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THINK|17: What is the Reformation? (Part 2)

Written by Eric Swanson on


Last week, we began a blog series on the Protestant Reformation to whet your appetite for THINK|17 where we will celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the most famous protest in church history. This week, we want to unpack the fundamental doctrines of the Reformation that fueled the foundation of the protest.

The Reformers were not upset that the cathedral ceilings were too high or that the communion wine was too bitter. Rather, the rallying cry of the Reformation was a call to resurrect the gospel of Christ that had been buried behind a veil of papal pride. As the Reformers studied the Scriptures, they realized that the church had been feeding them distorted gospel for centuries–a gospel different than one delivered by the Apostles (Gal. 1:6-9).

We see protests flame out quickly in American culture all the time, usually because of a lack of clarity for their message and mission, or a lack of leadership. However, the Reformers lacked neither of these things. Instead, they crystallized their doctrinal objections in a clear chorus that the Lord would use to shape church history forever. These objections are known as the 5 Solas.

The 5 Solas

The Latin word sola means “alone” and the Reformers used this word to articulate their specific doctrinal objections to the church that had lost the gospel.

  1. Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone.  The Catholic Church taught that spiritual authority on earth came from a combination of the Scriptures and sacred church tradition. In practice, this allowed the church to mold the minds of the people unchecked because most congregants in that day were unable to read the Scriptures. The Reformers contested that Scripture alone is the sole and ultimate spiritual authority on earth. They argued that the pope, official church councils, and one’s own personal feelings must all answer to the authority of the Scriptures and that all teachers and practices must be accepted or rejected on the authority of the inspired and inerrant Scriptures alone. 

    “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” 2 Timothy 3:16


  2. Sola Gratia, Grace Alone. Most people are familiar with the hymn “Amazing Grace” by John Newton. Grace sounds sweet to our ears because we too know the grace that Newton wrote about, but at the time of the Reformation, a different tune was being sung: “when the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” This little ditty was sung by a monk named Johann Tetzel who convinced people that if they gave money to the church their relatives would be set free from Purgatory and that their sins (for a time) would be forgiven. The Reformers, especially Martin Luther, protested that this vile practice undermined the glorious grace of Christ. We do not earn our way to God through money or merit, but only by Christ’s amazing grace. We are saved by grace alone. 

    “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God “ Ephesians 2:8


  3. Sola Fida, Faith Alone. At the heart of the Protestant Reformation was the controversy over the doctrine of justification. Justification, in short, is God’s declaration of guilty sinners to be righteous in His sight, to be declared “not guilty.” For centuries, the church taught and practiced that this justification came through faith and our works. In practice, this meant that many sincere Christ followers were tormented day and night by the thought that they still had not done enough to appease God. Enter the Reformers, who pointed to Scripture and declared that no one is justified by works of the law, but only by faith alone in the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ. We are saved through faith alone. 

    Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Romans 5:1-2


  4. Sola Christus, Christ Alone. When he was a young man, Martin Luther was caught in a fierce thunderstorm that threatened his life. In a moment of terror, he cried out to St. Anne for rescue. After this event, Luther searched the Scriptures and began to see that he and the church as a whole had lost a biblical theology of the cross. Instead of trusting Christ alone for salvation, many trusted in the merits of the saints and their own work. Furthermore, he understood the only mediator he needed between himself and God was Christ. The Reformers joined Luther in proclaiming that only by Christ’s substitutionary death are sinners made right before God and given access to His throne of grace. We are saved by Christ alone. 

    “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…” I Timothy 2:5-6a


  5. Sola Deo Gloria, Glory to God Alone. Since the church had taught that works were required for justification, it opened the door for sinners to boast in works they had accomplished. This glory-robbing also led many to believe that in order to truly honor God, you had to become a monk or a priest. The Reformers again pointed to Scripture as they argued that the true gospel leaves no room for personal boasting. Luther was adamant that whether you were a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick-maker you could glorify God through your work. We live for God’s glory alone. 

    “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” Romans 11:36

Let us never forget the beauty and treasure of the gospel; that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone.



Sources Consulted

Nichols, Stephan J. The Reformation: how a monk and a mallet changed the world. Crossway Publishing. 14 February 2007.

Smith, S. (Ed.). (2007, December 3). The Solace of the Reformation. Retrieved February 14, 2017, from





Eric Swanson

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