Church Reformed, Always Reforming

My wife and I just got new windows in our home, so we’ve been repainting all of our window trim. I’ve learned that a good primer is an indispensable time-saver for painting projects. When I haven’t used primer to begin with, I’ve inevitably had to paint more coats that don’t last nearly as long. On the other hand, a good primer will ensure better adhesion for the rest of the paint, increase the paint’s longevity, and create a more polished look for your finished product. 

S.D. Ellison lays this necessary primer coat with his new book, Five: The Solas of the Reformation. Ellison is the director of training at the Irish Baptist College and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Old Testament. He’s also an elder at Antrim Baptist Church in Antrim, Northern Ireland.

What are the ‘Solas’ and Why are They Important Anyway?

The Protestant Reformation, begun in the 16th century, was literally a protest (hence the term Protestant) of the Roman Catholic way of Christianity. Symbolically starting in 1519, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, the Reformation gave us a host of theologians retrieving biblical Christianity. And at the core of their writing and teaching were the Solas. The Five Solas are five of the many slogans of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Solus Christus (Christ Alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone). While they were not arranged as we know them until sometime in the twentieth century, the truths uncovered in these slogans are found spreading like wild vines in the Reformer’s writing.

Ellison is writing with not only the pastor or theologian in mind, but for the everyday Christian (2). He makes this case in the introduction, where he points out the resounding relevance of The Reformation, stating, “we continue to stand in its shadow. We are products of this past” (2). Ellison wants his readers to know these truths not to have more head knowledge, but because he believes recovering our theological past will equip the Church today to be faithful into the future. Or, as Solomon puts it “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), so we’d do well to learn from what’s been done as not to repeat the mistakes of those that have gone before us.

Bones Coming Alive

Substance finds its utility when it’s placed upon the proper structure. Our muscles would be useless if they didn’t adorn our skeletons, and the brilliance of the stars would be lost if they didn’t decorate the night sky. In every chapter, Ellison takes up one of the Solas, and he treats each one utilizing the same structure; he places the meat on the bones, as it were. As a reader, I found this consistent structure extremely helpful because I knew exactly what to expect in each chapter, and it makes the book more easily used as a reference.

“Any written words of the Church throughout history are authoritative insofar as they are consistent with what Scripture says.”

First, Ellison briefly lays out the historical situation the Reformers were in while raising their claim. In doing so, the author describes not only what the Sola was communicating, but also what it was rebutting in Roman Catholicism. For instance, Sola Scriptura communicates that Scripture is the sole authority for the Christian and the Church (9). This is a patent rejection of the Roman Catholic claim that Scripture and Tradition were to be considered equally authoritative and supplementary sources of divine revelation (7). Protestants certainly believe in the useful weight of Church history—in fact, that’s part of this book’s purpose! The sticking point is the term “equally.” Any written words of the Church throughout history are authoritative insofar as they are consistent with what Scripture says. The authority of any words of man comes from how accurately they communicate what God’s Word says—they are always subject to God’s authority. Unlike the teaching of Roman Catholicism, nothing can be equal to the authority of God’s Word on any issue.

The second thing Ellison does in each chapter is defend the claim of each Sola from Scripture—pointing to where the slogan’s authority is derived from. In each chapter, Ellison points to both Old and New Testament texts to support the Sola’s claim. This subtle move is extremely important because in doing so the author communicates to the reader that the teaching of the Reformation on this issue is Biblical (meaning it is the teaching of the Bible as a whole) and not simply an isolated, out-of-context, proof-text to support the slogan. For instance, the author points out that Sola Fide can be found in the Old Testament prophet of Habakkuk (45-47), and that Paul and the author of Hebrews rightly apply Habakkuk’s statement “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4) in their writings (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:37-38).

Third, and finally, in each chapter Ellison applies the teaching of the Sola to the Church in the 21st century. For instance, in applying the teaching of Soli Deo Gloria, Ellison argues that contemporary Christianity may assent to Reformer’s cry, but he sees a general lack of enthusiasm amongst Christians today about the glory of God because there is an observable lack of understanding for who God truly is (85-86). Knowing God truly will always lead his people to a place of awe, and if you haven’t been struck with wonder at the God of the Bible—to the point of doxological outburst—then there’s reason to believe you may not have met him. The Reformers believe that ascribing glory to God alone is the only appropriate response to the living God of the Bible, and Scripture stands as a witness in their defense.

Knowing God truly will always lead his people to a place of awe, and if you haven’t been struck with wonder at the God of the Bible—to the point of doxological outburst—then there’s reason to believe you may not have met him.

Church Reformed, Always Reforming

One of the other well-known slogans to come out of the Reformation was ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (Church reformed, always reforming). This motto reminds us that we must not change simply for the sake of it, but equally, we must not resist change simply because of tradition. We must always be willing to reform our practices to conform to God’s Word because, as many have stated, we don’t drift toward holiness. In a small space, Ellison paints an important primer coat upon which anyone interested in the topic of the Solas can add further, lasting coatings. He lays before us our robust lineage of faith—one that spans farther back than the Reformation—but one that always challenges us to take God at his Word, and by doing so, glorifies him in the process. 

You can purchase the book here.

The following is a list of 10 of my favorite quotes from the book. Enjoy!

1. Page 6

It is important to highlight that the primary issue underlying the Reformation was not the issue of justification, but the issue of authority.

2. Page 17

It is imperative to remember that the Reformers argued that Scripture was to be interpreted in and by the Church. It is pure arrogance to ignore how the Church throughout history has interpreted the Scriptures.

3. Page 18-19

The Reformation reminds us that the…power and beauty of God’s Word remains because its source, nature, and authority remain the same.

4. Page 25

The Pelagian, then, would argue that ‘people are not helpless sinners who need to be redeemed, but wayward sinners who need a demonstration of selflessness so moving that they will be excited to stop being selfish.

5. Page 28

Deuteronomy 7:7 makes it explicitly clear that it is God’s sovereign love, faithfulness, and grace, and only this, that explains Israel’s election. It was not that a holy character, already present in Israel, indicated their inherit merit. It was not that the numerical superiority encouraged the privilege of election. Rather, it was the result of divine choice. God had chosen Israel.

6. Page 38

[John von Staupitz] advised Luther, still searching for peace, to devote himself to the study of Scripture. The advice led Luther dow a road from which he would not return. Luther applied himself to doctoral studies at the university of Wittenberg, eventually taking the post of Chair of Biblical studies. He continued to pay careful attention to the Scriptures; in particular, the books of Psalms, Romans, and Galatians.

7.  Page 42

The issue that gave rise to Sola Gratia was the motivation of God in saving humanity. The issue that gave rise to Sola Fide was how humanity could appropriate that salvation.

8. Page 48

The term ‘propitiation’ is a rich word that possesses a variety of concepts, such as atonement, cover, expiation, and the averting of wrath.

9. Page 54

The true reason why faith is given such an exclusive place by the New Testament, so far as the attainment of salvation is concerned, over against love and over against everything else in man…is that faith means receiving something, not doing something or even bing something. To say, therefore, that our faith saves us means that we don not save ourselves even in the slightest measure, but that God saves us.

J. Gresham Machen

10. Page 90

…these truths must trickle from our heads to our hearts. The truths that re-emerged in sixteenth century Europe must inform and impact both our life and our theology. If they do, we will be compelled to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its fullness and glory no matter the personal cost.