Soli Deo Gloria

Heart and Soul of the Reformation

Bethlehem College & Seminary Chapel | Minneapolis


The title of this message is “Soli Deo Gloria,” or in English, “To God Alone Glory.” It is part of a series on the so-called five solas of the Protestant Reformation. Sola is Latin for “alone” or “only.” The five solas are sola gratia (by grace alone), solo Christo (on the basis of Christ alone), sola fide (through the means of faith alone), soli Deo gloria (to the ultimate glory of God alone), sola Scriptura (as taught with the final and decisive authority of Scripture alone).

The first great Reformers themselves (Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli) never summed up their teaching with this tidy set of five phrases. It developed over time as a way of capturing the essence of what the Reformation was mainly about in its dispute with the Roman Catholic Church. And I think these five solas can be preciously illuminating, both for the crux of the Reformation and for the essence of the Christian gospel itself, which was at stake in this dispute.

I say they can be. The reason I say they can be illuminating is because, as I hope you know, five prepositional phrases hanging in the air with no clause to modify are not helpful in making clear what the great controversy of the Reformation was about, or what the essence of the gospel is. The clause that allows these modifying prepositional phrases to do their wonderfully clarifying work for the sake of the essence of the gospel and the heart of the Reformation is the clause: “We are justified before God . . .” or “Justification before God is . . .”

The Key Is Justification

Then follow the five prepositional phrases doing their magnificent work to define and protect the gospel from all unbiblical dilution. “Justification before God is . . .” or “We are justified before God . . . by grace alone, on the basis of Christ’s blood and righteousness alone, through the means, or instrument, of faith alone, for the ultimate glory of God alone, as taught with final and decisive authority in Scripture alone.” All five phrases serve to modify God’s work of justification — how sinners gain a right standing with God so that he is one hundred percent for us and not against us.

“If any of us is to escape hell and enjoy pleasures at God’s right hand forever, God himself will have to raise us from spiritual death.”

If you substitute other clauses besides “We are justified . . .” such as “We are sanctified . . .” or “We will be finally saved at the last judgment . . .” then the meaning of some of these prepositional phrases must be changed in order to be faithful to Scripture. For example,

  • In justification, faith receives a finished work of Christ performed outside of us and counted as ours — imputed to us.

  • In sanctification, faith receives an ongoing power of Christ which works inside us for practical holiness.

  • In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith, as Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”

So “faith alone” doesn’t mean the same thing when applied to justification, sanctification, and final salvation. You can see what extraordinary care and precision is called for in order to be faithful to the Scripture when using the five solas. And since “Scripture alone” is our final, decisive authority, being faithful to Scripture is the goal. We aim to be biblical, first, and Reformed only if it follows from Scripture.

So my point so far is that the five solas provide wonderful clarity about the crux of the Reformation and the heart of the Gospel, if the clause that the five prepositional phrases modify is “Justification before God is . . .” by grace alone, with no merited favor whatever, on the basis of Christ alone, with no other sacrifice or righteousness as the foundation, through the means of faith alone, not including any human works whatsoever, to the end that all things lead ultimately to the glory of God alone, as taught with final and decisive authority in the Scriptures alone. Those five modifiers of justification define the hinge issue of the Reformation and the heart of the Christian gospel.

Spiritually Dead, Legally Guilty

My assignment is to focus on soli Deo gloria — to the glory of God alone. But there is one more massive reality to clarify before any of this makes sense. Why is there even a need for God to justify us by grace? And the answer is because apart from this grace, every human being is spiritually dead in sin (Ephesians 2:5) and is under the just and holy wrath of God because of our sin (Romans 5:9). We are spiritually dead and legally guilty before God. If any of us is to escape hell and enjoy pleasures at God’s right hand forever, God himself will have to raise us from spiritual death and provide a way for his wrath to be absorbed and his heart to be one hundred percent for us, despite our sin.

So God, in his great mercy sent Christ to bear our punishment and become our righteousness. Christ alone is our all-wrath-removing sacrifice, and Christ alone is our justifying righteousness. But since we are spiritually dead and unable to believe in any of that, grace alone — with no contribution at all from any spiritual corpse — raised us from the dead and gave us the gift of faith. Ephesians 2:5, 8: “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved. . . . This is not your own doing. It is the gift of God.”

“The Protestant Reformation was a controversy with the Roman Catholic Church over how helpless we really are in our deadness and guilt.”

The Protestant Reformation was a controversy with the Roman Catholic Church over how helpless we really are in our deadness and guilt — and, therefore, it was a controversy over what it took to give us life and to turn the heart of God from wrath to be one hundred percent for us. And the answer of the Reformers was that only grace could raise us from the dead; and only Christ could become our punishment and our perfection; and these two miracles, of life from the dead and wrath removed, could only be received as a gift through faith, not merited or earned — all so that the entire transaction would lead ultimately to the glory of God alone.

So let’s turn our focus now to this last and ultimate reality, “the glory of God,” and try to answer four questions.

  1. What is the glory of God?
  2. Why is it the goal of everything?
  3. How is God glorified most fully by his justified people?
  4. If God alone gets the glory, what about our glorification?

1. What is the glory of God?

Notice how Isaiah shifts from the holiness of God to the glory of God in Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” So I infer from this that when the holiness of God radiates out and fills the earth for people to see, it is called glory.

The basic meaning of holy is “separated” from the common. So, when you carry that definition all the way to the infinite “separation” of God from all that is common, the effect is to make him the infinite “one of a kind” — like the rarest and most perfect diamond in the world. But there are no other diamond-gods. God’s uniqueness as the only God — his “God-ness” — makes him infinitely valuable, that is, holy.

And from cover to cover, the great dominating reality of the Bible is that this infinitely valuable, infinitely pure and beautiful divine uniqueness — this God-ness — shines forth through creation and through all the acts of God in history and in redemption as the glory of God, that is, the outward radiance of the intrinsic worth and beauty and greatness of his manifold perfections.

I refer to the radiance of the beauty of his “manifold perfections” because the Bible can speak of the glory of God’s might (2 Thessalonians 1:9) or the glory of God’s grace (Ephesians 1:6), etc. And it can simply speak of the glory of God. So, I take the glory of God to be the radiance of the intrinsic worth and beauty and greatness of his manifold perfections. Every attribute of God is a facet in the diamond that is the glory of God. If God lost any of his attributes, he would be less glorious — indeed he would not be God.

“The glory of God is the radiance of the intrinsic worth and beauty and greatness of his manifold perfections.”

So when I speak of the glory of God, I am not treating it as something God possesses — different from himself, as if I spoke of God’s house or God’s city. No. God’s glory is the radiance of the worth and beauty and greatness of God himself — the God-ness of God manifest to be spiritually seen and savored and shown by his redeemed people. Here is the way Jonathan Edwards put it:

All that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God’s works is included in that one phrase, the glory of God. . . . The refulgence shines upon and into the creature, and is reflected back to the luminary. The beams of glory come from God, and are something of God and are refunded back again to their original. So that the whole is of God, and in God, and to God, and God is the beginning, middle and end in this affair.

But now we have crossed over into our second question.

2. Why is the glory of God the goal of everything?

The answer is that God wanted it that way. This was his plan from eternity. This was his purpose and design in creation and in all of history and in all the work of redemption. God created, sustains, governs, and saves in such a way as to reveal his glory. That’s his goal.

It all began with his purpose in creation: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). That’s what they are for. “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isaiah 43:6–7).

Then this purpose in creation extends to everything God does: “God works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11–12). “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

“God planned all creation, all history, all redemption for his glory.”

And the central story in everything he does is the story of redemption. And Paul tells us that all of it is “in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9:23). “Christ became a servant . . . in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:9). “Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

God planned all creation, all history, all redemption for his glory. And, lest it not be obvious, Isaiah quotes God himself that it is all ultimately to his glory alone: “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:8). “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.” (Isaiah 2:11)

This universe and everything in it is mainly about the glory of God. This is the great reason for all created existence, including yours. If someone asks you, “Why is there such a meaningless, vastness of uninhabited galaxies and only one tiny dot of human existence?” your answer should be: “This universe is not intended to portray the importance of man. It is intended to give man some inkling of the grandeur of God. And it is an understatement.”

God created and sustains and governs and justifies the ungodly for his glory alone. This leads us to the third question.

3. How is God glorified most fully by his justified people?

We are Christian Hedonists at Bethlehem. This means we believe that the answer to how we bring greatest glory to God is: God is most glorified in his justified people when those justified people are most satisfied in him. And I believe that the pastors and theologians who wrote the great summary of Reformation teaching in the Westminster Catechism were giving expression to their Christian Hedonism as well when they said, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

They did not just say that our goal is to glorify God, but to glorify God and enjoy him. And they did not call glorifying and enjoying two ends, but one, singular end: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” They discerned, it seems, what Paul said in Philippians 1:20 — that the way Christ would be most magnified in Paul’s death would be for Paul to be most satisfied in Christ while dying. Christ’s glory — his supreme beauty and value — will be most plain when Paul says, “To die is gain.”

“God is most glorified in his justified people when those justified people are most satisfied in him.”

When God planned in eternity to justify the ungodly the way he did so that God himself would be glorified, he did not mean for us to find the glory of God boring, but for us to find it all-satisfying. And this is not because our happiness is the ultimate value in the universe, but because the ultimate value in the universe — the all-glorious God — is shown to be the supreme Treasure when he becomes the supreme pleasure of his people. To cite Jonathan Edwards once more:

God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it.

When God justifies sinners by grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, though faith alone, his aim was to open to us the path of life. And where does that path lead? Psalm 16:11:

You make known to me the path of life;
   in your presence there is fullness of joy;
   at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

In the end, God’s glory and our joy run together into everlasting fullness.

4. If God alone gets the glory, what about our glorification?

The biblical answer is that when we say soli Deo Gloria — to God alone be glory — we should mean: Whatever glory is shared with man is a glory that calls attention ultimately to the source and end of all things: the glory of God alone.

The Bible is stunningly clear that the children of God will be glorified with the glory God:

We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:30)

“In the end, God’s glory and our joy run together into everlasting fullness.”

Why is God so intent on making us glorious with his own glory? The reason for this is not hard to see. Jesus said his aim for us is that his joy — his divine joy — might be in us and our joy might be full (John 15:11, 17:13). But you can’t put the jet engine of a 747 in a tiny Smart Car. You can’t fit the volcano of God’s joy in the teacup of my unglorified soul. You can’t put all-glorious joy in inglorious people. We will be glorified, because it is the only way we can be fully satisfied in God, so that God alone will be fully glorified in us (see also John 17:24–26).

I hope you feel drawn to Jesus — to embrace him by faith. Because all of you who trust him, no matter how sinful you have been, are now justified by grace alone, with no merited favor whatever, on the basis of Christ alone, with no other sacrifice or righteousness as the foundation, through the means of faith alone, not including any human works whatsoever, to the end you might enjoy God alone as the supreme Treasure of your life, and so display that all glory belongs ultimately to God alone.


An edited and abbreviated version of this message appears in the recent 9Marks article “The Reformation and the Glory of God.”