If the Roman Catholic Church of Martin Luther’s day would have outright denied the concepts of scripture alone and faith alone, it did not deny the concept that glory belonged to God alone. They certainly wouldn’t have suggested that God shared His glory, and yet the reality of practiced theology revealed something a bit different. What we say we believe is always revealed in how we practice our faith, and Rome’s practice did not add up to this idea of Soli Deo Gloria. The doctrine of God’s Glory Alone reminds us that biblical Christianity is not ultimately about us.
There’s a sense in which this doctrine draws all the other four solas towards it, as if Soli Deo Gloria is a sort of center to Reformation theology. David VanDrunen explains:
Simply put, the fact that salvation is by faith alone, grace alone, and Christ alone, without any meritorious contribution on our part, ensures that all glory is God’s and not our own. Likewise, the fact that Scripture alone is our final authority, without any ecclesiastical tradition, magisterium, or Pope supplementing or overruling it, protects the glory of god against every human conceit. (God’s Glory Alone, 15)
If the other four solas are true, then the drive logically to this point: God receives all the glory for salvation and the Christian life.
We may again remind ourselves that Rome would not have denied this teaching. The church affirmed the glory of God. Even their teaching on meritorious good works, they would have said, were empowered by God’s grace. Yet, in many ways, it seemed to the Reformers, their practices and accompanying beliefs undermined this claim. We see this clearly in their teaching on meritorious good works, and the influence of saints.
Calvin saw the glory of God particularly at stake in the idea of man’s cooperation in his salvation. Calvin has been, not infrequently, noted for his emphasis on the theme of God’s glory. B.B. Warfield famously said, “The central fact of Calvinism is the glory of God” (Calvin as a Theologian and Calvinism Today, 26). His treatise on The Bondage and Liberation of the Will emphasized God’s glory as the chief issue at stake in the soteriological debates. The central issue in these debates, as Calvin saw it, was whether God’s grace preceded the human will in responding to the gospel, or whether the grace was given to us because we responded. It was a question of priority, which came first. Calvin insisted, against the Roman church, that grace comes first. Man cannot respond to the gospel call apart from God’s enabling grace. Matthew Barrett explains:
According to Calvin, the depraved sinner does not cooperate with God’s grace, but God works alone, calling the sinner to himself in an efficacious manner, producing new life within through his Spirit. Why was such a debate so crucial in Calvin’s view? for him the glory of God was at stake in how one understands grace. (Reformation Theology, 500-501)
Any cooperation from man was seen as a compromise of God’s glory; even more pointedly for Calvin it was a direct assault on God. Calvin stood boldly against any notion of cooperation. He wrote:
But Scripture, just as it bears witness that man through his own wickedness of heart is prevented from turning to God, also forbids him to claim for himself any glory for his conversion, when it teaches that this is the work of the Holy Spirit. (The Bondage and Liberation of the Will)
Euan Cameron summarizes Calvin’s concern when he says:
In Calvin’s exposition one theme stood out: the unique unbounded sovereignty and majesty of God. God must be allowed to be God, in the fullest possible sense. (The European Reformation, 501)
If salvation was not all of God, then God does not get all the glory!
A key point of debate between the Reformers and Rome was that of mediation. Christ is called, according to Scripture, the “one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5), but the RCC had proposed that there were in fact other mediators who might be appealed to instead of Christ, namely the “Virgin Mary.” Calvin again responded with passion, drawing connection to the glory of God alone. He said:
Since Christ is proposed to us as the only Mediator, through whom we ought to approach God, those who, passing him by, or postponing him, betake themselves to the saints, have no excuse for their depravity. (Tracts and Letters, 1:96)
Likewise Philip Melanchthon responded with boldness and passion, drawing the same line from veneration of saints to the stealing of God’s glory. Melanchthon was the principal author of the Augsburg Confession, which reads:
It cannot be proved from the Scriptures that we are to invoke saints or seek help from them. “for there is one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), who is the only savior, the only high priest, advocate, and intercessor before God (Rom. 8:34). He alone has promised to hear our prayers. (Article 21)
In his defense of the confession, Melanchthon adds these words:
[Invocation of saints] is simply intolerable, for it transfers to the saints honor belonging to Christ alone. It makes them mediators and propitiators. (The Book of Concord, 47)
The appeal to saints actually makes Christ out to be more severe, less gracious, or less approachable than they. It makes Christ’s worth and work less because the work of saints is needed. The whole appeal undercuts the purpose of Christ’s work, and therefore undercuts His glory.
Whatever the RCC said about its belief that all glory belonged to God, many of its practices simply didn’t demonstrate this. The essence of its soteriology requires a shared glory. Greg Allison summarizes RCC teaching on salvation:
Catholic theology views the process by which God rescues fallen human beings as being synergistic, that is, a cooperative venture between divine grace and human effort (the realm of nature), aided by grace, to work so as to merit eternal life. (Roman Catholic Theology & Practice, 51)
The Reformers saw the flaw in this system and this theology. God was not the sole recipient of glory for our salvation because, after all, man had done his part. The church might have professed glory to God alone, but they were blind to the ways in which they undercut that statement.
We too can be blind to our own stealing of God’s glory. We can claim Soli Deo Gloria, but believe in our hearts and act in our lives as if we play some special and important role in our justification. We can be misguided into thinking that we earn grace at some level, that we deserve favor by our activities or attitudes or beliefs. In fact we can make even the five solas all about us.We can distort grace – making it an earned state. We can distort faith – making it a work of our will. We can distort Scripture – making it all about our needs. We can distort Christ – making his death about magnifying our worth. Soli Deo Gloria is the reminder we need that all things point back to God alone!