Summary: Martin Luther and the Three Solas 1) Sola Scriptura; 2) Sola Gratia; 3) Sola Fide Not just the foundation of the Reformation but the foundation of our salvation.
Everyone has heard the story about Goldilocks and the three bears but have you heard of Martin Luther and the three solas: sola scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide? These three Latin phrases are not just the foundation of the Reformation; they are the foundation of your salvation.
Martin Luther was a German monk who lived in the mid 1500s. He had been taught that in order to get God to smile upon him he needed to do good things. No matter how hard he tried to do good, however, even quitting his law studies to dedicate himself to serving God and others as a monk, Luther remained afraid of God and afraid for his eternal salvation because he couldn’t stop sinning. He sought help from the church but instead of giving Luther answers from the Bible, church leaders in those days were in the habit of parroting theological opinions of famous churchmen and councils. Their advice either downplayed Luther’s sin or encouraged Luther to try harder to be good. This only left Luther more depressed.
Turning to theological opinions rather than to the Bible itself for answers on spiritual matters is like turning to a literary critic to find out the meaning of a popular novel instead of going directly to the author and asking her what she meant when she wrote what she did. Therefore the first important sola that Luther rediscovered with God’s help was sola scriptura or “Scripture alone.” It is the Bible alone, and not man’s opinion, that tells us what we need to know about God, ourselves, and the way to salvation. Why can the Bible be trusted? The Apostle Paul tells us: “And how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:15, 16). The Bible was written by men but it was inspired by God, that is, every word of it comes from God’s heart. To build our hope for salvation on anything other than Scripture is like building a house directly on a sandy beach. The thought might seem like a good one, until the tide comes rolling in and pulls the house out to sea because it never had a firm foundation.
Friends, if you have never really studied the Bible before, or if it’s been a while, why not get back into it? Base what you believe about the creation of the world, about angels, about life and death, about heaven and hell on the solid foundation of God’s Word, not man’s opinion or your fallible feelings.
So what is it that God’s Word teaches us in regard to salvation? For the answer we can turn to the other two solas Luther rediscovered. Let’s first look at sola gratia or “grace alone.” Regarding our salvation being an act of God’s grace the Apostle Paul said: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. 21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify…There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:20, 21, 23, 24).
For a long time many thought, and still think today, that there is something we must do to earn, or at least contribute towards our salvation. After all isn’t that the purpose of the Ten Commandments? Didn’t Jesus even say that if we love God with all our heart, soul, and might, and love our neighbor as ourselves that we would receive eternal life? Just because God tells us to do something doesn’t mean that we are able to do it. You could tell me to swim across the Pacific Ocean, you could demand this of me but it doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to do it. In the same way God’s laws demand, but they say nothing about our ability to keep them.
So what is the purpose of God’s law if it isn’t to tell us how to get to heaven? Did you catch how Paul described the law’s purpose in the verses I just read? Paul said that God gave us his law so that we would become conscious of our sin. In other words God’s law is meant to be a mirror. Without it, we wouldn’t see how badly we are in need of a savior. We’re like the boy who scrubbed his hands really well before sitting down for dinner. He’s offended then when Mom tells him to go to the bathroom and get cleaned up. What’s she talking about? He is clean! His hands are clean but his face is not. Dirt streaks his cheeks. It’s not until the boy returns to the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror that he sees why Mom sent him back to wash (David Kuske). In the same way we may think that we have cleaned up or kept our life clean from obvious sins like adultery, stealing, and murder. Yet if we think that we can sit down at God’s banquet table in heaven, we’re wrong. God sends us back to the mirror of his law to learn that sin doesn’t start when we misuse our hands; it starts when we misuse what we’ve got between the ears (John C. Jeske). Thinking of committing adultery, for example, or harboring thoughts of jealously is as dirty to God as strangling a baby! Until I can rid my life of every sin and pay for the sins I’ve committed, I won’t be welcome at God’s banquet table in heaven.