Two theological slogans became the watchwords of the Protestant Reformation: Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and Sola Fide (faith alone). The Protestant Reformers wanted to cut through the non-Biblical traditions that had become such a part of the Western church's faith and practice that they were set on a par with clearly Biblical teachings. These non-Biblical views and practices included popery, penance, and purgatory. The Council of Trent later solidified Rome's conviction that unwritten traditions are no less authoritative than the Bible itself. This, of course, the Reformers (rightly) could never abide.1
The issue of the relationship between God's grace and human works in salvation had been unclear in the post-apostolic church from almost the very first. It was clear that salvation was "by grace," and it was equally clear that God expected good works of His people. What was not fully understood is how these two were to be precisely related. By the late medieval period, in both East and West, salvation was defined largely as a cooperative effort — God got the ball rolling, but man had his part in keeping it rolling. In the Roman Catholic Church, God was understood to infuse grace at baptism; but man later cooperated with this grace and performed good works, which elicited God's favor. It was still held that salvation was of grace, since God demonstrated His grace in His willingness to save on the ground of Christ's death; but man had his contribution to make, too.2
The Reformers were convinced (with the church father Augustine) that salvation is totally a work of God. They were confident, further, that faith played a more dominant role in appropriating salvation than the church had hitherto recognized. In fact, they believed that justification, defined as God's judicial declaration of man's righteousness on account of Christ's life and death, was appropriated by faith alone. Their heirs have called it the "instrumental cause" of justification. Faith, in other words, is certainly not the source of salvation, nor is it the ground of salvation, but it is the only instrument or means of salvation — and justification in particular. Since they believed that faith itself is a gift of God, this totally excluded good works as the means of justification and preserved salvation as totally God's work.
Like all great revivals in the history of the church, the Reformation left certain issues unaddressed.3 After all, no reformation is comprehensive, and no reformation could be expected to reform everything that needs reformed. The heirs of the Reformers, the Protestant scholastics, hardened the new insights of the Reformers into a dogmatic system, just as the medieval Schoolmen had created a dogmatic system of the earlier orthodox exegesis and Aristotle's philosophy. Systemization is at the root of all scholasticism.
One vital fact that tended to be obscured by some Reformed scholasticism was Christ Himself, Whose redemptive work as such was not really an issue during the Reformation: both Rome and Reformed believed that Christ's death on the Cross redeemed man from sin. Because this was not at issue, it was not a prominent matter of discussion. When we read the Bible itself, of course, we see quite differently. In fact, there we observe that the Bible is an infallible record of redemptive history centering in Jesus Christ. The great "redemptive complex" of His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and future Second Coming form the heart of the Bible — and of Christianity.4 In fact, this redemptive complex and its implications are what Christianity is all about. If we are to look for the key to the Bible and the entire Christian Faith, the only possible answer we can come up with is sola Christus: Christ alone. This by no means detracts from the fullness of God — orthodox, Biblical Trinitarianism — it simply means that Jesus Christ is the central figure and Mediator of God's dealings with man (Jn. 14:6; Ac. 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5).5 Jesus Christ's work in history is the intersecting point of what I call the four segments of the Christian quadrilateral: history, doctrine, experience, and community. You can't take away one of these factors and still have Christianity, but more important than any of them is the One around whom the entire scheme revolves — our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. When we lose this Christocentric (Christ-centered) focus, we begin to lose the Faith itself. We then think, for example, that the Faith is mainly about abstract theological propositions; if we can just dot our theological t's and cross our dogmatic i's, we will be all right. Or, on the other hand, if we can just capture that "greater experience" — that feeling closeness to God, that filling of the Spirit, or what have you — we will have reached the Christian summit. Or, if we can just get into the right (perfect) church, with the right community of saints who love and care for God and for each other, we will have arrived. History, doctrine, experience, and community are essential to the Faith, but they are not the Faith. Jesus Christ Himself is the Faith. Intelligent people often get sucked into a dogmatically centered faith. Emotional people often get sucked into an experience-centered faith. Relational people often get sucked into a community-centered faith. Dogma, experience and community are good in their place, and that place is essential — there is can be no true Christianity without them.
But they are not the foundation of our Faith. Jesus Christ in His Person and Work is the foundation of our Faith (Eph. 2:20). This is why the New Testament apostles so relentlessly preached faith in the crucified and risen Lord as man's only hope (1 Cor. 2:2; 15:1-4; 1 Jn. 5:12).
From this Christocentricity flows changed individuals, changed families, changed churches, changed societies, changed nations, and changed civilizations.6 The worldwide transformation predicted by the Old Testament prophets is the result of a worldwide Christ-centeredness (Phil. 2:5-11). The answer to the world's evil and sin, therefore, is not more shrewd, glossy evangelistic or political strategies; or more precise, academic theology; or greater Christian emotion and experience. A changed world is a result of changing the focus of the entire world to the One by Whom it consists, or is held together (Col. 1:15-17).
For man made in the image of God, solus Christus (Christ alone) will — and must — suffice.
1. G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), ch. 3 and passim.
2. See Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification - The Beginnings to the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
3. Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing), 4-6.
4. Oscar Cullmann, Salvation in History (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1967).
5. Idem., The Earliest Christian Confessions (London: Lutterworth Press, 1949), 39-41.
6. Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1960).
- P. Andrew Sandlin
P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author. He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California. He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation. He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).