THE ‘‘SOLAS’’ OF THE REFORMATION
Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone
Solus Christus – Christ Alone
Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Soli Deo Gloria – The Glory of God Alone
Unwarranted confidence in human ability is a product of fallen human nature … God’s grace in Christ is not merely necessary but is the sole efficient cause of salvation. We confess that human beings are born spiritually dead and are incapable even of cooperating with regenerating grace. We reaffirm that in salvation we are rescued from God’s wrath by his grace alone. It is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to Christ by releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life. We deny that salvation is in any sense a human work. Human methods, techniques or strategies by themselves cannot accomplish this transformation. Faith is not produced by our unregenerated human nature. – Cambridge Declaration
The Reformation’s theological basis, though deep, was simple, resting
on a handful of fundamental principles. Our salvation is entirely by God’s
grace and not of our own doing. We receive that grace, and are justified,
through faith, and not by any works we do. These principles were set forth in
Article IV of the Augsburg Confession.
To these material principles of the
Reformation is added the formal principle, stated in the Formula of Concord,
that the sole norm and rule of doctrine is the Holy Scripture. These three
principles are referred to as the ‘‘three solas’’——by grace alone, through faith
alone, learned from Scripture alone. Some writers, especially among the
Reformed, would add two other ‘‘solas’’——for the sake of Christ alone, and to
God alone the glory.
Lutherans would not disagree with them as to that,
though those two ‘‘solas’’ are actually solo propter Christum and soli Deo
Nothing could be more important to each of us than knowing whether we
are saved, whether we are destined for eternal life with God. There has been a
certain tension in Christian doctrine from the very beginning. Christians agree
that the saved have eternal life with God; “For God so loved the world that he
gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish
but have everlasting life”
; “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it we not
so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and 2
prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that
where I am, there ye may be also.”
All Christians likewise agree that our
salvation comes by God’s grace. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory
of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in
This is the sola gratia, not on its face a controversial teaching.
How do we get this grace? The Scripture itself provides on its face a
couple of answers, which, if they are taken alone and not together as a whole,
could appear to conflict, and it is at this point that the Reformation parts ways
with Rome. The Roman Catholic church has, for about 800 years, told us that
there are certain works necessary on our part both before and after justification.
Before justification there is a preparation necessary, they say. These include, in
addition to the faith fear of Divine justice; hope in the mercy of God for the sake
of the merits of Christ; the beginning of the love of God; hate and detestation of
sin; and the purpose of receiving Baptism and of beginning a new life.
merits are sometimes referred to as meritum congrui.
With justifying grace, the Romans teach, the soul is transformed, and the
Christian becomes a partaker of the Divine nature, receiving an infusion of, and
developing a habit of, or an aptitude for, charity.
The justified man, so
transformed, becomes more like God, being in a state of grace, and does good
works, sometimes called meritum condigni.
These works, in turn, give man a
claim to a supernatural reward, and that reward is eternal life and “an increase of
As support for this teaching, the Romans cite St. Paul: “(God) 3
will render to every man according to his deeds.”
Ott quotes as an express
statement of the meritum condigni: “the crown of justice which the Lord, the just
judge, will render…”.
This exegesis is questionable, once one looks at it in context. Paul is here
not talking about good works that he has done, for which he is to receive a
reward. Rather, he is talking about remaining in the faith, and the reward is to
those who are in the faith. Here is the passage in context: “For I am now ready
to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good
fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; Henceforth there is laid up
for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give
me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his
The whole passage shows that it is not any particular good work,
but simply remaining in the faith, that brings this crown of righteousness.
The Roman position is frequently supported by reference to several
statements in the Epistle of St. James. James 1:12 is cited by Ott for the
proposition that eternal life is the reward for good works
and James 2:17, 24 for
the more sweeping pronouncement that justification is by works as well as by
More recent Roman dogmatic statements have backed away from the
meritum congrui. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: “Since the
initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of 4
forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.” (emphasis in
On the other hand, the meritum condigni is still very much part of
Roman teaching: “Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for
ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase
of charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.” (emphasis in original)
Obviously, fairness requires that we not task Rome with a doctrine that it has
abandoned; what it still teaches remains part of the discussion. To understand
the Lutheran and Reformed arguments in this regard, it is necessary to include
Rome’s teachings of meritum congrui as well as meritum condigni.
We are talking here about a change in Rome’s teachings that has occurred
just in the last few decades—in church history, something that might as well be
yesterday. The meritum congrui was still in Ott’s dogmatics in 1960. Since then
there have been the Second Vatican Council, the accession to the Papacy of John
Paul II and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification of the Pope and the
Lutheran World Federation. It is certainly relevant to confessional Lutherans’
criticism of that declaration17
that the edition of the catechism that came out
since the declaration still states that we attain eternal life with our own merits.
The Romans concede freely that this leaves us without any assurance of
salvation, but that we must doubt to the end of our days whether we have
eternal life. Ott writes, “A just man merits for himself through each good work
an increase of sanctifying grace, eternal life (if he dies in a state of grace) and an
increase of heavenly glory…As grace is the preliminary stage of glory, and as 5
glory is proportional to good works, the measure of grace must also increase
with good works.”
Since “the grace by which we are justified may be lost, and
is lost by every grievous sin”, the infused virtues and gifts of the Holy Ghost are
lost every time we slip.
But the entire works-based theory of justification is itself a change from
Rome’s own former teachings. Such had not always been the Catholic
understanding of justification. While in Reformation theology, by the principle
of sola Scriptura, the writings of early church fathers cannot be themselves the
source of doctrine, they certainly are a witness to what the Church has taught at
other times, how the Scripture has been understood, and where they in fact are
consonant with Scripture they are good and valuable.
When one takes the Roman teaching that the authority of Scripture also
applies to the writings of those in apostolic succession as they are received into
the tradition of the Church,
these writings have from a Roman perspective even
more weight. So looking at some earlier Church sources is helpful whether one
begins from a Protestant or a Roman dogmatic structure. (I refer throughout this
article to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church simply as “Roman” so as
not to imply that Lutheran or Reformed theology is not catholic, as defined by
the three historic creeds.)
St. Augustine writes, “Men are not saved by good works, nor by the free
determination of their own will, but by the grace of God through faith.”
is the sola fide, from the pen of one of the greatest Catholic fathers. He continues,
“But this part of the human race to which God has promised pardon and a share
in His eternal kingdom, can they be restored through the merit of their own
He adds later that sinful man needs a mediator, which is Jesus
. Further, he writes that the pardon given for the sake of Christ’s
atonement extends to the entire life of the saints, which is not free of sin, pointing
to St. John’s admonition: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves
and the truth is not in us.”24
While St. Augustine does refer to works after
conversion as assisting in salvation25
, this is in the context of works as the marks
of a live faith.
Further, while it is certainly true that satisfaction must be made for sin27
was long recognized that in fact this satisfaction has been made for us vicariously
by Christ. St. Anselm of Canterbury writes:
…the father was unwilling for the human race to be restored
unless man performed a great act, equal to the Son’s death. Since
reason did not demand what another could not do, the Son says
that the Father wills his death, while he himself prefers to suffer
death rather than leave the human race unsaved. It is as though he
were to say: “Since thou dost not will that the reconciliation of the
world should be brought about in any other way, I say that in this
sense, thou willest my death. Therefore, let this thy will be done;
that is, let my death take place, that the world may be reconciled to 7
St. Anselm puts great emphasis on the redemptive act of Christ:
This is just what puzzles them most, when we call this
deliverance “redemption”. In what captivity, they ask us, in what
prison or in whose power were you held, from which God could
not deliver you, without redeeming you by so many labors and in
the end by his own blood? Perhaps we will reply: He redeemed us
from sins and from his own wrath and from hell and from the
power of the devil, whom he came himself to conquer for us, since
we could not do it for ourselves.
It is not surprising that perhaps the strongest echo of St. Anselm of
Canterbury would be in the following prayer written by another archbishop of
Canterbury almost 500 years later, Thomas Cranmer: “All glory be to thee,
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst
give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our
redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full,
perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole
Rome, while honoring and certainly never repudiating St. Anselm, has not
given his theology anything like the credit it is due. The Catholic Encyclopedia
ascribes this largely to the form of his writing and the turning of Roman theology 8
soon after he had written to the Aristotelian approach of St. Thomas Aquinas and
Perhaps that is how it was passed up; but the substance of his writing
on this point is honored in the omission from the canons of the council of Trent,
etc.. Far more plausible is that Rome did not want to show that the first of the
great Scholastics believed in sola fide.
The Lutheran confessors tell us that St. Bernard of Clairvaux changed his
view of justification right at the end of his life, quoting him as writing: “There is
need that you must first believe that you cannot have forgiveness of sin except
by the grace of God; next that thereafter you cannot have and do any good work,
unless God grants it to you; lastly that you cannot earn eternal life with your
works, though it is not given to you without merit”32
and exclaiming, as he
looked back on a life of all manner of work for the church, “Perdite vixi! I have
lived a sinful life!”
The Reformation at least initially made this the central article of its protest
against Rome. Luther wrote:
The first and chief article is this.
That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, as was
raised again for our justification, Rom. 4,25;
And He alone is the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of
the world, John 1, 25; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all,
Is. 53,6. 9
Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit by His
grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom.
Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be
otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law or merit, it is
clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us, as St. Paul says,
Rom. 3,28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the
deeds of the Law. Likewise v. 26: That He might be just, and the Justifier
of him which believeth in Christ.
Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered, even
though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink
to ruin…And upon this article all things depend which we teach
and practise in opposition to the Pope, the devil and the whole
(Emphasis added by editors of edition used; form of
Scripture cites in original.)
Luther and Melanchthon (principal author of the Augsburg Confessions)
are in accord with St. Anselm’s view in seeing the righteousness of the faithful
not as some work that they do either before or after conversion, but as an
essentially judicial act by God, in which Christ’s satisfaction operates as a
redemption, through which the righteousness of Christ is then imputed to us and
we are declared righteous. Luther emphasized the point in his translation of the 10
Bible by translating Rom. 3:28 “allein durch den Glauben”—by faith alone, “alone”
being an insertion but one that does not undermine, but reinforces, the text.
Rome rejects this understanding35
notwithstanding the above-cited
authority of some of their own greatest theologians and saints. The Council of
Trent went so far as to say, “If anyone says that the ungodly is justified by faith
alone in such a way that he understands that nothing else is required which
cooperates toward obtaining the grace of justification and that it is in no way
necessary for him to be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will,
let him be anathema.
36…If anyone says that a man is justified either solely by the
imputation of Christ’s righteousness or solely by the remission of sins, to the
exclusion of the grace and charity which is poured out into their hearts by the
Holy Spirit and stays with them, or also that the grace by which we are justified
is only the favor of God, let him be anathema.”
So says Rome, but what does
Scripture say about the respective role of faith and works in our justification?
Again, as will be examined more closely below, Scripture is the sole norm
and rule of doctrine. All other authorities are normed by Scripture.
Romans have adduced some Scripture in apparent support of their position.
How are we to understand what we are reading? We apply some basic rules of
The most basic rule is that Scripture is to be interpreted by Scripture.,
which is how Christ and the Apostles explained Scripture.
Passages have to be 11
seen and understood in their context.
Ott’s reference to a portion of 2 Tim. 4:8
without giving the whole verse or preceding verses is an example of the dangers
of misinterpretation that inhere if something is lifted out of its proper context;
they have to be interpreted with each other. They have a single Author,
single meaning, which is not to be any other meaning than that which the Holy
It “alone can shed light on those verses which appear to
interpreters dark or difficult.”
So we cannot read Scripture schizophrenically; there can ultimately be no
conflict in the apparent conflict between the Scriptural authorities cited above.
Rome would make the works that do not justify us refer only to works of
ceremonial Jewish law44
or to those done before conversion.
But that does not
work, and the key is in the seemingly innocuous verse that tells us that
“Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
That key will open only one reading of Rom. 3:, Eph. 2:8,9 and James 2.
We see that it is not that Abram had gone from Ur to Haran to Canaan, nor that
he proceeded to make a baby—after all, efforts to anticipate God’s promise,
though Abraham did beget a son, Ishmael, that was not the promised son.
that he trusted God.
Again, Abraham’s trust in God directs us back to another
passage—his preparing to sacrifice Isaac. God did not actually want Abraham to
sacrifice Isaac; He ultimately provided the sheep to be sacrificed. But Abraham
believed God’s promises, that through this child, God would make Abraham the
father of many nations. God would not and did not betray his promise.
Therefore, when Sts. Paul and James each speak of Abraham and his being
counted righteous, both actually citing the same verse, they cannot mean
different things. They must mean the same thing. And that same thing is simply
this: Faith, if it is genuine, will show itself in works. Those works are the marks
of a live faith; a faith that will not produce works is not really faith at all.
is not simply knowing and believing the story. The devil himself knows and
believes the story. Faith is an abiding confidence in God. With such faith, “the
Holy Ghost is received, hearts are renewed with new affections, so as to be able
to do good works.”51
Those works are not done because they justify. Justification is by that
point accomplished. But the regenerate man seeks to do the will of God; “he that
knows that he has a Father gracious to him through Christ, truly knows God; he
knows also that God cares for him” and is reconciled to God. The good works
follow, they do not cause, justification, which is and remains by faith alone—sola
There is no question that the principle of Sola Scriptura, ‘‘Only
Scripture’’, as the source of our doctrine, lies at the very heart of the
Reformation, and arguably of Christianity itself. Christ Himself, when
questioned as to his authenticity, responded, ‘‘Search the scriptures; for in
them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.’’
St. John asserts the Scriptures as containing the saving faith: ‘‘But these are
written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and 13
that believing ye might have life through his name.’’
When, in the early apostolic era, the Bereans wished to be sure that
what they heard from Paul and other speakers was true, St. Luke tells us
with approval that they ‘‘searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things
St. Paul, warning St. Timothy of the coming obstacles to his
teaching, urges him to continue in what he has learned, and proceeds to
define that as the Scriptures, inspired of God and ‘‘profitable for doctrine’’
In his epistle to the Galatians, he warns against adding or changing
The principle of Sola Scriptura is upheld by the very church fathers to
whom opponents of the principle wish to refer for doctrine, including
St. John Chrysostom
, and St. Augustine.
Like sola gratia and
sola fide, it was not a new conception at the time of the Reformation.
Luther, in his response to the charges at Worms, relied on Scripture
and demanded scriptural refutation, noting that popes and councils had
erred and contradicted each other.
His chief work on this doctrine is ‘‘On
the Church and the Councils’’. He quotes St. Augustine’s injunction to
believe none of the fathers without Scripture on his side. He writes further:
St. Bernard declares that he learned his wisdom from the
trees, such as oaks and pines, which were his teachers; that is, 14
he conceived his ideas from Scripture and pondered them under
the trees. He adds that he regards the holy fathers highly, but
does not heed all their sayings, explaining why in the following
parable: he would rather drink from the spring itself than from
the brook, as do all men, who once they have a chance to drink
from the spring forget about the brook, unless they use the
brook to lead them to the spring. Thus Scripture, too, must
remain master and judge, for when we follow the brooks too far,
they lead us too far away from the spring, and lose both their
taste and nourishment, until they lose themselves in the salty
sea, as happened under the papacy.
In ‘‘On the Councils and the Church’’, the entire Reformation argument
for sola Scriptura is set forth. Councils disagreed with each other. Eminent
and revered early Church fathers disagreed, for example on whether one who
had been baptized by heretics without the formulation of Matt. 28 had to be
Perhaps the greatest contradiction of councils is that between the
Second Council of Orange and the Council of Trent. The former affirmed
Augustine’s teaching of sola fide against both Pelagius’s assertion that we
could of our own free will achieve salvation by our own deeds and Vincent of
Lerins’s Semi-Pelagianism, which claimed that we had to cooperate in our
salvation, though acknowledging that God’s grace was indeed necessary.
Luther rejects the idea that a council can establish an article of faith, saying
only the Holy Spirit Himself could do that.
The question sometimes raised is whether Lutherans, with our Book of
Concord, have simply established a new tradition to form an independent
source of doctrine. Some Roman Catholics accuse Lutheranism of that.
There is, however, a radical difference between Roman or Eastern tradition
and the Lutheran Confessions. There is a host of Roman teachings for which
either no authority or dubious authority can be found in Scripture. Mary’s
Immaculate Conception; her Assumption, and her perpetual virginity are
doctrines of the Roman Church. There is no Scripture to support them, but
only tradition of indeterminate origin. In the case of the Assumption, it was
not even doctrine of the Roman Church until the 20
century. Their own
encyclopedia attempts to prove that this is ancient doctrine, incredibly, by
pointing to the late fourth century writer Epiphanius, who wrote that he
knew nothing about it!
In the same way, the Pope as the successor of Peter, and through
Peter, the head of the whole Church of Christ, is based entirely on a
thoroughly discreditable reading of Matthew 16 as making Peter the
foundation of the Church, an interpretation that, in fact, the early Church
fathers also rejected, saying that the rock on which the Church is founded is 16
Christ Himself, and Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. The Church is
not built on the petros of Peter’s person, but on the petra of his confession.
The idea of the Pope as successor to Peter has its origin in Eusebius’s
statement that Peter was the first bishop of Rome.
Eusebius, however, was
attributing no particular authority to that office by reason of such an
illustrious first holder. Even if Eusebius is right, which is questionable for
any number of reasons, that proves nothing. Instead, it turns out that the
idea of the successor of Peter as ‘‘supreme pope and vicar of Christ’’ has its
origin in the Donation of Constantine, a forged 8
There is only one comparable item in the Lutheran Confessions, which
are otherwise entirely an exposition of Scripture. Selnecker’s insertion of the
word ‘‘sempervirgine’’ into his Latin translation of Part I of the Smalcald
Articles is the introduction of something utterly out of character with the
Book of Concord. The belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity is not necessarily
wrong or impermissible, but it is something for which there is no Scriptural
warrant. In addition to being a deviation from the rule of sola scriptura, it is
also bad translation practice. This was a translation of Luther’s text done 30
years after Luther’s death, inserting a word Luther had not used. By
comparison, Jonas, when his German translation of the Apology included
material not in Melanchthon’s original, he consulted with Melanchthon, who
agreed with those additions.
The Confessions are not an addition to Scripture, in the sense of the
Roman tradition. There is no claim of some unwritten apostolic tradition
preserved within the Church or of a teaching authority of the Church which
may propound doctrines.
Instead, the confessions set forth as a given that
there is only one rule and norm of doctrine, and that is Scripture. The
authority of Scripture is, in Robert Preus’s words, absolute and final.
is why they cite Scripture hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
What the Confessions do accomplish is a systematization of Scriptural
doctrine. All of the central doctrines of Scripture are presented in them
unaltered. The Confessions are confessed ‘‘not because it was composed by
our theologians, but because it has been taken from God’s Word and is
founded firmly and well therein….’’
. That is a direct disclaimer of having
any kind of magisterial authority, of having the Holy Spirit in the treasure of
the heart of Luther, Chemnitz or any other Lutheran Confessor.
The Church has assembled confessional statements from the very
beginning. The Creeds are themselves brief confessional statements. They
were formulated against the heresies of the fourth and fifth centuries at or as
a result of the first four great councils of the church. Again, those creeds are
not confessed because four great councils produced them, or because our
theologians produced them, but because they correctly state the teaching of
Creeds and confessions that simply summarize Scripture are not 18
setting themselves up as independent authorities. The Church, in its
ministerial role, setting forth for its people that which Scripture says. The
principle of sola Scriptura is upheld with confessions that are themselves
The ‘‘solas’’ are valuable to the Church. Kept in mind, they keep those
who would uphold the Reformation from drifting into the errors that
prompted the Reformation in the first place. Abandoned, they lead to
Romanizing, or even worse, into Pentecostal enthusiasm in which doctrine
moves this way and that with the personal feelings of each Christian, or into
existentialist maunderings that would deprive the Word itself of its authority
in our eyes. Through the ‘‘solas’’, we can remain on the right road, faithful to
the Word and faithful to the Reformation of the Church.