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[Common Places] The Five Solas: Grace 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.

One thing that the Protestant Reformers and their Roman Catholic opponents had in common was this: both saw their understanding of God’s grace as having profound practical significance. That might be surprising at first glance but it is nonetheless true.

Take, for example, the architecture of great medieval cathedrals. When you walk through the door, the lines of the building draw your eyes to the altar, for it is there that the mass takes place. And the mass is the most important thing which ever happens in such a building, for Roman Catholic theology sees that as the place where God in Christ comes and meets with his people. It is the place where grace comes to the congregation. The theology of the mass and the structure of both the building and the liturgy reflect that fact. The way grace is understood and the way Roman Catholics worship are intimately connected, the latter arising out of the former.

The same basic principle—grace determines church practice—is true for Protestants, and this is the major burden of the second part of my book, Grace Alone. All the Reformers believed (along with Paul!) that the church is an act of God’s grace. She is his new creation. And so the way she behaves, the actions she performs, the manner in which she conducts her life, are all to be rooted in and shaped by the nature of God’s grace and the means by which that grace is made real in the lives of Christians.
Protestants, of course, believe in justification by grace through faith and so the key question is: from where does faith come? The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 65, poses the question and offers a succinct and beautiful answer:

Q. Since then faith alone makes us share in Christ and all his benefits, where does this faith come from?
A. From the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments.

Salvation by grace, God’s unmerited favor to us in Christ, is appropriated by faith, and faith comes from the work of the Holy Spirit. But this is through hearing the word preached, through baptism, and through the Lord’s Supper. The connection between these things is not arbitrary, nor is it merely one that is suggested by scripture as a possible way of doing things. No. This is the way the Protestant Reformers understood God’s saving action in the present.

The practical implications are therefore obvious. A church which stands faithfully in the tradition of the Reformers will be marked by certain practical realities. The reading and (to borrow the emphatic phrase of the Westminster Standards) especially the preaching of the Word will be the most significant part of any worship service. The proclamation of the Bible’s message, culminating in Jesus Christ, grace personified, will dominate the gathering of the people of God on the Lord’s Day.

This may well be reflected in the church’s architecture. Unlike medieval cathedrals where the altar was the focal point, the pulpit will be prominent. And even in those congregations like the one I pastor, where the building was not originally intended for worship, the place where the word is read and proclaimed will still be the obvious center of attention.

Such a church will also take baptism seriously. Now, of course, we live in a world where Protestants are divided over both the subjects and the mode of baptism. But one thing any Protestant claiming Reformation lineage must acknowledge is that baptism is of great importance and is not simply a means of professing faith. The Reformers believed that God was the agent in baptism. Baptism was not a response to God’s grace but was a means by which God sealed his grace upon a person. Not that baptism works in and of itself. It is faith in the word that saves; but the word is attached to baptism, and baptism thereby makes the word more real in the same way that a wedding ring stands as a visible sign of the marriage of a man and a woman.

Finally, a church which understands God’s grace will take the Lord’s Supper seriously. Again, as with baptism, the Lord’s Supper does not save in and of itself. Rather, it seals God’s grace upon the recipients. As a birthday gift from a husband to a wife does not “add” to his love for her but presses it on her in a way that strengthens and reinforces it, so the Lord’s Supper does the same. We hear the word preached and then, as we take the Lord’s Supper, the same Christ whom we have met in the Word is made in a sense real to us in a different way in the bread and wine attached to his promise.

In the year in which we remember the Reformation, it behooves all Protestants to remember that the Reformers and their Roman opponents did agree on the important principle that doctrine shapes church life. As we celebrate the idea of grace alone, we should remember that that is not simply an abstraction but something with immediate practical consequences for the church’s worship and priorities.


Carl Trueman (PhD, The University of Aberdeen) is the Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Pastor of Cornerstone Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ambler, PA. He has written numerous books on Reformation and post-Reformation theology and contemporary issues, including his most recent release, Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God.

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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