Christian Basics: What Are the Five “Alones” and Why Do You Need to Know Them?
You may have seen the phrases on t-shirts and tattoos, heard pastors mention them when preaching, or come across them in your readings: the five “alones” (or most commonly “the five solas” in Latin) of Protestant Christianity: “Scripture alone” (Latin: Sola Scriptura), “grace alone” (Sola Gratia), “Christ alone” (Solus Christus), “faith alone” (Sola Fide), and “to the glory of God alone” (Soli Deo Gloria).
If you haven’t heard of them yet, this introduction to the five “alones” will give you the opportunity to discover truths that will make your heart sing with joy, because they are some of the most important foundational beliefs in all of Christianity. These five phrases are distinguishing marks of the Protestant Reformation, setting all Protestants apart from the Roman Catholic Church. How did these five basic Christian beliefs originate, and what do they mean?
Background of the Five "Alones"
By the 1500s, the church in Rome had reached a tremendous level of corruption, having departed in many ways from both the Bible and teachings of earlier Christians. Rome elevated the Pope, bishops, and a long line of “saints” and created a system without any true hope for sinners. People were wrongly led to depend upon the merits of the "saints” and an unspecified number of their own works to earn them a place in eternity with God.
The Protestant Reformation was a movement led by pastor-teachers (including Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin) who were remarkably gifted, highly educated, and well-read in the writings of the early church. They realized that Rome had been adding and altering important beliefs as recently as fifty years before the Reformation, and that these changes were departures from earlier Christianity. Using the five "alones," the Protestant leaders led the people back to the Bible and restored and reformed the Christian church. What do these five phrases mean, and what makes them rank among the most important basic truths that all Christians should know?
1. Scripture Alone: Scripture alone is the sole authority in the life and doctrine of the church.
Protestants believe that the Holy Spirit moved men of God to write down the very words of God in the Holy Scriptures, giving us the Bible as the only infallible source of knowledge about God, salvation, and how to live. While the early Protestants diligently studied church history, tradition, and the creeds, they knew these important aids were imperfect and were never meant to be elevated above the authority of Scripture. Protestants reject any view that elevates the church or tradition over the Bible (Deut. 31-32; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
What it means for us today and tomorrow: “Scripture alone” does not mean that Christians are to rely upon their Bibles alone—this is a serious but common misunderstanding today. We ought to humbly value the imperfect work of well-studied pastors and teachers, church history, tradition, and the creeds and confessions (e.g., Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Westminster Confession of Faith, Canons of Dort)—resources that aid biblical interpretation and guard important truths. While respecting these other aids, “Scripture alone” means we can trust the Bible fully and completely as the only infallible authority and source of truth, because it is the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; WCF 1.4; Second Helvetic Confession 1.3 and 2.2.1-5).
Although we may have difficulty understanding some parts of the Bible and may struggle with many diverse interpretations, we can trust that the fault lies with our understanding and not God’s trustworthy Word. When we humbly and diligently pray for understanding and discernment; diligently study the Scriptures, church history, creeds and confessions, and the interpretations offered by others; and research the pros and cons of these various interpretations carefully, we will usually discover one interpretation stands above the others. We can rest easy in dependence upon God and his perfect Word as our ultimate source of authority and truth.
2. Grace Alone: Because of God’s grace alone we are forgiven and declared righteous.
Protestants believe that all humans are born with sinful natures and are enemies of God due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden of Eden. No one deserves a place in heaven or to be forgiven of their sins. “Grace alone” tells us that the reason Christians are reconciled with God in Christ alone is because of God’s grace alone. Our human wills, sin-stained works, and the works of “the saints” contribute nothing toward our being justified. We are forgiven and declared righteous because of Christ’s work, not anything of our own doing (Deut. 7:6-8; 9:1-6; Eph. 2:1-10; Westminster Larger Catechism 66).
What it means for us today and tomorrow: Those who have suffered the most under the torments of depraved humans such as mass murderers Stalin and Hitler especially know that evil people must be punished—not set free—in order that justice may be served. While humans tend to demand justice for the really bad sins and overlook the minor sins, there are no minor sins before a perfectly holy and just God. Even the smallest sin is the ultimate slap in the face of God and deserving of eternal punishment. Remember, it was not murder but Adam and Eve’s act of rebellion in eating the forbidden fruit that brought sin upon the entire human race (Rom. 5:12).
The Bible tells us, “There is none good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). We commit sin all day long, every single day we live. Since we don’t deserve heaven with God, let us especially express our gratitude to God for his gift of eternal life because our salvation came by God’s grace only—not our wills, our works, or the works of some “saint.” Let us never lose sight of this expression of God’s love—the grace of God shows us his mercy in keeping us from foolishly running headlong straight into eternal fire.
3. Christ Alone: We are pardoned and made righteous by the merits of Jesus Christ alone.
Protestants believe that because of our sins, rebellion, and hatred of God, we owe an immeasurable debt of obedience to God that we can never pay. The only way for us to be reconciled to God was for our debt to be paid by the atoning sacrifice of the one and only mediator between God and man—Christ alone—the sinless Lamb of God. Jesus paid our debt, satisfied the justice of God, and merited eternal life for us. Protestants reject the claims that the righteousness of Mary and the “saints” contribute to our forgiveness or that there is any other mediator besides Christ only (Isa. 53:1-12; 1 John 2:1-2; Second Helvetic Confession 5, 11, 23; Belgic Confession 26).
What it means for us today and tomorrow: Some may wonder why Christ had to suffer and die in order to pay the penalty for our sins—why couldn’t God simply forgive us? Since God is righteous and holy, our sins must be punished to uphold God’s justice. In order to pay this immeasurable penalty for us, the Son of God was born in the flesh (the incarnate Christ: fully God and fully man), lived a sinless life on earth, and suffered and died to atone (pay) for our sins. Christ freed us from the guilt of sin by justifying us and removing our guilt. At that moment, he also freed us from slavery to sin, enabling us through sanctification to live godly and selfless lives for him and his people. Let us remember to be thankful for the great payment of Christ only; his sinless life and atoning death for us.
4. Faith alone: Faith alone (in Jesus Christ) is the instrument through which we are justified.
Protestants believe that we are “justified” (pardoned and declared righteous) through God’s gift of faith alone in Jesus Christ. This saving faith consists of a firm and sure knowledge of God’s favor toward us, affirmation (or agreement), and trust (or dependence) which embraces Jesus Christ alone. Saving faith receives and rests on Jesus Christ and his perfect righteousness and atoning sacrifice alone. Protestants reject any view that claims “justification by faith” while also crediting human works for helping to pay for our sins. We also reject any view that attempts to redefine saving faith to include good deeds, works of holiness, or ongoing submission which are all fruits of the Christian life from the moment believers are born again until we die (Ps. 32:1-11; Rom. 3:21-26; WCF 11.2; Heidelberg Catechism 60; Second Helvetic Confession 15).
What it means for us today and tomorrow: We may sometimes hear that “faith” is simply believing or trusting. Humans have faith that when we board an airplane, it will not fall out of the sky in mid-flight. This is not saving faith. Saving faith is not simply a mental decision of the will—a human work we do in order to save ourselves. Saving faith is a gift God gives to us by regenerating us and making us alive in Christ (Eph. 2:4-9). Through this gift of faith, we assent and trust in the truth of the Gospel and receive and rest on Christ and his righteousness alone for our justification. We will bear fruit, because we are branches receiving life from Christ our true Vine.
5. To the Glory of God Alone: Our salvation and our lives are ultimately for the glory of God alone.
Protestants believe that we owe our salvation completely and entirely to God alone. God deserves all of our gratitude not just for saving us but also for creating us and the whole universe. We reject the view that believers owe gratitude and glory to Mary, “the saints,” or our own efforts for our salvation (Ps. 19:1-2; Isa. 48:11; Rom. 11:33-36; 2nd Helvetic Confession 6.1; WLC 18; Canons of Dort 1.18).
What it means for us today and tomorrow: What does it mean to say we were created and saved for God’s glory? It means God deserves praise, honor, and worship from all his creation and creatures (WCF 2.2). God didn’t set a world into motion, not knowing how things would turn out. God logically had a purpose in creating the world. All things were made and ordained for God’s ultimate glory.
Consider the beauty and value of a world where the highest and ultimate love is displayed—where you can see and appreciate good in contrast to evil; great love in contrast to intense hate; life in contrast to death; and in the end, the great selfless sacrifice of the Son of God for those who hated him. Imagine at the end of it all, the praise you will express and the immense love you will have for your Creator and Savior. These are all acts that should prompt humans and angels to praise, admire, and worship God, for he is the one who created you, loved you despite your sinfulness and wickedness, and made the ultimate sacrifice to spend an incomprehensibly joyous and beautiful eternity with you.
The Protestant Reformation was a recovery of the Christian faith and the throwing off of Rome’s additions and changes. These five basic points are at the heart of the Christian faith and are essential to leading a beautiful Christian life and increasing our faith, hope, and joy. I want to encourage you to familiarize yourself with these five basic points of Christianity by studying and committing to memory the following sentence:
Scripture alone is infallible, and this highest authority teaches that we are saved because of God’s grace alone (not because we are deserving); on the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone (not our works or the works of other saints); through the means or instrument of faith alone (not faith and works); and all things (including our salvation and Christian lives) are for and the glory of God alone.
Recommended for Further Reading:
Terry L. Johnson, Case for Traditional Protestantism: The Solas of the Reformation
Michael Reeves and Tim Chester, Why the Reformation Still Matters
The Five Solas Series
Matthew Barrett, God's Word Alone—The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters (The Five Solas Series)
Carl R. Trueman, Grace Alone—Salvation as a Gift of God: What the Reformers Taughts...and Why It Still Matters (The Five Solas Series)
Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone—The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters (The Five Solas Series)
Thomas R. Schreiner, Faith Alone—The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters (The Five Solas Series)
David VanDrunen, God's Glory Alone—The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters (The Five Solas Series)
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