Introduction

“What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 1) 

We have come to the final article on the five ‘Solas,’ foundational biblical principles central to the doctrine of salvation and distinct from the teachings taught by the Roman Catholic Church. In this article we will be examining the last Sola, Soli Deo gloria. This last biblical principle is essential to hold to for at least two reasons:

  1. It is an important adhesive that ties all other ‘Solas’ together in a manner that does not lead to false belief or straying away from the true understanding of the doctrine of salvation and religious authority.
  2. It, therefore, has major implications on how we understand and relate with God, as well as how we live out the Christian faith.

Defining ‘Soli Deo gloria’

Now what does Soli Deo gloria mean? If you have been following our articles on the five ‘Solas’ you would have learnt that the word ‘Soli’ is Latin for ‘only’ or ‘alone’. ‘Deo gloria’ is the phrase that translates to ‘the glory of God’. Put them together and the phrase is  translated into ‘to the glory of God alone.’ 

Before we move on, it is also crucial for us to understand what the word ‘glory’ means. In Scripture, the Hebrew word for ‘glory’ means ‘weight’. When we say that something has weight, we don’t only mean that it is heavy in a physical sense, but that something has great significance, importance and value. John Piper’s definition may help us conceptualise the glory of God. 

“God’s glory is the outward radiance of the intrinsic beauty and greatness of His manifold perfections.” [1]

When we are called to bring glory to God/to glorify God, it means that in all that we do – thoughts, words, and actions. – we are to live in a manner that demonstrates His ‘weight’ in our lives, magnify the greatness of His character (His love, power, wisdom, sovereignty and grace) and ascribe to Him the honour that belongs to Him. [2] 

Why ‘Soli’? The significance of ‘Soli Deo gloria’ 

Now that we have defined the terms and concepts, the question that this article aims to address is: why ‘Soli’? We know that as Christians we should do all things to the glory of God, but what does the phrase ‘to the glory of God ALONE’ add to our understanding of how we are meant to live out our Christian faith and relate to God? Before we explore this, it may be helpful to have a summary of the key differences between the Protestant and Roman Catholic position, which warranted the articulation of the five principles. 

In a broad sense, the tension lies in differing views of the doctrine of salvation and religious authority. While both sides would never deny the importance of Scripture, faith, grace and Christ, the key difference lies in the understanding of man’s contribution to these doctrines. In other words, the question we are asking is whether or not we contribute to God’s plan of salvation through our works. 

If we use the ‘Solas’ as a framework, the differences are clear between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic church perspectives:

  1. While the Reformers hold Scripture alone as the source of authority in matters of faith and Christian living, the Roman Catholic Church elevates church tradition and the Pope to have equal divine authority in matters of faith and Christian living. [3]
  2. While the Reformers emphasize that a Christian receives justification by faith alone, the Roman Catholic Church argues that the use of indulgences, baptism and other good works are a requirement for one’s justification before God. [4]
  3. While the Reformers assert that grace, unmerited favour from God, is the reason for our salvation, the Roman Catholic Church would respond that meritorious works earns our salvation from God. [5]
  4. While the Reformers stress that salvation is through Christ alone, who acts as the mediator between God and man, the Roman Catholic Church tradition appoints human spiritual leaders such as priests in the same role. [6]

Why is this significant? Earlier on, I stressed that Soli Deo gloria acts as the adhesive that binds all five Solas together, so let me invite you to think with me for a moment:

If we were to follow the Reformers’ position, the logical conclusion would be this: since Scripture ALONE is our final authority, and since salvation is by faith ALONE, grace ALONE, and Christ ALONE, without any human contribution, without being supplemented or overruled by church tradition or the pope, then ultimately all glory belongs to God and God ALONE. In layman terms, if every aspect of salvation belongs to God, who alone authored, executed and enabled sinners to respond to Him through the work of Christ on the cross, then all will point towards and display the greatness of His character, majesty and power. 

However, if we were to follow the Roman Catholic position on the doctrine of salvation and authority of Scripture, the conclusion will be so: since the Pope shares the same divine authority as scripture [7], and since our own meritorious works are required on top of faith, grace and Christ to earn our salvation, then ultimately, glory would belong to God AND man as well. In other words, since man is able to contribute to the work of God through our deeds, then ultimately the work of salvation not only points towards the greatness of God’s character, majesty and power, but also the greatness of human merit and effort as well. 

Implications of Soli Deo gloria

I anticipate that some may ask why it is crucial for us to hold this position. Wouldn’t it be easier if we were to just accept these differences without making a distinction and being pedantic about the one word ‘Soli’? This brings me to the second reason why it is so crucial to hold firm to the doctrine of Soli Deo gloria – that is, the impact it has on the way we live out the Christian life and the way we relate to God. 

1. Committing glory-theft

Firstly it is crucial that we do not dishonour God’s perfect word and the work of Christ by attempting to supplement them with our own imperfect words and works. God is perfect, His words and works through Christ are perfect (Ps 18:30); to suggest that we can supplement them in anyway brings to question God’s perfection. On top of that, if we elevate our words to the same level of authority as Scripture and attribute earning salvation to our meritorious works, then all glory does not belong to God alone, but to man as well. But since salvation is all God’s doing, adding our deeds on top as a means of achieving our salvation points towards our merit and steals glory away from Him. 

To understand how heinous this action would be, imagine an artist who creates a wonderful piece of art using all his talents, gifts and time, pouring his soul into his creation, only to have someone come along and either says “Let me add to your artwork with a couple of strokes” and then take credit for what the artist has done. The ‘glory’ that comes from the magnificence of his works no longer belongs to him, but has effectively been stolen by another. It dishonours the artist greatly. If we were to feel outraged in this instance, how much more should we be cautious as to not fall into the same trap when dealing with the authority of Scripture and salvation. We must not unintentionally or intentionally dishonour God and attempt to steal glory away from Him by supplementing the doctrine of salvation by our own works. 

2. The tendency towards self-sufficiency

Secondly, being ignorant and apathetic to these theological differences may prevent us from being aware of or blind us to the fallibility of our hearts and where they may lead us. Given our propensity to rebel against the rule of God and live only for ourselves, any attempt to supplement the work of salvation through our meritorious works can easily open the doors to self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. Why wouldn’t it? It becomes all about how many good deeds you can do, how you can justify my own salvation through the merits you achieve, how capable you are. That is the nature of the human heart in this fallen world – inward-focused, marred and tainted by sin.  

If we leave our hearts unchecked, there are dangerous consequences that could go in two ways.

  1. It could lead you to become conceited. It either leads us to believe that we are better than those who aren’t able to be as pious as we are or it makes us feel like God owes us something for our efforts. 
  2. It will lead us to despair when we are unable to match up to the standards or measures that are placed on us. 

Overall, it can easily lead us to think that we no longer need to depend or rely on God’s grace and mercy. Instead of living for God’s glory, we would ultimately be led to live for the glory of man. 

I hope that this may shake us out of our apathy and push us to proactively guard the principles outlined by the five solas. As revealed in Scripture, salvation is a gift of God, by grace alone, through faith alone (Eph 2:8-9). It gives no grounds for anyone to boast based on their works, on how well they are able to live a pious life, since no one is able to do so (Rom 3:11-18). We are saved not because we were worthy as a result of anything we did, but we are saved as sinners who can bring nothing good before God. We do nothing to merit our salvation – we are saved through the cross by the atoning sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (Rom 5:8). While Christ took on the death and judgement we deserve for our rebellion against God, His righteousness, the righteousness that we could never hope to achieve, was credited to us through faith (Rom 4:22-23). This makes it abundantly clear that all glory belongs not to ourselves or any man, but to God and God alone. Having the right understanding protects us from the dangers of conceit and despair, and allows us to live in a manner that honours and pleases God (2 Cor 5:9). God reminds us in Isaiah 42:8, “I am the LORD; that is My name! I will not give My glory to another or My praise to idols.”  All glory belongs to God alone, and rightly so. 

Final thoughts and encouragement

I hope this article allows us to see the importance of Soli Deo gloria in relation to our understanding of the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of salvation. ‘To the glory of God alone’ ultimately binds all five ‘Solas’ together. With Scripture alone as the ultimate authority, and as we are saved by grace alone, by faith alone, through Christ alone, all these beautiful truths naturally point towards the glory of God in all His majesty and perfection. 

And as people made in God’s image, we have been given the wonderful privilege and honour to be able to enjoy and reflect God’s glory to the rest of the world. Let us respond appropriately, free from the brokenness and burden of sin, by pointing others towards God’s majesty and perfection (1 Cor 10:31), by being satisfied in the ‘weight’ of His glory and by enjoying Him as our supreme treasure (Ps 27:4).


References

[1] – Piper, J. (2017). Soli Deo Gloria: Heart and Soul of the Reformation. [online] Desiring God. Available at: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/soli-deo-gloria
[2] – Young, K. (2011). Glory of God: The Weight of Glory. [online] The Gospel Coalition. Available at: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/glory-of-god-the-weight-of-glory/ 
[3] – Catholic Answers. (2004). Scripture and Tradition. [online] Available at: https://www.catholic.com/tract/scripture-and-tradition
[4] – Pohle, J. (n.d.). Justification. [online] Catholic Answers. Available at: https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/Justification
[5] – Pohle, J. (1911). CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Merit. [online] Newadvent.org. Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10202b.htm
[6] – Staples, T. (2005). Why we have a ministerial priesthood. [online] Catholic Answers. Available at: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/why-we-have-a-ministerial-priesthood
[7] – George, J. (1911). CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: The Pope. [online] Newadvent.org. Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12260a.htm

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