Every teenager knows the difference a single word can make. When I was young, we spoke of being “Jeffed” – meaning that a girl had said she wanted to be “just friends,” to a boy who wanted more than that. That same word can mean the difference between Heaven and Hell. For instance, it is Biblically orthodox to affirm that Jesus was a man (cf. John 1:14); but it is the damning creation of a false idol to suggest that Jesus was just a man (contrast John 1:1; 20:28, etc.).
So it is, as well, in the central truths held high by the Reformers and their heirs. Many religions and cults will agree that Scripture is God’s Word; that we are saved through faith, and by grace; that Christ is our Savior and Lord; and it is important to give God glory.
What distinguishes Biblical faith from all others is the little word alone.
Take the fundamental, formal question: How do we know God’s revealed truth? What has absolute authority to inform and determine the thought and faith of all men? Many sects and philosophies would agree that the Bible has a role here, including the Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Orthodox, and even (in their way) Muslims.
What sets Biblical faith apart is the insistence that Scripture alone (in Latin, sola Scriptura) is the ultimate, sufficient, inerrant revelation of God’s heart and mind (cf. Psalm 19:7-11; Isaiah 8:20; 28:13; Matthew 15:1-9; 2 Timothy 3:15-17, etc.). Confessions of faith and theologies have a formative, ministerial, instructive function, but they all must be brought under the authority of Scripture. Some religions such as Mormonism and Roman Catholicism formally add other equal (and functionally superior) authorities such as the Book of Mormon and the magisterium, respectively; others such as Jehovah’s Witnesses do so as surely but less formally, requiring adherents only to read the Bible as sanctioned by Watchtower publications.
Formal or informal, every addition of authoritative sources is a departure from the Biblical truth delineated by that word alone.
This is true also in approaching the big material question of the Reformation: How can a man be righteous in God’s eyes? Many Christians would answer, “By grace, through faith,” and would feel they’d adequately distinguished Biblical Christianity from other faiths. Then they are surprised to learn that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roman Catholics will all agree that we are saved through faith and by grace.
Once again, the dividing line between saving truth and damning error takes the shape of that word: alone. The Bible affirms that God saves us through the instrumentality of faith alone (Romans 4:2-8; expressed in Latin as sola fide), by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9; sola gratia). As the Westminster Confession puts the Biblical truth so wonderfully,
Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love (XI, 2).
We are saved the instant we simply believe in the Lord Jesus, saved through faith alone (Acts 16:31). But the faith that saves never remains alone, but produces works of submission to God’s voice in Scripture that attest to its living reality (Galatians 5:6; James 2:17-26).
What is more, Biblical faith points us to faith in Jesus for salvation (Acts 15:31 again), and to Christ alone (solus Christus). The angel said Jesus Himself would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Indeed, Christ came into the world for that express purpose – to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). And He succeeded! To all whom the Father gave Him by gracious election in eternity past, Christ gave life (John 17:103), and could give the victorious cry on the Cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), signifying that He had done all that was needed to fulfill the Father’s purpose, including securing His people’s full salvation.
So the Christian sees in Jesus all the fullness of Deity incarnate (John 1:1, 14; Colossians 1:19; 2:9), finds Him to be the perfect and final revelation of God (John 1:18; Hebrews 1:1-2). Christians are not open to the idea of another one coming along with a superior revelation, whether Baha’u’llah, Mohammed, or Charles Darwin. All Scripture points to Christ (John 5:39-40); the Father Himself points to His Son, and says “Listen to Him” (Matthew 17:5; cf. Deuteronomy 18:18-19). The believer says “Amen,” and looks to Christ alone. He is the one and only mediator between God and man, sharing a perfect human nature and a perfect divine nature in one person (1 Timothy 2:5). We do not look to any other person, dead or living, as our mediator; Biblically faithful Christians look to Christ alone.
And all this resounds to the glory of God alone (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11; Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31; Ephesians 2:9). If we supplemented God’s revelation, then that added resource would usurp some of His glory. If we thought our works or free will or good intentions or loyalty entered into our salvation, then we would share in that glory. If some sect or figure or ritual took the center of our devotion, that would share the glory.
But Biblical Christians look to God’s Word alone to hear His voice (sola Scriptura), receiving the gift of Christ’s righteousness through faith alone (sola fide), because of God’s grace alone (sola gratia), all of which trumpets out God’s glory alone (soli Deo Gloria). To these truths the Reformers and their heirs devoted their lives, some to the point of a martyr’s death — ironically, at the hands of those affirming all the same statements minus that all-important word: alone.
God grant that they grip our generation anew, today!
[Note: for a series of sermons on this theme, see here.]