Why the Reformation Remains Relevant After 500 Years
Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. We have a big week ahead in a trio of episodes related to the Reformation, beginning with this one from a listener named David. “Hello, Pastor John! The ‘big’ anniversary of the Reformation is coming up at the end of this month, so this question is pressing to me. Which of the five solas is the heart of the Reformation? Which one is most important? Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), or soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone)?”
I can’t answer this question any more than I can answer, Which wing of an airplane is most important? Or, What’s most important, the wings or the jet engines? If a wing goes, the plane crashes. If one of the solas goes, salvation crashes.
“Our being made alive in Christ, and God’s being one hundred percent for us forever, is by God’s grace alone.”
This is, I think, why the Reformation was and remains such a huge issue. It’s not as though a person can cherry-pick parts of God’s plan to save sinners while neglecting the others or distorting the others and still hope to see sinners saved. I think the most helpful thing to do would be to explain why these solas are needed, what they are, and why they are so connected that if one goes, the rest can’t save.
The reason they’re so needed is the issue of salvation. All human beings are sinners (Romans 3:23). That means two things about each of us that we can’t fix by our own initiative.
First, we are spiritually dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:1–3). We have to have spiritual life, and we can’t make that life happen. We’re dead. We have to be born again.
Second, we’re under God’s wrath (John 3:36). God is just and hates sin, and in his justice, he aims to deal justly with sinners and punish us. So one, we need life, which we can’t create, and two, we need God’s wrath to be turned away. We need him to be one hundred percent for us and not against us, and in our guilt, we can’t make that happen.
That’s the double problem that God himself has solved through the gospel. The Reformation was reclaiming how God solves those two problems. The five solas explain how we get saved. The answer of the Protestant Reformation is this: our being made alive in Christ, and God’s being one hundred percent for us forever, is by God’s grace alone; on the basis of Christ alone; received through faith alone; so that all things lead ultimately to the glory of God alone; with Scripture alone as the only final, decisive authority for discerning, teaching, and defending those truths. That’s the way the alones go together.
The word grace implies free gift — not earned, not merited, not deserved — which means that our new birth, our being given life, was God’s doing freely, as a gift. We did not make it happen. We were dead. Our new life, our desire, our ability to believe and love, is all of grace, which is exactly what Paul says in Ephesians 2:5 — namely, that he made us alive by grace. You have been saved.
“All the solas stand or fall together.”
It’s the same with God’s removal of his own wrath. He says in Romans 3:24, “[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation” (Romans 3:24–25). That happens by a removal of wrath by his blood, so God himself, without any of our doing or acting, completely canceled our debt on the cross.
He bought that deliverance for us. He propitiated his own wrath by his grace as a gift. We added nothing to this transaction on the cross. It was grace alone. Not grace plus some of our merit, or some of the saints’ merits, or some of Mary’s merits. It was Christ and grace alone.
So there’s the key. What I could not do (I could not contribute anything at all) God did, paying for my sins, propitiating his wrath at the cross, and then raising me from the dead. All by grace alone, meaning the free gift cannot be added to by my merit or effort, or anybody else’s merit or effort.
Stand or Fall Together
Now here’s why they all stand and fall together. It’s amazing how the Bible gives us explicit answers to this, so let me go through it quickly.
First, grace alone and Christ alone. Galatians 2:21 says, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” Therefore, as Galatians 5:2 says, “If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” In other words, Christ alone is the ground of God’s being one hundred percent for us, not Christ plus circumcision, or any other human act or merit. If you add to Christ as the ground of God’s being one hundred percent for you, Paul says grace is nullified. So in Paul’s mind, Christ alone and grace alone stand and fall together.
“The word ‘grace’ implies free gift — not earned, not merited, not deserved.”
Second, grace alone and faith alone. Romans 4:14 states, “If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null” — nullified, just like grace was — “and the promise is void.” Here’s the key: “It depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace” (Romans 4:16). In other words, if God’s blessings of new life and no wrath are free gifts of grace, the only way a human may enjoy them is by receiving the gift, not doing. Faith, not law keeping, is key. If you add to faith as a means of receiving new birth and justification, you nullify grace. Paul says in Romans 4:16 that faith alone and grace alone stand and fall together.
Third, grace alone and the glory of God alone. Ephesians 1:5–6 says that the entire design of salvation by grace, from before the foundation of the world, was that the “glory of grace” would be praised: “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.” In other words, if adding to Christ as the ground of God’s being one hundred percent for us nullifies grace, and if adding to faith as the means of enjoying the gift of God being one hundred percent for us nullifies grace, then the great aim of it all — the praise of the glory of that grace — will be nullified as well.
The reason God gives life and justifies this way — by grace alone on the ground of Christ alone, through faith alone — is because he aims for the final and ultimate glory for it all to go to himself alone. That’s what Paul says in Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” And all of this can only be known and believed and enjoyed and taught, with final and decisive authority, from the Scripture alone.
So here’s my conclusion. Therefore, for the sake of the gospel of new life and justification — by God’s grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, received by faith alone, so that all things lead ultimately to the glory of God alone — we take our stand with confidence and joy on the final, decisive authority of Scripture alone. All the solas stand or fall together.