The 5 Solas of Reformation (Part 1)

October 31 2010 was the 493rd anniversary of what has now come to be known as the Reformation Day. On the same day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. That event sparked off the Protestant Reformation which altered the course of Christian History decisively.

However, sadly, this event has been forgotten with the passage of time. Indian Christians, especially, have very little knowledge about it. Hardly any churches have this important day in their church calendar to commemorate it.  Many also think that since the Reformation got sparked off in Europe, it is something specific to that geographical region and is probably irrelevant to Indian Christians. However, as I pointed out, this event was so crucial to the universal visible church as a whole that it shapes our church life even to this day. All of us who identify ourselves as protestants need to know what we are protesting about. Hence it is good to remind ourselves of the real issues in the Reformation.

As the title of the Essay suggest, the Protestant Reformation revolved around 5 solas. Sola in latin means “only” or “alone.” Martin Luther and his followers waged a doctrinal battle with the Roman Catholic Church on 5 solas, viz. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Solus Christus (Christ Alone) and Soli Deo Gloria (For the Glory of God Alone). Let’s look at all these briefly to get an understanding of what Protestant Reformation was all about.

Sola Scriptura: The Catholic Church over a period of centuries had developed an elaborate system of doctrines and sacraments around the issue of salvation. One such sacrament was called the sacrament of penance. It was defined by the Church as the “second plank of justification (being put in right relationship with God) for those who had made a shipwreck of their souls”. The first plank of justification was baptism, duly administered by the Church to infants which was said to produce the “grace of justification.” This grace of justification could be lost when one commits mortal sins (some serious sins in contrast to venial sins which are not so serious). The sacrament of penance helped reverse this situation and helped “restore” the grace of justification. It consisted of three things — contrition, confession and works of satisfaction. The faithful, by contrition and confession (demanded by this sacrament) escaped the eternal consequences of losing their justification. But works of satisfaction was needed to cancel out the temporal punishments for his mortal sins. Temporal punishment was to suffer in Purgatory before moving to heaven. In order to help the faithful in cancelling out his temporal punishments the church issued what is known as indulgences. An indulgence was a remission (pardon) of temporal punishment attached with mortal sins. It could be bought by giving money to the church.

In 1517, a proclamation was made by the Roman Catholic Church for the sale of indulgences to the masses. The proceeds were to go towards the building of St. Peter’s Basilica This indulgence was special. It served to not only cancel out the punishment for one’s own sins but also  the souls of their loved ones in purgatory. The indulgence was crassly marketed by the papal authorities. Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses in opposition to this crass sale of God’s forgiveness. Although in the 95 theses he did not question the sacrament of penance itself, he soon began to question it along with a host of others doctrines connected with it. His 95 theses spread like wildfire across Europe with the advent of the printing press. In 3 years he was brought to a situation where he had to face the Church authorities in the Diet of Worms. It was here that Luther thundered with his famous words – “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience would be neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I can do no other.” This assertion was a culmination of what Luther had learnt since posting his 95 theses – that popes and councils can err and have erred and scripture alone is the rule of faith which should bind the conscience of a believer. This gave rise to the slogan of sola scriptura or scripture alone.

Sola Fide: But the issue of Sola Scriptura was only the first among many. Sola Scriptura was the Pandora’s box to a host of other issues on which Luther took a different stand with respect to the church, based on his understanding of Scripture. The issue quickly moved beyond indulgences, purgatory etc. to justification. Sola Scriptura was the initial issue because the initial debate revolved around authority – whether Council, Magesterium, Pope or the Scripture. The doctrine of justification soon became the main issue which was being debated when matters came to a head.

How can a sinful man stand before a holy God? How can he be saved? This was the question which was fiercely debated in the Reformation. Rome said that a sinner is justified when the grace of justification, which is infused in the person through the sacrament of baptism, produces enough infused righteousness that God is obliged to justify that person. Baptism thus becomes an instrumental cause of justification. For Rome, faith merely accompanies justification; nothing more. Also, according to Rome, the righteousness infused in a sinner becomes his inherent righteousness, even though it may be an effect of the grace working in him. Luther sharply decried these positions. He held that faith, and not baptism, is the instrumental cause of justification. A sinner is justified when God, by his sheer mercy, causes him to believe or have faith on his Son. When a sinner exercises this genuine saving faith in Christ, God declares him righteous for Christ’s sake. Hence man is justified by faith alone. Also, Luther asserted, the righteousness of Christ is imputed (not infused) to the sinner in justification. God clothes the sinner with Christ’s righteousness and looks at him as if he never committed any sin, like Jesus. Luther called this righteousness an alien righteousness.

For Luther the doctrine of justification was the article by which the church stands or falls. Thus came the Reformation doctrine of sola fide – Faith Alone – Justification is by faith alone.

Bibliography : Faith Alone, RC Sproul


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I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.

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