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Romans and the Reformation 1: Introduction to the Five Solas

Romans and the Reformation Day 1 – Introduction to the Five Solas

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:22b-26, ESV)

Living in the fast-paced 21st century, it has become increasingly easy for us to regard the events of history as irrelevant to our daily lives. As Christians, how many of us have ever taken time to learn of the historical records of believers from the many centuries that have passed between New Testament times and today? I imagine relatively few of us have. We also often view theological discussions as “above us,” or only to be discussed by church leaders or academics and then distilled into soundbytes for the congregation. 

I’d like to humbly suggest that, while all believers don’t necessarily have to steep themselves in every work of Christian history and theology for the past 2000 years, we should all, at the very least, consider what core doctrines we believe, how we received them, and why they matter to us now. A practical daily devotion to God in worship and service and a theological understanding of who God is and what He has done are not mutually exclusive. In fact, my primary aim this week is to demonstrate that they are inextricably linked. How can we truly love and serve a God we do not know? How do we offer sincere praise to God without knowing many of the incredible works for which we are praising Him? 

We will frame our discussion by examining five key phrases which came out of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and then uncovering those biblical truths in passages from the New Testament, specifically, from the epistle to the Romans (although relevant passages can be found in many other places). These Latin phrases are commonly referred to as “the five solas”: sola gratia (“grace alone”), sola fide (“faith alone”), solus Christus (“Christ alone”), sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”), and soli deo gloria (“to the glory of God alone”). When put together as a clear summary of the gospel message, they say that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone. While there are different understandings of the nuances of these phrases along denominational lines, our study will focus on the strictly biblical basis for each one, specifically exploring how they impact both our understanding of salvation and the effectiveness of our individual Christian lives. 

Michael Kruger offers a fantastic summary of the continual practical importance of the five solas in a recent article on his blog, Canon Fodder:

“Some misunderstand the 5 Solas as merely a response to Roman Catholicism and nothing more. In other words, they are viewed as a time-bound, historically conditioned set of affirmations that are largely applicable to an era that is long gone. It is precisely here that I want to offer a bit of pushback…. Sola scriptura fights against idolatry…. Sola fide fights against legalism…. Sola gratia fights against humanism (the idea that humans are inherently good)…. Solus Christus fights against pluralism (that all religious pathways are valid)…. Soli Deo gloria fights against pride…. Our point here is that the solas are much more than a counter to Roman Catholicism. They are instead a counter to the human heart everywhere. The solas basically argue against idolatry, legalism, humanism, pluralism, and pride. And those things need to be battled in every generation” (How the 5 Solas Do More Than Respond to Catholicism).

Circumstances and conflicts do change, but our sinful tendency to apply earthly wisdom to God’s divine design remains the same. In what circumstance of life is the gospel not relevant? There is none that I know of. When in history could we ever consider the core teachings of the gospel obsolete? Never, and certainly not now. Every single one of the five solas fights against our sinful desires and against the social and cultural currents of our particular moment. We cannot afford to waffle and waver on questions that determine our eternal destiny—this is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

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