Articles

What It Means To Be Reformed (5): Calvinism's Solas

This article first appeared in the April 15, 2015 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.91, #14).

More than the Five Points

Calvinism is more than the “TULIP” of the Five Points.

Identification with Calvin’s thought is at least an embrace of the Five Points. Real Calvinism is not “Four Point Calvinism” in which one denies, for example, limited atonement.

Real Calvinism is also a genuine embrace of the Five Points. That needs to be said with an exclamation point, because a flurry of books have been published recently to explain Calvinism, but accomplish only to explain away Calvinism. Those who outrightly reject Calvinism are honest. But these new books are deceptive. An example of this is a recent book entitled The Joy of Calvinism.1 The short book includes four main chapters about God’s love, but begins with a lengthy “Detour” (the author invites you to “feel free to skip it entirely”) that effectively guts Calvinism’s doctrines of grace. It “challenges most people’s conception of Calvinism in a pretty fundamental way.” The Ph.D. author cavalierly says that “Calvinism does not deny that we have free will,” provocatively claims that “Calvinism does not say we are totally depraved,” and foolishly blurts out that, according to Calvinism, God loves the reprobate and the Canons of Dordt teach this, without as much as a word from the Canons themselves to show this.2 Beware counterfeit Calvinism.

Real Calvinism embraces unashamedly the Five Points. However, it is more than the Five Points. The “more” includes many subjects that will come out in future editorials, God willing. But the “more” here is still with regard to the doctrines of grace, the biblical teaching of salvation. It is the five solas of the Reformation.

The five solas

Sola, in Latin, means “only” or “alone.” The adjective sola is attached to the four nouns: Christ, faith, grace, and God’s glory. In Latin: Solus Christus, sola fide, sola gratia, and soli Deo Gloria. By using these phrases, the Reformed faith teaches that salvation is the work of Christ alone, through faith alone, by grace alone, to the glory of God alone. The fifth sola—sola Scriptura—teaches that the authority for what we believe and how we live is Scripture alone.3 Over against Roman Catholicism and Arminianism—which also confess Christ, grace, faith, and glory to God—Calvinism teaches that salvation comes from Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone.

The Five Points of Calvinism themselves have this “alone” or “sola” characteristic, as the adjectives in four of the points show: Election is unconditional; the atonement is limited; depravity is total; grace is irresistible. Each adjective makes a point similar to what the solas make. The Canons of Dordt are emphatic about this. But it is worth explaining these solas in a separate editorial to emphasize this fundamental dimension of being Reformed. Reformed churches were and are faithful to the Bible’s exclusive claims. To be Reformed is to be distinctive, antithetical, exclusive.

More than Calvin, too

To say that the five solas are “Reformed” rather than that they are “Calvinist” (they are the five solas of the Reformation, not the five solas of Calvin) gives opportunity to remind ourselves that, although the Reformed faith owes a great debt to Calvin, our debt is not, to invent a phrase, “sola to Calvin.” The human instruments whom God used to hand down to us the Christian tradition we call “Reformed” were many more than Calvin.

Reformed Christians rightly lionize Calvin. We thank God for this man and his defense and propagation of the true Christian religion. Our debt to his tireless and faithful efforts is no little one. But ‘lionizing’ Calvin must not allow us to forget other worthies in the ‘pride.’ Reformed believers ought to grant lion-status to Calvin’s contemporaries—Zwingli and a Lasco, Vermigli and Bucer, Bullinger and Knox. In the same ‘pride’ ought to be placed Calvin’s followers, who clarified and developed the Reformed faith—Beza, Ursinus and Oliveanus, Voetius and Gomarus, and many more. Calvin himself would have given recognition to a different cloud of witnesses, on whose shoulders he stood, and on account of whose blood the faith of the fathers was living still in his day—Augustine, Gottschalk, Wycliff, Huss, Luther and more.

But attaching a man’s name to a movement is not the way of wisdom. Truly, we ought not embrace the label Calvinist any more than the PRCs want to be known as “Hoeksemists,” the Canadian Reformed “Schilderists,” or the OPCs “Machenists.” Calvin himself did not want his name so used. It was not, in his day, except by his Lutheran opponents. Calvin recoiled at the designation “Calvinism,” and not because of modesty, but because the Christian faith is not of a man, and the truth they embraced was not new.

Yet, the label has stuck. So we use it without shame, even if with some slight regret. But far better for us is the label “Reformed” (by which, remember, we simply mean the Christian faith). And Reformed is the designation that is attached to the five solas. Briefly explained, they are:

Solus Christus

The only sola in the nominative (nominative makes the phrase the subject of some sentence), solus Christus makes Christ the sole subject of our salvation.4 Christ saves. Christ alone saves. Jesus Christ is the only Mediator and Intercessor for His people.

Roman Catholic doctrine held forth many mediators. The poor believers were directed to find their salvation from the saints. My childhood Roman Catholic neighbors had St. Christopher hanging from their rear-view mirror to intercede for them in their travels to grandmother’s house. The Reformed fathers taught what eighth grade catechism students know: we do not seek our “salvation and welfare of (from) saints.” And “we ought not to seek, neither can find salvation in any other” than Christ. For “one of these two things must be true, that either Jesus is not a complete Savior; or that they, who by a true faith receive this Savior, must find all things in Him necessary to their salvation” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 11). The Belgic Confession says: “We believe…[that it is not] necessary to seek or invent any other means of being reconciled to God, than this only sacrifice, once offered, by which believers are made perfect forever.”5 “For any to assert, that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy” (Art. 22).

The Reformed creeds teach biblical truth: “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 2:5). “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Sola fide

This phrase means “by faith alone.”6 That is, we are saved, or justified, through faith and nothing more than faith. Righteousness is imputed to sinners through the instrument of faith, nothing added. Roman Catholicism, and modern heresies arising even from churches with the name “Reformed,” teach that righteousness comes through faith and…(something else). The Reformation responded, “by faith alone, and not through my works or through the law.” Faith is the “alone instrument” uniting a man with Christ, who is our righteousness. Only faith embraces Jesus, in whom is all our salvation. No will of man, no work of man, no goodness of man, explains our righteous standing before God.

“We justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works” (Belgic Confession, Art. 22). Then the creed sharpens the point: “To speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness.” According to Martin Luther, this is the article by which the church stands or falls. Calvin said it is “the main hinge on which religion turns.” The fathers of Westminster followed suit by confessing that “Faith…is the alone instrument of justification.”

To tie the first two solas together, the Reformed faith teaches that Christ alone saves, through faith alone.

Sola gratia

Important as is the confession, “faith alone,” it serves a truth of higher rank. That truth is sola gratia, or, by grace alone. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. All the salvation that Christ provides through faith, must come by this unmerited favor alone.

Now see how faith is the servant of grace. Since faith is God’s gift,7 faith is not a work of man. And since all of salvation comes though this gift of faith, we can say, “All of salvation is of grace! Salvation is not to be explained by anything in me. I am a debtor! What I am and shall receive is undeserved. It is all of grace and of grace alone.”

Connecting faith and grace in this way is the teaching of Romans 4:16. Read the context, from verse 1, to see Paul’s grand teaching of justification (salvation) by faith, and his powerful argument against the heresy of justification (salvation) by works. Paul concludes by connecting faith and grace: “therefore it (the promise to Abraham) is of faith, that it might be by grace.” Why did the promise come to Abraham “of faith,” and not of works? In order that the promise might come to Abraham “by grace.”

This, too, the Reformed confessions teach. Everything of salvation is sola gratia, that is, “mere grace.” “…We are delivered from our misery, merely of grace” (HC, LD 32). “Righteousness and salvation, are…merely of grace” (HC, LD 7). “God…only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ” (HC, LD 23). Election, the deepest source of my salvation, is out of “mere grace” (Canons I:7).

Soli Deo Gloria

So that we may always say, “To God alone be the glory!”

To put these four solas together is not difficult: Christ alone saves through faith alone for the sake of grace alone, in order that all glory may be given to God alone! If any of salvation—even the tiniest bit—comes from outside of Christ, or if Christ comes to man through any other instrument than His free gift of faith, or on account of any merit in man, then the glory of that tiniest bit of salvation goes to man and not to God. Against that “gross blasphemy” Reformed believers fight with all their might.

Canons I:7 teaches gracious salvation, beginning in salvation’s source—sovereign election: “for the demonstration of His mercy, and for the praise of His glorious grace….” The fathers in this ecumenical synod were looking at Scripture’s call to give all glory, in all things, to God and to God alone. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings…in Christ…according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace” (Eph. 1:3-6). And the book of Romans does nothing if it does not teach that everything revolves around God’s glory. The heart of the reprobate’s sin is a refusal to give glory to God (Rom. 1:23). Sin is a coming “short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Paul teaches that if Abraham’s justification were by works, he would be able to glory in himself (Rom. 4:2); but Abraham “was strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Rom. 4:20). Paul’s conclusion of the doctrinal section of the epistle, where all the doctrines of sovereign grace are taught is, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”(Rom. 11:36). And Paul’s own Spirit inspired exclamation point of the epistle, his very last words before the final “Amen,” are: “To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever” (Rom. 16:27).

No one else saves but Christ! Nothing but grace and faith explain our salvation in Christ! For none but God may receive the glory!

This is exclusive, for false teachings must be excluded. This is antithetical, for truth must be defended over against the lie. This is distinctive, for biblical truth must be known and confessed clearly, sharply, distinctly. There may be no doubt as to Who is worthy of praise. All of it. This is Reformed.


1 Greg Forster, The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God’s Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). The book is endorsed by some professors from conservative Presbyterian seminaries, whose positive endorsements make one wonder whether they are themselves denying the fundamentals of the Reformed faith or whether they even read the book.

2 Forster, 30, 35, 39. Forster frames the latter point cleverly, “Does God love the lost?”, but does make clear that the “lost” are those whom God “has not chosen to save,” that is, the reprobate.

3 This fifth sola will be treated later when we consider the source of authority in the Reformed Church: sola scriptura.

4 Because there is no definitive, or authoritative, statement of the five solas (as there is for the Five Points of Calvinism in the Canons of Dordt) and I have found no original sources for these statements, we may guess here as to the reason for the nominative. If any reader can point out a good study of the origin and history of these five solas we will gladly publicize that.

5 Article 21; and see the powerful statements in Articles 22 and 23.

6 At times sola fide was written per solam fidem, which means essentially the same: “through faith alone.”

7 Ephesians 2:8 and Philippians 1:29; and Canons II:7 teaches that we “are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God.” 

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Gritters, Barrett L.

Prof. Barry Gritters (Wife: Lori)

Ordained: May 1984

Pastorates: Byron Center, MI - 1984; Hudsonville, MI - 1994; Prot.Ref.Seminary - 2003

Website: www.prca.org/Seminary/SeminaryMainPg.htm

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