The Five Solas and the Evangelical Pulpit
This essay is the grand winner of Reformed Pinoy's essay writing contest, written by Ptr Peterson Santoso.
October 31, 1517 is a special day for Protestants. On that day, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theseson the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This act sparked the Protestant Reformation, which gave birth to what we now call the five solas: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. The five solas combat the excesses of Rome in particular points of doctrine that went against the gospel of Jesus. As people who stand on these solas, we confess that the supreme authority in matters of Christian faith, worship, and living is the Word of God alone. And this very same Word proclaims that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, all to the glory of the triune God alone. Five hunderd years later, we find that all evangelicals virtually affirm these solas. But they are as not heartily confessed by all as they were before. The solas have become an evangelical family heirloom that we have placed in a chest and stored away in the basement. At the back of our minds, we do think it is important, but we do not see its relevance for our everyday lives. Some even misuse the maxim "semper reformanda" to insinuate that the five solas are no longer relevant and that we have to move on to more pressing matters, all under the impression that we must be "always reforming". And speaking as an evangelical, one very crucial aspect of church life that we have failed to ground on the five solas is the public preaching of the Word. Interpreting the Bible on Its Own Terms Many evangelical churches nowadays would readily profess that they believe sola scriptura. No good evangelical pastor would dare to preach without a text or various verses interspersed within his message. However, in many evangelical pulpits, the text becomes a mere springboard towards a self-help monologue anchored on practical principles, or an inspirational speech that stirs the emotions and rouses the crowd into action. A preacher once said that in many sermons, the text of Scripture functions like the national anthem in a basketball game: you hear it in the beginning, and never again! We might confess sola scriptura with our lips, but not in practice. We decry Rome for placing tradition on the same level of authority as the Scripture, but unconsciously our teaching shows that we believe our own human wisdom to be on par with the Word of God. We must understand that affirming sola scriptura does not just mean that everything you teach must have proof-texts from the Bible, but it entails that you must submit yourself to how the Scripture wants itself to be interpreted and taught. If we desire to be faithful to God's Word, we must not follow the example of the "ignorant and unstable" who twisted Paul's message "to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16 ESV). If we believe that Scripture is our final authority, we must resist the urge to put words in the mouth of God, to twist verses and force them to say what we want to say, but to simply unshackle the Scriptures and teach its plain meaning to the people.
Heralding the Gospel of Grace Every Lord's Day Every evangelical affirms—at least in principle—that the Christian life, from start to finish, is lived entirely by the grace of God. God's enabling grace is what both saves and sustains a believer. No one lives independent from the Spirit's gracious and empowering work. The Bible says, "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6 ESV). But it should be asked, is this principle embodied by pastors in their sermons? If you carefully examine modern evangelical Sunday messages, my guess is that many of them are devoid of the message of grace. How so? Because we tend to be pragmatic and focus on what works for the people in living the everyday Christian life, the sermon has become centered on the effort that believers must exert to obey God or to be a blessing to the people around them. Rather than making the gospel of grace the highlight of the Lord's Day, it is assumed at best, and forgotten at worst. In the name of being "practical," human effort becomes the message rather than God's enabling grace that produces joyful duty among God's people. The preaching of the Word must herald the gospel of the grace of God in Christ. Not just for evangelistic meetings, but every Lord's Day. This is the way Paul writes his letters. Take Ephesians for example.After beginning with the indicatives of what God has graciously done for us in Christ (Ephesians 1–3), he then proceeds to teach the imperatives of how we are to respond to what God has done for us (Ephesians 4–6). Rather than taking the gospel for granted in every sermon, it must be proclaimed afresh. Every practical application must first be grounded in the truth of what God has done for us in Christ. Inculcating Justification by Faith Alone in the Hearts of the People One distinctive belief of evangelicals that separates us from other religions is sola fide. We believe that in order to be made righteous—both sinless and perfect—in the sight of God, we must receive the forgiveness and righteousness that God offers to us by faith alone in Jesus. We neither have to work for salvation, nor labor for it, but simply receive it by faith. For many pulpits, however, the message of justification by faith merely becomes the entry point towards Christianity. Unconsciously, the people are taught that faith is what grants them entrance into God's people, but then it's their work that sustains them. They enter through faith, but then after that, it's all up to them—their obedience, their discipline, their ministry involvement, their family life, etc. It begins with the cross, but then turns into a ladder. The sermons are focused on God's people becoming a better Christian, or a better husband or wife, or a better boss or employee in the workplace, or a better witness for the gospel, of course with a little help from the Spirit. By doing so, we implicitly teach the people that it is what they do that makes them more or less acceptable in the sight of God. Not because we believe so, but because the truth that we are accepted by God through faith apart from works is not proclaimed afresh every Sunday. If sermons are focused on us and what we can do, it would not take us long to revert back to a transactional mindset, thinking that our relationship with God is dependent on what we can do for him. No wonder we see Christians who are puffed up in self-righteousness and wallowing in self-pity. Those who think that they are nailing it think that they are more acceptable in the sight of God because of their obedience, while those who stumble along the path of obedience think that God must love them less because of their failures. Some even walk away from the faith altogether because they view our rule-keeping as a burden they could not bear. We are journeying back to Rome without even knowing it. We must make it clear to the people that what makes us righteous in the sight of God is not anchored on anything we do. Paul tells us that "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified" (Galatians 2:16 ESV). If we confess sola fide, then it must be evident in our sermons Sunday in and Sunday out. Preaching Christ-Centered Sermons Evangelicals acknowledge that Jesus is the hero of the Bible. We believe Jesus when he said that the Scriptures bear witness of him (cf. John 5:39). His work is the highlight of our evangelistic sermons, and his name gets dropped in virtually every sermon. But sadly, we must admit that it is not always the case that Jesus is the hero of every sermon. When preaching through the Gospels, or through Paul's epistles, or even from Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, preachers might find it quite easy and natural to preach Christ. But from other portions of the Old Testament, not so much. How many messages have we heard that exhorts us to "be like David" and conquer the Goliaths of our lives, or to "dare to be a Daniel" by standing up for truth when no one else will, even if it costs us our lives? I am not saying that we cannot learn from the examples of Bible characters. We can and we should (cf. Romans. 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:6). But teaching the virtues to follow and sins to avoid in the lives of these men and women of God without pointing the congregation to Christ shows that we have missed the point of the Bible! In Luke 24, Jesus teaches the two on the road to Emmaus how to interpret the Bible. Luke records, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27 ESV). Later on, he did the same to his disciples, "Then he said to them, 'These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled'" (Luke 24:44 ESV). Jesus wants the Bible to be interpreted in light of his person and work! In the second volume of Luke's writings, the book of Acts, we read that the disciples were able to capture the Bible study method that Jesus taught. In every sermon that the disciples preached, they took an Old Testament text and interpreted it as being fulfilled in Jesus!
If we want to be true disciples of Jesus and faithful preachers of his Word, we must interpret the Scriptures as Christ wanted it to be interpreted. We must preach the Word in the way that Jesus wants it to be preached. And that is, in a Christ-centered way.
Exalting God's Glory Alone
In many conversations and Facebook posts, we see the politically correct phrase, "To God be the glory!" No evangelical would dare rob God of his glory. No Christian would be too proud to try to get the credit that God alone deserves. We might do so in a subtle way, but not blatantly. We confess that in all things, God must have the glory.
Indeed, God alone must get the glory for the redemption and the renewal that He causes in the life of His people. But many evangelical preachers seem to unconsciously think otherwise. A lot of our sermons begin and end with nothing but the life and example of a particular Biblical character, and how we ought to ask God's help to have the faith of Abraham or to avoid the demise of Samson. A lot of them even focus on what we can do for God, and how we can be better Christians by obeying principles from God's Word. If a sermon is all about a godly man or woman from the Bible, or all about practical steps that you have to take from the Scripture to be successful in the Christian life, then is God truly the center of the sermon? On a practical level, do preachers really believe that God alone must get the glory? We might not venerate saints like Rome, but we unhealthily fixate on the lives of Old Testament and New Testament saints. We might not seek to rob God of glory, but we navel-gaze and focus on what we can do for God, and feel good about ourselves when we accomplish something. We claim that God alone gets the glory, but in a subtle way we ascribe it to other people, and our hearts want some of it as well.
In this fifth sola we find the culmination of the other four. If we indeed believe that "from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:36 ESV), then we must do away with misusing God's Word by inserting our own ideas and opinions, and interpret and teach it as God wants it to be interpreted and taught. Rather than making the sermon all about our effort to please God, we must proclaim the gospel of grace that enables and empowers sinful humanity to be of service to God. Our sermons must make it clear to God's people that it is not their works that make them more or less acceptable in God's sight, but the righteousness of Christ that is received by faith alone. We must not highlight Bible characters or our own obedience in our homilies, but the person and work of Jesus.
The thundering hammer needs to be heard once more today. In Luther’s time, it was the church doors. But in our time, it should be heard pounding the evangelical pulpit.