When we discuss the Reformation slogan solus Christus, it is important to understand the precise point of dispute. The Reformers did not reject the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of the person of Christ. Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, which address the person and identity of Christ, were not the issues of debate and disagreement. The theologians of the Reformed churches readily used the biblical and theological arguments of patristic and medieval theologians to defend traditional Trinitarianism and Christology.
The problem, then, was not the person of Christ. The problem was the work of Christ. The debate centered on the sacramental system Rome had constructed, a system in which the grace of Christ was mediated to the people through an elaborate system of priests and sacramental works. Through this sacramental system, the Roman church effectively controlled the Christian’s life from birth (baptism) to death (extreme unction) and even beyond (masses for the dead).
Martin Luther and the other Reformers realized that this elaborate system of works obscured the person and work of Christ as it was so clearly taught in Scripture. Luther argued that the papacy, through this sacramental system, had usurped the prerogatives of Christ, making itself the dispenser of God’s grace. Christ alone, and not the church, however, is our only Mediator (Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 181). As Huldrych Zwingli proclaimed, “Christ is the only way of salvation of all who were, are now, or shall be.” In Article 54 of his Sixty-Seven Articles (1523), Zwingli explicitly contrasts the Roman sacramentalist view with solus Christus:
Christ has borne all our pain and travail. Hence, whoever attributes to works of penance what is Christ’s alone, errs and blasphemes God.” The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that Christ alone is the object of our faith: “the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. (14.2)
The Reformers and their heirs were intent on proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified (The Reformers and their heirs were intent on proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified (The Reformers and their heirs were intent on proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). They recognized that because Christ is the only way of salvation for man, He is central to the message of the Bible (Acts 4:12). Their books were Christ-centered. Their sermons were Christ-centered. Their worship was Christ-centered. All of this was in stark contrast to the man-centered religion of late medieval Roman Catholicism. If we are to see a new Reformation in our day, we too must believe and confess the biblical doctrine of solus Christus.
There are a number of works that can assist in our understanding of this doctrine. The following are merely a starting point.
- Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church
The Babylonian Captivity of the Church is the second of three great treatises Luther wrote in 1520 as part of his attack on the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church (the others were To the Christian Nobility and The Freedom of a Christian). The Babylonian Captivity is Luther’s scathing criticism of the Roman Catholic sacramental system. It is the place to begin in any attempt to understand the importance of solus Christus.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
John Calvin was a second generation Reformer who emphasized solus Christus as emphatically as Luther. In one sense, the entirety of his Institutes could be seen as an exposition of the idea of solus Christus, but his section on the Roman Church and sacraments in Book IV is must reading on the subject.
The Canons of the Synod of Dort are part of the Three Forms of Unity, the confessional standards for millions of Reformed Christians. They set forth a biblically grounded understanding of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
This little booklet provides a concise introduction to the doctrine of solus Christus, explaining why it is crucial to the Christian faith.
- Ronald H. Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?
In our own day, another issue has arisen that is directly related to the idea of solus Christus, namely the exclusivity of Christ as the only way of salvation. In our pluralistic world, this article of Christian faith has come under constant attack. This book by Ron Nash is a defense of the exclusivity of Christ as the only way of salvation. In it he deals with the pluralistic and inclusivistic views of men such as John Hick, for whom Jesus is merely one way of salvation among many.
This article is part of the Top Books on the Five Solas collection.