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500-year-old principles that never get old

| by Jim Farrer

This year marks the 500th anniversary of what is called the Protestant Reformation of the church. Reviewing its foundations can bolster your church for its next era. In his bookWhatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? James Montgomery Boice reminds us that these foundations can be summarized by five well known doctrines each beginning with the Latin word sola. This word means only or alone. The doctrines are scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone and glory to God alone.

Scripture alone

When the 16th century reformers used these words they were concerned that the Bible is our ultimate authority. They believed we are to look at life in the light of scripture and critique things by what is found there. In order for scripture to have priority Luther felt that it must be translated into the language of the people. Zwingli believed that the Bible must not only be read but proclaimed, and he preached through a Bible book at a time. Calvin continued to encourage historical and grammatical exegesis. These priorities also meant that both adults and children needed to be taught to read and understand.

Robert McAfee Brown reminds us in The Spirit of Protestantism that scripture is not God and that we are not to give the Bible “paper infallibility.” (p. 70) What is also sometimes lost is attention to tota scriptura—the entire scripture which can be largely ignored in contemporary preaching and study.

Christ alone

Both the church and society in medieval times tended to believe that salvation is the work of God plus our own doing (our good deeds, merits, family connections or repeated sacrifices). Modern surveys show similar attitudes. Up to 86 percent now believe that the Gospel is mostly about God helping us to help ourselves. Christ alone means that nothing but Jesus contributes to our atonement with God.

Grace alone

Here the reformers again denied that human methods or techniques could bring people closer to God. Grace has to do with divine initiative. As A Theological Word Book of the Bible (ed. Alan Richardson) describes it: “The connection with the Old Testament use of the word ‘grace’ is to be found in the idea that God’s favour is entirely free and wholly undeserved….” Titus 3:5 proclaims: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds done by us in righteousness, but through his mercy.” The work of Christ is imputed to us. But what is more, R.M. Brown asserts: “Grace is not something that God himself gives us, it is the way God gives us himself.” (p. 55) It is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 2:13-14). The response to grace (charis) or gift is thanks (eu-charist).

Faith alone

There will continue to be much confusion about this doctrine which is built on many scriptures including Ephesians 2:8-9. In her commentary on Philippians in the New Interpreter’s Bible, University of Cambridge professor Morna Hooker says: “We need at least four terms in English—faith, belief, trust, faithfulness – to convey all the meanings of one Greek noun, pistis.” Alister McGrath in Spirituality in an Age of Change, asserts: “We are not justified on account of faith; we are justified through faith. The work of Christ not our faith, is the foundation of justification” (p. 178).

Luther believed that faith is a lively, reckless confidence in the grace of God. As Professor Hooker continues in I (Still) Believe (ed. John Byron), “...what really matters is not so much that I believe in God but that God continues to believe in me…. The biblical understanding is rather of reliance on someone who is utterly reliable” (p. 124). This God continues to hold us in covenant and to believe in us.

Glory to God alone

This last doctrine sums up all of the great solas and is a statement against man-made religions and idolatry. All things are really from the true God. Romans 11:33-36 declares that the Lord deserves all glory. First John 4:19 reminds us that we keep on loving because God first loved us. God’s accepting of me takes precedence over my accepting of God.

Photo source: istock

Jim Farrer

A broadly-trained church consultant, Jim Farrer is the founder of Vital Signs Church Consulting and a member of the Society for Church Consulting. A veteran of ministry positions in Canada and the U.S., he has trained leaders from 18 denominations and led seminars and coaching sessions nationwide. His articles have been published in the Journal of Evangelism and Missions and the Great Commission Research Journal. You can reach him by e-mailing or calling 814 629-5211.

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