At our church we have a questionnaire that anyone who desires to be an elder has to fill out. One of the questions is, “What are the five solas of the Reformation and would you be willing to be burned alive at the stake for holding these?” We strongly believe these rallying cries of the Reformation are still just as needed today as they were 500 years ago.
Before returning to Germany and facing his eventual martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis, theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived for a time in the United States. His assessment of the religious scene here was “Protestantism without Reformation.” This critique still largely holds true. We may not be Roman Catholic, but might some of the same problems that precipitated the Reformation in 16th century Europe be present in 21st century evangelicalism? I am afraid so.
The five solas provide a helpful grid for assessing the American church’s current spiritual climate and guide us in how to pray and work for revival.
Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)
I think there are many churches who say on paper that they believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, sufficient Word of God. But in practice, you cannot tell. Scripture does not saturate their worship services. The sermon is cut short and full of stories and tips instead of exposition and proclamation of the whole counsel of God. The Word is not trusted to grow the church, but rather we look to and lean on techniques and tricks. Science is respected over Scripture, psychology prized over theology, experience trusted over exegesis. And many church-goers today are as biblically illiterate as they were in the Middle Ages.
Sola Fide (faith alone)
If we gave Southern Baptist church-goers a test with this true or false question—“People get into heaven by doing good”—I imagine a majority would know enough to say FALSE. But that doesn’t mean they could pass an essay question on what justification by faith entails.
We may have simply lowered the bar or tried to lighten the law, but we still are preaching a form of works-righteousness when we major on what people need to do…to end sex-trafficking, get out of debt, have healthy families…instead of what Christ has done to free us from sin, forgive us our debts, and adopt us into his family. The truth is that you actually have to be perfect to get into heaven, and thus our only hope is having Jesus’ perfect record given to us as a gift, received by faith.
Sola Gratia (grace alone)
We like grace—when it is seen as an assist for our slam dunk. The polls are heart-rending that show the number of Christians who think that the quote “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Do we really believe our salvation is wholly of grace? If so, we could never allow our Christianity to be a badge of pride that makes us feel superior to or live in fear of the big, bad world.
Solus Christus (Christ alone)
We may say that we believe Jesus is the only way to God, but do our actions back that up? We live in a highly pluralistic society. Do we really believe that the nice Hindu family living down the street is destined for hell apart from faith in Christ? Do we believe it enough to lovingly and sacrificially share with them the gospel of what Christ has uniquely done?
Our lack of evangelism betrays our lack of belief in the exclusivity of Christ. Furthermore, so much of our faith talk is vague spirituality that does not really need the virgin birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, and imminent return of the historical God-man Jesus Christ. We spout meaningless Oprah-esque mumbo-jumbo and it is no wonder that our kids start to think Christianity is not that distinct from the other religions and philosophies of their friends.
Soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone)
Ministry can so easily become about our name or brand. We like to take the credit for our successes. Plus, there is a pervasive man-centeredness in our culture which has seeped into our churches. We are not in awe of God, but obsessed with our felt needs. Therefore, we fundamentally view God as there to serve us instead of the other way around. We have not been struck by the utter weightiness of the triune God, but are pathetically shallow and flit easily from this fad to that fad.
In our consumeristic context where everyone is bombarded with endless options all the time, the solas can at first seem like a straightjacket. But they truly represent our only hope. We are in desperate need of a fresh vision of God’s glory, in the face of Jesus Christ, as a result of his grace, perceived by faith, in the pages of the Bible.
Nathan Carter is pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago.