Have you ever noticed that our society celebrates everything? In September alone, we celebrated "Random Acts of Poetry Day" (September 6), "Video Games Day" (September 12), "White Chocolate Day" (September 22), "Punctuation Day" (September 24), and every parent's favorite—"Quiet Day" (September 12). Somehow my kids missed that last one.
But October 31–what many people celebrate as Halloween–should be remembered by Protestant Christians as the day we celebrate a huge moment–when a monumental change occurred in the Church.
We call it "Reformation Day"–because on that day, 503 years ago, a German monk, pastor, and seminary professor named Martin Luther published 95 complaints against the Catholic Church practice of selling reductions to the penalty of sin (called indulgences). In a sense, Luther had the boldness to share what the Church should and shouldn't be.
What Was Wrong
Imagine coming to church, but you don't learn to lean on the Bible and base your life accordingly. Instead, you had to rely on tradition and opinion and simply follow all the rules someone made up.
Imagine coming to church and never hearing the Gospel preached. Ever.
Imagine coming to church and being able to buy forgiveness. Literally.
Imagine coming to church where getting kicked out meant that you were going to hell. There was no salvation at that point—just the expectation of condemnation.
Imagine coming to church where the leader was also a political ruler who was incredibly corrupt–so that all the church was doing was done to facilitate its main purpose, to generate money, and was wicked to the core.
Such was the Catholic Church's health when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.
Martin Luther wasn't the only one who felt appalled by the condition of the Church. Many others were concerned with where the Church had gone, desiring to come back to a place that honored God and return to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Five Big Ideas
The Reformers believed differently than the Catholic Church. They distilled their core beliefs into what we call the "Five Solas."
Imagine being asked to sum up your identity in five words. It sounds relatively easy–but try doing it. What if you had to distill your LinkedIn profile down to merely five identity descriptors—what words would you eliminate? How would you adjust your Instagram or Facebook profile, your Match or eHarmony profile (no, I'm not judging), or your Tinder profile? (Ok, now I'm judging ; ) What five words would best characterize you? Imagine having to do that same exercise, but not summing up yourself: imaging summing up all of orthodox Christianity using only five identity words. That's precisely what the Reformers did when they sought to distinguish themselves from Catholicism.
What are the foundations of the Gospel? What would be the pillars that uphold it?
The Reformers wrestled with this question, in large part, because at the time, the Church was broken. Whatever your thoughts are about it, the Catholic Church was a mess at best, or absolute apostasy and a brainchild of Lucifer at worst. The Catholic Church had departed from the foundations of the faith, believing many things outside the scope of Scripture. They held Church tradition on par with the Bible. They taught that other mediators could forgive sin. They had a different take on how one is justified–made right–with God. The church itself was the dispenser of divine favor–so if you found yourself politically outside of the church for any reason, you were excluded from the divine favor of God.
Enter the Reformers
The Reformers wanted to get back to the basics: back to the pillars of the faith. Thus, we have their Five Solas of the Reformation. "Sola," of course, means "only." The idea is that we need these alone for the basics, the pillars, the foundation, of the Gospel.
Christ | Scriptures | Grace | Faith | Glory of God
The message of the Protestant Reformation was that our faith is in Christ alone, revealed through the Scriptures alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone.
Think about these statements for a moment.
Christ: the only mediator. Scriptures: the only message. Grace: the only means. Faith: the only method. The glory of God: the greatest meaning.
Let's consider the Five Solas for a moment:
Christ Alone: Jesus is the only mediator. Because Jesus is the sole meditator between God and man, salvation is possible only by His atoning death and triumphant resurrection. Jesus Christ is not only necessary for salvation but sufficient to save to the uttermost. That means that no amount of human works or merit can contribute to Christ’s finished priestly work. The all-sufficiency of Christ means, by implication, that we are insufficient of ourselves. We can do nothing to save ourselves.
Scripture Alone: The Bible is the only message (or foundation). The Bible alone is the highest authority for governing issues of life and doctrine. We don't just listen to church tradition or the priest's opinions. Sola Scriptura doesn't mean the Bible is our ONLY authority--but it is the highest. Though there are many authorities in our lives, who or what has the greatest authority? Is it Scripture or our experiences? Do we submit the Bible to our business principles, or vice-versa? If the Bible contradicts something we believe, do we abandon the erring belief, or do we neglect the Word of God?
Grace Alone: Grace is the only method. There isn't a special act or condition that man does to be saved–it is a sovereign act of God on behalf of sinners. It isn't a birthright, but the grace of God. Grace was spoken about by Paul more than any other biblical writer, about 100x. We can’t understand the essence of Christianity apart from a proper understanding of the grace of God. Pastors who preach sermons from Scripture yet do not understand the grace of God are like pilots who don’t understand the essence of flying. That means they are putting all of the passengers at risk.
Faith alone: Faith is the only means. It isn't by works that we are saved, or through church attendance, but by faith in Jesus. So the good news of the Gospel is that we do not have to wait for righteousness to be accomplished in us before God counts us righteous before Him. No, God declares us to be justified solely based on Christ’s imputed righteousness.
The glory of God alone: The glory of God is the greatest meaning, the greatest ambition in creation. The reason we exist is to give glory to God. All glory and honor are due to God alone. We don't give glory to a man, a church, a denomination, a pope, etc. We give glory to God, and everything we do is for Him. The focus--or you could say the win--is that God receives all preference, honor, worship, and adoration in and through our lives.
On October 31, every year, as children are (usually) dressing up in costumes, the Protestant church is praising God for the boldness of Luther and others, for the return to the Gospel and the importance of building our lives and doctrine from the Holy Scriptures. Every year we can celebrate by thanking God for the work of His Holy Spirit in reforming the church to honor Him and to share this message of reconciliation with a lost and needy world.
The Five Solas and Today
We who have been born-again are a part of a great tradition, but the Reformation work isn't finished. We live in a time when the Church of today is falling into apostasy and compromise. The Church didn't conquer Rome in the first millennia: Rome conquered the Church. And today, it may not be Rome that seeks to corrupt the Church. The philosophy of this age: secular humanism and postmodern thought, coupled with a feel-good message that appeals to the senses and is soft on doctrine, is working to conquer the Church of our generation.
Scripture alone is no longer sufficient for man. Many are turning to pragmatism and human wisdom for insight. Many modern sermons emphasize a "do better, try harder" moralism rather than the glorious Gospel of Christ's finished work--and that by His grace through faith, we are saved. We glory in our accomplishments, our attendance, our budgets, our campuses, and our social media influence--rather than delighting in Christ alone for the glory of God.
And yet, with every generation since the incarnation of Christ, it has taken bold men and women of the faith to stand up and be willing to speak the truth even when there is great opposition. For centuries, people were silent as the Church drifted further and further from God's design, and it took someone like Luther (and others) to stand up and stop it.
May we celebrate the Reformation by being absolutely sold out for the Gospel–being willing to die proclaiming the truth about Christ!
May we be willing to offer our lives to the Lord and worship Him above ourselves or others!
May we have the boldness of Luther to stand up among the people of this generation and speak the truth, living our lives for God's glory alone, resting in the grace of God, trusting Christ, building our doctrine and life upon the unchangeable Word of God, until we see Him face to face!
"I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen." -Martin Luther