(The Five Solas of the Reformation)
by Bob Burridge ©2014
Combining even true pieces of information in a wrong way can change their truth into a deception. At the time of the great Protestant Reformation about 500 years ago, some basic truths had become confused.
One of the great efforts of the Reformation was to reexamine ideas that were commonly accepted. By the 16th Century, truth had become lost in a swamp of church dogmas and mystical beliefs. God’s basic truths were being put together irresponsibly and mixed with errors. That diluted and changed their meanings completely.
By returning to the Bible as God’s word, the Reformers found 5 primary things that had to be separated out to restore the true message of God’s word. These became the slogans of the Reformation: Five Things That Should Stand Alone. The Latin word for “alone” is “sola”, so sometimes we call these the Five Solas. They provided a focus so clear that even the simplest worshiper could learn them.
So far we have looked at the first of the Five Solas, “Scripture Alone” (Sola Scriptura). Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The Bible is the only source we have by which we can know what God says it right and true. Information or ideas from any other source is just guess-work or theory. It should not be treated as being reliably true. It’s this standard for truth, the Inspired Scripture, that clears up how we are saved from the guilt of our sins, and how we ought to live to please God.
The next three Solas show how those who have offended God are redeemed. We are saved from what we deserve only because of God’s grace. The saving faith that grace implants in our otherwise unworthy hearts is the means God uses in us as we lay hold of Christ’s work of redemption. The Apostle Paul summarized this in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
The first of these three “solas” is Grace Alone (Sola Gratia)
It’s grace alone that restores us to fellowship with God. Grace is a very broad and general word. In the New Testament it’s a translation of the Greek word “Charis” (χάρις). It’s used over 170 times in the New Testament.
When it describes how we are made right with God, it is used in a very particular way. Paul made this clear when he described salvation by Grace.
Romans 11:5-6, “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.”
As members of a race fallen in Adam, we justly deserve God’s wrath. The fall into sin corrupted the minds and hearts of all humans descended from Adam. Therefore, no one is able on his own to do anything truly “good”, much less anything that could remove his guilt.
It’s God’s good pleasure alone, nothing else added, that is the cause of blessing and salvation. It’s not our decisions, our deeds, or our determinations that qualify us for spiritual life. It’s neither the Church, nor the Sacraments that bring God’s favor to some and not to others.
The redeemed are chosen in Christ before anything was even created.
Ephesians 1:4-5. “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will”
Believers were chosen by grace alone,
before they had done anything good or evil.
This is the point Paul was making in Romans 9. There he was showing the proud Jews that they were originally no better than the Gentiles. It was God’s grace alone that chose them to be his national people, and to be custodians of his truth.
Abraham had been chosen by grace alone, for nothing in him or that he had done in his life. God chose just one of Abraham’s sons and just one of his grandsons to illustrate that same sovereign choice.
Romans 9:10-12, “And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, ‘The older shall serve the younger.’ “
From all the lost families of the earth God chose the family of Abraham. Then he chose only the seed of Isaac to carry on that promise. But not all of Isaac’s descendants were of the promise either. Of his twin sons, Esau and his descendants were not to be part of the nation of God.
Every Jew knew this. God chose only the line of Jacob, who was called Israel, to be the chosen Nation. Both of his sons had the same father and mother. They were twins. This was to make clear that the choice was based upon God’s sovereign choice alone. Not all in the outward family were chosen to continue the special promise. The one twin was chosen, and the other was not. To further show the sovereign nature of the choice, the younger was chosen not the older. That was against the usual custom and God’s general law of primogeniture.
God does not base his choices upon anything outside of his own eternal purpose. He makes it very clear that the choice was not based upon anything the sons did or would have done themselves. The determination was eternal, before they were even born. It was by Grace Alone.
Remember, Paul is using these obvious choices and rejections of the visible nation to show that a similar election of God takes place in the invisible covenant nation. If God didn’t intend to include all the physical line of Abraham and Isaac in his visible nation, then certainly it’s foolish to imagine that all the visible nation was to be saved eternally. That was never promised in the ancient Covenant of God.
God’s promise to Israel had not failed. The Jews had misunderstood who the true Israel was. Those who rejected Messiah, and who had perverted the temple worship and sacrifices, were not true sons of God by the spiritual promise. They were only outwardly and by appearance the visible nation of God.
God’s promise had exactly succeeded, once that promise was properly understood.
Paul quoted from the Scriptures to show that God’s choice
to love some and not others is by grace alone.
Romans 9:13, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.’ “
Does this mean that God loved the one and hated the other? Yes, that is what it says.
Paul quoted directly from Scripture. Malachi 1:2-3 had said, ” ‘I have loved you,’ says the LORD. ‘Yet you say, “In what way have You loved us?” Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ Says the LORD. ‘Yet Jacob I have loved; But Esau I have hated, And laid waste his mountains and his heritage For the jackals of the wilderness.’ ”
Those who want to believe that God loves everyone have a problem here. They make this saving grace to be something extended to everyone, not just to some. If that’s true, then grace doesn’t stand alone. Something else needs to be added to make it effective in an individual’s life. This assumed idea requires the plain words of this verse to be understood in unnatural ways, otherwise they must admit that salvation is a sovereign work of God’s grace alone. That is something the fallen human heart cannot admit or fully comprehend.
Several theories have been suggested to explain away the plain statements of the Bible.
Some say that “hate here (שׂנא – sanae) must only mean that God loved Esau less than Jacob.” That only brings in more confusion. It’s clearly not what the same words mean in Amos 5:14-15. There it says, “Seek good and not evil, That you may live; So the LORD God of hosts will be with you, As you have spoken. Hate (שׂנא – sanae) evil, love good; Establish justice in the gate. …” Does God want us to love evil less than we love good? That would be absolute nonsense.
If it only means that God loved one less than the other, what would that possibly mean relative to the point being made? If God loves some less than others, then what causes that distinction? The same problem remains.
If God loves every created individual (which is never said in Scripture), what would love mean? Does God love Satan and the fallen angels just a little less than he loves the angels that remained faithful to him? Does he love the pagans just a little less than he loves the redeemed? If love is common to all, then it means nothing special to any.
Besides, If we can also do that to the idea of “hatred” in this verse, how can we make sense of the next part that says that God loved Jacob? Does that mean he only hated Jacob less than he hated Esau? You can’t make God’s hatred to be anything less than what the word hatred means, while at the same time you keep his love as really love. Such a tangled confusion denies the plain meaning of these very simple words. The love behind God’s grace is special and directed to some, not to all. And it is not based upon human merit. It is the good pleasure of God alone that chooses some to be the object of his blessings.
So some have tried another approach. They suggest, “Perhaps hate just means that God slighted him”, or “treated him with an act of hatred“. Does this mean that God slights people he nevertheless loves? Does he treat them with an act of hatred when he doesn’t actually hate them? This solution causes more confusion than it’s imagined to eliminate.
We need to remember that God’s hatred of Esau is nothing more than what we all deserve. Jesus took on the cause of hatred toward certain ones to satisfy the demands of holy justice for them. That was an act of redeeming love that did not fail. It saved all those Jesus came to save. No one the Savior came to redeem is lost. They are redeemed by God’s good pleasure, not by anything God is impressed with in the individuals.
These foolish attempts to re-interpret the meaning of this text fail completely. Such ideas do not fit Paul’s purpose in explaining God’s rejection of national Israel. It was not a breaking of his ancient promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Those denying the obvious meaning of this verse often reference 1 John 4:8. They quote the part that says, “God is love.” The problem is that this verse is not making a complete identity between God and love. It is not saying that the words “God” and “love” are interchangeable concepts. The point is that God defines what love is, not that our idea of love defines God for us. Love is one of the attributes of God, but it is not his only attribute. He is also just, holy, wrathful, and many other things as revealed to us in his word.
We should never use our confused human feelings about love to explain God. Rather God shows us what love is by his redeeming undeserving people by Grace Alone. God is the original. All other true love is derived from him. God’s love promotes his glory and furthers his eternal design. So our love should promote the same. That is John’s point. We who do not love as God loves, have not really known him. (1 John 4:8)
The Bible also makes it clear that God hates the workers of iniquity. Psalm 5:5 says, “The boastful shall not stand in Your sight; You hate (שׂנא – sanae) all workers of iniquity.” Then in John 3:36 John the baptist said, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
Some have tried to save this idea of universal divine love by saying, “Isn’t it God’s love that sends daily provisions for the wicked?” However, that is not what the Bible calls it. When Paul speaks of that in Acts 17 at Athens, he calls it a display of God’s long-suffering, not of his love or grace.
When the wicked receive God’s rain and sunshine, they imagine they deserve these things. This only condemns them more because of their self-centered view of life. Daily care for the world in general is not done out of love for the wicked. It is not an act of Saving Grace. It is to display God’s power, and to provide a livable world for his own children. The world is sustained as the stage upon which he makes himself known both by his undeserved blessings and by his judgments and wrath.
There are some who with great sincerity explain that God loves the sinner but hates his sin. While true toward his redeemed children, it’s way too general a statement. Sin can’t exist without a sinner. To hate some abstract idea of sin when detached from the person doing it does not explain why there are those God says he hates and fits for his wrath. If persons are not personally responsible for their own acts, there is nothing left to hate. It’s true that God loves those he chooses to redeem yet does not like it when they sin, but that is a far more narrow statement. No where in the Bible does it say that God loves all sinners while he hates only their sin.
Part of the problem is that some have a wrong idea of hate. Hatred is not sinful. Biblically, that which is sinful ought to be hated (Amos 5:15). But in us fallen creatures, our hatred of evil is often mixed with evil itself. In God it’s not. We horribly distort God if we see his love as his only or dominant attribute. God is not only love. He is holy, just, and consistent. He judges as well as blesses. If God does not hate he is not the God of Scripture.
In loving Jacob God shows his grace, his unmerited favor toward him. In hating Esau he acts justly toward him. That is what he and all humans, even Jacob, deserve. Even in John 3:16 God’s love for the corrupted world order does not promise to save everyone. In that verse the love of God sends a Savior to redeem only those who believe. And believing is not possible for any aside from the gracious work of God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit applies the atonement of Christ to remove the offense and to reconcile. Without that grace, Jacob would receive the same deserved hatred as would we all. Any godliness or faith seen in the creature is due only to the distinguishing grace of God.
God chose Abraham and his seed from all the fallen race, but not all his descendants were chosen. Only Isaac was chosen. It was by Grace Alone. Not all of Isaac’s seed was chosen either. Only Jacob was chosen. It was by Grace Alone. His brother Esau was rejected and cursed. Even of the 12 tribes of Jacob (Israel) not all were the spiritual seed of promise. Only a remnant will be saved. It’s by Grace Alone.
This becomes evident as Paul continues to develop his point in the remaining verses of this section of Romans. Romans 11:5, “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace.”
Those rejecting Jesus as the Messiah were not of that chosen remnant of Israel. God only intended to redeem the “children of promise”.
In Galatians Paul leaves no doubt about this fact. Galatians 3:29, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Right beliefs and good deeds aren’t the cause of your salvation. They are evidences of it. The cause is God’s grace alone. We owe even our repentance and faith only to that grace. Personal pride has no place in the believer’s heart.
To make your self right with God, eternal and perfect justice demands that the full price of your offense must be paid. If God allowed people into fellowship with him while the guilt remained it would violate his own nature and the principle of Justice. To remove the guilt, Jesus Christ suffered and died in the place of all those given to him by the Father (John 6:37). If you are redeemed, it’s because of that grace alone, not by anything foreseen as superior in you over others.
Grace is that intent and act of God that convinces a person to trust in Christ’s provision. All humans are by their fallen nature unable too understand God’s truth or to trust his promises. If left to themselves to be convinced to repent and believe, none will desire to do so.
1 Corinthians 2:14, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
Salvation is never earned or triggered by man. It is a pure gift, unearned and undeserved. It is ours by grace alone.
If we add other things to grace, then it is no longer grace. It’s not God’s love combined with your good choice or judgment. It’s not your good deeds, or the sacraments of the church that qualify you for heaven. Grace stands alone as the cause of your restored fellowship with God through Christ.
It is personally destructive and eternally dangerous to think we need to add to grace. Nothing you do aside from the work of Christ can pay the infinite debt you owe for your guilt.
Romans 3:10-12 makes it very clear that we cannot, and therefore will not even believe if left on our own.
“As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.’ ”
The lost might want to be saved from hell out of fear, or to find inner peace out of frustration. They might even accept the moral teachings of Jesus as a good standard for living. But they will not confess their total inability, and need for God’s provision for sin in Christ. The shallow person who says he is a believer in Christ might want blessings, and comfort. He might want to be delivered from some disease, or from financial needs. He might even want to attend church for social and personal advantages. But if Christ hasn’t changed his heart, he won’t want to be right with God out of humble gratitude for an undeserved grace that has worked true faith in him.
The inward change by God’s grace regenerates the lost soul and produces saving faith. Until that change is first worked in us, there can be no faith in Christ.
That’s a humbling yet liberating fact of the Bible. God is the one who saves us, not we ourselves. This leaves no place for human boasting, and no room for fears of not measuring up.
You don’t have to be better than most of the other sinners out there in the world. We are all guilty and fully deserving of eternal damnation — except for the gracious work of Christ , and the gracious act of God to apply it to our otherwise unwilling and always unworthy souls. Even our faith is his work too.
As we see other believers who are yet imperfect, we need to remember that our duty is to help them embrace God’s ways, not to judge them or to criticize them.
If it’s all by grace, we are all unworthy sinners mercifully grafted into the family of God. God gets all the glory for all the blessings and promises we enjoy now, or hope ever to receive.
Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.