Whatever age we live in, whether the age of the Reformers or the present age, we are tempted to pollute the beauty of Christ through our idols. John Calvin said it’s in our very nature: “Man’s nature. . . . is a perpetual factory of idols. . . . Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.”
The doctrine of solus Christus was highlighted during the Reformation as the Reformers identified the problem of a church that was casting shade on Christ; of a church that was arrogating to itself prerogatives that belong to Christ alone. This problem impressed upon the Reformers the need to purge anything that would throw shade upon the absolute brilliance of Christ’s supremacy in our salvation. The Reformers clearly identified this problem and brought a biblical and theological solution that provides application for our own day.
The Problem of a Strong Church
In the early sixteenth century, the church was at the center of people’s lives in Western Europe. Over the previous centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had devolved from the “Company of the Saved” to the “Salvation Company.”
What is meant by “Salvation Company”? Luther recognized that in his day people had become enslaved to the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church, and instead of looking to Christ for their standing before God they looked to the Church. It was thought that because of Christ, Mary, and the saints there was a storehouse of grace in the Catholic Church. Priests were its sole dispensers and the faithful had to come to them.
In 1520, Luther wrote The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, where he attacked the sacramental system of the church. That system, Luther said, represented a captivity that had become its own Babylon, holding captive the people of God from cradle to grave: In the church one was baptized as an infant, confirmed as a youth, married as a mature person, and received extreme unction on one’s deathbed. Each of these sacraments, along with ordination, were seen as conveying grace when administered by a priest. The grace conferred was supplemented throughout one’s life by two further sacraments: regular confession of sin to a priest and the reception of the Eucharist through a priestly Mass.
From cradle to the grave, the Christian was dependent upon the Catholic Church, tethered to the sacraments in order to receive the grace by which one can be saved.
Luther looked to Scripture and saw only two sacraments. The effect of his teaching was to shift focus from the Catholic Church and its clergy to Christ alone—salvation not from a company with priests turning on the taps of grace, as it were, but salvation in a singular person: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Stripped of this ornate sacramentology, one might ask where one went for grace? If the Catholic Church had it very wrong, what were believers to do? Where would Reformers such as Luther point them?
There’s a famous painting of Luther in the City Church (the Stadtkirche) in Wittenberg where he is standing in the pulpit preaching. He holds one hand up with his index finger extended, pointing to Christ on the cross. Believers should look to Christ alone.
When Luther said “the cross alone is our theology,” it was an affront to the whole Roman Catholic system: Solus Christus drove the whole program of reform in the church, scrubbing away the pollution of man-made tradition.
Thus, Luther and the other Reformers, in seeking to redress the effects of harmful teaching regarding how we are made right before God, chipped away at the accumulated traditions and focused on Christ and how His person and work are central to our faith.
The Solution of a Strong Savior
The Reformers’ answer to the problem of a strong church is the strong Savior found in the authoritative Scriptures. Consider 1 John 1:1–4:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
On the one hand, the Reformers did not have a Christological beef with the Roman Catholic Church in its day. That is to say, Jesus Christ as having two natures—truly God and truly Man—in one person was the classical Christology that the Reformers carried forward in their own teaching.
As John says, this Son was with the Father from all eternity, but has also been touched with our hands: one Son, both divine and human. This beautiful Christ, though, needed to be freshly presented in order for people to see that He and He alone is the source and sum of our salvation.
It’s as if the Reformers in their preaching and writing took up their brush and filled in the whole picture of salvation with nothing but Christ. Not even the smallest brushstroke could display the Roman Catholic Church and her priests as adding to that picture, for to do so would be to pollute the picture of salvation.
Where did the Reformers go, then, to fill in their picture of Christ? Each of the solas rests on the first: sola Scriptura. Scripture alone is the place where we go to gain our picture of Christ. Therefore, they went to places like 1 John, aware that the book started off with a picture of Christ and ended with a warning to keep from idols. They went to Colossians 2:9: “For in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” The full incarnate Son of God—truly God and truly Man in one person—is our only hope of salvation. In all His strength He must save us, bridging the gap with His powerful mediation. In Christ there is not only perfect humanity but also “the whole fullness of deity.” The Reformation gospel is the holding forth of this, the announcement of all that is in Christ Jesus for the fullness of our salvation.
A Theology of the Cross
If we add to the picture of salvation through our empty works or false mediators, then we preach what Luther called a “theology of glory” instead of a “theology of the cross”—thus robbing Christ of His glory as our strong Savior.
Is this still a temptation for the church today? It might take different forms than the late medieval Roman Catholic Church, but certainly it is.
We are always tempted to pursue a “theology of glory” that pollutes the pristine picture of salvation given to us in the Word. A theology of glory wants God but bypasses the cross, thus inserting human devices in reaching up to God. Solus Christus was needed in the sixteenth century and is needed in the twenty-first century in order to press upon us the fact that our relationship with God can be mediated by none other than Christ alone.
This article is part of the What Are the Five Solas? collection.