Almost five hundred years ago, Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms and declared, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” He and other Reformers identified five essentials of the faith that they could not compromise: Sola Scriptura—Scripture Alone, Solus Christus—Christ Alone, Sola Gratia—Grace Alone, Sola Fide—Faith Alone, and Soli Deo Gloria—To the Glory of God Alone.
While the issues that caused the Reformers to lift up the Solas may be different today, the importance of the Solas as boundaries of authentic, biblical Christian faith remains the same. In this article, we will look at the original issues at work in the church that gave rise to the Solas. Also, we will look at liberalism’s rejection of the Solas today and then finally we will look at how we can restore an understanding of the Solas in the church.
Sola Scriptura is Alive and Well
Sola Scriptura for the Reformers
The Reformers began their list of essentials with Sola Scriptura because the Bible had gotten buried beneath human ideas. Papal encyclicals, church councils, and even village priests spoke as if they had greater authority than Scripture itself. God’s Word was so far removed from the people that they could not even access it in their own language, much less study it for themselves. The Reformers returned Scripture to its proper position—the measure by which all other words would be judged. The people were given the Scriptures to study for themselves so that they too would be able to compare the words they heard from the pulpit and the institutions of the church with the very Word of God.
Liberalism’s Rejection of Sola Scriptura
In 2010, Landon Whitsett, the vice-moderator of the 219th PC(USA) General Assembly, made a now-famous comment that “Sola Scriptura is dead in most places and rapidly dying in others.” In many parts of the church, this is an accurate assessment.
Slowly but surely, parts of the Christian church have been loosening their ties to the likes of Luther and Calvin and opting instead for a cacophony of contemporary voices informed primarily by human experience. To its detriment, the church has listened with itching ears to voices that tell us things we want to hear instead of submitting to the authority of the Word of God. Unable to elevate the voices of this generation to the level of Scripture, the tactic employed was to bring the Bible down to our level. The Confession of 1967 illustrates this point, saying, “The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written.” Multiple generations of pastors have now received a seminary education that reinforces the teaching that post-Enlightenment people are of a superior time and culture, and we can therefore sit in judgment above Scripture, determining for ourselves which parts are applicable.
The incremental shift from scriptural authority to human authority was punctuated recently with the decision by the highest court in the PC(USA), the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC). In the Parnell v. San Francisco decision issued in May 2012, the GAPJC was asked to affirm that Scripture is the only rule of faith and practice. It declined.
The commission wrote in its decision, “The Book of Confessions reflects that the Church listens to a multitude of voices in shaping its beliefs.” It affirmed the synod judicial commission’s earlier ruling that found a “vast diversity of interpretation of the meaning of Scripture and the confessions.” Instead of seeing the order and clarity presented in Scripture and the confessions, the GAPJC gave credence to the false teaching that listening to a multitude of human voices rightly supplants the authority of God’s Word in the common life of the PC(USA).
With its decision, the commission has placed Scripture, the confessions, and human opinion on par with each other. Sola Scriptura is indeed dead at this level of the PC(USA).
However, many Presbyterians continue to exalt the Scriptures above every other authority. We will stand with the Barmen Declaration and say, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation” (Barmen Declaration, BOC 8.12).
Restoring Sola Scriptura
One member of my church recently asked, “When did all of this begin?” So many different points come to mind in the PC(USA)—the 1920s and the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy, the Confession of 1967, the Reunion of 1983, pick a number and someone has pointed a finger. Other denominations would find other starting places. We could look back to Genesis 3 when the serpent asked Eve, “Did God really say…?” With that spark, Eve exalted her experience of the fruit (“good for food and pleasing to the eye”) above God’s word and took it and ate.
But with each of these foundational issues of the faith, each of us must stand to account before the Lord. Let us then ask, “When did I begin to demote the Scriptures in my thinking and my living?” And “when did I sit idly and silently by as human reason and human ideas usurped the authority of the Scriptures in my church?”
It began when we stopped making disciples and started making audiences. People are being fed endless courses of milk instead of graduating to solid food. Having no ability to discern between truth and error when they hear it, and having not been equipped to wield the sword of the Spirit themselves, congregations consume whatever is set before them, including philosophies and lies that directly contradict the Word of God.
The ability to be spiritually discerning has been lost. Many are not able to discern between the times when we are to “avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law because these are unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9), and the times when we are to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that [we] can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). Dual pressures have led us down this path: the cultural call of tolerance and the bureaucratic call to unity at all costs coupled with a lack of courage to stand.
Fortunately, the truth and power of Sola Scriptura does not depend on a denomination or congregation. Hebrews 4:12 confirms: “Indeed, the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” And although we will all return to dust, the Word of God will stand forever. While there remains breath in our bodies, may we commit ourselves to the re-elevation of the Word of God in our personal discipleship and in our life together.
Solus Christus – Our Only Hope in Life and in Death
Solus Christus for the Reformers
By the time of the Reformation the unique work of Christ had, in practice, been overshadowed by the works of humans. Questions arose about whether or not Christ’s atoning work on the cross was fully sufficient to save people from their sins and bring them into eternal life with God the Father. According to the Roman Catholic Church at the time, the answer was generally, no. The work of Christ plus personal penance, plus indulgences, plus the accoutrements of the church produced an elaborate self-perpetuating establishment. Specifically, the Mass itself is described in the Catholic catechism as “reparation for the sins of the living and the dead.” Parishioners were discouraged from petitioning Christ directly. Instead, they were instructed to utilize a myriad of intermediaries including their local priest, bishop, the saints, and Mary. With one sweep, the Reformers cut though these obstacles and came down to the heart of the gospel—Solus Christus! They declared that Christ alone is the mediator with the Father. Christ alone has paid for our sins through his death on the cross, once and for all. Christ alone is God’s solution for humanity’s ills. Christ alone, plus nothing. Christ alone is the way to salvation. There is no other way to salvation and nothing need be added to Christ to attain salvation.
Liberalism’s Rejection of Solus Christus
In 2001, the General Assembly of the PC(USA) was asked to approve an overture to reaffirm “the singular, saving Lordship of Jesus Christ.” The overture came in response to concerns that people were ignoring the confessions and forming a new gospel without Christ at its center. One precipitating event was Dirk Ficca’s speech at Union Seminary, when he asked, “What’s the big deal about Jesus?” Was the 2001 GA willing to reaffirm Jesus as the centerpiece of our faith? No. By majority vote, the overture was defeated. Solus Christus was voted down.
The primary objection to the overture, and to the statement in general, was cultural. It was argued that for the church to say that Christ alone is the only way to salvation is disrespectful of other religions. One speaker at that assembly said: “Religions are like a basket of fruit. Apples and oranges are different, but they are all fruit. Religions are different varieties of the same thing, so they’re all equal.” This is pluralism, not biblical Christianity. In all of human history, Jesus Christ is completely unique: the God-man, the Savior, God’s anointed Messiah, the Son of Man and Son of God, Emmanuel, Christus Victor!
The link between the demotion of Sola Scriptura and the denial of Solus Christus is significant. When human opinion is acknowledged as having greater worth than Scripture, statements from Christ himself or statements about Christ in Scripture carry little weight. Even statements as clear as, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) are ignored in favor of a more inclusive cultural narrative that puts all religions on a par with one another. The result thwarts the fifth Sola directing all life toward the glory of God alone.
Denials of the singular saving work of Jesus Christ are evidence of a pervasive erosion of classical Christology in the church today. Advocates of the Jesus Seminar, people regarded as biblical scholars from prestigious divinity schools, teach that Jesus is not divine and much of the New Testament is a work of fiction. Feminist theologians through conferences and gatherings like “Re-Imagining” seek to replace the cross with a lactating breast celebrating the so-called sacred feminine.
At the 220th PC(USA) General Assembly (2012), commissioners were invited to attend the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Re-Imagining Conference. Linked to that was Overture 11-15 which promotes “Words Matter,” a project promoted by the Advisory Committee for Women’s Concerns. The overture was approved at the assembly without opposition. Buried in the fine print of the rationale and the connected documents, one discovers that the goal of the project is to free Christianity from “patriarchy/kyriarchy” and such racially sensitive contrasts as “light and dark.” In other words, the project aims to remove titles of Jesus like “Lord” and the “Light of the World.” The tragedy of this is that Jesus, the one who washed his disciples’ feet, is unlike any other lord in history, but by removing this language, the beauty of the first being made last is lost.
Again, many faithful Presbyterians continue to revere Jesus Christ as Lord and have not succumbed to the prevailing philosophies of the day that would strip Him of His saving power. With them and with the Church around the world and throughout the ages we stand and proclaim, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” (Nicene Creed). Others may deny Him, but we will not.
Restoring Solus Christus
There can be no denying that the decay of Solus Christus is partly the responsibility of those who knowing the truth, did not contend valiantly for it. Somewhere between our “Jesus Freak” t-shirts and “Jesus is my Best Friend” bracelets, we have so focused on Jesus the human brother that we allowed the church and the world to lose sight of Jesus the eternal God. Jesus left the eternal presence of the God-head and came down to earth to do more than make us feel better about ourselves. He came to conquer the realities of sin and death that separate us from God. He came to lift us into the koinonia, the fellowship he enjoys with the Father. He came to inaugurate and initiate the kingdom of heaven, and he came to do what no other sacrifice could ever accomplish: offer himself as a thoroughly sufficient atonement for sin. When we participate in the “exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world,” we are doing so as Jesus’ servants, His re-presenters, His co-laborers, people who have the privilege of being called the children of God, not by our birth nor by any right, but by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
When we are confronted with someone challenging the revelation that Jesus is the only way, are we prepared to give a reason for the hope within? Do we know the Scriptures well enough? Are we sufficiently reliant upon the Holy Spirit at work within us to speak through us? Are we equipped and have we equipped others to give a God-honoring, Christ-exalting, biblically grounded, faithful and winsome answer? People are literally dying to know the assurance of things hoped for that we possess by faith in Christ. Do we care enough to do for them what Christ has done for us: risk leaving the safety and security of our privileged positions to enter into the culture of death and begin declaring “Here is the Way! Here is the Truth! Here is the Life! Here is Jesus!”
We must humble ourselves before the Lord and pray, with Paul, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). From that place of humility, we can begin to be the beggars who show other beggars where to find bread.
Sola Gratia – There But for the Grace of God Go I
Sola Gratia for the Reformers
As the Reformers cleared away the human encroachments on Scripture and re-exalted the person and work of Christ, they found they needed to do the same with the doctrine of grace. The connection between these three Solas can be clearly seen in John 1:14 which reads: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Scriptures themselves testify to the veracity of the nature and work of Jesus Christ—realities inseparable from the grace and truth that characterize him.
Martin Luther, in the days before his own personal discovery of grace and faith in the book of Romans, wrote, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.” Slowly, he and the others came to realize that it is not the works of humans that can gain mercy for our souls, much less the indulgences purchased on our behalf. It is grace alone, offered to us through Christ, by which we can be saved.
Liberalism’s Rejection of Sola Gratia
Splitting apart what cannot be bifurcated, liberals/progressives like to lay claim to grace and disparage evangelicals as Pharisaical defenders who lack grace and who believe themselves to have a corner on truth. Granted, evangelicals need to grow in grace and learn to speak the truth in love, but first, let us discuss the biblical notion of grace.
The grace often advocated in progressive churches is a pseudo-religious but largely psychological construction that grows out of an “I’m okay, you’re okay” philosophy. It is a perversion of grace that minimizes the depth and breadth of sin to such an extent that the cross of Christ is no longer seen as necessary, let alone sufficient. It is all too common for seminaries to teach that Jesus did not die for our sins, but only because of our sins. Even when pastors have openly denied the deity of Christ or the Trinity, their declarations have not been seen as the abandonment of an essential tenet of the Reformed faith nor a barrier to serving as a church leader.
The doctrine of grace too often seen today is reminiscent of the “cheap grace” described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
With cheap grace, the most common sermons can be summed up as, “It is nice to be nice and good to be good.” This, in turn, becomes a form of works righteousness. We just need to be a little nicer and do a little more good. Jesus is then lifted up as an historical example of one do-gooder who was better than most and therefore worthy of emulating. The connection again between a vacuous Christology, devoid of saving power, and Sola Gratia is evident.
With no true doctrine of sin and therefore no need of a real Savior, there can be no true doctrine of grace. If no divine grace, then the only reservoir of forgiveness in the world is that cultivated through humanism, which is ultimately a hopeless pursuit that offers no way, no truth and no life. People know the depth of their own depravity and they know there is nothing they can do to become good enough. People need a Savior and we know His name. We know that He came full of grace and truth and we know that He offers the same to those who put their faith in Him. How long will we deny access to the reality of God’s grace to a world dying to be redeemed?
In opposition to the cheap grace proffered by many today, we stand on the truth that “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions —it is by grace [we] have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5).
Restoring Sola Gratia
Scripture tells us that “all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We need to be reminded of our own need for grace. We need to be reminded that Jesus ate with sinners, came not for the healthy but those who needed a Great Physician, and said of himself, “I did not come into the world to condemn the world but to save it” (John 12:47).
No issue has highlighted this lack of grace more readily than the issue of homosexuality. Many are quick to form theological conclusions on this issue, but too few have proven themselves willing to minister. According to the board chairman of OnebyOne ministry, the number of identifiably evangelical PC(USA) churches that sponsor support groups and other ministries specifically designed to help people dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction can be counted on one hand. Hopefully, additional churches opt for doing ministry quietly and unseen. We tend to keep this topic under wraps because anyone who takes a stand on this issue is almost immediately labeled a “homophobe.” It is extremely difficult to be compassionate without compromising God’s truth—difficult but not impossible.
One of the reasons we lack credibility on this issue is that we have failed to address the morass of sexual brokenness within the heterosexual community. People sitting next to us in the pew are dealing with a myriad of hidden issues including broken relationships, child sexual abuse, infidelity, promiscuity, adultery, domestic violence, pornography, rape, abortion…. The list is tragically long and equally tragically unknown. Grace needs to be extended. Truth needs to be spoken in love. Sin needs to be outed and exposed to the light of life. The Savior can redeem—but only when we deal honestly and graciously with the reality of our depravity.
As quickly as we point to the condemnation of homosexual practice in I Corinthians 6:9, we must point out the hope of redemption and transformation that immediately follows. “That is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). This is the miracle of God’s redeeming grace that we have all received! This is the good news that we need to share with everyone we encounter!
May we extend grace by humbling ourselves at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, “who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Tim. 1:9).
Sola Fide – The Substance of Things Hoped for
Sola Fide for the Reformers
For the Reformers, justification by faith alone was perhaps the most radical of all their statements. All of the pronouncements from the popes and church councils, priests and monks, had created an entire industry through which the common people had to be processed in order to achieve justification. It was not something a person could do on his own— justification was conferred by the church. As with the doctrine of grace, justification was not something understood as freely offered by God in Jesus Christ, but rather something that had to be earned. Even at the end of life, it could not be known for sure whether or not one had received full justification; therefore, it was best to purchase indulgences for the sake of deceased loved ones in order that their time in purgatory might be shortened.
What a radical notion, then, when the Reformers quoted, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9)! To say that faith is a gift, and grace is a gift, that Christ has freely given to all who believe in him, was a complete transformation of the message from the church of the day.
Liberalism’s Rejection of Sola Fide
The Reformers built each Sola upon the last—the authority of Scripture showed them a true understanding of Christ and his work on the cross, which revealed true grace, and led them to understand and receive the gift of faith.
We can just as easily trace the opposite path in liberal/progressive theology. As the authority of Scripture has been undermined, Jesus Christ and his work on the cross have been diminished. That vacant Christology has resulted in cheap grace, which now requires little or no faith at all—no faith in a living, sovereign, faithful God; no faith in the things hoped for but as yet unseen; no faith in anyone or anything but the self. People have rejected the biblical Christian narrative for their own stories, have exchanged the Way of the Cross for their own life-path, and have exchanged the truth of God’s revealed Word for their own syncretistic philosophies based on rationalism, existentialism and naturalism. This new version of faith is no longer a house built on the Rock but instead is built on the ever-shifting sands of cultural experience.
The evidence of this spiral is most clearly seen by our priorities as a church. We have placed the priorities of the material far above the eternal. Yes, we are absolutely called to live out our faith in word and deed. This has been a strength of the mainline denominations for many years. But when these ministries become good deeds without the Good News, we lose our heart of faith and we lose who we are. At some point the question must be posed: are we an authentic part of Christ’s Church or are we a social services agency in church clothes?
This trajectory can be demonstrated through the evolution of the definition of the word “mission” in the life of the PC(USA) and other mainline denominations. There was a day (from the 1850’s-1950’s) when mission work meant the evangelization of the world with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Then the definition began to change. In order to redirect monies given for mission work to causes that included a wider variety of humanitarian and social justice political efforts, the General Assembly changed the way the word “mission” is used. Mission has over time come to mean anything that the church does. The 220th GA finalized this reality by acting on a request by what was once the General Assembly Council and then became the General Assembly Mission Council to change its name again to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. No one is denying the importance of genuine ministries of relief to the least, the lost, the broken, the hurting, the wounded, the widow, or the orphan. But “missions” and “missional” now include a myriad of staff positions, advocacy efforts and programs that are a far cry from evangelism and church planting. We have lost the heart for the true building up of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, of drawing others into the saving knowledge of the grace offered to us through his death on the cross, and the making of disciples.
At the 220th PC(USA) General Assembly meeting in Pittsburgh, there were nearly 50 items of business centered on social justice and peacemaking issues. This represents about 20 percent of the business at the assembly. In contrast, there were only three items that deal with evangelism, church planting, and church growth. Those three comprised barely 1 percent of the business.
I spent nearly a decade working for World Vision, and I believe in these ministries. While I experienced devastating physical poverty overseas, the thing that most struck me every time I came back to the States was the overwhelming spiritual poverty here. If we are an authentic expression of the Church of Jesus Christ, we cannot leave people with full stomachs but starving hearts. Jesus did not deal first with the physical condition of the paralytic, but with his desperate spiritual need that only the Savior could see. Jesus forgave the man’s sins, and only then did he send him home on restored legs, carrying his own mat.
We stand on true faith, which is “not only a certain knowledge by which I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word, but also a wholehearted trust which the Holy Spirit creates in me through the gospel, that, not only to others, but to me also God has given the forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, out of sheer grace solely for the sake of Christ’s saving work” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q.21).
Restoring Sola Fide
Living in the United States of America, it is often easy to put our faith in the things around us more than in God. If we need light, we turn on a switch. If we need bread, we go to the store. If we get sick, we take medicine. So if we want faith, we make a decision that we will believe something. We pick the answer we want for our prayers and try to fit God around the answer we want. We have put our faith in politics, in electricity, in institutions, in the stuff of earth, but what happens when all of that is stripped away? We tend to forget that faith is “a gift of God, not of ourselves, lest anyone should boast.” What does “faith alone” mean to us anymore?
Two Guatemalan women were visiting our church recently, and I asked them where they see God at work. They replied matter-of-factly, “Everywhere.” Through the translator they explained: “We pray, and God answers our prayers. If someone is sick, we pray, and they get better. If we need something, we pray, and God provides it.” They were truly giants in the faith—God had gifted them through very difficult circumstances, and they knew they could rely on Him for everything.
Evangelicals have labored long and hard to protect the essentials of the faith, but the difficulties we have faced in the past may pale in the face of what is to come. God may be using these trials to renew our sense of need for him—not just intellectual assent but deep soul reliance on our Lord and Savior. As Peter writes, “These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7). And God’s glory is the most precious gift of all.
Soli Deo Gloria – Our Chief End
Soli Deo Gloria and the Reformers
When most people hear the phrase, “Soli Deo Gloria,” they think of Bach’s signature at the end of all of his compositions—to God alone be the glory. It was a deeply meaningful statement for Bach, but he didn’t originate it. It was the cry of the hearts of the Reformers nearly two hundred years earlier.
The church of the day apportioned glory, or credit, for salvation in many different ways. Some went to Christ, some went to Mary and the saints, some to the church, and some went to the sinners themselves for the work they did in following along the narrow way. In addition to being an issue about salvation, the Reformers also saw the vast amount of wealth that went into the cathedrals and institutions of the church—giant edifices that glorified humanity rather than God. They found that neither of these positions was tolerable—God and God alone deserved the glory, and our whole lives and everything about the church should reflect that.
Liberalism’s Rejection of Soli Deo Gloria
What is our chief end in the twenty-first century? On what is our heart really set? For what do we most often pray? Are we genuinely pressing the full force of our lives into glorifying God and seeking the advancement of His Kingdom or are we busy in the “pursuit of happiness,” building little kingdoms of our own to our own glory?
Too often liberalism has placed human thought, human plans, human desires and vainglory over the glory of God. Abhorrent behavior and false teachers are rewarded. Human opinion and avant garde ideas are given privilege over the authority of Scripture. Jesus is allowed to be a savior but not exclusively so; servant or friend, but not Lord and certainly not God. We can have grace if we don’t talk about sin, and faith if by that we mean the demonstration through good works.
It is little wonder that most of the time at the 220th PC(USA) General Assembly was spent talking about stretching behavioral boundaries and redefining for ourselves things on which the Bible is crystal clear. Who is being glorified? Humanity, not God.
Restoring Soli Deo Gloria
At this point, we have a choice to make. Are we going to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and trust that all these things will be added unto us as well? Are we going to let the culture around us determine who we are and what we believe, or are we going to stand on the essentials of the faith—and have faith that the Lord will indeed triumph in the end?
Joshua said, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” What say ye?
I say, Soli Deo Gloria, come what may…
Rev. Carolyn Poteet is the Pastor of the Mt. Lebanon Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA. She has previously served on the Board of Directors of Theology Matters.