The “Alones” of the Reformation

October 25, 2015   Deuteronomy 6: 1-9   Romans 10: 9-14

Rev. Catherine Purves


     The Reformation was a huge event that changed world history, and not just in terms of religion.  It had far reaching consequences for government and culture; it changed the face of Europe.  The Reformation caused such rapid and irreversible change that its effects might be more accurately described as a revolution, though the aim of those who led the Reformation was simply to reform and restore the church that they loved.  As Presbyterians, we trace our roots back to those turbulent days in the 16th century when first Luther, then Calvin, Knox, Zwingli and others stood up to the powers of the Church of Rome and called for reform.  They shaped who we are and how we understand and practice our faith today.  On the Sunday before All Saints’ Day we remember their witness and our Reformation heritage.  We give thanks for their courage and their wisdom and their unshakable convictions about how we are called to be the church. 

      When I think of the Reformation what inspires me most is the passion of the reformers who were risking their lives by taking a stand against Rome.  In fact, if the Church of Rome and the pope were right, they were risking their very salvation, because they were all excommunicated for their beliefs and actions.  This kind of passion and commitment seems so far removed from the church today.  What do we risk in choosing to be Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist?  Nothing.  How easy it is today to drift from church to church.  This would have been inconceivable to the great reformers.  And, of course, today it is just as easy to choose no church, as people’s passions and commitments are invested elsewhere in family, career, sports teams, and secular belief systems.  What strikes me, and what modern folks may be in danger of losing, is the focused and singular driving force of the Reformation.  We see this in the five Alones that summarize the beliefs, the passion, and the commitment of those reformers whose life and witness we celebrate today.

     The five Alones came to be recognized, after the fact, as the motivating force behind the Reformation.  They were why and how the reformers re-envisioned the Church of Jesus Christ.  They were not rallying slogans, but bedrock truths that justified and demanded the world-changing transformation of the church that took place during the Reformation years.  The five Alones were:  Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria.  That is, Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone, and Glory to God Alone.  Five Alones together sum up the passion of the Reformation church.

     I wonder if the relative lack of passion in the modern church is because we don’t have any Alones.  Or at least, we don’t have Alones that define who we are and what we must do and be.  The singularity of the Alones seems counter-cultural in this day of diversity and inclusivity and tolerance.  I wouldn’t say that these aspects of modern society are necessarily bad things, but in a multi-cultural, free-thinking environment, statements with the word alone in them are often thought to be judgmental and small-minded.  That leads me to wonder if there still are some things that so guide our understanding and shape our sense of self that we could claim them as Alones?  Or must all of our beliefs be relative and subject to some external validation?  Or even worse, is what we believe now totally fluid and malleable, without the touchstone of any Alones? 

     We find no such modern wishy-washy-ness in the words of Scripture.  And, in fact, Sola Scriptura, the conviction that Scripture Alone provides our window into the truth of what God has done in Jesus Christ, was the first great Alone that started the Reformation.  The reformers deeply believed that Scripture Alone must shape the church’s life and beliefs.  And when we look at Scripture itself we see that same uncompromising singularity of vision.  From the book of Deuteronomy, “Hear, O Israel:  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”   God made an absolute and total claim on the lives of the people of Israel.  The Lord alone and the Word of God alone determine everything else.  This is why one of the goals of the Reformation was putting the Bible into the hands of the people in their own language, so that they could know God directly through Scripture Alone and not just as God was described in the tradition or papal pronouncements of the Church of Rome.

     The next two Alones are closely related.  Faith Alone and Grace Alone both emphasize the fact that our salvation depends on faith and that it is a gift of God’s grace.  Contrary to the teaching of the Church of Rome, good works cannot restore our relationship with God.  It is our trust in Jesus Christ and what he has done for us that is the basis of our salvation:  Faith Alone.  And the reformers all agreed that our faith is a gift from God.  Faith is not something that we choose to have; it is something that we receive by God’s grace.  Grace Alone is what saves us.  We can never make ourselves good enough to earn or deserve salvation , either by good deeds, or penance, or by relying on the merit of the saints as the Church of Rome then taught.  It is God’s free grace alone that saves us and that enables us, as Paul says, to confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and to believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead and so be saved.  Faith Alone and Grace Alone!

     The fourth Alone to be recognized as defining the passion and motivating force behind the Reformation is Christ Alone.  Sometimes it is stated as Through Christ Alone.  The sense here is that Christ is our only mediator.  He alone stands between us and the Father, and he, in himself, is our reconciliation.  We need no other intermediaries, whether they be saints, or the Virgin Mary, or priests, or popes, or the institution of the church itself to mediate God’s grace to us.  Only Christ, Christ Alone is the one who saves us.  As Paul again emphasized in his letter to the Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

     This Reformation certainty about the centrality of Christ Alone led the reformers to place a huge emphasis on preaching.  This was, of course, linked with the first Alone, Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone.  If we can only know God through Christ as he is revealed in the Scriptures, then the proclamation of the word of God is essential for our Spirit-led growth in faith.  The reformers heard these words of Paul as a direct challenge, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”  This is why preaching and teaching are so important to us in the Presbyterian church.  It is through the faithful proclamation of God’s saving acts in Jesus Christ that we come to have faith in God’s grace alone and it is how we come to know Christ alone as our Lord and Savior. 

     The fifth and final Alone, Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God Alone, reveals why the reformers were so passionate about what they wrote and proclaimed and lived.  It was all to give God glory, and, as such, it was an act of worship.  That, alone, is what we are here in this world to do, to glorify God.  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”  Nothing else can occupy that top spot.  If we are called to live and breathe and act to give glory to God alone, then you can see why the reformer Martin Luthersaid these bold words in defense of his reforming activities, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything…  Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.” 

     Five Alones together drove the passion and conviction of the Reformation:  Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone, and Glory to God Alone.  This is our heritage.  This is our faith.  As we remember and celebrate our roots in the Reformation, may God grant to us a clarity of vision and a commitment to the five Alones, like that of the great reformers, so that we will know without doubt who we are, what we believe, and how we must live to give glory to God alone.