The Five Solas: A Conjunctive Approach

The Five Solas: A Conjunctive Approach

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Though not used as a collection of slogans during the Protestant Reformation itself, these five solas emerged later in church history as a summary of the fundamental divergences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism during the day. When understood contextually, these solas can be affirmed while also qualifying them with other important scriptural truths related to each specific subject matter. This is what might be called a conjunctive approach to theology, one that is readily recognized in the life and writings of John Wesley.

  1. Sola Scriptura; by Scripture alone
  2. Sola Fide; by faith alone
  3. Sola Gratia; by grace alone
  4. Solo Christus; through Christ alone
  5. Soli Deo Gloria; glory to God alone

Sola Scriptura – By Scripture Alone

The first sola of the Protestant Reformation, one most people have heard before, is Sola Scriptura. The Bible alone is our highest authority. By this, of course, we mean that Scripture is our highest authority in the sense that it is the highest norm or standard that we have. It trumps every other standard in Christian life. And so whether we’re talking about our own experience, or the experience of others, if it contradicts Scripture, then we have to be open to correction by Scripture.

Still, Scripture is never alone, because we read scripture in the light of tradition, whether it be the tradition of the church catholic or in light of the broader Wesleyan tradition. And we read it also in terms of reason and experience. Albert Outler, a 20th century Methodist theologian, is the one who coined the phrase, “the quadrilateral”—a play on four. He suggested that in theological discourse, we have four sources—Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. But not all of the sources are equal. It’s a quadrilateral, not an equal-lateral. And so Scripture trumps reason, experience, as well as tradition. It is the highest authority, the highest standard or norm in the Christian life. This is what the Reformers meant by Sola Scriptura.

Sola Fide – By Faith Alone

A second affirmation of the Reformation was Sola Fide—we are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ. Martin Luther in the 16th century and John Wesley in the 18th century both affirmed this important truth, which reflects biblical teaching. Listen, for example, to the writings of the Apostle Paul: “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift, but as an obligation, however, to the one who does not work, but trust God who justifies the ungodly, their faith, is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4–5)

Sola Fide then affirms that God justifies not the righteous, but sinners. That means that we don’t have to clean ourselves up first—before we are forgiven. Sanctification or holiness follows justification—it follows the forgiveness of sin. Holiness does not in any way, in any sense, proceed the forgiveness of sins.

But now here comes the but: saving faith is never alone. As St. James points out, faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Put another way, justifying and regenerating faith will produce works all manner of good works that make up the life of Christian discipleship. A good way of expressing this is that faith is active in all manner of good works. Good works are the lively fruit of our justification, showing that we have a lively faith, not a dead faith.

Sola Gratia – By Grace Alone

A third theological affirmation of the Protestant Reformation is Sola Gratia: we are saved by the grace of God alone. Human effort or works cannot save us. Listen to the apostle John: “But to all who received Him who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or have the will of flesh or the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12) Paul agrees with him on this score: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift from God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)

Sola Gratia means then that sinners are forgiven out of the great mercy of God who offers sinners not condemnation but—and this is an important word here—the gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. And if salvation is a gift, then we are able to receive it now. But Sola Gratia must also be understood in the context of the moral law. For John Wesley, it’s always going to be law and grace, less grace be misunderstood simply as indulgence (Romans 6:1). Wesley argues in a way similar to Luther—the law sends me to Christ. But then Wesley also argues that Christ sends me back to the law, not for justification, because we’re already forgiven. But Christ sends us back to the law for illumination, so that we might know what the express will of God is.

Sola Christus – Through Christ Alone

A fourth and equally important sola is that of Sola Christus—Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior and King. That is, we come to salvation only through faith in Jesus Christ as our mediator—our one mediator between God and humanity. This is what it meant by Scripture when it claims, “[A]nd there is salvation and no one else for there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

This sounds so exclusive, especially in our postmodern context. But let us reason together. “What about Moses?” some might say, or Confucius or Buddha, or some other great religious leader. They cannot redeem, because as sinners, they are a part of the problem. Only the God-human can redeem—that is, someone who is not a part of the problem. Only the God-human can overcome the alienation, the distance between God and humanity caused by sin. Only he can bring about reconciliation and atonement. Simply put, God must come. Emanuel must be present. The Incarnation must happen. All these others cannot redeem because sin bars the way. But those salvation is only through the name of Jesus. But he is not alone. Remember, it is God the Father, who gives the gift of his Son, listen to Paul in Romans chapter three, verses 24 through 25: “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, whom God put forward as the sacrifice of atonement by his blood.”

What’s more, the Holy Spirit administers the graces of redemption by bearing witness to the son. “When the advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” (John 15:26) Salvation then is Trinitarian through and through, from the Father, in the son by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sola Deo Gloria – To God Alone Be the Glory

Lastly, though not least, Soli Deo Gloria stated the purpose of salvation: to the glory of God alone. We live for the glory of God alone. In other words, the purpose of life, the reason that we have been created, is to know, love, and enjoy God both now and forevermore. As the Apostle Paul writes, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) Not our glory, but God’s glory. Not our worship, but the worship and the adoration of God. When it comes to this final sola, there are no ands, ifs, or buts about it.

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