This article looks at the five solas – sola gratia, sola Scriptura, sola fide, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria – through the eyes of Martin Bucer, and uses them to show how they form true spirituality that is grounded in God's work in the life of the believer.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2007. 3 pages.

Spiritually Reformed

My concern is with Bucer’s pietas, that means his attitude to life as stamped by faith and love. With Bucer “pietas” is a combination of spirituality and piety. Bucer gives a reassessment of the classical notion of pietas in a Biblical Christian sense and he gives it a bipolar structure: both the category of the faith and the category of ethics. Here we get a glimpse of Bucer’s heart.

Now just imagine that a consistory in 2006 could invite young Bucer to speak on October 31, on the occasion of the commemoration of the Reformation. The consistory asks him to speak about the well-known central themes sola gratia, sola scriptura, sola fide, solo Christo, soli Deo gloria. Bucer did not invent the solas himself, but he would not mind connecting his message to them. How would he express the reformational message? I quote him from his commentary on the epistle to the Ephesians published in 1527, which he called “a summary of complete sacred learning,” as well as a sermon held in 1528 in Bern.

Sola Gratia🔗

By grace alone. Being in his congregation at X we can hear Bucer argue passionately that we are only saved through God’s grace or benevolence out of his sheer pleasure. God’s goodness is the fountain of really everything that is good. That God is the electing God makes the believer sing songs of praise from the heart. Predestination is not a terrifying decree, but rather a source of salvation. Spiritually Reformed“All salvation is fruit of God’s election”, all righteousness and salvation of mortal people depend on it and is realised by Christ in the elect, both gentiles and Jews, to God’s praise. Nothing of this comes from us, everything from Him.

This persuasion implies that we can be absolutely sure of our salvation, not only for the present, but also until the glorious end. For it is just as impossible to be erased from God’s book and to fall from the faith, as for God’s determination to become powerless.

What we have in no way received by our own good works cannot be lost by our bad works. This “basic security” relieves our anxieties, giving us a deep inner peace and freedom.

Yet human responsibility, paradoxically, remains in force, one hundred percent. Predestination does not exclude human free will, but on the contrary it brings this free will about. This is a paradox incomprehensible to the mind.

We are not going to parcel out the field between God and man, but we experience that it is just where everything is ascribed to God’s action that man is given ample room. In response to God’s call we will set to work on the road to life with every power that God gives.

Sola Scriptura🔗

Bucer makes it clear that to him the authority of Scripture is beyond dispute. He has dedicated his life to the interpretation and the preaching of Scripture. He rejects whole-heartedly submitting the Bible to inner and directly heard messages that are ascribed to the Holy Spirit. It is unhealthy to seek all kinds of separate direct revelations. Real wisdom and the revelation that we should really long for is that which makes Christ known to us and that teaches us how great the inheritance is that is promised to us. Therefore the knowledge of Christ is the touch-stone to put wisdom and revelations to the test. With this touch-stone the revelations that many people so often boast about can be evaluated. Word and Spirit are closely related. We notice that Bucer is a theologian of the Spirit. He emphasises that every preaching will be ineffective until the Holy Spirit makes the gospel resound in the heart and thus convinces the heart.

Bucer does not retreat into a conventicle, a small group of likeminded souls. His piety is explicitly ecclesiastical piety. Therefore he has dedicated himself all his life to the edification of the congregation.

Sola Fide🔗

By faith alone. Bucer is completely in line with Martin Luther. He who believes has got it! With him too, the centre of preaching is the justification of the godless, although his formulations can be subject of discussion. Faith embraces Christ’s righteousness, which is not inside ourselves and that is purely a given thing. But indeed this is a faith that is active through love, caritas, and thus proves to be genuine. This love is present first and foremost in the congregation as a community of faith and love, and from there it radiates further into the outside world. It is radically excluded and totally impossible for us as human beings to climb the ladder out of our misery and hopelessness. A new birth, a re-creation therefore is necessary and indispensable. This is realised by the communion with Christ in faith and will lead to a new life to the honour of God and to the salvation of one’s neighbour.

Spiritually ReformedHe who through the hearing of the Word and by faith in Christ, knows himself to be justified as a godless man by mere grace, is a free man, at rest and thus dedicated. What remains as appropriate and valid is a demonstration of thankfulness to the heavenly Father.

In this way there can be spiritual growth: an increase in pietas. Through the love of God faith is set on fire to such a degree that its only aim will be a life tuned in to what pleases Him. Whatever he sends us, we will agree with. In this dedicated life God’s law, the thora, as a rule of thankfulness is given its full due. The new man was created in Christ to that purpose “only to live for the well-being and the benefit of his neighbours”. The theme of his life will be the sacrifice of love towards God and his neighbour. Caritas is really directed towards all people. Bucer denounces the Anabaptists’ avoidance of the world.

By reflecting on the Word of God we comply (though it is only partly) with our name and calling. We are chosen and called to be God’s children. Resting on this dedication to God and neighbour we can bear a lot in this life that is sometimes so hard. We bear adversity and oppression with calm courage. We are honoured when we are afflicted because of the name of Christ.

Solo Christo🔗

By Christ alone. Listening to Bucer one tastes that the community with Christ is the heart of his spirituality. It is a question of Christ being all or nothing. The good Spirit of God is given to the elect because of Christ’s sacrifice. He who rests in Him can be assured of eternal life. The saints were built on Christ and therefore assured of God’s mercy. So they will sleep a carefree, peaceful sleep.

Soli Deo Gloria🔗

All honour be to God. From Bucer we learn that a Christian life is a theocentric life. A life in intimate association with the Lord, a life of prayer in serious communication of the heart with God and a sound reflection on what is lacking in us as to the glory of God, with an ardent supplication to Him for restoration.

God’s honour is at stake in every aspect of life. Bucer’s theology is not only covenant-theology, but also theology of the Kingdom of God. Reformed piety as stamped by him focuses on the imitation of Christ in all spheres of life, not only in personal godliness and personal devotions, not only in the ecclesiastical realm, but likewise in politics, in economics, in science and culture, with an eye to God’s doings in history with his covenant people Israel and with the nations. With Bucer a Christian expectation for the future does not at all lead to abandoning the world or inertia. He is convinced that spiritual matters are weightier than physical ones, and those of the future weightier than those of the presence. Yet he is balanced and level­headed enough not to deny the blessing of a long life on earth. Life itself and prosperity in outward things are good gifts of God.

In the expectation of the great Future we reflect God’s goodness in our existence. If thus His great goodness becomes apparent in us as children of God, many will be invited to embrace it. We should especially exert ourselves to reflect the heavenly Father in His goodness. That is an inviting life: Come and join us on the way to a better homeland!

Reflection🔗

The consistory that in our bold imagination had invited Bucer for the commemoration of the Reformation, considers in the weeks after that the question how what Bucer had said can be applied to the current situation and context of the congregation. This process of reflection is a continuing business, but in any case an attempt is made to establish some principles. The consistory arrives at three fundamental aspects.

Theocentric🔗

God is in the centre. The consistory members have in common that Bucer’s testimony has given them new enthusiasm and courage to tell in church and society in no uncertain terms that life before God’s countenance is wholesome and good for people. They realise well and once again what they and together with them all the other active community members are doing it all for in the church and God’s kingdom. Spiritually ReformedProperly speaking even our very humanity is at stake. For the gospel makes it clear that we, people matter, that we are more than just chips of wood floating on an ocean, more than pinpoints in an immense, expanding universe.

God values us, indeed very much so. He wants to make contact with man. From eternity to eternity He makes an effort for the salvation of man, because He has made it a point of honour. If you realise all this to some degree, you know that man lacks an enormous lot if he lacks God. As a believer you heartily wish everyone the communion with the God and Father of Jesus Christ. We have been taken care of and that’s why we can now take care of our neighbour. We are orphans no longer, therefore we will take pity on the abandoned. Faith and love are the two sides of the one medal. People really do not realise what they are lacking. What a calling and challenge it is to demonstrate in one’s life in dependence on the Holy Spirit how wholesome believing is. A life that puts God in the centre is open for other people. Therefore the consistory considers the necessity to find ways of communicating the message of the gospel and also to take an intense interest in the world of experience of people that we meet nowadays. This fits in completely with the emphasis of the Reformed tradition on the appropriation of salvation. Salvation is not an impersonal mass product. It deals with a unique person meeting the most personal God. It deals with a living relation.

Disciple of the Word🔗

In its considerations the consistory is well aware of the task to get close to people. Yet the consistory realises how essential it is in obedience to God’s Word to remain critical of the current culture of experience, also in its religious expressions. Attentive listening to present man and to the world is preceded and also followed by tuning in to God’s unique words in the Scriptures.

It would be a misunderstanding to think that the gap can be bridged by adapting the message to the taste of the receivers. The salting salt would lose its taste and its potential to cleanse and preserve. For sure the church cannot give in to a style of living that is typical of the closed world view of materialism.

That we are strangers on this earth does not alter our responsibility. At the end of the times deep missionary and diaconal concern is expected from Christ’s church. This is a direct result of the expectation of Him that is coming. It entails inventiveness to present the time-honoured gospel again and again in new, modern forms, and readiness to serve one’s fellow men in their needs, their loneliness and brokenness. I am convinced that during this search we will be surprised to see the essence and relevance of Reformed piety radiate time and again.

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