2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We're commemorating the anniversary by highlighting its five rallying themes: Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura), Faith Alone (Sola Fide), Christ Alone (Solo Christo), Grace Alone (Sola Gratia), and Glory to God Alone (Soli Deo Gloria).
In courtrooms, witnesses swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This statement recognizes that the truth can be distorted when some bits are left out or added in. Similarly, the Reformation theme “Christ alone” emphasizes that salvation is through faith in no one else but Christ, and nothing more than Christ.
We see this theme embodied in the Heidelberg Catechism: “Salvation cannot be found in anyone else; it is futile to look for any salvation elsewhere” (Q&A 29). And those seeking salvation “in saints, in themselves, or elsewhere” do not “really believe in the only Savior Jesus” even if “they boast of being his” (Q&A 30).
The Reformers were concerned that some church practices, such as venerating the saints, might distract our faith away from Christ. They were also concerned with tendencies to add good works onto faith in Jesus as conditions for salvation. We see this in Belgic Confession Article 22: “Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God—for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior.” Salvation is not faith in Christ plus something else; it is faith in Christ alone. This two-fold emphasis is still a challenge for us today.
This notion challenges popular religious sensibilities. In today’s multi-religious world, the exclusive claim of “Christ alone” is often, at best, an embarrassment. I frequently hear the objection, “Don’t all religions ultimately teach the same truths?”
Having grown up Buddhist in a Muslim country, and having served for 15 years as a Christian campus minister engaging various other faiths, I don’t think all religions teach the same truths. There are some truths that overlap, but there are fundamental and essential differences. In fact, they don’t even agree on what “salvation” is.
I believe salvation is not gained through enlightenment, obeying certain rules, or believing in certain truths. As we learned from the Reformation theme “faith alone,” salvation is through faith in Christ. It is a personal, holistic trust, not simply an intellectual assent to spiritual truths (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 21). And it’s faith in Christ alone. I can learn and benefit from what’s true in other religions, as I do from science, philosophy, and the arts. But I confess that none of those other truths can save me. They might make us better human beings, but they cannot reconcile us to the one true God.
“Christ alone” also challenges us to humbly examine ourselves. Have we inadvertently, in theory or in practice, elevated something good to be equally important alongside Christ? Do we unwittingly shape people to place their faith in Jesus plus something else? Perhaps Jesus plus a particular form of piety, or plus a particular Reformed philosophy, or Jesus plus social activism or social conservatism, or Jesus plus. . . . Have we fallen into this trap when we judge some as the “wrong kind” of Christians? Have we put too much trust in our own unofficial “saints”: Abraham Kuyper, John Calvin, John Piper, or Jim Wallis?
Though not always easy to untangle or discern, it is utterly important to examine our hearts in these matters. Because, ultimately, these “additions” to Christ only lead us to trust in ourselves, in human abilities, ingenuity, or tradition, and to make salvation more about what we know or what we do and less about God’s grace to us. Rather, as the Reformation reminds us, salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone, by God’s grace alone.
- How have you personally experienced hope and salvation in “Christ alone”?
- What are some common false “saviors” the world has faith in?
- For Christians, what may be some tempting “additions” for us to place our faith in alongside Jesus?
- How can we guard our hearts from turning our faith in Christ alone for our salvation into faith in Christ plus something else for salvation? Without turning to a mystical faith in faith itself, i.e. “you just have to believe”?
In the spirit of commemoration, The Banner wishes to alert readers to an article on the same topic in the Calvin Theological Seminary's Forum (Spring 2017).