In the old city of Geneva, Switzerland, there’s a lovely park adjacent to the University of Geneva, close to the church where John Calvin preached and taught daily. The park contains a lasting memorial to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. The central feature is a magnificent wall adorned with statues of Calvin, John Knox, Huldrych Zwingli, Theodore Beza, and others. Chiseled into the stone are the Latin words Post tenebras lux (“After darkness, light”).
These words capture the driving force of the Reformation. The darkness referred to is the gospel’s eclipse in the late Middle Ages. A gradual darkening reached its nadir, and the light of the doctrine of justification by faith alone was all but extinguished.
Fuel for Fire
The Reformation firestorm was fueled by the most volatile issue ever debated in church history. The church had faced severe crises in the past, especially in the fourth and fifth centuries when the nature of Christ was at stake. The Arian heresy of the fourth century culminated in the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed. The fifth century witnessed the church’s struggle against the monophysite and Nestorian heresies that resulted in the Council of Chalcedon’s clear declaration of the humanity and deity of Christ. Since Nicea and Chalcedon, the ecumenical decisions of these councils have served as benchmarks for historic Christian orthodoxy. The doctrines of the Trinity and the union of Christ’s divine and human natures have since been regarded, almost universally, as essential tenets of the Christian faith.
Every generation throughout church history has seen doctrinal struggles and debates. Heresies of every conceivable sort have plagued the church and provoked fierce argument, even schism.
But no doctrinal dispute has ever been contested more fiercely or with such long-term consequences as the one over justification. There were other ancillary issues debated in the 16th century, but none so central or so heated as this.
Historians often describe justification as the material cause of the Reformation. That is, it was the substantive and core issue of the debate. It was this doctrine that led to Christendom’s deepest rupture and the church’s fragmentation into thousands of denominations.
Sola Fide or Bust
How could a dispute over one doctrine cause so many splinters and provoke so much hostility? Was it simply a case of conflict among contentious, obstreperous, bellicose theologians inclined to wage war over trivial matters? Was it a case of repeated misunderstandings sparking a tempest in a teapot—much ado about nothing?
We know how Martin Luther felt about the controversy. He called justification by faith alone “the article upon which the church stands or falls” (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae). This assertion of its central importance was linked to Luther’s identification of justification by faith alone (sola fide) with the gospel. The “good news” of the New Testament includes not only an announcement of the person of Christ and his work on our behalf, but also a declaration of how the benefits of Christ’s work are appropriated by, in, and for the believer.
The issue of how justification and salvation are received became the paramount point of debate. Luther’s insistence on sola fide was based on the conviction that the “how” of justification is integral and essential to the gospel itself. He viewed justification by faith alone as necessary and essential to the gospel and to salvation.
Since the gospel stands at the heart of Christian faith, Luther and other Reformers regarded the debate over justification as involving an essential truth of Christianity, a doctrine no less essential than the Trinity or the dual natures of Christ. Without the gospel, the church falls. Without the gospel, the church is no longer the church.
The Reformers followed this logic:
- Justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel.
- The gospel is essential to Christianity and to salvation.
- The gospel is essential to a church’s being a true church.
- To reject justification by faith alone is to reject the gospel and to fall as a church.
Pushing Back the Dark
The Reformers concluded that when Rome rejected and condemned sola fide, it condemned itself and ceased to be a true church. This precipitated the creation of new communions or denominations seeking to continue biblical Christianity and to be true churches with a true gospel. They sought to rescue the gospel from the impending threat of total eclipse.
The eclipse metaphor is helpful. An eclipse of the sun does not destroy the sun; it obscures it. It brings darkness where there was light. The Reformers sought to remove the eclipse so that the gospel’s light could again shine in full brilliance and be seen with clarity.
The life of the 16th-century Protestant church was far from perfect, but the revival of godliness in that era attests to the power of the gospel when viewed in full light.
This is an adapted excerpt from R. C. Sproul’s latest book, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Baker, 2017)