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Volume 16, Issue 2: Presbyterion

Beyond the Five Solas

Douglas Wilson

Over the last several years, we have found ourselves embroiled in a number of (seemingly) disparate controversies. But the way it all began to play out made me think that perhaps they were really all the same controversy—the conflict between the total and complete claims of Christ and various forms of partialism. The Lord has been very kind to us thus far, but part of our responsibility is to understand His kindness. He has given us the great privilege of holding a contested field of battle, but we must understand this in all wisdom.

The gospel is not over-engineered (2 Cor. 11:1-4; Acts 2:42,46-47). Consider what we learn here. Paul sarcastically notes that adultery and treachery are complicated, but fidelity is simple. The serpent came to Eve in all subtlety, and this is contrasted with the "simplicity that is in Christ." Other christs, other gospels, other spirits are easy enough to put up with (in this fallen world), but they are always complicated. Rationalizations are always tangled, and sin breeds rationalization. But true simplicity does what the early Christians did. They accept what the apostles taught, they fellowship with one another, they take the Lord's Supper together, and they pray together, period. This brings the glorious result—gladness and simplicity of heart, praise to God and favor from outsiders. God uses this to bring salvation to the world.
I mentioned earlier that all the various controversies we have had are, at bottom, really the same controversydetails at eleven. Whenever the Spirit moves in the history of the church, He does so in a way that sweeps away all our carnal complications and restores that primitive and apostolic sense of gladness and simplicity of heart. But often the slogans of a previous period of simplicity have been transformed in the meantime (in the hands of trained professionals) into something that only a scribe could love.
The title of this column is Beyond the Five Solas. Initially some might worry that this entails an abandonment of the glorious revival that we call the Reformation. Nothing could be further from the truth. But it is an abandonment of much of Deformed jargon that has grown up around the solas. Over against the errors of so many false religionists, we still affirm what the solas originally meant. Salvation is by Christ alone (solus Christus), not by Christ and some form of creaturely help. Salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia) and not some mixture of grace and merit. Salvation is received through faith alone (sola fide) and not some mixture of faith and works. We understand all this through ultimate reliance on Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) and not through some combination of the Word of God and the words of men. And all this comes together to glorify God alone for all that He has done (soli Deo gloria).
But all glorious confessions of faith can be attacked in two ways. One is the assault from without (overt persecution), but the other is corruption from within. In the grip of Enlightenment individualism, pietism, revivalism, sentimentalism, and so forth, in our day the meaning of the solas has been turned aside from their earlier and more glorious meaning. Now they are solo Christus (just me and Jesus), solo gratia (narrow, sectarian grace), solo fide (whenever it was that I "prayed the prayer"), solo Scriptura (just me and my Bible), and solo Deo gloria (God gets all the glory for saving me, and maybe somebody else). Please realize that the word solo here constitutes a bad macaronic pun, and is not a serious attempt at matching gender, number, and case.
Our response to such things must be simple, and not complicated. The claims of Jesus Christ, Lord of heaven and earth, are necessarily and always total, never partial. The solo tendency always tends to restrict the work of God to just a part of reality, and this makes the rest of reality incomprehensible. But this is obviously complicated (with great "subtlety" required). To this we reply with totus Christus (all Christ and all His people), tota gratia (to be a creature is Trinitarian grace, to be saved is more Trinitarian grace), tota fide (we are saved by faith from first to last), tota Scriptura (we do not pit the Old Testament against the New, or law against grace), and toti Deo gloria (all the glory for all things goes to God). God save us from partialism.
Is this just one set of slogans for another? Not really—consider what controversies are addressed.
Totus Christus—The entire body of Christ is invited to the Table, and this includes our children. All who are bread get bread. Discerning the body of the Lord is a matter of seeing Christ in one another, and this is why it is more important for us to see Christ in our children than it is for our children to see metaphysical arguments and their conclusions in the bread and wine on the Table.
Tota gratia—God did not have an arrangement with Adam in the garden based on Adam's possible merit. Everything good from God is grace. If Adam had passed the test, he would have done so by grace through faith. Jesus Christ stood as the faithful Adam, and this means He was filled with faith. Christ was not faithless.
Tota fide—The just shall live by faith, not start out by faith. This obliterates all carping about faith and works. Faith swallows up life.
Tota Scriptura—We deny all Marcionite attempts to pit the Old Testament against the New, or law against grace. The Scripture cannot be broken, nor can it have one portion set against another.
Toti Deo gloria—All the glory goes to God, for all that He does, and He does everything.

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