The Soul of the Solas
It puzzles me deeply that so few are puzzled deeply by the paradox. We are so used to the befuddling language that we miss its befuddling nature. It ought to stop us in our tracks and arrest our attention, like those signs I see for Fifth Third Bank. Fifth Bank I could understand. Third Bank I could understand. I could understand them merging to become Fourth Bank. But Fifth Third Bank? What does that even mean?
In like manner, how is it that when our spiritual ancestors, our theological heroes, set out to tell us one thing, they ended up telling us five things? Suppose I had lived in a cave for the last five hundred years and then met someone who wanted to get me up to speed on the Reformation and what I should believe. What if they said: “There are five things. The first one is sola…”? Would I not have to say: “Stop right there. If there are five, how can even one of them be called sola?”
It does, of course, in the end make perfect sense. The alones are not alone because they are talking, in a manner of speaking, on different wavelengths. An infinite line is really infinite, but it doesn’t cover everything. An infinite plane is, in a manner of speaking, even more infinite than an infinite line, but it doesn’t cover everything. What sola Scriptura is seeking to keep out isn’t grace, faith, Christ, or God’s glory. It’s trying to keep out unbiblical tradition. Grace alone doesn’t exclude the Bible, faith, Christ, or the glory of God.
In a very real sense, though they spin on different axes, these five are one. The Bible alone is God’s infallible revelation of His glory, which reveals His grace in Christ, which becomes ours through the gift of faith. God’s grace is uniquely revealed in His Word, which reveals the work of Christ, which becomes ours by faith, all redounding to His glory. The solas are precise and potent affirmations of this truth—it’s all about God. They remind us not just how we might have peace with God but that peace with God is not the full and final end of all things. They remind us that the story of the Bible isn’t simply how we who are in dire straits can make it to safety and how nice God is to play such an important role in making that happen. Instead, they remind us that He is the end, and we are the means. The story is about Him and His glory more than us and our comfort.
Jesus makes much the same point in the Sermon on the Mount. He recognizes our weaknesses. We are self-centered, concerned with ourselves and what we perceive our needs to be. So, we worry about what we will eat and what we will wear. We fret about our provision and our status. What Jesus doesn’t tell us, however, is: “Now, look, you have no need to worry about these things because you have someone on your side. Other people might need to worry, but you don’t because my Father in heaven is for you. You can pursue these things with confidence, knowing that you have the supreme advantage of having the supreme being on your side.”
What He tells us instead is surprising. He tells us to set aside our petty concerns and, depending on how you look at it, to set our minds on one or two things. He said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Do we now have seven solas? Ought we to add the kingdom and His righteousness to the alones? By no means. These are all still together the one thing. There is an organic unity not only between the kingdom and the righteousness but between these two solas and the five solas of the Reformation. We are not failing to pursue the kingdom of God when we are seeking after His righteousness. We are not failing to pursue His righteousness when we are seeking after His kingdom. We are pursuing one thing— one way—to honor and serve our Maker and Redeemer by affirming our dependence on Him and His preeminence in all things.
The God we serve is one. As such, He calls us to follow one path. His commands are never and can never be pitted against each other. His wisdom is never and can never be pitted against itself. His grace is never and can never be pit ted against His character. When we find ourselves torn, confused, pulled in different directions, it isn’t because we are faithfully following Him but because we are not. It isn’t because we are faithfully heeding His voice but because we are not.
The two—His kingdom and His righteousness—are one as the five— the solas of the Reformation—are one as the Three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are One. And these three groupings are one as well. In the end, they are all about the beginning. From the beginning they have always been about the end. For our lives are and always will be bound up together in the Alpha and the Omega.