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The Foundation of Reformation Theology


The history of the Medieval Church demonstrates that if God’s people are not faithful to preserve the Gospel, it can be lost and replaced with a distorted version of the Gospel that focuses upon what we as sinners can do to save ourselves, rather than what God does to save us. Therefore when we read the following statments of the Reformers, we are not merely examining the beliefs of influential men of a bygone era; we are also reading about declarations of truth to which we must passionately commit ourselves. They represent the heart of the Gospel, that God in His Son Jesus Christ, committed to the apostles and the Church

I. Soli Deo Gloria: (To God Alone be the Glory)

The original historical context which led to this declaration was the Roman Catholic teaching that salvation is synergistic; meaning it results both from what God does and what the person does in response. Although Roman Catholic theologians would suggest that they were taking nothing away from the glory of God; that is simply not true. To understand the point that is being made here, it is important to understand what the word “glory” actually means. It can refer to something bright and magnificent, or it can refer to the acknowledgement by others that someone or something is truly magnificent. It is in this latter sense that the word is used in regard to how we are to respond to God. It means we are to recognize that all the credit, all the accolades, and all the praise for the good things that happen belongs to God and no other. God made this point emphatically through the prophet Isaiah:

  • “I am the LORD, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor My praise to carved images.” (Isaiah 42:8)
  • Yahweh expressed that He will not share the glory or praise that is appropriately His with anyone else; and in this passage He specifically cites idols. In ancient Israel they tended to believe that the other gods that the people worshipped actually existed and should be given credit at times for providing rain, fertility, or protection from enemies. However, God wanted His people to understand that those things were entirely His doing. In the conflict with the Church of Rome, the Reformers understood that the church, its leadership, and worshippers themselves were putting themselves in the same place the Israelites had put the idols. The church, its leaders, and the people were involved in saving their lives from eternal destruction. But that is simply untrue, and Paul asserted this in his argument about the nature of the Gospel:

  • “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”
  • (Romans 4:2)

    Paul’s point was that if in fact Abraham had anything to do with saving himself, then he would have something to boast about (claim responsibility for). But Paul immediately explains that the Scriptures argue against this idea. In fact Paul had denied this idea in even stronger language in one of his earlier letters:

  • “that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God — and righteousness and sanctification and redemption — that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’” (I Corinthians 1:29-31)
  • Believers are admonished to live in such a way that rules out giving glory to anyone but God:

  • “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
  • (I Corinthians 10:31)

    In context Paul wrote this in regard to the strife that existed between believers who had different standards about debatable things. However, there is an overarching principle that is applicable to this reformed declaration. If everything we do is to be done in such a way that it brings glory to God (focuses praise and adulation on God and no one else) then clearly there is no time or effort left over for gaining glory for oneself or other people.

    The simple idea is that salvation is accomplished solely by God, and attributing even the smallest degree of the recognition of God’s great work to anyone else is profoundly evil and absolutely false:

  • “Salvation is of the LORD.” (Jonah 2:9)
  • The Temptation believers always face is the tendency to magnify ourselves or other people and attribute to them what only God can do. The Scriptures teach unequivocally that God alone saves His people. He may work through us, but it is still God who accomplishes the miracle of providing new life and a new nature in Christ.

    II. Sola Scriptura: (Scripture Alone)

    The historical context of this declaration was the Roman Catholic teaching that church leaders and tradition had equal authority to Scripture in regard to establishing orthodox belief and the ethical principles that were binding upon the conscience of believers. However, there is nothing in the New Testament to substantiate that claim. Instead, we read how the Apostles exhort, plead, encourage, and admonish other believers, but never tell others what must be done on the basis of their own personal authority to make such pronouncements. Instead, believers are told over and over that it is the Holy Scriptures that are the source of what is true:

  • “But He answered and said, ‘It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'’”
  • (Matthew 4:4)

  • “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’”
  • (John 8:31-32)

  • “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.”
  • (John 17:17)

  • “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15)
  • “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.”
  • (II Timothy 3:16-17)

    The believer is only admonished to submit themselves entirely to obedience to God’s Word:

  • “If you love Me, keep My commandments.”
  • (John 14:15)

    It has been argued that believers are also commanded to obey their spiritual leaders, and that this implies that they are to render to them the same obedience that is to be rendered to Scripture:

  • “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
  • It is true that we are exhorted to obey the leaders that God sets over us, both civil and religious. However, the Reformation Principle is that only the authority of Scripture is absolute. Therefore where the teachings or commandments of people is in conflict with what the Bible teaches, the believer is to recognize that the Scriptures, as God’s Word, is the only absolute authority in his/her life and must be obeyed even if doing so requires us to disobey human authorities:

  • “Then the captain went with the officers and brought them without violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned. And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!’ But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: We ought to obey God rather than men.’” (Acts 5:26-29)
  • The Temptation that Christians will always face is to base our lives either on our own ideas or those of people we admire or who attempt in one way or another to control us. Only Scripture contains absolute truth without error, and it is the only source of information without a human agenda. If we wish to know, practice, and propagate the true Gospel; we must find it in the Scriptures alone.

    III. Solus Christus: (By Christ Alone)

    The context of this declaration was the Roman Catholic teaching that the work of Christ only makes salvation possible. To actually be saved one must add one’s own virtue to Christ’s work.

    This suggestion flatly contradicts what the New Testament teaches; because throughout its pages there is emphasis on the fact that the work of Christ completely pays for one’s sins, and imputes God’s own righteousness to the believing sinner:

  • “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (II Corinthians 5:20-21)
  • “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.” (Hebrews 7:25-28)
  • “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.”
  • (Hebrews 9:12)

  • “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all…For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.”
  • (Hebrews 10:10, 14)

  • “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed.” (I Peter 2:24)
  • Believers are admonished that the way of salvation is exclusively through Jesus Christ, and nothing is suggested that we somehow contribute to providing access for ourselves to God;

  • “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.’” (John 14:6)
  • In Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, He explains that this way of life is a narrow path that leads to eternal life rather than destruction (Matt.7:13-14). Jesus then adds that the characteristic that identifies one as being on the path of life is that they are known by Christ (i.e. have an ongoing relationship with Him-Matt.7:23; Jn.17:3).

    The Temptation in any age is to be persuaded to believe that something other than Christ contributes to a person’s salvation. Be it their superior morality, their supposed innocence, or the sincerity with which they embrace the falsehoods of another religion. The Reformers declared to the Roman Catholic Church of their day that salvation is only through Christ. If we wish to preach the same Gospel that Jesus preached then we will do the same to those around us.

    IV. Sola Gratia: (Grace Alone)

    The Context of this declaration was the Roman Catholic teaching that salvation is by grace and human merit. But as with the other assertions of the Roman Catholic Church, this one also contradicts the teaching of the New Testament. Paul in particular stresses that salvation is only provided by the grace of God, apart from human merit:

  • “But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)
  • “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”
  • (Romans 3:24)

  • “But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man's offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. For if by the one man's offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)” (Romans 5:15-17)
  • “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.” (Romans 11:5-6)
  • “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Galatians 2:21)
  • “to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:6-7)
  • “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.”
  • (Ephesians 2:8-10)

  • “who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”
  • (II Timothy 1:9-10)

    Believers are admonished to deal with their brothers and sisters in Christ, in the same way that God has dealt with them. The orientation is to relate to others in grace, not relate to others according to what they merit:

  • “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”
  • (Ephesians 4:29-32)

    The Temptation believers will always face is to think God merely gives us a little help at the start to be a better self, and then we complete the process by our own good nature. But this is a false idea. The Scripture teach that human nature is wickedly depraved and lost in deception (Jer.17:9; Rom.3:10-18). If our relationship with God is in any way dependent upon our meriting His love; we could only anticipate eternal judgment.

    V. Sola Fide: (Faith Alone)

    The Context of this last declaration was the Roman Catholic teaching that faith only saves when it is combined with obedience. The Reformers did not teach that good works had no place in salvation; the distinction from the Roman Catholic teaching was more nuanced than that. Both sides would agree that choosing to be righteous through obedience to God’s Word is part of the salvation process. The difference is that the Roman Catholic Church taught that good works along with faith resulted in salvation; while the Reformers taught that faith alone saves, but that saving faith will inevitably result in good works and life change. So the Reformers did not agree with Rome that good works is part of the way that one gains salvation; instead they taught that works were a fruit of the change of heart that results from salvation.

    First, they demonstrated that the New Testament taught that the sinner is justified by faith alone, apart from works:

  • “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)
  • “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. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”
  • (Romans 3:21-23)

  • “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”
  • (Romans 3:28)

  • “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.’”
  • (Romans 4:5-8)

  • “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1)
  • “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
  • “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9)
  • The practical exhortation in the New Testament is simply to believe:

  • “So they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31)
  • This would be woefully inadequate if one was also responsible to do good works to be saved.

    The Reformers then explained how the teaching of James could be reconciled with that of Paul:

  • “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled’, but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (
  • James 2:14-17)
  • Throughout James’ letter he was not writing about how to be saved, but about the evidence of salvation; whether or not one’s faith and thus their conversion was genuine. Therefore James is not referring to faith period, but to particular claims of faith. Later in this passage James refers to one person who has faith and works and the other who has faith but no works. The contrast is not between believing and not believing, it is about how to evaluate a faith that produces no works (after all in verse 18 James speaks about demonstrating one’s faith through works). James’ point is that a faith that does not result in life change is not saving faith. In essence it isn’t real faith at all, it is simply an outward profession. As James finishes his argument he cites the life of Abraham and Rahab. James says they were justified by their works (an idea expressed like this nowhere else in the NT). His point is clearer from verse 23 where he writes that the act of Abraham fulfilled the pronouncement of his justification by faith. The point is that true faith will eventually result in life change; one that does not isn’t real faith. It is what reveals to others that our faith is real; because only God can see our hearts.

    The temptation that believers will always face is either the pull toward legalism to mark ourselves as particularly committed, or to give into license believing that grace means we need not worry about being holy.


    History teaches us that the truth of the Gospel can be lost. Let us take this time to re-dedicate ourselves to these essential truths of God’s revelation to us in Christ.

    In the Bonds of Christ,

    Pastor Michael Huard

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