Today is Halloween, we all know that, but it’s also Reformation Day—and if we’re going to stop and give thanks to God today, should it be for those who faithfully proclaimed the Gospel or for the chance to dress up and eat candy? (That was a rhetorical question, by the way. I hope you’re not actually debating your answer…)
It’s Reformation Day because on October 31, 1517 a young Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg. This was the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and brought to the public attention things that had been festering and developing for years.
There is lots of great history out there on the Reformation, so I won’t get in to that. Instead, I want to summarize the main “battle cries” of the Reformation, which will help show why this isn’t about arcane or obscure historical trivia, but about a movement that is perhaps more relevant today than ever before.
Despite the theological depth and brilliance of men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and others, the Reformation was not about debates taking place in the ivory towers of the academy. No, the Reformation was about getting God’s Word and the truth of the Gospel into the hands of everyone—and it became a movement that swept across Europe and changed the cultural climate in monumental ways.
If you had to distill the essence of the Reformation into something quick and concise, the best place to start is with what are called the five solas. (‘sola’ is a Latin word that means ‘alone’) They are:
sola scriptura (Scripture alone): The Reformers were reacting against the Roman Catholic position that ascribed mutual authority to Scripture, tradition (creeds and councils), and the Magesterium (the teaching office of the Church). While the confessed beliefs and creeds of the Church are important, it is only the inspired and infallible Word of God (i.e. the 66 books of the Bible) that is our authority in matters of faith and life. If we want to know who God is, what he has done for us, or how we are to live as his people, then we turn to Scripture. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) Calvin once wrote: “…the only thing I asked was that all controversies should be decided by the Word.”
sola gratia (grace alone): God has not saved us because of anything we have done, or because of any inherent worth that he found in us. Instead, God’s electing grace comes to those who are “dead in their sins and trespasses” (Ephesians 2:1). He chose us, claimed us in Christ, called us and sealed us by his Spirit, and rescued us out of his good pleasure and mercy. We do not meet him halfway, or work hard to get him to notice us. It is God who removes our hearts of stone, gives us hearts of flesh, and enables us to walk in his ways (Ezekiel 36:26-27). There is no cause for us to boast; we did not earn the salvation that we now have in Christ. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
sola fide (faith alone): When God removes our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh (regeneration), then we respond by clinging to Jesus Christ in faith. Faith lays hold of Christ, and is the “instrumental means” by which we are saved. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Good works play no part in our salvation, but they are a necessary part of our discipleship. Our standing with God is not based upon how high we have ascended the divine ladder, but upon whether or not we have received by faith the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us. Our justification (being declared righteous in Christ) comes through faith alone. In Calvin’s words: “Faith brings a men empty to God in order that he might be filled with the riches of Christ.”
solus Christus (Christ alone): Jesus Christ is the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14), “the image of the invisible God…the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:15, 19). Anyone who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9). He alone lived the perfect and sinless life that God’s law requires. He alone died the death as a punishment for sin that God’s law demands. He alone has been raised from the dead, shattering the chains of the grave. He alone ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God, ready to return in glory to judge the living and the dead. He alone is our Mediator and intercessor (1 Timothy 2:5). No one other than Jesus Christ is these things. No one other than Jesus Christ has accomplished these things. Therefore, salvation comes through no other name but his alone (Acts 4:12). We do not pray to other saints or intermediaries, nor do we look to any human figure to be the Head of the Church.
soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone): When we see that our salvation and all its parts come to us freely from God, then we return all glory and praise and adoration to him. God is worthy of our glory for who he is (perfect, holy, righteous) and for what he has done (rescued lost and rebellious sinners). We do not take credit for our salvation, but in all things offer our humble love and joyful praise to him. Again, in Calvin’s words: “…God connects our salvation with his own glory”. He did it, so he receives credit for it.
So there it is—a crash-course in the talking points of the Reformation. Luther and others lived in a time where they saw these truths obscured or even obliterated, and were called by God to boldly and clearly proclaim them in the face of opposition, ridicule, and exile. But God was pleased to use that time to spread his Word like wildfire and transform homes, communities, and entire cultures.
Almost 500 years ago, Luther knocked on a door, not to say “Trick or Treat”, but to announce to all who would hear that Scripture alone is our final authority, that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and that God alone is worthy of all glory.
We still need to hear these truths, and we still need to proclaim these truths. Praise God for the way in which he used men like Luther and Calvin—as well as countless other nameless, unknown servants—and pray that we can remain focused and faithful in our day as well.