As Reformation Day for 2008 fast approaches (Oct 31st), the confessed "pillars" of the Protestant Reformation require new emphasis for the Christian church in America. Those pillars being as follows: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus and sola Deo gloria. Their applicability remains as steadfast in the 21st century as they were in the 16th.
Sola Scriptura - "Scripture alone" remains the final authority of faith and practice for the Christian. Though the ancient creeds offer helpful guides of orthodoxy, and personal experience customizes the walk of faith for many, only Scripture can offer the normative templates for belief and behavior that are to be taught in the assembly. Formulations, creeds, confessional statements and doctrinal lists are fine, but they must pass the scrutiny of Holy Scripture to fall in the category of authoritative instruction. This is as necessary now as it has ever been. When we consider the great and powerful temptation for teachers and preachers to admonish audiences using pop-psychology, seminar bullet points and bestseller book titles, the Scriptures often take a back seat.
Sola gratia - "Grace alone" is the reason that God offers the redeeming work of Christ to us. No merit of our own incited God to extend salvation to us. The nature of grace is that it is undeserved. We were not pleasing to God to the point that he would feel obligated to save us. On the contrary, while we were still his enemies by means of our sinful alliances and impulses, Christ died for us. One of the worst effects of 9/11 is that Al Qaeda assisted many Americans in believing that evil is "out there" or "over there;" it looks like him or sounds like her. "Evil" is manifested in a wide variety of fashions, but is no less resident in me than in someone flying a plane into the South Tower. How do I know this? It took the death of God's only Son to redeem me. Only grace can account for why God would offer us a means of escaping our self-imposed destruction.
Sola fide - "Faith alone" is the means by which we receive the redemption offered by Jesus Christ. Salvation from God's just punishment for our rebellion is not acquired by means of adherence to religious ritual, executing a list of productive behaviors, good citizenship or a positive mental attitude. Beneficial as those things may be, the saving relationship to God in Christ is secured only by faith. This is alarming to many who would rather offer practices to God, but keep their hearts to themselves. It also can trip up those patriotic individuals in wartime who think (since evil is "them, they or those") that God already has saved them by means of living in a country where they see so many churches everywhere. The problem is that salvation does not occur by osmosis. Every individual who desires a right relation to Christ must submit to, relate to and receive him by faith alone.
Solus Christus - "Christ alone" is the object of our thanks for redemption. Though clergy, friends, family, authors and speakers are helpful means by which the good news of redemption ("the gospel") is delivered, they are not the one's redeeming. Bishops, cardinals, popes might even serve helpful means of organizing church polity (a debate for another day), but they are not responsible for the salvation offered. Only Christ is to be thanked, and given all of one's allegiance in response to his redeeming work on our behalf by dying on the Roman cross, fully receiving the penalty due us, and rising from the grave on the 3rd day of that earth-shaking event. This tenant of the Reformation could not be more applicable today in light of ministries built on personality, popularity or broadcasting power. Only Christ deserves credit for our redemption (in every way we experience it).
Sola Deo gloria - "The glory of God alone" is the grand effect that redemption is to have in us. People are not redeemed from sin and death so that they may start a political movement, have their own country or create enclaves of separate communities wherein the comfortable few can affirm each others' adherence to a few arbitrary rules. The image of God (imago Dei) is placed on mankind, along with the command to "multiply and fill the Earth," so that wherever God glances around the world he sees himself represented. For his own glory alone, God graciously (yet inexplicably) redeems people so as to reclaim his glorious representation in us. His global mission (missio Dei) is to see his grace, his character, his love and his loyalty to himself represented by all people, languages, cultures and regions. This is the pursuit of his glory on Earth, and his glory alone remains the grand goal of our salvation.
Churches in American (I speak mainly of evangelicals because that is my sub-group), need their own "reformation." October 31st is not merely a significant date in 1517. It's a day to remember our own need to constantly reform. May God invade our time in a similar manner that he worked in Martin Luther's, and reform us into what we ought to be.