On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. These were dark, dark days; the gospel had been shackled by the superstitions and idolatries of the Roman Catholic Church and consigned to her dungeon where its light was hidden from the world. But Luther’s action that day would initiate its emancipation by sparking the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers rescued the gospel from Rome’s dungeon and brought it to the hilltops from where its light could again emanate as a beacon of salvation for all to see. To remember this day in the history of Christ’s church, brothers from various Reformed denominations have contributed articles on each of the five solas of the Reformation: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. Together they form the five-fold light of the gospel that overcomes the darkness.
– Daniel Ragusa
Beginning with the End in Mind
Soli Deo gloria (“to God alone be glory”) is the natural outcome of the preceding four solas that characterize the biblical and Reformed doctrine of salvation. Psalm 3:8 indicates that salvation belongs to the Lord. That primary claim is elaborated by specifying that only God’s word tells us the true doctrine of salvation (sola Scriptura); that only Christ accomplished all that was necessary for salvation (solus Christus); that this salvation is bestowed merely by God’s free grace (sola gratia); and is received by no other instrument than the empty hand of faith (sola fide). If in this comprehensive sense salvation is exclusively of the Lord, it follows that the praise of salvation is likewise due to him alone.
Geerhardus Vos noted in his essay, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” that the root idea of Reformed theology that unlocked the rich treasuries of Scripture was the preeminence of God’s glory. Herein is what distinguished the Reformed tradition: it began not with man, but with God. Vos writes, “God does not exist because of man, but man because of God. This is what is written at the entrance of the temple of Reformed theology” (242). So we begin our study of the five solas with the end in mind, beginning with God purposing to glorify himself in the salvation of sinners by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to Scripture alone.
This soteriological accent leading to doxology is seen in multiple places in Scripture. One clear example is Romans 11. After establishing the principle that election is by grace with works excluded from consideration (11:5–6), Paul goes on to draw the unexpected conclusion that God consigned all, both Jew and Gentile, to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all (11:32). This glorious conclusion was so surprising that Paul breaks into praise of God’s unsearchable wisdom and inscrutable ways (11:33–35). In finalizing his paean to the surprisingly saving God, Paul says: For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (11:36). That is the point to which the rich and textured depths of Paul’s soteriology leads, an outburst of acclamation of the God of salvation. That same attitude underlies the practical exhortations which begin in the next verse (12:1). Those who have been astonished by God’s plan of salvation and thus motivated to ascribe glory to him are properly situated to yield their bodies to him as living sacrifices, to render all proper obedience to human authority as instituted by God, and to live in peace with their brothers in the midst of imperfection and disagreement.
1 Timothy 1 and 6
Paul shows a similar movement of thought in one of the classic passages relating to his own experience of salvation. In 1 Timothy 1:12–17, he thanks Christ Jesus for transforming him from a blasphemer and persecutor into a faithful minister. This was due to the overflowing grace of our Lord. The heart of Paul’s confession of salvation is the trustworthy saying that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That included even such a prime sinner as Paul himself, who was saved as a pattern or example. Given that the Lord saved Paul, there is no reason to doubt that he can also save anyone who believes. This recollection of grace shown to him, and extended to others, again results in praise: To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
This doxological outburst at the beginning of the letter is echoed by another towards its conclusion. There Paul speaks of Christ, who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen (6:15–16).
There are several observations to be made at this point.
First, it is clear from the comparison of 1 Timothy 1 and 6 that ascribing glory to God alone is in no way meant to exclude Christ. Paul’s doxologies are heartfelt acts of worship. And the worship he directs to the only God in chapter 1, he directs to the Christ in chapter 6. From this it follows, of course, that Christ is God.
Second, glory and honor are given to God, essentially considered; that is to say, in view of the divine nature. Because the three persons of the Trinity are “one true eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (WLC 9), glory is ascribed to one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus Christians do worship one who is man, but they worship him because he is God.
Third, as God alone receiving glory is the outcome of salvation, so it is also the purpose of salvation. This is abundantly clear from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Election unto salvation was to the praise of his glorious grace (1:6). The counsel of God’s will concerning those who hope in Christ (i.e., predestination to faith) was so that we might be to the praise of his glory (1:12). Sealing with the Holy Spirit is likewise to the praise of his glory (1:14). God’s motive in salvation was grace; the end envisioned was his own glory.
Fourth, there is, therefore, an intimate connection between our salvation and God’s glory. The two are not in competition. As stated in the first question of the Westminster Assembly’s Larger Catechism: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him for ever.” Due to the fall into sin, man does not willingly glorify God or enjoy him. Salvation restores both elements. God receives the glory for saving such wretches; and we begin to delight in the God of such sovereign grace.
Fifth, this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that there is a genuine sense in which God’s glory is broader and more ultimate than salvation. In Revelation 4 and 5 there are visions of two heavenly worship services. The first ascribes glory and honor and power to God in view of creation (4:11). The second recounts a song sung to the Lamb for his saving work (5:9–10). The grounds for glorifying God, then, are wider than redemption. Indeed, this could not fail to be the case: ultimately the grounds for glorifying God are as wide as God’s own perfect being.
Sixth, God is therefore worthy of praise even before and apart from salvation. The glory of God is a higher good than the salvation of mankind. While it is only those who experience salvation who willingly glorify God, we must not make an idol of human good. God’s mercy and grace are past all our ability to express or even conceive; but it would be no kindness at all for us to replace God’s supremacy in God’s own purposes.
Seventh, thus the Reformation solas persistently put mankind in his place. We have no knowledge of God apart from his self-revelation. We have no ability to earn our salvation, but Christ must do all for us and in our place. We have no basis on which to claim any of the benefits of Christ’s work except God’s unfettered kindness. Even when we come to receive Christ freely offered in the gospel, we give nothing in exchange: in this connection, faith is a strictly receptive faculty. Thus the first four solas highlight the radical poverty of created and fallen man before the creating and redeeming God.
Conclusion: Where We Stand
The last sola reminds us of where we stand. We are not the center of the universe, God is. The sovereign, covenant Lord tell us: I, I am he who blots out your transgression for my own sake (Isa. 43:25). Even in salvation, we are not central. God will be glorified, and God will be glorified in the salvation of sinners who can contribute nothing to their own salvation. In this way, it is no hindrance to our happiness that it is less important than God’s glory. In fact, it is no small part of our joy and comfort to sing with ancient Israel, Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness (Ps. 115:1).
For Further Study
- Listen to our interview with David VanDrunen on his book God’s Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life.
- Camden Bucey speaks about the abiding significance of the five solas today.
- Jonathan Edwards, “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence.”
- B. B. Warfield, “Paul’s Earliest Gospel” in The Power of God Unto Salvation.
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ sermons on Romans 11:33–36 (“The Great Doxology”; “The Only Hope”; “All of God”).
- John Brown (Haddington), Questions and Answers on the Shorter Catechism.