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Why We Need the ‘Solas’

Category Articles
Date April 15, 2011


Martin Luther is not merely a key figure in the unfolding of events in the Protestant Reformation; he also played a major role in moulding its ideas. ‘Perhaps more than any other person, Luther shaped the presuppositions that define Protestantism.’ (Stephen J. Nichols) These presuppositions are known to scholars in their Latin form as the five Reformation ‘solas‘: ‘sola Scriptura‘ = ‘Scripture alone’; ‘sola fide‘ = ‘faith alone’; ‘sola gratia‘ = ‘grace alone’; ‘solus Christus‘ = ‘Christ alone’; and ‘soli Deo gloria‘ = ‘to the glory of God alone.’ That they each find their place at the root of Luther’s thinking is sufficient testimony to the seminal role he played in their fuller development by later Protestant theologians. In this short study we will consider why Luther thought we need these ‘solas.’

Scripture Alone

We begin where Luther begins, with ‘sola Scriptura,’ the formal principle of all Reformed teaching. We need ‘sola Scriptura‘ because in this dark world of spiritual blindness, ‘the only reason we can see at all is that the light of God’s Word shines brightly (2 Pet. 1.19).’ Without that light ‘we would not know or understand anything.’ (Works, 6.148) Luther hammered this truth as firmly into his hearers’ minds as he hammered the Ninety-five Theses onto Wittenberg Castle Church door. At every opportunity, he calls us away from the spurious claims of Rome, reason, mysticism and the sects, back to the written Word of God. ‘We must learn to depend on the visible Word of our invisible and incredible God’ (5.183), for ‘faith . . . does not judge . . . by what it sees or feels but by what it hears. It depends on the Word alone.’ (Sermons, 1905.1.23)

Indeed, the only reason we know that God is present with us is ‘through his Word.’ To trust in it is to trust in him. So, he resolves: ‘God’s Word alone will be my rod and staff.’ (12.169) ‘I will live by what it says.’ (22.6)

Luther’s heroic stand at Worms can be explained in no other way. In danger of his life from the Roman Catholic emperor Charles V as he recalled John Hus at the Council of Constance; opposed by the papal nuncio Aleander, ready to thunder Rome’s anathemas against him; barely supported by Germany’s petty princes, hesitant and uncertain of the outcome; Luther refused to be intimidated. When called on to recant, even when no heresy had been proved against him, he replied: ‘I am bound to the Scriptures . . . my conscience is captive to the Word of God.’ The Bible alone was his sheet anchor during this Satanic storm, as it was throughout his entire life. Thus Luther teaches us that we need the Bible alone because all other testimony is liable to err, and it alone is inerrant.

Faith Alone

Luther hammers home our absolute need of faith as vigorously as he does our total dependence on Scripture. Let us not imagine, however, that with him ‘sola fide‘ was nothing more than belief in God and assent to the articles of the Christian creed. No, it is especially the personal appropriation of Christ and God’s gracious promises in him, as given to us in Scripture.

1. Appropriating Christ

Forceful convictions mingle with child-like tenderness in Luther’s teaching on appropriating Christ. ‘Of what benefit would it be to me,’ he cries, ‘if Christ had been born a thousand times . . . if I were never to hear that he was born for me?’ (Sermons, 1905. I. 149) By contrast he gently affirms: ‘My sweet Redeemer is sufficient for me. I shall praise him all my life.’ (Letters, 1908. XXIV)

But whether forceful or gentle, Luther is always pointing us – both preachers and hearers – to Christ alone. In preaching, ‘Christ should be placed directly before our eyes so that we see and hear nothing apart from him.’ In hearing, ‘faith is an unswerving gaze that looks on Christ alone.’ (26.356)

What could the snake-bitten Jews do to heal themselves? he asks vehemently. Nothing! Moses commanded them to look at ‘the bronze snake, which points to Christ (John 3.14) . . . with an unswerving gaze. Those who did so were healed.’ Those who did not, but ‘looked at their wounds instead . . . died.’ So too, we must not pore over our own sins, but ‘do nothing but look to him.’ In him we see our sins dealt with by his death, and our victory over sin, death and the devil secured by his resurrection. ‘This is true faith in Christ and the right way to believe.’ (26.356)

2. Appropriating God’s Promises

Since ‘all God’s promises are based on Christ,’ to appropriate them is to appropriate him. There is no basic difference between Abraham’s faith and ours. The only difference is that ‘Abraham believed in the promised Christ who was still to come. We believe in the Christ who has already come. We are all saved’ through ‘this same faith.’ (3.26)

‘The Holy Spirit’ holds God’s promises ‘before us so that’ we ‘may find refuge and comfort’ in them when we sense God’s anger against us, or when we are assailed by ‘serious doubts . . . such as: “What if God does not want me to be saved?” . . . When our consciences are troubled in this way we must continue to believe the promise of salvation – a promise we can trust in and depend on … We must hang onto God’s promise, because if Satan can prevent us believing it, then we have nowhere else to turn. We must hold tightly to the promise and be ready for the times when God will test us.’ (4.93) From Joel 2.15, he adds: ‘It is wonderful to see the way the Holy Spirit works. He highlights the threat in order to show us the goodness and mercy of God.’

When God-fearing people hear the Word, they apply these promises to themselves in the right way. ‘Disheartened and crushed by God’s anger and threat of punishment,’ knowing ‘they deserve divine judgment,’ and recognizing ‘the seriousness of sin and its condemnation . . . when they hear these promises they turn to God’s mercy,’ and he calms their consciences. This is the way God works in his people. After terrifying them ‘with threats, he comforts them with his promises.’ (18.97) And it is the faith he has given them that appropriates these promises for their deliverance.

This kind of faith, and no other, Luther claims, is sufficient for our salvation. Therefore ‘we should conclude with Paul [in Galatians 2.16] that we are justified by faith alone . . . faith that takes hold of Christ the Saviour and keeps him in our hearts.’ (26.136)

As if to strike one last hammer blow on behalf of faith alone, Luther concludes that without it we cannot understand the Lord’s dealings with us at all. But faith ‘will comfort me’ even ‘when I leave this earth . . . My body will be buried in the ground and eaten by worms . .. When I look at death I do not see God’s plan for me. Yet God has promised that I will come back to life. Christ said: “Because I live, you will live also” (John 14.19). But how will I live? I will live in eternal life, in a body that is brighter and more beautiful than the sun. I cannot see or feel any of this yet. But I believe it, and I can tolerate the short delay.’ (6.401)

We need ‘sola fide,’ then, because faith is the only thing that lays hold of Christ in the promises of the Word for our salvation.

Grace Alone

Luther has as much to say in defence of ‘grace alone’ as he has about ‘faith alone.’ Indeed, he sees it operating in every part of the believer’s life. As with other 16th century Reformers, he divides scriptural teaching on it into two parts. The first is God’s objective grace, or free, unmerited mercy towards us. The second is his subjective grace infused and working in us.

1. Objective Grace

Objective grace opens the door to our justification. ‘People are not justified and do not receive life and salvation because of anything they have done. Rather . . . because of God’s grace through Christ. There is no other way.’ Those who are tired of hearing this great truth because they learned it when young barely understand how important it is. ‘If it continues to be taught as truth, the Christian church will remain united and pure,’ for it ‘alone makes and sustains Christianity.’ It is so essential that ‘we will always remain its students, and it will always be our teacher.’ Those who really understand it ‘hunger and thirst for it. They yearn for it more and more. They never get tired of hearing about it.’ (14.36)

Grace is so necessary to our justification that ‘wanting to be justified by our own works through the Law is … throwing away God’s grace . . . This is a serious error.’ From Galatians 2.21, he infers that to reject salvation by grace alone also makes ‘Christ’s death . . . pointless, which is the highest blasphemy against God.’ (27.240) It is only ‘because of God’s mercy and grace’ that sinners are accepted by him and receive from him a righteousness not their own. (12.328)

This constitutes the glory of the gospel. ‘It does not tell us to do good works to become virtuous, but announces God’s grace to us, freely given and without our merit.’ (30.3)

2. Subjective Grace

Grace becomes subjective when it is infused into sinners’ hearts by God’s Holy Spirit in their new birth. This is the grace that actually unites them to Christ and makes them new creatures. ‘We cannot feel the new birth . . . we cannot see it . . . we cannot . . . understand it.’ Yet it is real, and ‘we must . . . believe it. What is born of the Spirit is spiritual.’ Because it is so, its primary benefit is eternal life. (22.290) Just as after Adam sinned he could do nothing to restore to himself the life he had forfeited, so we too can do nothing towards our restoration to God. (30.263) God himself must restore us. This makes subjective grace absolutely necessary.

Once God’s grace has been infused into us, Luther continues, it does marvellous things. For a start, it enables us progressively to keep God’s Law, which we could never do before. He who ‘brought God’s grace and truth’ to us (John 1.17) really enables us to keep the commandments. Being ‘enlightened by the Holy Spirit, renewed by the Word of God, and having faith in Christ,’ we who believe now have ‘a new spirit that makes God’s Word and God’s laws a pleasure to obey.’ Moreover, as we proceed through life, it is the same grace that enables us to ‘find joy in trusting God above everything else.’ (22.143)

It is grace alone too that deals with the darker side of the believer’s life. When cast down by sin, fear and doubt, he finds grace at hand to uplift him. Even when, like the psalmist in Psalm 42, ‘you see only the Law, sin, terror, sadness, despair, death, hell and the devil . . . grace is present when your heart is restored by the promise of God’s free mercy . . . Are not grace, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, comfort, joy, peace, life, heaven, Christ and God also present?’ Therefore, say to yourself: ‘stop being troubled, my soul . . . Trust God.’ ‘Whoever truly understands this [i.e. by experience] can be called a theologian.’ Grace is thus so necessary that we must be ‘diligent students’ in its school ‘as long as we remain in these sinful bodies.’ (26.341)

Finally, when this sin-troubled life is over, it is grace alone that gives believers the victory over death. We do not win it. Rather, it is given us ‘out of God’s grace.’ Christ secured it for us, and we share in his victory over it. (28.212)

From foundation stone to topmost stone, then, the house of salvation is built entirely of grace. Luther states why we need both grace and faith in one sentence: ‘If grace or faith is not preached, then no one will be saved, for faith alone justifies and saves.’ (27.48)

Christ Alone

‘Christ alone’ is the next ‘sola‘ that Luther dings into our dull ears. How greatly we need it is evident from the knowledge God gives us of our legalistic, self-righteous hearts. From a wealth of available sources, we select a small sample to illustrate his firm conviction of its necessity.

In a letter defending his attack on papal indulgences, he writes: ‘I teach that man must trust solely in Christ Jesus.’ (Letters, 1908, London. XXI)

While expounding John 3.16, he says: ‘God gave his Son to the lost so that they might be saved. Then what should you do? Nothing! Don’t go on pilgrimages. Don’t do this or that good work. Instead, simply believe in Christ alone.’ (22.374)

A leading aspect of the Holy Spirit’s testimony within the believer is that’Christians can depend on nothing except Christ, their Lord and God.’ (24.119)

From the expression: ‘of his fullness have all we received’ (Col. 2.10) Luther deduces that we need no-one else but Christ. Whether our faith is strong or weak, we ‘have the same Christ’ and ‘are all made perfect through faith in him . . . Whoever accepts him has everything.’ (23.28)

In such varied ways as these, Luther proclaims a thousand times the sole saving efficacy of Christ. Having done on our behalf all that God requires, he alone can be our Saviour. ‘There is no other . . . but Christ alone’ (24.48) This is reason enough to hold onto the principle of ‘solus Christus.’

The Glory of God Alone

By his constant insistence on believing, it may be suspected that Luther places man’s salvation above God’s glory. But it is not so. Luther teaches that God is glorified more in man’s salvation than in his damnation. This is why God himself – by his prophets, his Son and his apostles – repeatedly beseeches them to come to him.

So, concludes Luther: ‘Glory belongs to no-one but God alone.’ (Sermons, 1905. I.156)

Chief among Luther’s thoughts on how to honour God is that we should hold his Name or character in the greatest reverence. When his Name is ‘holy in us . . . God becomes everything, and we become nothing.’ (42.27) Everything that threatens to usurp this unique honour is anathema to him.

Inevitably, Luther ascribes equal glory to each Person of the Godhead. All the Father’s glory belongs to the Son, who is ‘one God together with the Father. Likewise the Holy Spirit has the same divine nature and majesty.’ (22.6) When by grace we give God his due, we glorify all three Persons of the Godhead.

The same honour must be given to all God’s attributes or perfections. Singling out his goodness and mercy for special treatment, Luther is most practical in showing us how to honour God because of them. When, for example, we read that the Lord is good (Psa. 118.1) we should not ‘skim over’ this truth ‘quickly or irreverently,’ but should ‘remember that these are vibrant, relevant and meaningful words that emphasize the goodness of God.’ Pausing to ponder them should lead us to realize his inclination to do us good ‘from the bottom of his heart.’ He punishes people only because of their ‘wickedness and stubborn refusal to change.’ His ‘daily and continual goodness’ should draw from our grateful hearts the praise and thanks he deserves. (14.47)

Luther makes a special point of encouraging us to ‘reflect back on the years of our lives.’ Even when we are bewildered by what has happened to us, we should be able to see ‘God’s wonderful power, wisdom and goodness’ guiding us. ‘Only when we look back do we fully realize how often God was with us when we neither saw his hand nor felt his presence.’ But as Peter says: ‘He cares for you.’ (1 Pet. 5.7) Luther is so insistent on this practice that he says: ‘Even were there no books or sermons to tell us about God, simply looking back on our own lives would prove that he tenderly carries us in his arms. When we look back on how God has led and brought us through so much evil, adversity and danger, we can clearly see the ever-present goodness of God.’ (42.130)

As for his mercy, it is the balm of every sin-burdened and guilt-ridden heart. When we by faith hide beneath his mercy seat, we find ourselves ‘covered with a vaulted ceiling called mercy.’ So, resolves Luther, setting us an example: ‘My heart and conscience will crawl under it and be safe.’ (51.278)

True to character, Luther extracts from the angels’ song at the birth of Christ (Luke 2.13-14) two delightful lessons for us. ‘First of all, by joyfully singing about the honour of God, they show how full of light and fire they are.’ Furthermore, ‘they don’t take credit for anything. They enthusiastically give glory to God, the One to whom it belongs. If you wonder what a humble, pure, obedient and happy heart in God is like, then think of the angels praising God. This is their priority as they live in God’s presence.’ Secondly, they show us how much they love us, because ‘they celebrate our salvation as if it were their own.’ So we should ‘regard them as highly as we would our best friends.’ ‘We might not know what they are made of,’ he concludes with childlike simplicity, ‘but we know what their highest desire is.’ So we should imitate them in praising and honouring him. (52.29)


Even from the few select references we have offered, it may be clearly seen that the five Reformation Solas‘ – Scripture, faith, grace, Christ and God’s glory – are internally united and therefore inseparable. This is because the mind of God as revealed in Scripture is one. When the Holy Spirit combines them in our experience, we too cannot think of one without referring to the rest. This is the aim of all true theology – to think God’s thoughts after him, and so be conformed to his mind. May he accomplish this in us, that we might live by them, and be able to teach others also.

Taken with permission from Peace and Truth 2011:2, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union, which magazine is edited by the author.

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