If you’re familiar with Reformed doctrine, you likely know the TULIP acronym—Total depravity, Irresistible grace, Limited atonement, Unconditional election, and Perseverance of the saints. While I believe these five teachings are biblical and the acronym is memorable, I’m partial to the Five Solas of the Reformation. They provide a more comprehensive framework of Christian fundamentals while typically proving more accessible to a general audience.
Technically, the Five Solas did not begin with the Protestant Reformation. We find all five in the writings of early church fathers. Furthermore, the Reformers never articulated these doctrines in the Five-Sola structure. That was a later development, coming together throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Even so, we tend to credit the Reformers because the Five Solas evolved from the theological clarity they gave the church.
If we have any interest in proving Richard Phillips wrong—he said, “Theology bores today’s Christians”—and planting our feet on a solid foundation of biblical truth, we could hardly do better than to study and understand the Five Solas. I’ll briefly define them here.
Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)
The Bible must be our final authority in every matter because Scripture is how God speaks to us. Creeds and confessions—the Five Solas, for example—can benefit us tremendously. Church tradition can teach us many lessons. God has given us pastors and leaders. But Scripture alone is our inerrant and infallible authority. It should always have the ultimate say.
Sola Gratia (grace alone)
We are saved by God’s grace—full stop. We cannot earn our way into heaven. No amount of good deeds or commandment-keeping will outweigh our sins. If not for God’s gracious, unmerited favor, we are without an ounce of hope.
Sola Fide (faith alone)
We are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8). Without faith, it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). Faith is God’s chosen means by which he justifies us. We come to him empty-handed, trusting that he alone has the power to save.
Solus Christus (Christ alone)
We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21). Jesus is the sole object of our faith. We trust that his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to save.
Soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone)
We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone. We are guilty of critical errors if his honor isn’t at the heart of our beliefs and practices. Any doctrine that elevates man above God is undoubtedly unbiblical.
These Five Solas are vital because, if for no other reason, they distinguish genuine Christianity from every other religion. For example, liberal “Christianity” rejects Sola Scriptura. The entire structure collapses once you pull that piece out of the Jenga tower. Our religion becomes altogether subjective, arbitrary, and meaningless. Islam is another example. Muslims pay homage to Jesus as a prophet but deny Solus Christus and Sola Fide. They believe one earns eternal life, rendering Christ’s atonement unnecessary.
As Gabriel N.E. Fluhrer writes in his book, The Beauty of Divine Grace:
The five solas offer us the biblical Jesus. The One who was unswervingly committed to the inerrancy and final authority of the Scriptures (Jn 10:35). The One who taught us that grace alone (Mt 20:1-16), through faith alone (Jn 5:24), is the way of salvation. The One who glorified God alone through every minute of his life (Jn 17:4) because He knows that we cannot.
This is the Jesus that we need. This is the Jesus that the world needs. We will meet Him only if we embrace the five solas.