The Reformation started 500 years ago with a protest against indulgences. Rome had adopted the idea that there is a place called purgatory where believers must spend time before they can expect to arrive in heaven. Purgatory is a place of torment where the believer is “purged” (cleansed) from his or her remaining sins. But one’s time in purgatory could be shortened through the purchase of an indulgence from the church. Buying this certificate, one allegedly received access to the treasury of merit achieved by Christ and the saints. It was a win-win for everyone — the church made extra money for the building of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome and the believer could reduce purge time for himself or loved ones. But a German monk named Martin Luther would have none of it — he published the 95 Theses in 1517, a protest against indulgences. That was just the start of the Reformation in the early 1500s.
As the Reformation progressed, it became evident that there were five main issues in debate. We sometimes call these the five pillars of the Reformation — they’re also known as the five ‘solas.’ Let’s review them.
Sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone. Rome taught that the Bible is authoritative for believers. But Rome also taught that tradition and the Church are also authoritative. The Reformation maintained that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for what we believe and how we live.
Sola Gratia — by grace alone. Rome taught that believers need God’s grace to be saved. But Rome also taught that believers need to cooperate with God’s grace in order to be saved. Salvation is by grace plus good works. The Reformation maintained that salvation comes by God’s grace alone. When it comes to the basis of our salvation, we do not merit anything, indeed, we cannot merit anything before God.
Sola Fide — by faith alone. This has to do with justification. Rome taught that justification is a life-long process. At the end of your life, God will make his judgment about you based on what you did, particularly your good works. The Reformation maintained that justification is an event whereby God declares that the sinner is righteous through Jesus Christ. Justification is received through faith alone. In justification, faith is simply receiving Jesus Christ as your righteousness. Good works are not part of the equation (though they certainly flow forth in the justified person’s life as a fruit).
Solus Christus — Christ alone. Rome taught that every believer needs Jesus Christ. However, the papacy also taught that one needs the Virgin Mary and the saints. Christ is not enough. Against that, the Reformation maintained that everything we need for our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.
Soli Deo Gloria — to God alone be the glory. Rome taught that God ought to be praised for salvation. However, they included good works in the basis of salvation. They gave a place to Mary and the saints alongside Christ as the Redeemer. Human beings had to cooperate with God’s grace for justification and salvation. The inevitable conclusion is that God gets praise, but so do human beings. The Reformation objected. The Reformation upheld the biblical teaching of Psalm 115:1, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory..” All the credit, all the glory, all the praise, goes to God for our salvation.
These five pillars continue to be vitally important for the church today. Rome still teaches what it always has. But perhaps of more relevance is the fact that our natural human tendency is to drift away from each of these teachings. The natural human inclination is not to give God his exclusive due. We’re bent towards taking credit for ourselves and not acknowledging God’s exclusive authority in our lives. Pride is our default mode. The five pillars put us in a proper posture of humility before God. Therefore, Christians today neglect the five pillars to their own detriment and, more tragically, to a degradation of God’s glory. As we celebrate the Reformation, let’s be thankful for these teachings and continue to maintain them.