How can I gain God’s approval? How can I be right with God so that I enjoy His love and escape His judgment? This is the most important question in the world. At stake is our eternal future. Yet most people put it out of their minds most of the time.
Not so a young sixteenth-century German monk called Martin Luther. In his early life, whenever Luther heard the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’, his thoughts were filled with the idea of God as a judge condemning his sin. The two English words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ both translate the same Greek word. So when Luther thought about the righteousness of God, he immediately thought of God’s justice, rightly condemning him for his sin. So he kept going to confession. He quickly gained a reputation for his devotion and duty. Yet he still felt no peace or forgiveness or hope. How could he? He knew he didn’t measure up. He knew that when he faced God’s perfect justice, he would be condemned.
There were two break-through moments for Luther. The first was when he realised that the righteousness of God is not just a characteristic of God (that He judges justly) but also a gracious gift from God. God gives righteousness.
Luther’s second break-through moment was when he realised that God’s righteousness is not just a boost to help us become righteous as the Catholic Church claimed. Luther realised that first and foremost God’s righteousness is His declaration that we are righteous.
God counts us righteous in Christ. All the right-ness of Christ is ours. The Catholic Church said righteousness is ‘imparted’ to us as a power to help us live a good life. The Reformers said Christ’s righteousness is ‘imputed’ to us. ‘Imputed’ means ‘counted’ or ‘considered’. We are counted righteous in Christ. In ourselves we are unrighteous and condemned, but in Christ we are righteous and justified. All our righteousness comes from Christ and Christ alone.
In response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent declared
If any one says, that by faith alone the ungodly are justified in such a way as to mean that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the receive the grace of Justification and that it is not necessary for a man to be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.’ (Canon IX)
In other words, we’re saved by faith plus works.
The Reformation-Catholic debate was never a choice between salvation by works and salvation by faith. Everyone agreed we’re saved by Christ, by faith and by grace. But the Catholics said that, as God moves towards us in Christ, we need to respond by moving towards God. In response, the Reformers said we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone.
Luther was dead by the time the Council of Trent concluded its deliberations. But he had his own confrontations with the Catholic Church. In 1519, he faced one of its leading theologians, Johann Eck, in a public debate. Eck accused Luther of following Jan Hus, a Czech priest who had been condemned as a heretic 100 years before. At first, Luther rejected the charge. Then, when the debate broke for lunch, Luther scurried off to the library to read up on Hus. He discovered the views for which Hus had been condemned were biblical views. In that moment Luther was forced to choose between the authority of the church and the authority of Scripture. He chose Scripture.
The Reformers still valued the traditions of the church. They often quoted the early church fathers. But every time, when push came to shove, Scripture alone was their guiding authority.
All to God’s glory alone
Why was the Reformation controversial in the 16th century? Why does it remain controversial today? The answer, I believe, is that the Reformation (or rather the biblical gospel it rediscovered) makes us small and Christ big. At the heart of the Reformation was the realisation that:
- We are more helpless than we realise;
- Christ is more sufficient than we realise;
- God is more gracious than we realise;
There’s no room in Reformation theology for human boasting. No-one can claim their salvation is down to their intellect, morality or religion. It’s all of God from start to finish. And if it’s all of God from start to finish, then the glory goes to him alone.
In 1916 a Lutheran scholar called Theodore Engelder published an article, ‘The Three Principles of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides’. ‘Sola’ is the Latin word for ‘sole’ or ‘alone’. So Engelder was identifying Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone as central to the Reformation project. As a way of summarising the Reformation, it caught people’s imaginations. Some people swapped ‘to God’s glory alone’ for ‘Scripture alone’. Others wanted to include ‘Christ alone’. After all, we’re not saved by faith alone if by this we mean ‘faith’ as some virtue that earns merit with God (in the sense of ‘fidelity’). No, we’re saved by Christ and Christ alone. All we do is believe God’s promises and entrust ourselves to Christ – that’s what biblical faith is.
So it was that by the middle of the twentieth century the five ‘solas’ (or, for Latin pedants, ‘solae’) became an established way of summarising the message of the Reformation: Scripture alone, faith alone, Christ alone, grace alone and all to God’s glory alone.