Luther & the “Five Solas” of the Reformation

Martin Luther was a giant of history… [He] was the pioneer Reformer, the one whom God first used to spark a transformation of Christianity in the Western world.”[1] These accurate and sobering words from Steven Lawson on Martin Luther properly begin the discussion of such a man. There is no doubt that the stage of human history had been perfectly arranged for the Protestant Reformation.

However, one is a fool not to recognize that Martin Luther was the man perfectly designed for the role of a Reformer. Luther’s weaknesses and strengths were played out for all to see; time and again he brings his audience to their feet in admiration for his courage to stand for and by the grace of God.

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, to Hans and Margeret Luder in Eisleben, Germany. Before his twenty-second birthday, Martin graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from the University of Erfurt. Well on his way to becoming a distinguished student and practitioner of law, this would only be the beginning of his higher education. Luther, however, changed his life plans from law to monasticism in haste during a thunderstorm; he swore to become a monk if he were spared from the dreadful storm. After this pivotal moment, he studied Bible at a monastery to earn his second BA, and later he received a doctorate in theology.

Luther said, “Who would have divined that I would receive a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s of Arts, then lay aside my brown student’s cap and leave it to others in order to become a monk… and despite all that I would get in the Pope’s hair…”[2]

Luther was deeply concerned about his sinfulness in light of God’s righteousness. He could not fathom any possible escape from God’s imminent judgment and punishment. Luther’s introspection drove him (and in turn many of his fellow Augustinian monks) to mental and spiritual anguish. Following the guidance of his superior (John Staupitz), Luther studied diligently to earn his doctorate and then began teaching courses on Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews.

All of this was intended to bring Luther to a place of peace and understanding, and that it did. Luther came to understand the meaning of “alien” or “foreign” righteousness and began to herald at least one of the “five solas” of the Reformation – sola fide or Faith Alone.[3]

Justification by Faith alone is the fundamental Protestant doctrine and the central tenant of the Reformation. This sola is the chief column, which upholds the Christian Faith. Luther said that this doctrine was the article upon which the Church is standing or falling (articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae). It was during his preparation for teaching on the book of Romans when Luther came to understand how God could be both just and the justifier of sinners (Rom. 3:26).

Luther speaks of his experience by saying, “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”[4]

This miraculous breakthrough in Luther’s mind and soul was to create a shockwave that would not end in this one man. The shockwave would travel throughout the geographical, social, political and religious structures of his own day and all those after. Seemingly, the first glimpse into what the future might be for Martin Luther comes in the form of ninety-five arguments against Papal indulgences. Luther could not have known the impact he would make by nailing that text to the wooden door of the church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.

None of the most astute theologians, sociologists, politicians, psychologists or historians could have possibly understood how great the impact of this event would be. It essentially marked the beginning of what we have come to know as the Protestant Reformation. The arguments contained in Luther’s 95 theses were symptoms of a viral incompatibility, and Luther could not have known how the technology of his day would be harnessed to spread these ideas so far and wide. Luther wrote to one publisher of his theses, “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation.”[5]

Upon his conversion, Luther had no time for faux-piety or naive self-righteousness, neither did he intend to allow anyone to continue in his or her own illusions of grandeur based upon some notion of self-produced righteousness before God. Contrastingly, Luther’s pastoral care for all those over whom he expressed religious influence caused him to rail just as violently against the hopelessness produced by an honest investigation of one’s own inability to manufacture such labor-intensive righteousness.

His teachings and beliefs can be summed up in the five solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone, Sola fide or Faith Alone, Sola gratia or Grace Alone, Solus Christus or Christ Alone, and Soli Deo gloria or to the glory of God Alone. These are effectively the five battlegrounds upon which the war for the Reformation of the Christian Faith was fought, and the fight continues today.

The sufficiency of Christ, the justification of any sinner, the glory of God in salvation, the gracious grace dispensed through the sacrifice at the cross of Christ, and the supremacy of the Scriptures over any other revelation can be summed up in a portion of Luther’s sermon from the gospel of John chapter 1 and verse 29. He proclaimed, “Anyone who wishes to be saved must know that all his sins have been placed on the back of this Lamb [the Lamb of God]!” Luther goes on to explain that sin is “exterminated and deleted” at the cross.

Speaking as from the mouth of God, Luther says, “I see how the sin oppresses you. You would have to collapse under its heavy burden. But I shall relieve and rid you of the load – when the Law convicts you of, and condemns you for, your sin – and from sheer mercy I shall place the weight of your sin on this Lamb, which will bear them.”[6]

In this phrase from the lips of Luther, we can examine his beliefs and teachings concerning these “five solas.”

First, Sola Scriptura. Luther places supreme authority on the Scriptures as the word of God and here he finds truth to proclaim. His message of hope is not from traditional standard nor is it from cardinal decree, but from the text of God’s holy word. The importance of his source cannot be overstated, neither should we overlook the fact that he remains true to his source’s intent.

Far from being a topical preacher who rifles through the pages of holy writ for a pretext from which to spring toward his ‘relevant’ content, Luther digs deep into the actual text of Scripture and remains there. Even his application directly correlates to the passage. This, and because his understanding of the passage directly opposed accepted Church doctrines of the day, indicates that Luther understood the value of Scripture above all else. Sola Scriptura is not the idea that nothing else possesses value, but that nothing else besides God’s word enjoys the supreme place of authority.

Second, Sola fide. Luther presents the message of salvation as being available to only those who cast their own self-righteousness aside and place all their hope on this “Lamb.” No doubt, Luther would have immediately recognized the Old Testament reference to the Passover lamb that was sacrificed in order to spare the people from the judgment and wrath of God. He even refers to the connection between Christ and the sacrificial lamb that was killed on the Day of Atonement under the old covenant system.

His hearers would have understood; Luther was calling for total dependence upon and faith in Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins. There was no building, no earthly priest, no confessional chamber, no washing with water, and no monetary expense to which Luther would point any sinner for his reconciliation to God. Faith in the finished work of Christ was and is the sinner’s only right response, which is a gift of God.

Third, Sola Gratia. Luther explains that the sinner’s reception of such faith in the person and work of Christ, who has accomplished such a great salvation, is only provided because of God’s great and marvelous grace. Luther expresses the origins of saving grace by speaking as though God Himself has said, “from sheer mercy I shall.” Mercy and grace are not identical, but it could be said that they are fraternal twins. At their end is the same goal, namely favor and blessing.

Mercy is the withholding of harsh consequences due, and grace is the extending of favorable consequences undue. Both are the provocation of the one salvation, which God has provided. There is nothing in the sinner that places God in his debt. To God’s gracious grace alone (Sola gratia) can be attributed the redemption of any sinner, for justice and wrath is what every sinner is owed.

Fourth, Solus Christus. Christ Alone has been and is the ultimate Lamb of God, and He alone can take away sin.  Solus Christus carries the notion of the exclusivity of Christ and His work. There is salvation only through one man, namely the God-man Jesus Christ. He is the only hope for sinners, for He is the only Lamb God has provided. God is not obligated to make any way of escape for sinners, but indeed He has offered one.

God has not only offered this way of escape, but He has heralded the provision from the beginning (Genesis 3:15) and continually uncovered more of the beauty of the Redeemer throughout human history. The announcement of John the Baptist, to which Luther refers above, is the proclamation of the arrival of God’s Lamb. Old Testament saints trusted God for this day and this Lamb, and New Testament saints look back to God’s provision in Him. Thus, every saved sinner looks to the Lamb of God who alone takes away the sin of the world.

Finally, Soli Deo Gloria. Ultimately, every part of salvation is of the Lord, through the Lord, to the Lord, and for His glory.  It is natural man’s inclination to refuse to offer God the glory He deserves and to resist the knowledge of God, which has been displayed in creation and written on the hearts of men (Rom. 1:18-32). All humans, even Christians, are compelled by sinfulness to think much too well of their own worth, volition, and goodness.

Before a sinner is born again, he has no desire to honor God. After a sinner receives life and the gift of faith, his affections are changed and he longs to honor God but remains prone to withhold such glory from Him. Luther said in his arguments against Erasmus’ diatribe concerning the freedom of the will, “if ‘Free-Will’ were any thing, or could do any thing, it must have appeared and wrought something… But it availed nothing, it always wrought in the contrary direction.”[7] His point should be heavily contemplated.

Essentially, Luther made his case here against the freedom, neutrality, or goodness of human will by pointing out the reality that unregenerate humanity (natural and unconverted humanity) can have nothing good, godly, or holy ever attributed to it. The only possible way that humanity would be found good, godly, or holy is subsequent to and wholly dependent upon a miraculous work of God (Jn. 3:3-8; Eph. 2:1-4). Thus, God alone deserves glory for the salvation of any sinner.

The “five Solas” of Luther’s teachings and beliefs are the collective pillars, which uphold the biblical revelation of God’s plan of redemption and the execution of that plan. The person and work of Christ are the sinner’s only hope of escape from God’s wrath, and the only way that any sinner receives the benefit of this work is through the application of it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Effectively, the Father plans redemption, the Son fulfills all the requirements for redemption, and the Spirit applies the benefits of redemption to each and every sinner who consequently receives it.

It is this understanding of salvation (and especially regeneration) that gives God all glory. Therefore, Luther, as the other Reformers, sought to squash any idea that sinners contributed anything toward their own redemption. The sinner has but one hope, namely that God chooses to glorify Himself by delivering unmerited, unconditional, and effective grace.

The impact of Martin Luther in his own day is hard to accurately measure. He was hated by some, loved by others and unknown to many more. Those who loved him did so for various reasons. Some saw his rebellion from the established Roman Catholic Church as an opportunity to gain political and governmental power. Others wanted the opportunity to shirk the seemingly heavy hand of the Church, and Luther’s Reformation ideas were just the argument to present such a case. He is known as a magisterial agent of an incredible and miraculous Reformation that would continue for hundreds of years, even into our own day.

Luther is revered by many and, while he was certainly not perfect (admittedly a practical sinner), he understood the reality of positional righteousness through the plan of the Father, the person and work of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit for all who believe. For this, he is rightly held in the highest esteem.

 

Reference List

González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. New York, NY: HarperOne/HarperCollins, 2010.

“How Luther Went Viral. (Martin Luther).” The Economist (US) 401 (2011): 8764. Accessed April 9, 2014. Academic OneFile.

Lawson, Steven J. The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Pub., 2013.

Lawson, Steven J. Pillars of Grace: A.D. 100-1564. Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Pub., 2010.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.

Nichols, Stephen J. Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2002.

 

[1] Lawson, Pillars, 396

[2] Nichols, 24-25

[3] Nichols, 33

[4] Gonzalez, 25

[5] How Luther went viral.

[6] Lawson, Heroic, 76-77

[7] Luther, 41

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