Soli Deo Gloria: The Project of the Next 500 Years

Photo by Marcus Cramer on Unsplash

In recognition of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Reformed Margins will be reflecting on the five solas this October. The five solas are regarded by many as the five pillars of the Reformation, and we at Reformed Margins are proud to uphold these Reformed principles. For sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) powerfully encapsulate the essence of our Protestant identity.

While we recognize that much ink has already been spilt expounding upon the five solas, the aim of our brief series is to reflect on them as people of color. For centuries, the five solas have served as unifying principles for the Reformed community to rally around. And yet, far from creating a cold and static uniformity, they have inspired unique and dynamic expressions of faithfulness across various cultures worldwide. Hence, Reformed Margins would like to recognize the Reformation’s 500th anniversary by celebrating and sharing some of these diverse expressions to the glory of God.

Previous articles in our series:
Part One: Sola Scriptura (in Chinese American Perspective) by Andrew Ong
Part Two: I Will Teach Her “Solus Christus” by Marcos Ortega
Part Three: Sola Fide: Faith and Faithfulness by Joe Kim
Part Four: Sola Gratia and Saying “Grace” by Faith Chang

From the Past

Martin Luther had no idea what he was doing.

When he posted his 95 theses on the wall of Wittenberg castle 500 years ago, he couldn’t have known that he was about to change the world.

But change the world he did.

That action began a chain of events that led to his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church a few years later and the establishment of Protestant churches who stood in opposition to Roman authority.

Those churches decried the authority of the Pope and the Roman church. They measured the decisions of church councils against the authority of Scripture instead of the other way around. They developed, under the leadership of Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Calvin, a body of doctrine that stressed grace and faith as the vehicles for salvation, not works. And they stubbornly argued that salvation was not found in Christ-and-Church or Christ-and-works-of-men or Christ-and-indulgences but in Christ alone.

Why did they do this? What was the doctrine that so possessed these Reformers? What would lead them back to the African theologian Augustine and away from the councils and decrees of the Medieval European church?

Soli Deo Gloria. The glory of God alone.

This was the point. This was the end of their theology of salvation. This was why they were willing to give up everything and oppose the Roman Church. To them, any doctrine or church teaching that shifted salvation from a gracious act of Christ alone to a cooperative act between God and man eclipsed the glory of God and was unworthy of him.

John Calvin, the mind of the Reformation, wrote this:

“We never truly glory in (God) until we have utterly discarded our own glory. It must, therefore, be regarded as a universal proposition, that whoso glories in himself glories against God…Let us remember, therefore, that in the whole discussion concerning justification the great thing to be attended to is, that God’s glory be maintained entire and unimpaired…” (Institutes, 3.13.2)

The Roman Church’s contention that the Pope could grant justification based on works or the sale of indulgences was, to Calvin, not only an infringement on the glory of God in salvation but a wholesale repudiation of God’s glory in favor of man’s glory.

Calvin and the Reformers were clear. Scripture alone authoritatively teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. To deny this is to steal from God’s glory, the ultimate offense.

And so the Reformers risked life and limb to leave the Roman church in pursuit of the glory of God. They were not against creeds or confessions altogether. In fact, Luther himself wrote a confession not long after he had been excommunicated from the Church.

But the message was clear: any creed, confession or theological formulation, any church leader or decree was subject to the authority of the Word of God so that the new Protestant church may pursue the glory of God above all else.

What We May Have Missed

For the last 500 years, theologians have pursued greater understanding of these bedrock reformation truths. Following Calvin, Reformed theology has become a pursuit of the mind and ruled from the academy as much as from the Church.

But while the tradition continues to further parse and debate the finer points of theology, something appears to have been lost over time — the reason Luther wrote his 95 theses in the first place.

Luther had become increasingly concerned about the selling of indulgences. Basically, Rome was teaching that a person could purchase a certificate of forgiveness from the church which would shave years off the penitent’s time in purgatory. These certificates could be purchased for themselves and also for those loved family members and friends who had already died. One indulgence seller, John Tetzel, even wrote a catchy rhyme to encourage these payments: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Crucially, Tetzel was not tying the purchase of indulgences to the sacrifice of Christ or the grace of God. Salvation was merely a transaction. If one purchased an indulgence, he or she could aid a family member into heaven or even purchase glory for themselves.

Luther was rightly concerned that such a transaction was giving false hope to those men and women in Wittenberg who were buying the certificates. They believed they were purchasing salvation instead of relying on acts of penance and the grace of God (Luther was still Catholic after all). He feared not just for the state of their souls, but for the state of their lives. Why obey the teachings of the church if purchasing an indulgence was all that was required? Why devote oneself to Christ when Tetzel could simply sell salvation?

Luther was not concerned over a matter of right or wrong theoretical theology, therefore, but practical and even pastoral concern. Luther was moved by his heart for his people and his love for the purity of the church.

What Luther did not and could not realize at the time was that the Pope had empowered Tetzel to do what he was doing. And so when Luther crossed Tetzel, he found himself at odds with the whole Roman system. The rest, as they say, is history.

But we don’t want to gloss over Luther’s motivation. His concerns were only theoretical as long as the theory informed practical living. Luther was driven by, and even haunted by, the practical Christian life.

I wonder how often Luther’s writings are read as Practical Theology. They certainly aren’t approached this way in the academy.

While I was studying at seminary, practical theology was the ugly stepchild of our curricula. Students and even factually members joked about the poor quality of the PT program, but no one seemed concerned to fix it. Systematics and history, languages and exegesis were far more important than the practical Christian life. The message was perhaps unintentional, but clear: how you think is more important than how you live.

And so, in pursuit of the life of the mind we have forgotten the practical life of the Christian and, catastrophically, the practical life of the Christian pastor.

In pursuit of Calvin’s mind, we have forgotten Luther’s heart.

Recapturing Luther, not in the sense of adopting Lutheranism but in the sense of reorienting our emphasis toward the heart, may be the Soli Deo Gloria project of the next 500 years.

To the Future

James K.A. Smith, a professor at Calvin College, is working toward this same reorientation in both the academy and the church. He writes: “Our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate…” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 26-27)

And yet our academies and churches are less concerned with what we love than with what we know. The way we approach our entire theological enterprise is defined more by Descartes dictum “I think therefore I am” than St. John’s contention that “whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”

To shift our focus from the mind to the heart is not to ignore the theoretical and theological, but to reframe it. Rather than debating between two propositions, we are led to consider competing forces that vie for our affections. We recognize false theologies and doctrines not based on intellectual consistency but on where they draw our hearts. Are we brought nearer the throne of God or not? Are we led deeper into the two great commandments to love God and love others?

To frame theological discovery this way provides tangible diagnostics for our affections on a nearly daily basis. As we consider the controversies of our day, we are forced to ask, “Do I seek the glory of God in this or something else?”


We will be forced to ask questions about politics, culture, and our deepest desires and pursuits. These are hard questions, but they are questions we have left to the side in pursuit of “higher” theological matters. Rather than re-examining the orientation of our hearts we hide behind the theological formulations of our minds.

The primacy of the mind can lead to the neglect of the heart, but the primacy of the heart requires the nurturing of the mind. If a man loves a woman, he is driven to know her as best as he can. He wants to think of her rightly, treat her rightly, celebrate her rightly. He does not ignore who she is if he truly loves her.

In the same way, placing primacy on the heart does not necessitate the neglect of the mind. Rather, it propels the mind in the right direction. We are learning theology not to defeat one another in theological debates, nor do we approach fellow theologians with suspicion, but we learn theology and discuss these issues with a desire to grow in our love for the Lord and our love for one another. This seems elementary, but I fear it has been ignored. Theological formulas and Greek conjugation can never replace a heart turned toward God and a person that acts out of love for neighbor.

For the last 500 years we have nurtured the mind. Have we done so at the expense of the heart? Certainly the Protestant Reformation has brought about much good. The whole of Western civilization owes itself to the Reformation. But the Protestant church has also seen racism, abuse, misogyny, thirst for power, manipulation, nationalism, ethnocentrism, hatred, and dishonesty infiltrate its ranks.

Of course, this is all fruit of sin. But how is it that churches and denominations with beautiful theological statements and doctrinal commitments can embrace such horrific systems of sin and violence? How is it that such evil was able to stand for so long that entire denominations are now being forced to repent of their actions, thoughts, and words?

Could it be that we have focused so intently on the life of the mind that we have given it primacy over the heart and neglected the actual practical outflow of love in the Christian life? Has our fascination with theological precision led to rampant imprecision in the way we treat one another?

Are we in danger of neglecting our hearts to such a degree that our theological adeptness is just another form of worldly wisdom apart from the fear of the Lord? Are we eclipsing the very glory of God we are striving to uphold?

We should thank God for the last 500 years. But there is much work to do in the next 500 years. And the success of that work hinges upon our willingness to seek Soli Deo Gloria with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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