I’m glad the title didn’t scare you off too quickly. Â I also debated calling this post, “Why Martin Luther Brought the Theological Thunder,” or, “Lex Just Thought He Was The Toughest Luther,” but, “What Is Reformed Theology?” won out in the end.
Why This Post?
I’m not mainly interested in a neat history lesson or even using cool-sounding Latin words, although we will. Â Rather, my aim is to 1) explain a phrase, reformed theology, that is often referenced and seldom understood, 2) protect God’s church from harmful teaching, and 3) more fully enjoy the richness and beauty of God’s grace in salvation (Eph. 1:3-14).
Here’s how it’s going to work. Â We’ll first consider where reformed theology came from and then look into what may be called the heart of Reformation (i.e. Reformed) Theologyâ€”the fiveÂ solaâ€™s, or â€œaloneâ€™s,â€ of the Protestant Reformation. Â Now,Â admittedly, some of the info may read in a somewhat technical fashion, but stay with me… for real. Â These truths are beautiful, and I pray this study will serve to heighten your awareness of that reality.
Let’s dig in.
Where Did Reformed Theology Come From?
On October 31 (yes, Halloween), 1517, a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther protested against the Catholic Church, nailing 95 theses, which could rightly be called Luther’s “95 issues with the Catholic Church,” to the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany, detailing the unbiblical practices that had overrun the Catholic Church at the time. Â And the nature of these issues were generally very serious… very, very serious. Â Describing them, Dr. Tom Ascol wrote:
Before an obscure monk named Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenburg on October 31, 1517, the Church of Christ had been living in spiritually dark times. The Bible had been kept from the common people. The Roman Catholic Church had largely perverted the gospel of God’s grace by teaching that salvation comes from the hands of the priests through the administration of the sacraments in response to human works and merit. ((http://www.founders.org/library/reform.html))
Once Luther’s 95 theses were nailed to the door, what we now call the Protestant Reformation was officially underway, and it’s goal was to reform the church, restoring the biblical, God-centered view of salvation that had been almost entirely lost.
The Pillars of Reformed Theology: The 5 Sola’s
1) Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
The document that resulted from the second Vatican Council, held by the Roman Catholic Church in the early-mid 1960’s, contained the following statement:
â€œIt is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with Godâ€™s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of soulsâ€ (Vatican II).
Do you realize that official Catholic documentation essentially says that people cannot be saved simply by believing the Gospel of Jesus that is found in the Bible? Â According to this statement, people need the revelation of the Gospel in the Word of God plus (this plus is one of the “issues”) “sacred tradition” and the “teaching authority of the Church.” Â And this assertion that people cannot be saved apart from the Catholic tradition and Catholic teaching authority (i.e., a priest, bishop, cardinal, Pope, etc.), that something is essentially lacking in Scripture, written in the 1960’s, is exactly the doctrine the Reformers rejected hundreds of years earlier. Â Beginning with Luther and continuing throughout the generations, the Reformers insisted that the Word of God is the only tool necessary for the Spirit to accomplish the salvation of people. Â Neither church tradition nor any other authority match the authority inherent to the Word of God.
Scriptural Support: Jn. 17:17, Rom. 1:16, 2 Tim. 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:19-21
2) Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
“The source of our salvation is the grace of God.” ((James Montgomery Boice in Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?))
Grace is the fountain that originates in God, is motivated by nothing outside of God, and, as result, can be neither earned nor deserved (Ps. 3:8, 20:5, 36:7-9, Is. 41:18, Rev. 21:6). Â Grace is freely given by God (Rom. 5:15, Eph. 2:8-9). Â And this is good news for humanity, since we have most certainly not earned God’s favor.Â In fact, the horrible reality is that by sinning/rebelling against God, we have earned His judgment instead (Rom. 6:23). Â But our situation gets worse… much worse, in fact, than we are comfortable, and sometimes even willing, to admit. Â Shedding some light on just how serious is the human situation, Paul wrote,
“And you wereÂ dead in the trespasses and sinsÂ in which you once walked” (Eph. 2:1-2b).
If you notice Paul’s words, the human dilemma is worse than merely lacking the righteousness required to obtain God’s favor, we do not even have the ability to choose to receive grace. Â We are spiritually dead, and, like a dead person, we cannot simply choose to bring ourselves back to life. Â In fact, we can’t do anything. Â Sadly, however, this is still not the worst of our situation. Â There is another reality that reveals the depth of our wickedness and rebellion against God. Â And it’s a very difficult, very painful, truth. Â Again, Paul wrote,
â€œNone is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. Â All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even oneâ€ (Rom. 3:10-12).
The truth is that we do not realize that we need God’s grace. Â “No one understands.” Â And, for me, the most humbling, crushing reality is the result of not knowing we need God’s grace: we do not want God’s grace. Â “No one seeks God. Â All have turned aside.” Â By nature, I haven’t earned God’s favor, I cannot choose to receive God’s favor, I do not know that I need God’s favor, and, as result, I do not even want God’s favor.
As such, salvation rests entirely on God’s grace. Â This means that the salvation of God’s people, from beginning to end, is entirely a work of God, so that even faith, or belief, in Christ (Jn. 6:37-40, Eph. 2:8-9), repentance from sin (Acts 11:18, 2 Tim. 2:25), etc., are all gifts from God. Â “The doctrine of sola gratia properly assigns all credit in the work of salvation to God.Â Not because of obligation or duty, but only because of his gracious character, God chose to send Jesus to do for us what we could never do for ourselvesâ€ ((Jan./Feb. 2007 edition of Modern Reformation, p.22)). Â Praise God for supplying everything necessary for our salvation!
Scriptural Support: John 6:37-40, 44, Rom. 3:10-12, Eph. 2:8-9.
3) Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
“The means of our justification is faith.” ((Boice, again))
â€œSola fide declares that the means of justification is by faith alone, inviting sinners to rest in the meritorious work of Someone Elseâ€”namely, Jesus Christ.Â â€˜Faith aloneâ€™ is in contrast to the Roman [Catholic] teaching of faith as only part of, rather than the whole of, what is necessary for justification. Â Consider the following direct quotation from the official Roman Catholic document produced by the Council of Trent:
“If any say that the sinner is justified through faith alone, in the sense that nothing else is necessary to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not necessary for the sinner to prepare himself, by means of his own will, let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Session 6.7, Canon 9).
First, let me say that I appreciate the attempt by the Romans Catholic Church to defend the reality that each individual Christian is responsible to “work out [his] own salvation” (Phil. 2:12). Â And I appreciate this attempt in part because there is a very sad, yet very real, tendency among professing Christians to claim to believe (i.e, have faith) in Christ while demonstrating no practical submission to His Word. Â The truth, of course, is that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Â The professing Christian who bears no fruit (i.e., gives no evidence of having a heart and life changed through the Gospel of Jesus by the power the Spirit) (Gal. 2:22-25) has no biblical grounds by which to convince himself that he is actually what he claims to be.
While I appreciate that function of the quotation, the quotation, as a whole, distresses me. Â And again, the problem with the quotation from the Council of Trent is not in its assertion that good works are necessary. Â They absolutely are, and that language literally floods the New Testament. Â The problem with the quotation is in the reason it says good works are necessary. Â The quotation states that a person’s self-willed (“by means of his own will”) work/effort (“prepare himself”) plus faith in Jesus “obtain (i.e., earn) the grace of justification” (i.e., be saved/made right with God).
And while I know this is a big claim to make, I have to make it if I’m going to be true to Scripture: this is heresy (Gal. 2:21) ((Some, arguing that I have misunderstood Galatians 2:21, suggest that Paul’s mention of “the law” in Galatians 2:21 applies only to reliance upon the Old Testament Law, not to the commands given by Jesus and the apostles. Â But a simple reading of Galatians reveals that Paul’s concern is not for the Galatians to make sure obeying the correct commandments (i.e., the commands given by Christ and the apostles rather than those found in the Old Testament law) in order to earn their salvation. Â Rather, Paul’s concern is for the Galatians to stop trusting their own works to accomplish their salvation, and instead trust Jesus’ works to accomplish their salvation.)). Â The Scripture plainly teaches that good works do not contribute to a person being counted right with God ((Romans 4:1-4, Galatians 3:10-14, Ephesians 2:8-9)). Â The Scripture makes abundantly clear that salvation is entirely a work of God’s grace that is received by, applied to, people through faith, or belief, alone in the life, death and resurrection of Christ alone.
What, then, is the role of works in the life of a Christian? Â Good worksÂ result from, but do not contribute to a person being made right with God. Â So, while obedience is necessary, it must be understood as theÂ evidence that a person has salvation, not the means by which a person earns salvation.
Faith, itself a gift from God, as we saw above, is the only channel through which salvation is granted. Â Salvation comes by God’s grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone… and the finished work of Christ now brings us to the fourth point of Reformed theology.
Scriptural Support: John 6:37, 65, Rom. 4:1-4, Gal. 3:10-14, Eph. 2:8-9.
4) Solo Christo (Christ Alone)
“The ground of our justification is the work of Christ.” ((Boice, yet again))
“Solo Christo declares that Jesus Christ alone is given the credit for justifying sinners by living a meritorious life and dying a satisfactory death in their place. . . . Christâ€™s atoning [reconciling sinners to God] work is [often] treated as necessary but not entirely sufficient ground for our aquittal. . . . Righteousness is found outside ourselves in Christ and can only belong to us by Godâ€™s gracious act of imputing, or crediting, it to us.Â Â Solo Christo frees us to accept the Apostle Paulâ€™s words to the Romans: â€˜There is no one righteous â€¦ no one who seeks God â€¦ no one who does goodâ€™ (Rom. 3:10-12) and to receive a righteousness from without that we could never produce from withinâ€ (Modern Reformation, p.21-22). Â In other words, because Jesus is the only One who ever has and the only One who ever will meet God’s righteous requirements in His life (i.e., He loved the Father perfectly, never sinning against Him like the rest of humanity), and the only sufficient (i.e., acceptable, perfect) sacrifice for our sins, He alone is worthy “to receiveÂ power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise” (Rev. 5:12)!
Scriptural Support: Jn. 14:6, Acts 4:12, Eph. 2:4-7.
5) Soli Deo Gloria (Glory Of God Alone)
The â€œglory of God aloneâ€ is the purpose for salvation (Eph. 1:6-7, 12, 14).Â This is why we recite periodically on Sunday mornings from the Westminster Catechism the answer to the question, â€œWhat is the chief end of man?â€Â â€œThe chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.â€Â We see in Scripture that God did everything necessary to save His people and that, because of that, He alone gets the glory.Â The best news that has ever been told is that God has shown mercy to sinners through faith in His Sonâ€™s sacrifice, for the purpose of glorifying (i.e., making much of) Himself and satisfying His people forever in all the greatness of who He is. Â “Forfrom him and through him and to him are all things.Â To him be glory forever. Â Amen” (Rom. 11:36).
Scriptural Support: Ps. 21:3-7, 79:9, Eph. 2:7.
There is so much more beauty in each of these areas than we could cover in a lifetime, so let me encourage you to just let this wet your appetite to study and meditate on and love the truth about who God is and how He graciously saves His enemies, according to the Word, by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus for the glory of God!
Resources on Reformed Theology.
One of my favoriteÂ brief explanations of reformed theology is found in an article written by Michael Horton in the Jan./Feb. 2007 edition ofÂ Modern Reformation Magazine, and is the article I quoted most heavily above. Â For a lengthier explanation of reformed theology, I’d recommendÂ What Is Reformed Theology? Understanding The Basics, by R.C. Sproul.
Thank you for visiting Christ Supreme, the blog of Chad Barnes that is aimed at discussing stuff that matters. Â I’d love your thoughts in the comments section below!