The Five Solas

An Overview of the Reformation Solas

Curated by Fred Zaspel

Course Introduction

How important is the word “alone”? To the Reformers it was all-important.

  • Scripture alone (sola Scriptura)
  • Christ alone (solus Christus)
  • Grace alone (sola gratia)
  • Faith alone (sola fide)
  • God’s glory alone (soli Deo gloria)

Though the Reformers themselves did not use these five slogans, as such, they do capture well the points of emphasis of their preaching and teaching. It was a teaching that rocked the world and brought consequences far beyond what they could have imagined. Most importantly, it was a recovery of the gospel.

This series of studies highlights these solas both historically, in the context of the Protestant Reformation, and theologically. In this introductory section we provide a broad overview.

  • Derek Thomas

  • Mark Dever

  • Steven Lawson

Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone

The “formal principle” of the Reformation was this principle of “Scripture alone.” Whatever the church and others may have taught, it can be given no credence unless it conforms to this “norming norm”: what does the Bible say? Every doctrine must be grounded in and measured by what God has said in his Word, Scripture. God has indeed given teachers to the church; we profit by them and are thankful for them. But it is “the Bible alone” that provides the standard of truth and error and of right and wrong.

Richard Muller sums this up in reference to the Protestant Reformers well:

Another precedent, already noted, was the confessional embodiment of the sola Scriptura of the Reformers. Insofar as confessional theology offered a primary basis for doctrinal development, the tendency of the Reformed confessions to begin with a doctrine of Scripture bore immediate fruit in the structure of the Protestant orthodox systems. This confessional pattern, moreover, was echoed in several of the early Reformed systems—notably, Calvin’s Institutes and Bullinger’s Decades and Compendium—in which the movement from a declaration of sola Scriptura to a full locus de Scriptura sacra, if not completed, was certainly confirmed and expedited. Debate with Roman Catholics, moreover, was not over the question of the definition and method of theology. As we have already seen, that issue was taken up in the latter half of the sixteenth century and as an institutional and didactic topic, not as a polemical one. Rather, debate was over the question of authority, with specific reference to the interpretation of Scripture and to the relationship of Scripture to the church and its traditions. The result of the debate, both in confession and in system, was the early development of a Protestant doctrine of Scripture that could serve, in fact, as a prolegomenon to theology in a formal sense, granting absence of actual prolegomena. This confessional emphasis on sola Scriptura both maintained and transformed the medieval emphasis on a preliminary identification of principia. The sola Scriptura maintained, in both the Reformed confessions and the early orthodox systems, the logical priority of the discussion of Scripture over the doctrine of God but, because of the Reformation’s radical emphasis on Scripture over against other sources of doctrine, transformed the doctrine of Scripture into a separate locus no longer included in the general theological prolegomena. Similarly, the confessional sola Scriptura maintained the dynamic of drawing conclusions and identifying ends on the basis of revealed truths but transformed the language of a multitude of principia elicited exegetically from Scripture into a language of Scripture broadly understood as principium unicum theologiae, the sole foundation of theology and, hence, the source of the exegetically elicited truths from which theological conclusions and soteriological goals could be drawn. (Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 2.159–60)

  • Matthew Barrett

  • DownloadSummary of God's Word Alone: The Authority of ScriptureFiletype: .pdf

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • DownloadInterview with the Author, Matthew BarrettFiletype: .pdf

    Transcript by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • Audio Summary of God's Word Alone: The Authority of ScriptureRuntime: 26 min

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • Interview with the Author, Matthew BarrettRuntime: 9 min

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

Video Resources
  • H. B. Charles Jr. - Why Sola Scriptura Matters

  • R. C. Sproul - What is Reformed Theology? Scripture Alone

Solus Christus: Christ Alone

It has been said that the difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is the little word “and.” Can we say that we are saved only by what Christ has done? Or must we say that we are saved by Christ and …? The difference that little word “and” makes is massive. The Reformers insisted that Christ alone does the work that saves. And, in fact, this shapes a specific kind of faith and piety, a faith and piety that is focused squarely and solely on the Lord Jesus Christ. Our whole hope is bound up with him—Christ alone. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield reminds us of this in vivid terms:

We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all. This is not true of us only “when we believe.” It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in Christian behavior may be. It is always on His “blood and righteousness” alone that we can rest. There is never anything that we are or have or do that can take His place, or that can take a place along with Him. We are always unworthy, and all that we have or do of good is always of pure grace. Though blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, we are still in ourselves just “miserable sinners”: “miserable sinners” saved by grace to be sure, but “miserable sinners” still, deserving in ourselves nothing but everlasting wrath. That is the attitude which the Reformers took, and that is the attitude which the Protestant world has learned from the Reformers to take, toward the relation of believers to Christ.

There is emphasized in this attitude the believer’s continued sinfulness in fact and in act; and his continued sense of his sinfulness. And this carries with it recognition of the necessity of unbroken penitence throughout life. The Christian is conceived fundamentally in other words as a penitent sinner. But that is not all that is to be said: it is not even the main thing that must be said. It is therefore gravely inadequate to describe the spirit of “miserable sinner Christianity” as “the spirit of continuous but not unhopeful penitence.” It is not merely that it is too negative a description, and that we must at least say, “the spirit of continuous though hopeful penitence.” It is wholly uncomprehending description, and misplaces the emphasis altogether. The spirit of this Christianity is a spirit of penitent indeed, but overmastering exultation. The attitude of the “miserable sinner” is not only not one of despair; it is not even one of depression; and not even one of hesitation or doubt; hope is too weak a word to apply to it. It is an attitude of exultant joy. Only this joy has its ground not in ourselves but in our Savior. We are sinners and we know ourselves to be sinners, lost and helpless in ourselves. But we are saved sinners; and it is our salvation which gives the tone to our life, a tone of joy which swells in exact proportion to the sense we have of our ill-desert; for it is he to whom much is forgiven who loves much, and who, loving, rejoices much. (“Miserable-Sinner Christianity” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 7, pp. 113-114)

  • Stephen Wellum

  • DownloadSummary of Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as SaviorFiletype: .pdf

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • DownloadInterview with the Author, Stephen WellumFiletype: .pdf

    Transcript by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • Interview with the Author, Stephen WellumRuntime: 15 min

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

Video Resources
  • Steven J. Lawson - Solus Christus

  • Tim Keller - Boasting in Nothing Except the Cross

  • Sandy Willson - Apostolic Confrontation: The Exclusive Sufficiency of Christ

Sola Gratia: Grace Alone

Virtually all sides during the Reformation period agreed that God’s grace was necessary for salvation. But just how great was that need? And how is that grace to be received? The Reformers insisted that we are so completely helpless in sin that God must do for us whatever it is he requires of us. From beginning to end salvation hinges on what God does for us. Election, atonement, calling—all this is God at work redeeming and restoring us to himself in grace. Salvation is not something we have in any way earned or achieved: salvation comes to us free gratis. We are saved by grace alone.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 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 savedand raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1–10, ESV)

  • Carl Trueman

  • DownloadSummary of Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of GodFiletype: .pdf

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • DownloadInterview with the Author, Carl R. TruemanFiletype: .pdf

    Transcript by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • Audio Summary of Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of GodRuntime: 24 min

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • Interview with the Author, Carl R. TruemanRuntime: 12 min

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

Video Resources
  • Ligon Duncan - Since We Are Redeemed by Grace Alone, Through Christ Alone, Must We Still Do Good Works?

  • Crawford Loritts - Since We Are Redeemed by Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone, Where Does This Faith Come From?

  • Juan Sanchez - Why Grace Alone Matters

Sermon Audio
  • Sinclair FergusonRuntime: 45 min

    A Sermon on Romans 3:21

Sola Fide: Faith Alone

Again, all sides agreed to the necessity of faith for salvation. But is faith alone sufficient? Do our works contribute anything? Our baptism? Our penance? Just what does God require?

The “material principle” of the Reformation was this principle of “Faith alone,” and it follows from solus Christus and sola gratia. If Christ does the work that saves so that we are saved by grace alone, then human works and merit are excluded: salvation is by faith alone. With every other means of approach to God stripped away, and recognizing our utter inability to contribute anything to our own salvation, we abandon ourselves to Christ, resting in him (alone!) to save us.

Here B.B. Warfield shows the relationship of faith and Christ and salvation:

If, with even greater explicitness still, faith is sometimes said to rest upon some element in the saving work of Christ, as, for example, upon His blood or His righteousness (Rom. 3:25, 2 Pet. 1:1), obviously such a singling out of the very thing in His work on which faith takes hold, in no way derogates from its repose upon Him, and Him only, as the sole and sufficient Saviour.

The saving power of faith resides thus not in itself, but in the Almighty Saviour on whom it rests. It is never on account of its formal nature as a psychic act that faith is conceived in Scripture to be saving,—as if this frame of mind or attitude of heart were itself a virtue with claims on God for reward, or at least especially pleasing to Him (either in its nature or as an act of obedience) and thus predisposing Him to favour, or as if it brought the soul into an attitude of receptivity or of sympathy with God, or opened a channel of communication from Him. It is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ: faith in any other saviour, or in this or that philosophy or human conceit (Col. 2:16, 18, 1 Tim. 4:1), or in any other gospel than that of Jesus Christ and Him as crucified (Gal. 1:8, 9), brings not salvation but a curse. It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith. The saving power resides exclusively, not in the act of faith or the attitude of faith or the nature of faith, but in the object of faith; and in this the whole biblical representation centers, so that we could not more radically misconceive it than by transferring to faith even the smallest fraction of that saving energy which is attributed in the Scriptures solely to Christ Himself. (“Biblical Doctrine of Faith” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 2, p. 503–4)

  • Thomas R. Schreiner

Recommended Book
  • DownloadSummary of Faith Alone: The Doctrine of JustificationFiletype: .pdf

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • DownloadInterview with the Author, Thomas R. SchreinerFiletype: .pdf

    Transcript by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • Audio Summary of Faith Alone: The Doctrine of JustificationRuntime: 28 min

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • Interview with the Author, Thomas R. SchreinerRuntime: 27 min

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

Video Resources
  • R. C. Sproul - Sola Fide

  • Carl Trueman - Faith

  • DownloadWarfield - The Biblical Conception of FaithFiletype: .pdf

Soli Deo Gloria: Glory to God Alone

That all glory belongs to God is a given, and we should expect that God will save only in a way that brings glory to himself. That is what is at stake in the solas. Christ alone saves us, and he does so by grace alone received through faith alone so that God alone receives the glory for it.

Because he is the first principle, therefore he must be the last end. He is first and the last, the Alpha, and therefore the Omega. God is the fountain of our being; and therefore seeing we are of him, we should be to him (Rom. 11). Man is a mere relative being; God is our Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor. Our being is but a borrowed being from him, as rays or beams of the sun are borrowed from the sun: therefore I AM is God’s name. Whatever perfection we have is from him; hence he is called “the only wise, none good but one, that is God:” he gives us continuance of all these things, and it is on his cost that we live. As when the waters come from the sea unto the earth, and go back again unto it by brooks and rivers; so all we receive and enjoy comes from God, and ought to go back again to him, by being used for his glory. Wherefore to make ourselves our chief end, is to make ourselves a god to ourselves; for a creature to be a centre to itself, and that God should be a means to that end, is to blaspheme (John 8:50). (Thomas Boston, Of Man’s Chief End and Happiness)

In the selections below David VanDrunen expounds this theme for us and explains, in fact, how this solasoli Deo gloria—is the “glue” that holds all five together.

  • David VanDrunen

  • DownloadSummary of God's Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and LifeFiletype: .pdf

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • DownloadInterview with the Author, David VandrunenFiletype: .pdf

    Transcript by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • Interview with the Author, David VanDrunenRuntime: 28 min

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

Audio Resources
  • James Adams - Old John Calvin and Soli Deo GloriaRuntime: 42 min

    A Sermon on Jeremiah 9

  • DownloadChuck De Groat - Soli Deo GloriaFiletype: .pdf

    A short article.

Conclusion and Additional Recommendations

This section includes a number of general resources on the solas worth considering for further study and church use.

  • Panel Discussion

  • DownloadInterview with the Authors, Gregg Allison & Christopher A. CastaldoFiletype: .pdf

    Transcript by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

  • Interview with the Authors, Gregg Allison & Christopher A. CastaldoRuntime: 21 min

    by Fred Zaspel (Books at a Glance)

Additional Resources
  • Gregg Allison - Is the Reformation Over?Runtime: 60 min

    A lecture on the commonalities and differences between Roman Catholic theology and Protestant theology 500 years after the Reformation began.

  • Al Mohler - Why the Reformation Matters

  • DownloadMichael A. G. Haykin - The Solas in Church History: Three Case StudiesFiletype: .pdf

    From The Gospel Witness, 84, No.12 (May 2006), 3-5.