Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Look at the picture of Luther’s seal on the cover of your bulletin. You’ll see three Latin phrases: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fide. Ironic, isn’t it? A movement that resulted in the liturgy and the Bible in our own language rather than Latin is remembered by Latin phrases.

The Reformation rested upon three fundamental principles:

  1. Our salvation is entirely a gift of grace from God and not our own doing.
  2. We receive that grace through faith and not by any works we might do.
  3. The sole norm and rule of all doctrine is the Holy Scriptures.

Although the word sola means “alone,” the three solas that follow are never alone! They are interconnected and woven together. By grace alone, through faith alone, in Scripture alone. To these solas, many writers have added another: Solus Christus, “through Christ alone.”

Many assume that the Reformation was about indulgences, the authority of the pope, or Martin Luther. But really, the Reformation was all about Jesus. Specifically, the Reformation was about Jesus Christ’s death on the cross as our only source of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Luther said, “The cross alone is our theology” (WA 5.176.32-3). 

Salvation through Jesus Christ alone is the heart of the Reformation. All the practices and doctrines that Luther and the Reformers wanted to reform were problematic because they got Jesus wrong. They either added to or took away from His work and replaced Jesus’ works (Gospel) with human works (law).

In many cases, people were told that they had to do something in addition to what Jesus had done for them. Whether it was an outward act, such as indulgences, fasting, or pilgrimages, or an inward disposition, like repentance, love, or devotion, people were told that the works of Jesus were not enough, that they had to cooperate with Jesus and do their part to be saved. Sometimes these acts and dispositions were good in themselves, but the problem was requiring them as something that needed to be added to what Jesus has already done.

In other cases, the Lutheran Reformers fought to keep others from taking away from what Jesus is still doing in His Word and Sacraments. Some of the more radical reformers taught that Jesus’ body and blood aren’t given or received in the Lord’s Supper, or that Jesus doesn’t really save through Holy Baptism. They taught that the Sacraments are about obeying Jesus’ command rather than receiving Jesus’ gifts. Luther insisted that these Sacraments are Christ’s work alone in giving forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Understanding our salvation as the work of Christ alone helps us to get the other three solas right. Let’s talk about them now.

First, Sola Gratia. We are saved by grace alone, but this grace that we receive comes to us through Jesus Christ. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). We receive grace and blessing from the Father only because of Jesus’ death on the cross in our place.

Grace is God’s undeserved favor toward sinners. Grace is God’s loving disposition toward those who have gone astray and are “dead” in sin and “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1,3). Grace, then, is something in God, not of man. However, God does not declare us righteous and free from guilt in a vacuum, as if He just ignores our sin. No, we have a great debt we owe God due to our sin, a debt that must be paid.[i] God’s justice demands it. Yet this is a debt that none of us can pay. So, God, in His grace, planned for our salvation. For God’s grace is more than a mere disposition. God’s grace is active—active in Christ. In His grace, God sent forth His Son to become flesh and pay the debt we owe Him.[ii] Christ paid for the sin of the world “with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” Through God’s grace alone we sinners are forgiven and justified because of Christ.

This means that there is nothing in us and nothing we do that moves God to forgive us. God is gracious to us because of Jesus Christ and because of Him alone. St. Paul writes: “In [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7). This gives such comfort to sin-stricken consciences, for God’s grace is not earned by what you do but is given freely by a generous God.

For this reason, Scripture constantly speaks of God’s grace as the reason for our salvation in opposition to our works: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Again, St. Paul writes, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6). To be saved by grace alone means you do not save yourselves.[iii] Christ does. Christ has. It is finished! (John 19:30)

In addition, this grace of God extends to everyone. Scripture teaches that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). No one is excluded from God’s grace in Christ.

God shows Himself to be gracious to us through specific means—His Word and Sacraments. Luther sums up what instruments God uses to reveal His grace:

God is superabundantly generous in His grace: First, through the spoken Word, by which the forgiveness of sins is preaching in the whole world. This is the particular office of the Gospel. Second, through Baptism. Third through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourth, through the Power of the Keys. Also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren…. (SA III IV (McCain, Second Ed., 278).

By showing Himself gracious to us through the Gospel, God creates faith in our hearts that clings solely to His grace in Christ.

The second sola is Sola Fide. We are saved by faith alone, but our faith is merely receiving all the saving works of Jesus as a gift of God’s grace. In our Epistle, we hear: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22a). Faith clings to Jesus as our only hope in the face of eternal death.

But faith is only as good as its object. This is the danger of misunderstanding Sola Fide: that we would focus on faith in and of it itself but forget the object of faith.[iv] We would then spend all our time talking about our faith, bragging about our faith, and worrying about the strength of our faith, all the while forgetting about the One in whom we have faith: Jesus Christ.

Faith in Christ is bold only because of its object. When the One that you believe in is the crucified and risen One, Jesus Christ our Lord, the very Son of God, enthroned at the right hand of the Father, then your faith will be bold. Luther writes: “Faith is a vital, deliberate trust in God’s grace, so certain that it would die a thousand times for it” (FC SD IV, 12).  Therefore, Sola Fide is a First Commandment issue, as Luther clearly saw.

A god is that which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol (LC I, 2).

The question is not whether you have enough faith or not; the question is if your faith in in the right thing.[v] You can have the “strongest” faith a person could  have, but if the thing that you believe in is uncertain or untrue, then your faith is worthless. It is not faith that saves, but faith in Christ crucified and risen that saves.

Under the banner of Sola Fide, Martin Luther could take his stand before the emperor in Worms, just as the princes of Germany could stand before the emperor at Augsburg.[vi] Knowing the object of our faith makes us bold to say with the psalmist, “What can man do to me?” (Psalm 56:11) and with the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Under the banner of Sola Fide, you can stand amid persecutions and threats, sufferings and disease. You can even face death, for it is not the strength of your faith that saves you, it is the object of your faith. And the object of your faith has destroyed death and hell by dying and rising again for you. Just as nothing can now conquer Christ, so nothing can conquer you, for you are connected to Christ by faith.

Faith in Christ then does good works. Luther’s famous words quoted by the Formula of Concord, describe the vital connection between faith and good works:

“Faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, so that it is impossible for it not to be constantly doing what is good. Likewise, faith does not ask if good works are to be done, but before one can ask, faith has already done them and is constantly active” (FC SD IV, 10).

The debate of the Reformation, a debate that brought forth the bold declaration ‘Sola Fide,’ was not between good works on the one hand, and faith on the other, but it was a debate over what relationship faith has to good works. Namely, do good works have any place in our justification before God? The Augsburg Confession gave the definitive answer:

Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by His death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight (AC IV).

Sola Fide puts all things in their proper order. Good works follow, but they never precede; believers are exhorted to good works, but not for salvation. Sola Fide is created by the proclamation of Sola Scriptura, and its object is Sola Christus, and this is only because of Sola Gratia.[vii] Sola Fide means that faith is never alone: it always has its object, and when the object of faith is Sola Christus, then no works are needed, for Christ has done it all, for you!

The third sola is Sola Scriptura. Our theology flows from Scripture alone, but Scripture is trustworthy because it is about Christ from beginning to end. Jesus told His disciples: “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). In the Scriptures we hear Jesus speaking to us about Himself and His work of salvation.

Many mistakenly think the Bible is too hard to understand on their own. In fact, a prominent scholar of Luther’s day, Erasmus of Rotterdam, called the Bible a “Corycian Cavern.” This is a dark cave; without artificial light you can’t see more than one hundred meters into the chilly, forbidding cavern.[viii] So how does one traverse this dark cave? Erasmus’ solution was the light of authority, like tradition and the Church fathers. Pope Leo XIII echoed that thought, condemning all those who “relying on private judgment and repudiating the divine traditions and teaching office of the Church, hold the Scriptures to be the one source of revelation and the final appeal in matters of Faith.”[ix]

But this isn’t what the Bible teaches about itself. The Scriptures are not a dark cave which needs illumination. The Bible is light: “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). Everywhere, the Bible takes it for granted that it is the absolute truth. Jesus Himself, when quoting Psalm 82:6, stopped every argument by saying, “The Scripture cannot be broken.” And again, Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Luke 21:33). If the Bible, the Word of God, is an illumination, if it is absolute truth, and if it can never be broken or torn down, then there is no need for any other source of theology. In the Scriptures, we have a standard which pours out Christ’s light in our minds and in our hearts, so we no longer walk in the darkness of ignorance and sin. In the Scriptures, we have a standard which can never err. The truth of the Bible does not change because God cannot change. And finally, the Bible will endure forever. Therefore, there is no appeal beyond the Bible.

Like light shining through stained glass, the source of the light of the Reformation was and always ought to be seen as the Lord. By grace alone (sola gratia), not because of our deserving, He has redeemed us by His cross and resurrection. By faith alone (sola fide), not by our work, have we received what He has accomplished. By Scripture alone (sola Scriptura), not by our own human reason, do we speak of the things of God. The Lord’s light of His Word, in Law and Gospel, continues to shine today!

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy! In Christ alone (Solus Christus), you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Sola Gratia – Lutheran Reformation,

[ii] Sola Gratia – Lutheran Reformation,

[iii] Sola Gratia – Lutheran Reformation,

[iv] Sola Fide – Lutheran Reformation,

[v] Sola Fide – Lutheran Reformation,

[vi] Sola Fide – Lutheran Reformation,

[vii] Sola Fide – Lutheran Reformation,

[viii] Sola Scriptura – Lutheran Reformation,

[ix] Sola Scriptura – Lutheran Reformation,

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