You may have heard it said that the solas of the Reformation (solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide) are incoherent. I know I have. How can we be justified only in Christ, only by grace, and only by faith? Can't there only be one "only" at a time? Don't multiple solas cancel each other out?
There may be some important objections to the Reformation doctrine of justification, but this is not one of them. Why? Because this criticism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding concerning the meaning of the Reformation solas. The mistake is taking the adjective "only" in an absolute sense. But the intent of the solas is to rule out very specific answers to very specific questions.
This misunderstanding may arise from the solas functioning as slogans outside the polemical context from which they emerged. In order to avoid such misunderstanding, it may be necessary to re-embed the solas within this polemical context so one can see the relative sense in which "only" is used in each case. This can be done by adding to each of the solas an absque ("apart from") clause.
Christ alone ... apart from law. The mediator of justification before God is Jesus Christ. By fulfilling the law, the law does not function for us as the mediator of righteousness. Rather, we are justified by the alien righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us. God's law is not set aside, however, but fulfilled by Christ. Nor is the ongoing function of the law in the Christian life necessarily ruled out. But with specific regard to our justification, it is in Christ alone apart from the law that we are justified.
Grace alone ... apart from merit. The means by which justification is given is God's own gracious gift of mercy. Justification is not merited or earned from God. It is not deserved. We have no claim to make on God and what he owes us. This does not mean the language of merit or reward need be expunged entirely from our thinking. For instance, Christ may in some sense be said to merit righteousness for us. And we may find ways of speaking of a "reward in heaven" as the Bible does. But with specific regard to justification, it is by grace alone apart from any merit of our own that we are justified.
Faith alone ... apart from works. The instrument through which justification is received is human faith or trust in God's promises. Justification is not accrued through human working. It is received through faith, which is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit who comes to the justified person. Faith bears the fruit of works of love, so they are not ruled out entirely. Works have their place. But with specific regard to justification, it is through faith alone apart from works that we are justified.
"Christ alone," "grace alone," and "faith alone" do not rule each other out. Rather, each rules out a specific aspect of an alternative soteriology. Understood within their polemical context, the solas can be take in their highly specific and relative sense. Therefore, to hold on to the solas does not entail self-contradiction, as some have claimed. Perhaps there are successful criticisms of the Reformation doctrine of justification, but its supposed incoherence is not one of them.
Have you heard this criticism before? How did you respond?
Does this re-embedding of the solas in their context illuminate the matter?
Am I correct in attributing a relative rather than absolute sense to the solas?
What are some more significant criticisms of the Reformation doctrine of justification?