Reformation Day 2021

Romans 3:19-28
October 31, 2021


Most of us are familiar with the Latin slogans Sola Sciptura, Sola Fide, and Sola Gratia. They are a handy, if imperfect, mnemonic device for the Biblical doctrine of justification.

The word “sola” means “only” or “alone.” Sola Scriptura is meant to set Holy Scripture above tradition. We do not believe that doctrine is established by Scripture and tradition, but by Scripture alone. Sola Fide is meant to set faith above works. We do not believe that we are saved by faith and works, but that faith alone apprehends Christ and all His benefits as a gift. Sola Gratia is closely related to this. The slogan is meant to set grace above merit. We do not believe that human beings have some intrinsic goodness in themselves that convinces God, along with His grace, to love and save us. Rather we believe that God is moved by His own compassion and grace alone.

To reduce the Reformation to slogans is surely an oversimplification and in danger of abuse, but as it stands these three slogans do confess realities that we believe. We revere tradition, but we place it beneath Scripture. We love good works and recognize that the Holy Spirit creates good works in us for the good of our neighbor, and that there is no such thing as faith without works, in that sense, faith is never alone, but we also know and insist that our good works can’t save us nor do they appease God’s wrath. We are saved by faith alone. We also know that prior to Baptism, there is nothing intrinsically good or worthy in us. We are infected with original and actual sin. We should be God’s enemies. And yet God is moved by compassion and love for us. He looks upon us with favor or grace. That grace is our salvation and it comes from God alone.

Luther and other reformers used these Latin terms, along with others, in their writings from time to time, but they did not use them all together or present them as a summary of their doctrine. As summarizing slogans they were not articulated or systematized until the 20th century. In other words, it was our grandparents or maybe our great grandparents who pulled these out of the Reformers and made them into slogans or battle cries.

And they didn’t all leave it at those three. Many added two more: solus Christus and Soli Deo Gloria. Those are meant to confess that Christ is the sole mediator between God and man, meaning that we don’t need the pope to mediate for us or some priest’s absolution in order to have saving faith, but that Christ alone is our Mediator and Redeemer and that He alone gets all of the glory and none of it belongs to man.

These slogans are certainly Biblical and they are true to Luther’s theology. In fact, all five of these slogans might be found in today’s Epistle reading: Romans 3:19-28.

First we heard: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. ”

This fits with Sola Scriptura. The Law is God’s Word and has the power to not only stop the mouths of men that seek to justify themselves but is the only real authority when it comes to defining what sin and good works are. We honor the traditions taught to us by our fathers, who we expect to be wiser than us, but sin and good works are defined by the Bible. Traditions and ceremonies can also be used to camouflage sins of the heart. That is to say, that it is possible to keep a tradition or ceremony in an outward way but to not fear, love, and trust in God. The Pharisees are prime examples of this. The Law of God speaks in such a way as to shut our mouths, end our excuses, and call us to repentance.

Paul continues: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.”

The Bible doesn’t only reveal the Law. It also reveals the Gospel. Tradition can support the Gospel, but it doesn’t define it. The righteousness of God, by which He declares us who were sinners to be righteous through faith in Jesus Christ, is revealed in the Law and the Prophets, that is the Bible.

This passage also supports Sola Fide. For the righteousness that is bestowed through faith in Jesus is bestowed upon all who believe apart from their works.

The next bit gives us Sola Gratia. “For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

We can see, though, how Sola Gratia and Sola Fide are intimately intertwined. We also find Christus Solus here. Redemption is in Christ Jesus alone. God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus and not in anyone else. We can also see a hint of Soli Deo Gloria. All fall short of the glory of God, but God glorifies Himself in justifying us freely by His grace. He gets all the glory for our salvation and we are excluded from all boasting. Thus Paul continues:

“Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”

Theology is not rightly reduced to slogans. But mnemonic devices that help us summarize and remember our doctrine are useful. In that regard, I am most happy to embrace and commend to you: Sola Sciptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Bookmark the permalink.