The whole of the Reformation is owing to the power of sacred Scripture—the written Word of God. Something so powerful must be handled with care. For Rome, this meant the clergy had to maintain exclusive control of the Scriptures. They were too mysterious and difficult, so they said, for the commoner to handle. The authority of the Scriptures was then mediated through the authority of the Church.
"He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic."
These were the words of the Roman Catholic theologian and Master of the Sacred Palace, Sylvester Prierias, in response to Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses.
The first and formal principle of the Reformation is captured in the Latin slogan sola Scriptura, which means “Scripture alone.” This was the Reformation’s nucleus. Whatever theology the Reformation fought to recover, all would be based upon the sacred Scriptures. Apart from a return to the word of God, there would be no true Reformation. It was not an enlightenment of human ideas, nor a revolution of human authority. It was distinctively a spiritual revival born out of a rediscovery of divine revelation.
The Reformation did not fight for the rights of institutions or individuals, rather it fought for the right of God to be heard. Why is the Reformation such a pivotal point in the history of Christianity? Because it was a theological revolution concerned first with the antecedent of theology itself—namely sacred Scripture. From whence comes doctrine? Christianity points to the Bible.
Rome taught that church tradition was equal to Scripture. The reformers insisted, on the testimony of sacred Scripture itself, that Scripture is over the church and its traditions. Indeed, they maintained that Christ ruled His church through His written Word.
We may summarize the differences as follows.
|Tradition and Scripture (§80)||Scripture over Tradition (Mark 7:7–13)|
|Scripture proceeds from the Church (§98)||The Church proceeds from Scripture (Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 3:16)|
|Salvation is through the church in the administration of the sacraments (§1987-§1995)||Salvation is by faith in the word of Christ (Romans 10:17)|
|Scripture alone is not sufficient for salvation or life (§183)||Scripture alone is sufficient for salvation by faith (2 Timothy 3:15) and for life in godliness (2 Peter 1:3; 3:16)|
This first principle of the Reformation is illustrated by the fact that virtually every major reformer is portrayed on canvas or by statue to be pointing to sacred Scripture.
One of the key rallying cries of the Reformation was that a sinner is justified sola fide—by faith alone. It was a clarion for the gospel. It served as a direct counter against distorted medieval views of justification. For Martin Luther, it was “the summary of all Christian doctrine” and “the article by which the church stands or falls.”
In it the biblical concept of imputation was revived, and human hearts came alive. This leading material principle of the Reformation radically changed the way people understood Christ, the crucifixion, the human condition, merit, works, and faith.
As it is written, “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). And again, when the apostle Paul speaks of being “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9).
Rome insisted that we must have a righteousness of our own that comes from the law. That we are justified by faith and works. Though they taught that God’s grace prompted such work, nevertheless, meritorious deeds were necessary for salvation.
The Reformation revived the scriptural teaching that a sinner is not justified by the works of the law, but by looking to Jesus Christ through faith alone.
Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. … [Justification by faith alone] is the main hinge on which religion turns, so that we devote the greater attention and care to it. For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God (Institutes, III, xi, 1).
The Reformation celebrated the rediscovery of God in His amazing grace. Eyes were taken off of self and directed to the suffering Savior who by grace alone freely grants salvation to unworthy sinners. Rome taught that man has free will and is able to—and must—cooperate with God in order to merit forgiveness and eternal life. As cooperating sinners labor to obtain as much grace as they can through the sacraments of the church, they would increasingly merit more grace, which enabled them to gain more merit. It was really a sophistry of works. At bottom, man contributed to his salvation; indeed, if he worked hard enough he could merit it! Christ’s merit was mingled with the supposed merit of the saints and was made available to sinners only through the church’s control. The church held the keys to the treasury of merit, like bankers; they distributed the treasury of merit through their channels of sacraments.
In this system, grace was largely conceived of as a sort of impersonal, metaphysical substance. The Reformation recovered the biblical concept of grace as personal, relational, and God’s free choice. The Reformation insisted that humanity was fallen and rendered incapable of performing any saving good. Salvation, then, begins and ends with God’s grace. God initiates and generously gives all that is needed to be reconciled, forgiven, and restored to God. Salvation was rediscovered as a gift from a loving God.
The Reformation transformed the church’s understanding of grace and the purpose of Christ’s ordinances. It also transformed the people’s view of Christ’s church and her roles and responsibilities. It recovered for us the gospel of grace, proclaiming that sinners are saved apart from works by grace alone.
The Reformation rediscovered that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). And therefore, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Christ alone saves. Without Christ there is no salvation (John 14:6). Faith apart from Christ is worthless (1 Corinthians 15:17). Rightly understood, Christ is at the center of the Reformation—the indelible core of each sola. He is the Incarnate Word of sola Scriptura, the object of sola fide, the provision of sola gratia, and the delight of soli Deo gloria.
The key concept the Reformation restored to the preaching of the gospel is Christ—as our substitute (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18). There would be no justification by faith alone without Christ and His substitutionary sacrifice (Romans 3:24-26). The gospel is good news fundamentally because God has done in Christ what man cannot do for himself (Romans 8:1-4). The only substitute for sinners is Christ alone.
How relevant is solus Christus? John Calvin answers:
We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him” [1 Cor. 1:30]. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects [Heb. 2:17] that he might learn to feel our pain [cf. Heb. 5:2]. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal. 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge (Institutes, II, xvi, 19).
Creation exists for God’s glory. Salvation exists, first, for God’s glory. All things serve this one supreme end—soli Deo gloria. The meaning of this slogan captures the champion aim of the Reformation, namely that in all things, religious or otherwise, life is lived for the glory of God alone.
The Reformation rediscovered God as the center and goal of life. As it is written, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). But its principle is not just “glory to God” but “glory to God alone!” It is the soli ("alone") part that conflicted with Rome.
God alone is deserving of glory in salvation and in all matters of the church. God shares His glory with no one. This is the chief end of all of the other solas. It reflects the restoration of God to the center of reality and orders all things accordingly. It humbly bows in acknowledgement that all things are from Him, through Him, and to Him. And it opposes every effort of man to seek the praise and glory of men.
This revived perspective gives a profoundly new outlook on all of life. While it most immediately pertains to the gospel itself, through the gospel it touches everything.
Living for the glory of God purifies and delights the soul. It is the only orientation of life that answers the design and purpose of both creation and salvation. Soli Deo gloria redirects our world to be rightly God-centered with deep-seated meaning and satisfaction. The Reformation restored to humanity the reality that sunsets, stars, mountains, music, food, love, and a host of other natural gifts of God ring with His glory for our joy.