If there’s a single word that embodies the legacy of Martin Luther, this is it! Sola is the Latin word meaning ‘alone’ or ‘only’ and is the root from which we get our English words ‘solo’ and ‘solitary.’ Luther’s reformation of the medieval church involved restoring three bedrock Solas:
Sola Gratia – ‘By Grace Alone’: Salvation comes only as God’s free gift, and cannot be earned by our own efforts nor granted or denied by another.
Sola Fide – ‘By Faith Alone’: We receive this gift of grace by nothing more than placing our trust in God’s promises fulfilled in the suffering, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Sola Scriptura – ‘By Word Alone’: We trust that God’s complete plan for our salvation has been fully revealed to us in His Word as it has come to us in the Bible, and all doctrine is to be measured by its teachings.
The three Solas of Word, Grace, and Faith are principles that work together, complementing and reinforcing each other to form a kind of fortress to defend against error: our redemption is accomplished only by God’s grace through the gift of His Son to suffer and die in our place, and it is only by our faith in this redemption, as revealed to us in God’s word alone, that our salvation is assured. There is no other way, and nothing else is required. These three interlocking principles form a strong barrier against introducing false ideas.
Yet, the true value of a fortress is not measured by the strength of its walls, but by the treasure which it protects. In this case, the truth which must be safeguarded is that our salvation comes through Christ alone – the central principle that Luther expressed as Sola Christus.
Luther developed his three Solas as a defense against the distortions of the Gospel in the church of his day: God’s grace, instead of being freely given, was available only through the offices of the church and its clergy. Salvation was earned by performing good works as defined by the church. The true Gospel as taught in the Bible could be supplemented and reinterpreted through the authority of the church. Thus, it was the institutional church, a human creation, which had come to share the center of the faith with Jesus Christ. Luther’s solas served to defend the Good News of Salvation in Jesus Christ alone from such human-devised encroachments.
But the three solas do not mean that nothing else matters! For example, by placing our hope of salvation in God’s Grace alone, we certainly do not become indifferent to keeping His commandments! Rather, it is only through God’s Grace that we grow in our ability to live in conformity to His will. Similarly, saying that we are saved by faith alone does not mean that we disdain “good works,” but rather that it is only when our deeds are trusting responses to God’s Grace that they are truly God-pleasing. And when we say that God’s Word alone is the sole authority for our beliefs, we do not mean that we don’t value reason, learning, and tradition to guide us as we conduct our earthly and spiritual affairs, or that we look to the Bible to provide answers to every question. What we do mean is that though God may speak to us in many ways, we know that it is God’s authentic Word only when it is in harmony with what is taught in Scripture.
Luther’s Solas remain as vital to the church today as they were 500 years ago. Unlike in his day, the pure message of the Gospel is not being threatened by the power of a corrupt institutional church, but rather by concession to secular standards that elevate human values above God’s authority – the Gospel of “self fulfillment” (Sola Ego?) threatens to displace the Gospel of Salvation in Jesus Christ. However, at the same time that we resist the encroachment of secular and humanist values on the Gospel, we are deluded if we place our hope of salvation in our own piety or orthodoxy. As it has always been, our hope of salvation rests on Sola Christus – in Him alone do we trust, and Him alone do we humbly follow.