What does it mean to be Christian? If you got down to what it really means, cleared the slate and focused on your most essential doctrines, what are the important tenants of your faith? And who has the authority to decide such things for the church?
These days, most of us don’t think about those kinds of questions much. We might ponder aspects of it or debate the finer points, but by and large, the master principles of the Protestant faith were settled hundreds of years ago—precipitated by Martin Luther 500 years ago today.
The Church Rules
You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say. ~Martin Luther
In 1500, the Roman Catholic Church ruled. They claimed apostolic succession, a doctrine described here by Catholic Answers:
The first Christians had no doubts about how to determine which was the true Church and which doctrines the true teachings of Christ. The test was simple: Just trace the apostolic succession of the claimants. Apostolic succession is the line of bishops stretching back to the apostles. All over the world, all Catholic bishops are part of a lineage that goes back to the time of the apostles.
This doctrine is based on 2 Timothy 2:2 where Paul directs Timothy to pass down all that he learns.
The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.
Although the Reformers generally agreed with the practice, they struggled with the doctrine itself because it placed an infallibility upon the Pope. Apostolic Succession gave the teaching of the church the same authority as the Bible itself.
The Reformation Begins
Although others before Luther tried to enact change, men like Jan Hus and John Wycliffe, their efforts did not bring the change many desired. It all came to a head on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church, Germany.
Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, theology professor, and priest, saw several problems within the Church. For example, he wanted a Bible in the language of the people rather than the Latin versions that most couldn’t read. He challenged the authority of the Church in its practice of selling indulgences, essentially buying God’s forgiveness from a person’s sin of choice. And he really had a problem with the Roman Catholic Church’s position on justification through faith and merit.
Martin Luther wasn’t alone. Similar calls came from Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland and John Calvin in France. The revolt spread, but the Church refused to concede. The Reformation continued until the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648.
The Five Essential Doctrines of Christianity
I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. ~Martin Luther
The blessing for us is that they prayed and argued over the tenets central to Christianity. These great men of faith wrestled with four basic questions, as listed on the site Got Questions:
- How is a person saved?
- Where does religious authority lie?
- What is the church?
- What is the essence of Christian living?
In answer, the Reformers came up with the Five Solas (sola is Latin for alone), which separated them from the Roman Catholic Church. These beliefs cost them dearly, much like Christ’s original apostles.
The Five Solas, with explanations from Got Questions:
1. Sola Scriptura, “Scripture Alone.”
“The Bible alone is the sole authority for all matters of faith and practice. Scripture and Scripture alone is the standard by which all teachings and traditions of the church must be measured. As Martin Luther so eloquently stated when told to recant his teachings, ‘Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.’”
2. Sola Gratia, “Salvation by Grace Alone.”
“Salvation is proof of God’s undeserved favor; we are rescued from God’s wrath by His grace alone, not by any work we do. God’s blessing in Christ is the sole efficient cause of salvation. This grace is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit who brings us to Christ by releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life.”
3. Sola Fide, “Salvation by Faith Alone.”
“We are justified by faith in Christ alone, not by the works of the Law. It is by faith in Christ that His righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect standard.”
4. Solus Christus, “In Christ Alone.”
“Salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone; no one and nothing else can save. Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross is sufficient for our justification and reconciliation to God the Father. The gospel has not been preached if Christ’s redemption is not declared and if faith in His resurrection is not solicited.”
5. Soli Deo Gloria, “For the Glory of God Alone.”
“Salvation is of God and has been accomplished by God for His glory alone. As Christians, we must magnify Him always and live our lives in His presence, under His authority, and for His glory.”
Peace if possible, truth at all costs. ~Martin Luther
Today, some recognize October 31 as Reformation Day. They look back to the sacrifices of men like Martin Luther, not because they got everything right but because they were willing to wrestle with the Almighty in prayer and stand firm in what they heard from Him.
As we enter into November, the month of Thanksgiving, let us remember those who went before us in faith and fought battles we often take for granted.
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The moment you accepted Jesus as your Savior, you became a member of God’s family. The apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter 1 that through our faith in Jesus we were adopted as sons and daughters. That means you now have a huge family cheering you on, including me! Perhaps that’s a bit overwhelming. Maybe family hasn’t been something good in your life, or you fear the expectations other Christians will place upon you. Take a moment and breathe.
One of the key pieces of information God wants to give you is this: Only His opinion matters. Yes, God will use other people and circumstances to help you along the way, but they should never take precedence over what God says. That is why hearing God clearly is critical, and that is why I wrote this book. Join me in learning more about what it means to be part of God’s family. Don’t worry. You don’t have to do this perfectly or know the answer to every question. Just take a step forward and turn the page. We’ll get through these first steps together.