this to be the case. No other doctrine so illustrates the sinfulness of man and the futility of his efforts to save himself. No other doctrine so glorifies Christ as the sole ground of our salvation. No other doctrine so establishes the security of the believer in Christ. Hence, no other doctrine is so vital to biblical preaching and effective ministry.

Regrettably, one may have to search long and hard to hear a sermon on the subject. The shelves of bookstores are not bursting with books dealing with justification by faith alone. Those that do deal with it are not on the best-sellers list. The writers of the Cambridge Declaration claimed that sola fide ‘is often ignored, distorted, or sometimes even denied by leaders, scholars, and pastors who claim to be evangelical’. Perhaps most of the blame for this can be placed on the nature of the age in which we live. The contemporary audience is reluctant to think theologically. It wants experience. It wants sensations. But it typically does not want to think, or think hard, or think in theological categories.

It is crucial that we again give witness to sola fide, to justification by faith alone, that we might see the blessing of God upon our proclamation, as he has blessed it so often in the past.

1. This saying has long been attributed to Luther, though a later Lutheran theologian, Valentius Loescher, who used the expression in 1718, may be responsible for this exact formulation.

Latest Articles

How to Read a Soul-Improving Book June 20, 2024

The following, which appeared in Issues 611–612 of the Banner of Truth Magazine (Aug–Sep 2014) is from John Angell James, Pastoral Addresses, Series I (1840). We are grateful to Mr Martyn Jolly for bringing this extract to our attention and supplying the text. It may seem strange to some persons, that I should give directions […]

The Real Evidence about Scripture and Homosexual Practice May 31, 2024

1. Jesus Claim: Jesus had no interest in maintaining a male-female requirement for sexual relations. What the evidence really shows: Jesus believed that a male-female requirement for sexual relations was foundational, a core value of Scripture’s sexual ethics on which other sexual standards should be based, including the ‘twoness’ of a sexual union. Jesus predicated […]