On this the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a new document, called the Reforming Catholic Confession has been created as a sort of summary of what it means to be a protestant.
The Word “catholic” (small c) means Universal. The catholic Church consists of the visible Church that is the bride of Christ that includes all believers. The Reformation was seen as an attempt to protest the Roman Catholic Church of teachings that were seen as a departure from the catholic Faith once delivered to the saints. It was seen as universal and as a correction.
I would venture to guess that today most protestants don’t know why they are protestant. Most pastors might not even know. In this age of nondenominational Churches, I suspect that most do not care. The document was produced by many different faith traditions and churches, and they were able to agree on a set of fundamental beliefs that are the mere essence of Christianity.
But what is a protestant? I was asked this on a plane and the question is a lot more loaded than it sounds. Quite simply, a Protestant is one who protests against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
What were they protesting? And Why?
The Five Solas of the Reformation
There are five basic ideas behind the reformation. I originally had planned to publish this article back in October, but I was confused about one of the ‘Solas’ (Latin for ‘alone’) so I went to Germany to learn more:
- Sola Scriptura – By the Scriptures Alone: Before the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had restricted access to the Bible. It was written in Latin, read only by the priest, and not available to the common people. John Wycliff, born a century and a half before Luther, noticed some things wrong with what the Roman Catholics were teaching, so he translated the Bible into English, laying the seeds for the reformation. With the Bible in the Language of the People, they could now directly access the Word of God and not have to rely only on the Priest to know what God has said. Sure there wasn’t pocket-sized bibles, but the Romans wanted to keep the Scriptures away from the people as way to ensure their authority over them. Wycliff helped to break that. In modern times you’ll find that a Roman Catholic will defer to Early Church Fathers or Councils or Canons when attempting to justify a doctrine. The Teachings of the Church should be based on the Scriptures alone and not on people’s opinion or of Church Councils or Traditions. They are rooted and grounded in the Scriptures Alone.
- Solus Christus – By Christ Alone: Roman Catholics taught that other people that the Church had declared blessed could intercede to the Father on behalf of people who prayed to them.
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; (1Ti 2:5)
These people who could intercede for others were called “Saints” and status were made for them. The Roman Church even teach that Mary was sinless and that she is the “Queen of Heaven”. Such doctrines can only arise if the Bible isn’t the basis for all teachings. By the Blood of Jesus Christ alone we are made right and declared Just in God’s sight. Atonement can come by none other than Christ. This also means that Christianity alone can bring salvation.
- Sola Fide – By Faith Alone: Many people get tripped up into thinking that there is something that they must do to be saved. Some action to be performed. Luther was a Roman Catholic Monk, and he was performing actions/penance in order to be restored unto God. People would do things like whip themselves, sleep on hard benches with no blankets, lick up other people’s spit, and other acts in order to show that they were truly sorry for their sins. Luther became a monk as an act of penance, to show God how sorrowful he was. The Romish Church taught that confession of the sin before a priest had the power to forgive sins (make one right with God). The Roman Church taught that this power was given to the Church by Christ. As you can imagine, this elevated the Church to have significant influence over people’s lives. The Pope could offer a penance for traveling to a certain town, for example. Luther uncovered that through Christ Alone we have access to the One with Infinite Power through Faith (Trust) in Christ Alone.
“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” -Galatians 5:6 “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” -Romans 3:28 “Having suffered, he will reflect on his work,he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. My servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins.” – Isaiah 53:11
- Sola Gratia – By Grace Alone: God Saves us completely as a result of His Love and Mercy, apart from anything that we can do. Grace is Unconditional Favour.
“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth, glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, saith the Lord.” – Jeremiah 9:23, 24
You cannot boast. There is nothing inside of you that can say “Yeah I…”. It is God who initiates the process of Salvation. There is no natural ability for anyone to choose God, that desire that impetus is given to all people by God. This Prevenient Grace is given by God to anyone before any choice is made. God’s grace alone does that and nothing that humans can do or have done can do that.
“He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” –Titus 3:5-7 NIV
- Soli Deo Gloria-To God Alone be the Glory: This sola really stumped me and was something I had to travel to Germany in order to get this question answered. Turns out that this was not really a big deal in the Protest. This phrase was used by artists like Handel and Bach to signify that the work was made for the praise and glory of God alone. God, who is the creator and giver of all that we have is the one who gets all of the credit. It made its way as the fifth point in the summation. In one way it could be seen that people were glorifying man in their ability to achieve their own salvation. Glory was being given to the Roman Church, which used the sale of Indulgences to build St. Peter’s Basilica.
These phrases were used to describe the ideas of the Reformation. They developed over time and do intersect and overlap one another. This article was difficult to write because I could write an entire article for every one of the Solas. To summarize, the very point of the Protestant Reformation is that we are Made right in God’s sight by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, apart from Works, on the account of Christ Alone; according to the Holy Scriptures alone, All to the Glory and the Honor of God Alone!