As complicated as Rome's view of salvation may be, her debate with the Reformer's came down to one word: "alone". Sure, Rome believed that salvation was based upon the work of Christ, but she would not say that salvation was based upon the work of Christ alone. Christ alone, or solus Christus in Latin, may seem like a very small difference; one word! But for the Reformer's, it was all the difference in the world. Upon this one word (alone) the whole gospel depended.
1 John 2:1
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
There were several ways in which the Reformer's rediscovered "Christ alone". First, with the New Testament freshly translated from the Greek (rather than the Latin), the Reformer's stared at the text long enough to realize that when Paul referred to justification, he did not have in mind a process by which one is made inherently righeous by an internal, moral renewal. Justification, rather, is a legal matter. It is God's gracious and judicial declaration that we sinners are no longer guilty but righteous.
Second, this new legal status is not based upon anything in us or anything that we do but is entirely based upon what Christ has done for us. He has not only paid the penalty for our sins in full on the cross, but also lived a life of perfect obedience. Upon faith alone in Christ alone, not only is our sin forgiven in full, but Christ's flawless righeous status is inputed or reckoned to our account. Rome's belief that man needs an infusion of grace is a teaching without biblical foundation. What every guilty sinner needs in not an infusion but an imputation.
Third, when the Reformer's rediscovered this biblical doctrine of justification, everything Rome taught was thrown into question. Sinners do not need to perform works of satisfaction to pay the temporal penalty for their sin; Christ paid that penalty in full on the cross. Sinners do not need to save up their monies to purchase an indulgence to receive the merits of the saints; Christ has obeyed the law on the sinner's behalf and given His perfect righteousness to sinners free of charge. One need not run to the priest for absolution; Christ is our high priest so that "if anyone does sin," he has "an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1) And one need not run to the Mass presuming, said Calvin, "to sacrifice Christ anew!"; Christ's sacrifice is "never to be repeated", for it paid for our sin in full.
And so, the Reformer's boldly concluded, with the threat of execution hanging over their heads, that the ungodly are justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), on the basis of Christ alone (solus Christus).
Is "Christ alone" a sola that we find in the Scriptures? Yes, but to see it, we must, in contrast to Rome, start with a very different picture of man's nature.
There are few doctrines so fundamental to the story line of Scripture as man's pervasive depravity. it frames the entire story line fo the Bible from Adam to Christ, it is central to the good news of a Savior announced at the opening of the Gospel narratives, and yet it is predictably evasive in the hands of modern man. The reason is ironic: we don't think we are really as bad as Scripture says we are. We've convinced ourselves that we have made some "mistakes" here and there but that we surely are not as bad as others we see around us.
In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul addresses this deception, a lie we live and have pursuaded ourselves is true. The reason such logic fails is because we are judging ourselves by the wrong standard. We look out on the world, find someone who has done something worse than us, and feel confident, reassuring ourselves we're not that bad in the end. But that is not how God looks at us. He does not compare us to others, but instead exposes the darkness of our hearts in the full brightness and blinding purity of His holiness. When we are examined according to the perfection of His moral character, what does He find?
as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
- Sola - A 5-Day Devotional - Five Solas of the Reformation
- Sola: How the five Solas are still reforming the Church - https://www.moodypublishers.com/books/current-issues/sola
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.