Appreciating the Reformation

I’ve been reading Ligonier Ministry’s Tabletalk magazine for many years and continue to enjoy doing so. May 2017 marked its fortieth year of publication. In order to celebrate their fortieth anniversary, the theme was “Why We Are Reformed.” Although I am not part of a confessionally Reformed denomination, I do appreciate the Protestant Reformation, and I joyfully affirm the five solas: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Solas Christus (Christ Alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone).

Sola Scriptura – I appreciate this rallying cry of the Reformation because the cry insists that the Bible is the sole infallible source of divine revelation. To be sure, we may value the writings of our favorite theologians—be they patristic, Reformation, and post-Reformation—but we never accord their contributions the status “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). This is what sola Scriptura maintains.

(For more academic-ish thoughts on this point, go here.)

Sola Gratia – The Reformers insisted that salvation is by grace alone. We don’t contribute a scintilla to our salvation. The background to this doctrine was the medieval notion that God’s grace comes to sinners after one does his or her best.  Luther’s rejoinder was succinct: the idea that a person could do his or her best, which would consequently place God in someone’s debt, fails to understand the true extent of humanity’s sinfulness. Thus, in contrast to the medieval view, when Reformation-minded Christians declared that salvation was “Sola Gratia,” they were asserting that fallen sinners have no claim upon God whatsoever and that God, in his grace, saves sinners by overcoming all their resistance, granting them a new heart that pants after God, loves Christ, and bears fruit in keeping with repentance (Ezek. 36:26-27; Luke 3:8).

Sola Fide – Theologian Timothy George notes that “Protestantism was born out of a struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone.”[1] In the Reformers’ minds, this doctrine was so important they called it the “material principle” of all theology.[2] Simply put, we must answer the question: How can I stand in the presence of a holy God with any hope or confidence that he will accept me? The Reformers answered simply: Through faith in Christ. But what does this mean? It means to trust in Christ, to collapse on him, to look away from yourself and look to Christ. Still, we must be clear on a few important matters. Faith is not meritorious. Faith doesn’t do anything; faith receives. The best way to translate the Greek word pistis is trust, because it carries with it the idea of entrusting oneself to Christ.

Your faith did not propitiate the wrath of God; Jesus did. It’s for this reason that Joel Beeke writes, “Faith is not our rock; Christ is our rock.”[3] Sinclair Ferguson puts it this way: “Faith is our response, but it is not our contribution.”[4] Faith is not a good work: “Faith is the orientation of persons outside themselves.”[5] When we trust in Christ alone for salvation, Christ’s perfect life and death are credited to our account and we are accepted by the Father. The Spirit indwells us and we rest assured that God will bring his work in us to completion (Phil. 1:6).

Solus Christus – The reason we rest in Christ alone is because he has accomplished everything necessary for our salvation. No merit on our part, no merit of any saint, no merit of any good work can be added to what Christ has done. All the blessings of our salvation are ours by virtue of our union with Christ: Justification, adoption, reconciliation, etc. Yet we must remember that “God does not have lumps of ‘righteousness’ or ‘salvation’ that he tears up and lobs down from heaven. He has his righteous Son.” Thus, “The greatest benefit of our union with Christ is Christ.”[6] And he is our righteousness. Hallelujah!

Soli Deo Gloria – This is where all the other solas lead. Why? Put all this together: Scripture is from God (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:19-21). God in his grace saves us (Eph. 2:8-9). The Faith that saves is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 2:25). Christ was sent by the Father to accomplish our salvation (John 3:14-16; Rom. 5:5-8; 1 Jn. 4:8-10 et. al.). Thus, we cry with the Apostle Paul, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

 

[1] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: B&H, 1988), 62.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 129.

[3] Joel R. Beeke, “Justification by Faith Alone (The Relation of Faith to Justification),” in Justification by Faith Alone: Affirming the Doctrine by Which the Church and the Individual Stands or Falls, ed. Don Kisler, rev. ed. (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2003), 93.

[4] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Ephesians (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 50.

[5] Richard Lints, “Living by Faith—Alone? Reformed Responses to Antinomianism,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 36.

[6] Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 86, 85.

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