A Reformation Meditation Series on Solus Christus: Attack On The Sufficiency Of Christ (2/4)

A Reformation Meditation Series on Solus Christus: Attack On The Sufficiency Of Christ (2/4)

(This is the second installment of a four-part Reformation meditation series on Solus Christus. Click  here  to read the first part.)

(This is the second installment of a four-part Reformation meditation series on Solus Christus. Click here to read the first part.)

by Corey McLaughlin

Solus Christus Then

             Within the context of the Reformation each sola affirms something and denies something else.  The final authority of the church is sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) rather than tradition.[1]  Salvation comes sola fide (by faith alone) rather than by a combination of faith and good works,[2] as well as sola gratia (by grace alone) which excludes any and all human effort or cooperation, in solus Christus (Christ alone) as the only mediator of that grace rather than penance, sacraments, the Priests, the heavenly Saints, or Mary, all to and for soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone) rather than man.

            In this context then, solus Christus means two things: (1) Jesus is the only way to the Kingdom for there is no other name by which humanity must be saved (Acts 4:12; i.e. a claim of exclusivity), and (2) Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection can and does erase all sin past, present, and future sin in a believer’s life without a drop of their own merit or the need for anything else to be added (Heb. 10:19, 22; i.e. a claim to sufficiency).[3] While both Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church agreed in the first instance, that salvation is in Christ alone and no other, they vehemently disagreed in the second. 

The Medieval Catholic church taught (and still teaches) that the sacraments of communion and baptism were not merely special, but necessary for salvation, the very means by which believers receive God’s grace into their soul to cleanse them of their sins and free them to cooperate with God in order to earn His favor through deeds done in righteousness.[4]  If those same believers die before their soul is fully cleansed they go to purgatory where they can be purified through pain and so made ready to stand before a holy God.  If a living family member was concerned about the soul of their loved one after passing, they could purchase time off their sentence by making a donation to the Church and receive an indulgence.  The Roman Catholic Church would then in turn dip into what is called the Treasury of Merit, a kind of bank account made up of all the good deeds of all the saints of all time, and then apply some of the Saints righteousness earned through good works to abrogate that loved one’s time in purgatory.[5]  Of course, if the Pope has this power in the first place Luther asked the pressing question in his 95 Thesis, #82, “Why does not the pope empty purgatory…?”  In fact, official Roman Catholic teaching did (and does) deny the all sufficiency of Jesus Christ.  In contradistinction, Protestants raised the flag of Jesus plus nothing equals salvation and dug in deep against the aberrant abuses of what they termed the “harlot riding the beast” (Rev. 17:3); a corrupted copy of the pure white bride of Christ and therefore a false church.[6]

            The main fight for the Reformers took place not on the battleground of the exclusivity of Christ alone, but whether Christ alone was a sufficient savior.  While Jesus’ death and resurrection is enough to bring someone into faith,[7] was it enough to keep them there and cleanse them fully of all the sins they accrue from that point onward?  Rome’s answers was “No.”  The Reformers rebuffed, “Yes,” citing 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus…”, to prove that Christ alone is the sole mediator.  The Catholic Church agreed on this point too, but argued that Mary and the Saints do not stand between God and man like Jesus does, rather they stand between Jesus and humanity.  Herein laid the problem.  Rome’s theology was always “Jesus and…”        

The Reformers then argued that Christ exceeded all conditions and limitations by mediating for His people in his threefold office as Prophet, Priest, and King

As Prophet Christ is the supreme teacher, not the magisterium which claimed the power to declare official teaching of the church infallible if they so determined. 

As High Priest, Christ alone has the authority to absolve the sins of His people, not the Catholic priests.  And unlike the sacramental system that drip feeds grace like morphine for an aching soul requiring the believer to always come back for more, Christ invites the soul to rest fully and solely in His proclamation, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). 

As King Christ rules in the hearts and mind of His people, not the Pope despite his claim to be the “Vicar of Christ” (one who stands in the place of Christ and speaks for Him).[8]  The breadth and depth and height of Christ’s work is unfathomable. Blogger R. Scott Clark parses this out a bit more, 

 “The heart of the gospel is not about us. The heart of the gospel is Christ for us (Christus pro nobis). This was the essence of Paul’s message: that Christ came for us, to do for us what we could not and would not do. He obeyed. He was crucified. He was raised. He is ascended. He is returning.  The medieval church turned the gospel into a message about what Christ is doing in us, by grace, in sanctification, and about what we must do to do our part in order to benefit: cooperate with grace. The good news is that we have no part, not in this story. We’re recipient. We’re beggars; we’re not contributors to the story.”[9]

Solus Christus The Unifying Sola

            What we need to know, to remember, to apply, to hold closely and grip with locked muscles is the centrality of Solus Christus.   

It is easy to get the impression that the solas of the Reformation are disconnected from one another since they are always dealt with individually, but in fact we ought to think of them as something that are unified in teaching and spirit.  Stephen Wellum summarizes it best:

Grace (sola gratia) is based upon the person and work of Christ. Faith (sola fidei) is in Christ and his completed work. The Scripture (sola Scriptura) finds its center in Christ who is the fulfillment of all the Scriptures. Solus Christus emphasizes both the exclusive identity of Christ and the sufficiency of his work. In sum, Christ is the subject matter of the Scriptures, he is central to the gospel, and he is the heart of all of theology. This means Christ alone connects “all the doctrines of our theology because Christ alone stands as the cornerstone of all the purposes and plans of God himself.” All of this redounds to God’s glory (soli Deo Gloria).”[10] 

Solus Christus also further defines grace.  First as an act of God’s munificent will, but then as the salvation story continues we learn that grace is not a substance, a thing, something I can hold in my hand or pour in my lap. Grace is a someone, Jesus Christ himself (Jn. 1:14-17; Titus 3:4-6).[11]  So Paul can say, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men…” (Titus 2:11-14) precisely because what has appeared is Jesus Christ, “born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law, that we might receive our adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5).  That adoption is then signed, sealed, and delivered to your front door by faith (sola fide).  No matter how we define it, solus Christus is the gravitational center all the solas and the one that if lost, will cause all the others to spiral off into oblivion like planets without their star.[12] 

And so Martin Luther concludes, "I must listen to the gospel. It tells me not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for me."[13] 


Next WeekSolus Christus – A Reformation Meditation Part 3: 

Attack On The Exclusivity of Christ





[1] In Roman Catholic doctrine the Church has a magisterial authority, it is the highest court and final appeal for all matters of faith and practice.  The Reformers downgraded this to a ministerial authority within each church’s local context and lifted up sola Scriptura as the magisterial authority for all churches everywhere.

[2] This is sometimes written wrongly as sola fides rather than sola fide.  While that does not seem to be a large difference, sola fides is in the nominative case essentially meaning “faith alone” i.e. a faith that is alone (not accompanied by any good works).  Sola fide, the Reformation sola, is on the other hand in the ablative case, the instrumental case, meaning “by faith alone,” thus emphasizing faith as the instrument and leaving open the idea that this faith is not alone.  This is important because Reformed doctrine speaks in exactly this way, we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone precisely because true, saving faith produces good works and fruit.

[3] These two aspects are pointed out by Stephen Wellum in Solus Christus:  What The Reformers Taught and Why It Still Matters (accessed 3/16/2016).  Note also his forthcoming book, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus As Savior. 

[4] This is called the doctrine of infusion and stands in contrast to the Reformed doctrine of imputation.  For an explanation and defense see R.C. Sproul’s Faith Alone.     

[5] Question 1471, “What Is an indulgence?” in The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives this answer: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”

[6] Doctor Collins comments on Rev. 17:3, “In the context of the message of Revelation, which draws heavily upon the Israelite covenant symbolism, the word implies that the woman does not represent a pagan or secular power but the unfaithful spouse of Yahweh, an apostate church” (The Final Prophecy of Jesus, Wipf & Stock, 2007:  387).  The antichrist (i.e. the beast) is the power for this “adulterous church” (394) which is pictured sitting on seven hills (Rev. 17:9), a clear allusion to Rome which sits on seven hills.  Collins remarks, “this would have been obvious to the first readers of this text” (395).  Collins understands this to refer to Papal Rome even today.       

[7] This is called initial justification which is seen as a free act of God in Christ.  Final justification comes only as believers cooperate with God’s grace to be made perfect.  Only perfected souls can enter the gates of heaven, hence the need for purgatory to cleanse leftover sins.  Initial justification takes away the guilt and shame of original sin, but it does not deal with continued sin the believer accrues.  For this, the sacraments deliver the necessary grace to become more righteous and thus attain as close as possible to holy perfection. Some of the difficulty in discussing Roman Catholic doctrine is that both Protestants and Catholics use the same terms, but intend different meanings.  When Protestants speak of justification it is a legal declaration that those who are in Christ are free from both the guilt and penalty of all their sin, past, present, future, because of what Christ accomplished.    

[8] Those interested in understanding Catholic doctrine better should consult apologist, debater and defender of Protestant claims, James R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, and, Answers to Catholic Claims.

[9] The Heart of the Gospel (and Sola Scriptura Too).

[10] For more on why Christ alone is the center of the solas see Stephen Wellum’s article, Solus Christus:  What The Reformers Taught and Why It Still Matters (accessed 3/15/2016), in which he rightly observes, “The word spoken by God, the faith given by God, the grace extended by God, and the glory possessed and promised by God cannot make sense apart from the divine Son who became a man for our salvation.”

[11] Theologian Sinclair Ferguson comments, “It is legitimate to speak of "receiving grace," and sometimes (although I am somewhat cautious about the possibility of misusing this language) we speak of the preaching of the Word, prayer, baptism, and the Lord's Supper as "means of grace." That is fine, so long as we remember that there isn't a thing, a substance, or a "quasi-substance" called "grace." All there is, is the person of the Lord Jesus.”… If I can highlight the thought here: there is no "thing" that Jesus takes from Himself and then, as it were, hands over to me. There is only Jesus Himself. Grasping that thought can make a significant difference to a Christian's life (By Grace Alone:  An Interview with Sinclair Ferguson (accessed 3/15/2017).

[12] The father of Reformed Biblical theology, Geerhardus Vos, uses more philosophical categories to elucidate the dynamics of justification.  He explains, “The effective cause (causa efficiens) of justification is God, more accurately God the Father, and still more accurately His grace and righteousness. The meritorious cause is the obedience of Christ the Mediator (causa meritoria). The instrumental cause (causa instrumentalis) is faith worked in the heart through the Holy Spirit and then put into action. The final cause (causa finalis) is the glorification of God regarding all His virtues related to justification” (Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2014), 152.

[13] Commentary On The Epistle To The Galatians by Martin Luther (Gal. 2:4-5), trans. by Theodore Graebner, 2012 Authentic Media Limited.  A few lines of context are helpful for this quote, “Some will object that the Law is divine and holy. Let it be divine and holy. The Law has no right to tell me that I must be justified by it. The Law has the right to tell me that I should love God and my neighbor, that I should live in chastity, temperance, patience, etc. The Law has no right to tell me how I may be delivered from sin, death, and hell. It is the Gospel's business to tell me that. I must listen to the Gospel. It tells me, not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has done for me.”

Advent Christian Unity

Advent Christian Unity

A Reformation Meditation Series on Solus Christus: Martin Luther & Solus Christus (1/4)

A Reformation Meditation Series on Solus Christus: Martin Luther & Solus Christus (1/4)