The first great Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli never summed up their teaching with the tidy set of five phrases we now know as the five solas. The solas 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.
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).
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 of course was central to the dispute. I say they can be helpful because 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, nor do they clarify the essence of the true Christian gospel.
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 . . .
Only after justification can the five prepositional phrases follow and do their magnificent work to define and protect the gospel from all unbiblical dilution. We are justified by 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 Godalone; 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 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,
Especially as it pertains to final salvation, so many of us live in a fog of confusion. James saw in his day those who were treating “faith alone” as a doctrine that claimed you could be justified by faith which produced no good works. And he vehemently said No to such faith.
So, he says, “I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18). The works will come from faith.
Paul would affirm all of this because he said in Galatians 5:6, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” The only kind of faith that counts for justification is the kind that produces love — the kind that bears the fruit of love. The faith which alone justifies is never alone, but always bearing transforming fruit. So, when James says these controversial words, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), I take him to mean not by faith which is alone, but which shows itself by works.
Paul calls this effect or fruit or evidence of faith the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11) and the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven (Hebrews 12:14). So, we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone.
Essential to the Christian life and necessary for final salvation is the killing of sin (Romans 8:13) and the pursuit of holiness (Hebrews 12:14). Mortification of sin, sanctification in holiness. But what makes that possible and pleasing to God? We put sin to death and we pursue holiness from a justified position where God is one hundred percent for us — already — by faith alone.
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 and decisive authority, being faithful to Scripture is the goal. We aim to be biblical first — and Reformed only if it follows from Scripture.
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. . .” 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.