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[Common Places] Reading Notes: Christ Alone

Categories Theology Common Places

This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, looking back to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the theological debates kick-started by their posting. The Reformation continues to be lauded, cajoled, and debated in circles of all sorts today. At Common Places we will begin the year by focusing on some of the central principles and most relevant texts that shaped early Reformation theology and that have continued that conversation in the centuries that followed. Each month we will begin with a post related to an ongoing book project from Zondervan Academic that addresses the five solas of Reformation theology. We will then conclude each month with an annotated reading guide on classic and contemporary works that address that particular principle.

Open book on wooden deck


All good Christian theology is Christocentric in some manner. When the Reformation insisted on Christ alone (solus Christus), with this slogan it thus sought to make a stronger—exclusive—claim. But the Reformation in no way advocated a Christomonism, the reduction of all theology only to a consideration of Christ. The exclusive particle, Christ alone, was meant to make a more focused claim. Its thrust was the sufficiency, or better still, the overabundance that the believer as believer finds in the person and work of Christ. The particle has its home in the order of salvation (ordo salutis)—chiefly the doctrine of justification—and it is from this location that it brings the whole body of theology into a Christocentric focus.

The particle is not, of course, foolproof. Martin Luther—even as he drew attention to Christ, and declared that “the cross alone [!] constitutes our theology” (Operationes in Psalmos, WA 5:176)—thought it wise to elucidate further the salvific role of Christ as gift, given to the believer, over against Christ’s role as example, in which he is of no more help to us than some other saint (A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels; in Luther’s Works 35). Oswald Bayer warns against the modern tendency to moralize the solus Christus and, in reality, to compromise it (Martin Luther’s Theology, 64). A notorious example of this tendency is John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity. Locke pits Jesus’ simple message as a teacher of virtue, which Locke believes he finds in the Gospels, against the ethically unproductive speculation of the New Testament epistles and, even worse, the dogmatic corruption of Jesus’ teachings in the creeds and the church’s theology. This is not the meaning of “Christ alone” that the Reformation intended.

What specific soteriological emphases did the Reformation intend, with its affirmation of solus Christus and Christ as gift? First, in his Lectures on Galatians (1531/1535; in Luther’s Works 26:122-138), Luther insists Christ, and he alone, gives faith its “form.” What is in the background here is the medieval view that faith, as a disposition, stood in need of being made concrete by the believer’s works of love. Luther denies that what constitutes faith is intellectual assent to the truth of God, still in need of taking shape through the believer’s actions. Rather, faith is formed and made concrete—it is everything it can and needs to be—only in so far as it grasps the work of Christ, and does so as if the believer had done this work him- or herself. This alone is what it means to believe. Christ, says Luther, is present in faith itself, and his work gives faith its essence, shape, and reality. In other words, faith lies not in giving credence to the improbable and confirming this posture through one’s own acts of charity. Rather, the irreducible reality of faith—safeguarded by Christ alone—is to take God at his word and trust God enough to stake one’s entire identity on the work of Christ. To believe is to declare God-in-Christ alone to be the generous giver of all that is good, righteousness and holiness included. Faith justifies alone precisely in this sense. As a believer one already is infinitely more than one could ever make of oneself.

In his polemic against Erasmus, On the Bondage of the Will (1525; in Luther’s Works 33), as well in his Lectures on Genesis (1535-45; here LW 5), Luther explores a different facet of “Christ alone.” In this work Luther is concerned with the nature and work of God and with divine revelation. A central question he pursues is how one finds the God who saves. The Bondage of the Will is without a doubt a complex work which poses a number of interpretive challenges. What we need to say about it is that Luther challenges here medieval accounts of God’s transcendence which placed divine and human agencies in a strictly non-competitive relation and, as a result, either practically or conceptually privileged human initiative in relation to God. Luther worries that, in consequence, the soteriological focus is taken off Christ and the burden of assuring one’s salvation is placed on the believer. In order to bring Christ back into focus, Luther articulates what is speculatively the strongest possible doctrine of divine agency. God, by virtue of being God, cannot but work life and death and all in all. Luther wants believers, first, to pay attention to God, and God alone. With this specter of God hidden in his own majesty, whose actions are inscrutable, Luther wants to lead reason to acknowledge that God cannot ultimately be confined to a sphere of action, however fitting, carved out for him by human speculation. God is free in relation to human cogitations about the divine. Reason must despair of itself when it reaches out toward God. But when it does so, when it finds itself at God’s mercy, it is now ready to recognize, through the proclamation of the gospel, that in his freedom God is none other than the Triune God he is. As this very God, God relates to history, time, and human agency on his own terms. Thus, paradoxically, Luther’s goal in The Bondage of the Will is not to affirm some sort of inscrutable God over and above the God revealed in Christ, a God at cross-purposes with his own revelation (this is the God that reason must run up against). Luther’s goal is to affirm that in Christ alone God is who he is. Not just because he happens to show himself to us there, but because he can be none other than the Father of his Son in their mutual Spirit. “Christ alone,” as articulated in The Bondage of the Will, emphasizes God’s freedom to reveal himself in his own being as the merciful God who brings comfort to a restless and disturbed conscience. Outside of Christ there is no revelation, no peace, and hence no salvation, for outside of Christ there simply is no God (see also Luther’s Works 5:42-50).

Like Luther, Jean Calvin points to Christ as the sole source of the believer’s righteousness before God (Institutes, III, esp. xi and xv). Calvin admits believers can be said to possess righteousness, but they do so only as partakers in Christ. Christ’s righteousness is communicated to the believer by imputation. For this reason, Christ, and he alone, remains the beginning and the fulfillment of a person’s salvation. What, throughout the history of the church, has detracted from this singular focus on Christ is, according to Calvin, the early adoption of the unscriptural term “merit.” This was initially intended to distinguish between works done from, and outside of, grace. However, when this distinction is divorced from a consideration of the work of Christ, what results is the effectual sidelining of Christ’s power to save and, in the end, also his dignity. Christ is, Calvin insists to the contrary, the Christian’s sole focus. Not only does one’s righteousness come exclusively from Christ. It is in Christ alone that one must also, without self-deception, contemplate one’s election. “Those whom Christ has illumined with the knowledge of his name and has introduced into the bosom of his church, he is said to receive into his care and keeping” (Institutes, III.xxiv.6).

More recent Protestant theology has, by and large, received appreciatively the Reformation’s witness to Christ alone, seeing in it an important voice and qualification within the larger catholic tradition. However, even where this reception is affirmative, it has not been uncritical of how the Reformation articulated the content of the exclusive particle or how it delineated its scope. Karl Barth, for example, though he acknowledged Calvin’s insistence on Christ as the sole mirror of the believer’s election, famously criticized the Reformed tradition for relegating Christ to the role of an executor of the Father’s inscrutable will to save only some. Unless the eternal Son, as the man Jesus Christ the Father intends him to be, is also the electing God, electing the Father’s will to be the God of love not just for God’s self but for a created other, the biblical concept of election, Barth maintains, is compromised (see Church Dogmatics II/2 [1942]). Here Barth articulates what is still inchoate in Luther. The absolute freedom of God is only the limit of human speculation about the divine. God’s actual freedom—including the divine will—is never naked and hence inscrutable but is the act of God’s own Triune being as love.

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus—God and Man (1964), by contrast, articulates the exclusivity of Christ by drawing attention to Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection is a singular divine vindication of Jesus’ human life radically open and faithful to God. As such, it shows that Jesus’ divinity lies in the very depth of his humanity. Humans admittedly are characterized by openness to their world, which entails openness to God, but no person is capable of such openness without being personalized by total dependence and trust in God. The resurrection of Jesus, as the unfolding of God’s eschatological plan for humanity and indeed all creation, makes such dependence on God—such faith—possible.

Finally, Eberhard Jüngel, in Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith (1999), draws attention to the connection between “Christ alone” and the affirmation of Jesus’s divinity. Christ alone means that there are no other lords who can save. Now, for that to be the case, it must be true that in Christ God himself suffered and underwent our death, standing in his humanity as a representative of all humanity. Without God’s substitutionary and reconciling act, Christ would be only the example of a hero subjected to an inhuman death. But he would be no savior who is the death of death on behalf of all. Christ’s exclusivity, Jüngel argues, emphasizes his divinity and thus also his inclusive dimension as the human in whom all people are included.

The Reformation’s focus, in insisting on Christ alone, was more on the subjective dimension of Christ’s work, whether this was understood strictly soteriologically or epistemologically. The Reformation emphasized the believer’s comfort, assurance and peace of conscience. By and large, contemporary Protestant theology’s reception of the solus Christus has investigated more the objective aspects of the exclusive particle, that is, the matchless and conclusive character of Christ’s work. The particle points to the proper interpretation of this work, showing it to be none other than the self-expression and action of God himself, not only in time but also as reflected in the eternity of God’s triune life. In this objective emphasis, the more recent theology has argued for continued usefulness of the particle not so much from the perspective of the subjective criterion for true assurance as from the perspective of the concrete identity and character of God.


Piotr Malysz (PhD, Harvard Divinity School) teaches church history and systematic theology at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of Trinity, Freedom and Love: An Engagement with the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel and co-editor of Luther Refracted: The Reformer’s Ecumenical Legacy


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Our current series, The Five Solas, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key principles of the Protestant movement in the sixteenth century.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors


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