On this day more than five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed a document to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s document is now famously known as his 95 Theses, in which he disputed unbiblical and exploitative practices by the Roman Catholic Church. October 31 later became known as Reformation Day, although the scope of the Protestant Reformation extends far beyond Luther and the stand he took that day. God’s work in and through sixteenth-century reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin led to the Bible being translated and published in common languages—a treasure most of us have at our fingertips today.
The Reformation also brought a renewed clarification of the essential teachings of Scripture, especially relating to God’s work of salvation. While these reforms did lead to divisions in the church, the motivation and goal were not to rend but to renew. Not to fracture but to uphold faithfulness to God and his Word. When an assembly of Roman Catholic Church leaders accused Luther of heresy and challenged him to recant, he refused. Rather, he concluded, “I am bound by the Scriptures … and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” The heart of the Protestant Reformation was not to bicker over minor theological differences but to uphold the core biblical tenets of Christianity.
The Five Solas
These focal doctrines of the Reformation era are summarized in what are now called the five solas. (Sola is Latin for “alone.”) We don’t find the phrase “five solas” in the reformers’ writings or in Bible dictionaries, but these statements summarize the truth of the gospel according to what Scripture teaches. This is as essential today as it was five hundred years ago.
Michael Reeves offers this helpful summary in his book The Unquenchable Flame: "In the Reformation mind-set, salvation is a gift of God’s grace alone (sola gratia), found, not in any pope or Mass, but in Christ alone (solus Christus), and received by simple faith alone (sola fide). And we can know this for certain only through Scripture (sola Scriptura). Only if all these things are true, the sinner contributing nothing to his own salvation, can all the glory go to God … (soli Deo gloria)."
Take time to celebrate Reformation Day by remembering the five solas with their biblical basis and reflecting on how these core tenets of the Christian faith still have powerful implications for the church and our lives today.
Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone
God’s Word is our ultimate, infallible, sufficient authority.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
God has graciously revealed himself to us in his Word. It’s easy to forget the magnitude of his gift as we turn the pages of the Bible or open it instantly in an app. When we inevitably face doubts and questions in the Christian life, we can return again and again to God’s voice speaking to us with ultimate authority and unshakable truth in his Word. Sola Scriptura doesn’t mean we read nothing but the Bible. But it does mean every book, article, sermon, post, and podcast is subjected to the ultimate authority of God’s Word. Our favorite authors and speakers are fallible, but Scripture is never wrong and never fails.
Additional Reading: 2 Peter 1:20–21
Solus Christus: Christ Alone
Salvation is found only in the sacrificial and sufficient work of Christ.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:23–26).
Even when we have trusted in Christ for salvation, we often turn to sources other than Christ for hope and rescue. But they can never deliver as Jesus does. We are prone to believe that Jesus is one essential component to salvation, one key factor in the equation. But Jesus didn’t say, “I know the way back to God, I’ll provide guidance to the truth, and I can help you find life.” He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, emphasis mine). Salvation and life are found in him alone—plus nothing.
Additional Reading: John 1:1–14; 3:16–18; 14:6
Sola Gratia: Grace Alone and Sola Fide: Faith Alone
Salvation is ours by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
Matthew Barrett says, “The Reformers loved to talk about a ‘great, marvelous exchange.’ Christ has taken our sin and its penalty on the cross. What have we received in exchange? The perfect, spotless, righteousness of Christ. Not only have we been forgiven, and our debt been paid in full but imputed to our account is Christ’s perfect record of obedience.” This beautiful exchange is only by God’s grace—a gift we do nothing to earn—and we receive it through the instrument of faith. This lifts an impossible burden from our shoulders. We don’t need to be enough or do enough to be worthy of his love and salvation, and once given, it can never be taken away.
Additional Reading: Ephesians 1:3–14
Soli Deo Gloria: Glory to God Alone
Only God deserves and receives glory for his saving work.
“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).
The author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), which means it begins and ends with him. Since God is the one who has done all the finished work of saving us, he alone deserves all the glory, honor, and praise. This truth invites a posture of humility before our God as we consider his immeasurable sovereignty, power, and love. He has accomplished what we could never do, nor ever deserve, and lavished us with love. May this inspire overflowing adoration and praise from our hearts and lips. How great is our God!
Additional Reading: Isaiah 43:7; Jude 24–25
Follow in Footsteps of Faith this Reformation Day
The Reformation may seem like distant history, far removed from our modern lives, but the faithfulness of men and women from church history continues to reverberate today. These core truths on which they staked everything, and for which some even lost their lives, remain the foundation of the church until Christ returns. The Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ were more precious than life to the reformers. May we follow in their footsteps of faith with conviction today, for the glory of God alone.
Meet the Author
Lindsay Cournia earned a Master of Arts in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary and is on staff at Harbor Presbyterian Church. She lives with her family in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where her husband serves in the military. Some of her joys in life are one-on-one conversations, historical fiction novels, overly sweet coffee, and gathered worship on Sundays.