Deriving from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century five Latin phrases— sola scripture, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria—have summarized the principal Christian teachings that the Reformers proclaimed in their endeavors to bring reform to the church. What do these five Latin phrases mean?
Sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)
The English translation of the Latin indicates that the phrase is to be understood to mean the instrument by which God discloses himself gracious to redeem humanity is solely Scripture. The Bible is the Word of God, given through the Holy Spirit, the only authoritative source for teachings concerning Christian faith and practice. The Reformers used this expression, sola scriptura, to distill their firm conviction against the prevailing teaching of the church at that time. The phrase captures their affirmation that the Bible alone is the ultimate and final authority concerning God’s redeeming will. Neither the pope, nor the church, nor the traditions of the church, nor even the councils of the church are privileged to hold final sway over Christ’s church concerning what is to be believed and practiced as Christians. Scripture alone holds final authority concerning faith and the nurturing of faith. Whatever other authorities that God has established in this world—whether church, state, family, or any other—they are to be subject to Scripture. To whatever degree other authorities teach or practice contrary to the Scriptures, they are to be judged by the Bible and reproved accordingly.
Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)
Again, the English translation of the Latin, with the word “by,” shows that this phrase indicates that grace is God’s appointed instrumentality by which he saves sinners. Because salvation comes “by grace alone,” humans are powerless to lay any claim upon God’s gift of salvation. God is not moved to be gracious to sinners by their foolish and futile notions that they have power to accrue merited favor with him. Indeed, God does save sinners, but he does so as it pleases him. God is not moved to save anyone by anything external to his own gracious will. God alone acts to save sinners by grace alone. To confess that God’s salvation is received “by grace alone” is to deny that human stratagems, devices, methods, and techniques are, in themselves, powerless to give birth to faith or to bring about salvation. Grace alone brought to bear upon us through the Holy Spirit who brings us to Christ is God’s way of showing himself glorious in our salvation. Thus, by grace alone God calls forth from their spiritual tombs utterly helpless sinners who are as dead and senseless in their sins as was Lazarus’s stinking corpse in the tomb. By grace alone God breathes into sinners the breath of eternal life.
Sola Fide (“by faith alone”)
Of the five Latin catchphrases, perhaps the most misunderstood and disputed is sola fide. For the Reformers it was not sufficient to affirm that salvation is sola gratia, by grace alone, for many of their Roman Catholic contemporaries agreed. Martin Luther’s published debate with Desiderius Erasmus makes clear the Reformers’ insistence upon affirming sola fide. Erasmus contended against Luther by arguing that God’s offered “rewards” are merited, that the reward of eternal life is earned. He insisted that salvation is received not “by grace alone,” but because of “free choice,” human merit attaches to faith with the result that human worthiness in addition to faith receives the reward of eternal life. Against Erasmus, Luther reasoned from Scripture (sola scriptura) that eternal life as promised reward to everyone whose obedient faith in Christ perseveres indicates God’s gracious ordered sequence of salvation, not the merited cause of salvation. Luther contended that God established that belief and unbelief should have their fitting consequences.[i] Calvin agrees with Luther when he states, “Nothing is clearer than that a reward is promised for good works to relieve the weakness of our flesh by some comfort but not to puff up our heart with vainglory. Whoever, then, deduces merit of works from this, or weighs works and reward together, wanders very far from God’s own plan.”[ii]
Given Luther’s and Calvin’s shared belief, it is necessary to guard against a misunderstanding of sola fide that would eviscerate faith, virtually reducing it to a solitary act of naked assent.[iii] In order to avoid any perceived intrusion of merit into salvation, some Evangelicals take the word “alone” (sola), in the Protestant motto, “justified by faith alone,” as an adjective that describes faith itself.[iv] The result is that they contend that faith in its solitariness justifies. This is quite different from historic Protestant understanding which takes alone as an adverb to describe how we are justified rather than as an adjective describing faith as solitary.[v] Thus, to avoid mistaking alone as describing faith—“faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17)—it is not uncommon for Evangelicals to explain, “We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone.”[vi] By this, Evangelicals mean, “We are justified only by faith.” Naked or dead faith does not justify anyone (James 2:17). Only an active or obedient faith justifies (2:18; Gal. 5:6). Not faith itself but the one in whom faith is anchored justifies. Thus, sola fide is inseparably linked with solus Christus.
Solus Christus (“Christ alone”) or Solo Christo (“by Christ alone”)
God justifies believers not because of what faith is nor because of obedience that inescapably accompanies faith, but because of Christ Jesus in whom obedient faith rests with full confidence and assurance. It is not the reliability of faith itself that justifies. Only the reliability of faith’s object, Jesus Christ, grounds one’s justification before God (Rom. 3:21-26). Thus, the Reformers insisted upon solus Christus, that salvation comes to humans by Christ alone, the only mediator between God and humans. The resurrected Christ who was crucified, no human priest through the sacraments, serves as the mediator of God’s grace and forgiveness. Solus Christus, then, was the Reformation motto that repudiated errors that became attached to Christ’s sacrificial death. Solus Christus denounces the fiction that humans can accrue merits that add to Christ’s sufficient atoning sacrifice and the fallacy that earthly priests mediate God’s grace and forgiveness of sins. Christ’s substitutionary atonement is sufficient alone for our justification; any intrusion of human merit falsifies the true gospel of grace.
Soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”)
Each of the previous Latin mottos finds its summation in this, the fifth Reformation motto: soli Deo gloria, which means “to God alone be the glory.” Because the Reformers believed that salvation is all of grace, that salvation is initiated solely by God, that salvation is accomplished solely by God through his Son, Jesus Christ, and that salvation is received solely through faith brought to life by the Holy Spirit, they insisted that all glory is due to God alone. The Reformers agreed with the apostle Paul, “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). Therefore, “to God alone be the glory.”
Soli Deo gloria
[i] “The reason why the future consequences of a good and bad life are declared in the Scriptures is that men might be instructed, disturbed, awakened and terrified. . . . [S]o by these promises and threats comes a warning of what follows upon the sin and impotence which the law has pointed out—but they do not ascribe any worthiness to out merit. Wherefore, as the words of the law serve their turn by instruction and illumination, to teach us both what we ought to do and what we cannot do, so the words of reward, signifying what is to be, serve their turn by exhorting and threatening, and animate, comfort and uphold the godly to press on, persevere and triumph, in doing good and enduring evil, lest they should be wearied, or their spirit broken.” (Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer & O. R. Johnston [London: James Clarke & Co.; Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1957], 183).
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes, 220.127.116.11.
[iii] This caution may seem like an exaggeration, but it is not, for some Evangelicals insist that saving faith is not actively trusting Christ Jesus. Charles Stanley affirms, “Even if a believer for all practical purposes becomes an unbeliever, his salvation is not in jeopardy” (Eternal Security, 74). Likewise, R. T. Kendall insists, “‘What if a person who is saved falls into sin, stays in sin, and is found in that very condition when he dies? Will he still go to heaven?’ The answer is yes” (Once Saved, Always Saved, 50-51).
[iv] The confusion seems to stem from Martin Luther’s translation of Romans 3:28 into German. Even though the Greek text of the passage does include any equivalent word, Luther inserted alone into his translation: “So we now hold that a man is justified by faith alone apart from the works of the law.” By translating the passage this way, he created what seems to be a contradiction with James 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” In James 2:24, alone is an adverb that describes how justification takes place; justification takes place not by faith alone but by faith that entails deeds. Luther explains that he added “alone” (allein, German), to make Paul’s argument clear (Steven Paulson, Luther for Armchair Theologians [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], 158). Unfortunately, instead of clarifying, the addition introduces persistent confusion to the motto, sola fide (“justification by faith alone”).
[v] For example, the Westminster Confession affirms: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (XI, On Justification). It is noteworthy that The Westminster Confession includes Galatians 5:6 and James 2:17, 22 and 26 as biblical support, for these are passages that Roman Catholic scholars routinely used to object to the Protestant doctrine of justification, a teaching they misunderstood.
[vi] This clarifies that the accepted sense of alone is an adverb, describing how one is justified, and the rejected sense of alone as an adjective, portraying faith as naked and void, is precisely the kind of faith that James exposes as false (James 2:17).
Ardel Caneday (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Studies at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has served churches in various pastoral roles, including senior pastor. He has authored numerous journal articles, many essays in books, and has co-authored with Thomas Schreiner the book The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Inter-Varsity, 2001).