Soli Deo Gloria: A Long Forgotten Spirit

Last year we celebrated the 500th year since the protestant reformation. This celebration brings to mind the dark ages of the church, but also reminds us of God’s promise to preserve His Church. God fulfils this promise by raising Martin Luther. Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church (Schlosskirche) in Wittenberg as a form of opposition towards the Roman Catholic Church that has gone astray from the Bible’s teachings. However, the zeal to testify the truth as Luther did 500 years ago is no longer popular in this day and age, even many churches have abandoned and forgotten this spirit. The reformation is now merely thought of as a relic of the past that has lost its relevance and significance in this age. Is it true that the reformation is unimportant to this modern world? Or is the obliviousness towards the relevance of the reformation a sign that there is something wrong in the churches of this age?

When we look closely, we can see that the Reformation was a truly great movement, a manifestation of God’s intervention in the history of mankind. The same can be said of the spirit that was kindled by this movement. Such zeal was very crucial for the continuation and solidarity of the history of redemption. In short, the spirit of this movement was exemplified in the “Five Solas” (sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria). This article will solely focus on inviting readers to contemplate on soli Deo gloria.

The term Soli Deo Gloria can be understood as: all things done by man must be done with the motivation to return glory back to God. This zeal is contrasted with the concept of self-glorification idolized in today’s age, with ideologies such as narcissism, positive thinking, self-image, self-confidence, as well as its practical manifestations such as the popularity of “selfies”. The root of this difference can be traced back to a difference in the concept of identity. Man’s identity in the age of Reformation was defined and depicted through the concept of being in the “image and likeness of God” (imago Dei). This way of thinking is completely different with the mindset of this world, where one’s identity is often constructed on the base of social opinions or the opinions of oneself. To understand this more clearly, we will look into some of the views on identity present during the time of the reformation, such as the Roman Catholic point of view, and comparing it with the views of the Reformers about imago Dei and the implications that it has in this age.

Humanism, Imago Dei and Soli Deo Gloria

The emergence of the reformation was inseparable from the humanistic spirit of the time period, with Desiderius Erasmus as one of the famous championing figures of that spirit. The core principle of humanism is to uphold the value and dignity of humanity. Through the influence of humanism, people started to oppose the authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church which dominated all aspects of life, including the spiritual as well as the cultural. The church asserted control over the populace, and assumed itself worthy to determine each and every aspect of human life. This assumption contradicts with the core belief of humanism which supports the freedom to create. Besides this, the humanistic way of thinking also gave way for people to freely interpret the bible based on their conscience without Roman Catholic restriction.

To a certain extent, the humanistic way of thinking can produce positive benefits and is useful in developing society. However, when this way of thinking is brought outside the authority of Scripture, it will inevitably deviate to another extreme. This extreme pushes individuals to regard themselves as the captain of their own soul. Differing from secular humanism, Christian humanism considers man as valuable and full of potential because he was created in the image and likeness of God.

In the cultural context of the bible, the terms “image and likeness” were often used during situations of war. When a king succeeds in seizing another nation, the way to signify his dominion in that conquered area is to make a statue of himself. That statue acts as the “image and likeness” of the king that represents his presence in that area of war.

The same is true for the concept of man as the image and likeness of God, the presence of human beings on this earth means that we are the representatives of God in the middle of this world. Our whole existence is to declare the power and greatness of the King that reigns over the skies and the earth. Then, the concept of biblical humanism is to unearth the potential of man and to appreciate mankind’s value as a method of worship and glory to God.

Imago Dei in Reformation

The Roman Catholic theology regarding imago Dei was influenced greatly by the concept of dualism derived from Neoplatonism. This concept taught that spiritual/ supernatural things are higher in quality compared to physical/ natural things. Such a theology, is vulnerable, and can easily lead to the idea that all things of the church are more holy compared to everyday work, or in our case our daily studies. This extreme becomes something inevitable with this view. The concept of soli Deo Gloria in every aspect of life becomes foreign because it applies only in regards to things that are spiritual or in the church.

This concept of dualism was strongly opposed by the Reformers, especially John Calvin when he talks about the concept of imago Dei. John Calvin rejected this separation because it implied as if the physical body of man that was created by God was imperfect, so a supernatural gift was required in order to perform according to God’s will. Genesis 1:31 showed that after God had created everything, including mankind, God saw everything that He had made, and said that it was very good. This appraisal by God included both inward and outward aspects of humankind. Even after mankind fell into sin, they were still considered as the image and likeness of God despite their corruption (Gen 1:27, 5:1, 9:6; Jac 3:9). Herman Bavinck illustrates the sinful man to be like a blind or deaf person. They have lost something that was a part of their original nature (sight and hearing) but despite the loss, they are still considered human.

John Calvin divides the meaning of imago Dei into two perspectives that is the broader and narrower sense. The broader sense points to the likeness of God in humans that is still existent after the fall even if it has been corrupted, such as rational ability and conscience.  (Alternatively, In the broader sense, it refers to the aspects of God’s likeness that is still existent even after the fall of man, including rational ability and conscience). On the other hand, the narrower sense points to the aspects of God’s image that has been lost because of sin such as true righteousness, true holiness, and true knowledge. When Christ came to redeem man from sin, not only was the narrow sense of the imago Dei restored, but the aspects in the broader sense also underwent restoration. In the book Institutes of the Christian Religion (I.XV.III), Calvin writes this, “And though the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and the heart, or in the soul and its powers, there was no part even of the body in which some rays of glory did not shine.”

Clearly, Calvin’s concept on imago Dei is a foundation that encourages man to glorify God with his whole being and identity as man. This is not only done in prayer or when participating in spiritual activities, but also in doing works of external nature God must be glorified. In 1 Corinthians 10:31, the Apostle Paul said “So, whatever you eat of drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Eating and drinking are the basic needs of the human body and the bible teaches that it must also be done for the glory of God. Thus, the doctrine of imago Dei during the Reformation age, drives each person as the image and likeness of God to bring the glory of God in everything that they do.

Humanism in This Age

In today’s age, humanism seems to grow rapidly because of the emergence of humanistic psychology pioneered by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. Humanistic psychology states that self-fulfilment and self-actualisation is the way for one to achieve true success and happiness. Self-actualisation is defined as the best condition that an individual can have and it can only be achieved through the development of self and the excavation of one’s potential. Both notable figures mentioned see that each person’s potential becomes the trigger and the encouragement towards that person working harder. Abraham Maslow said, “What a man can be, he must be.” It means that each person must strive to keep growing in their potential, becoming better and better individuals according to their own desire. This way of thinking teaches that mankind’s will and happiness become the subject as well as the object of all their actions. Compare this to the humanistic spirit that was emphasized by the Reformers, that God becomes the subject and the object of all man’s works.

In this worldly concept of humanism, there are cultures or trends that emerge, which slowly idolize man and abandon the true God. Ideas like self-esteem and self-confidence become a very popular discussion topic within the society. For example, motivators will often urge their listeners to believe in their own abilities and potential. Not only that, but children’s education systems keep on implanting in children the idea that they have a larger potential within them and they must trust in their own abilities. This is also being supported by science which seems to be pointing in that direction. Many scientific findings have stated that one’s self-confidence can affect their own health and wellbeing.

An article with the title “Who Cares if Christ is Risen” explains this age’s trend of humanism quite well, “Being yourself is the thing to be, as if your self was automatically interesting and good. The consequence of this is that what was once called selfishness is now called fulfilment. The word “love” is used just as much as it ever was, but it means something else. For a Christian, the measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it. For the post-Christian, love is the most exciting state of the ego.” The humanistic philosophy does not only affect how man sees themselves but also their motivation in doing every action. For example, when people are asked about their motivation for achieving the highest level of education, many would answer “for a brighter future” which actually translates to “getting a job with a higher pay”. In the end, the glory of God is not the end purpose of their works but their self becomes their ultimate purpose. They do not uncover their potential for the glory of God but they do so to fulfil their own desires to reach self-actualisation. Thus, the growth of modern humanism results in a shift from soli Deo gloria to soli homos gloria.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon not only happens in the outside world, but the church is also not immune from the effect of humanism. Take for example, a doctrine of salvation which tends to become anthropocentric (man-centered). In church, we often hear phrases such as “God so loves man, even man that has fallen into sin”, “invite God into your heart”, and “God is always ready to bless you”. These phrases are not necessarily incorrect, indeed the Bible itself also tells much about these matters. Rome 10:9 teaches that if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised us from the dead, we will be saved. However, what we don’t realize is that in the context of this letter to the Romans, whoever believes that Jesus is Lord, he will be tortured and killed. This is clearly different with how it is used in today’s context, teaching man to believe for a smoother and more success life.

David Platt in his book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream explains this, “God loves me is not the essence of Biblical Christianity. Because if ‘God loves me’ is the message of Christianity, then who is the object of Christianity? Me. Christianity’s object is me.” Without us realising, often we act like this as well. Why do we go to this church? Why do we want to serve in this field? Why do we want to listen to this sermon? The answer to all of these questions are because it is according to what we like and it fits us. Unbeknownst to us, Christians have slowly shifted God from the centre-point of Christianity and replaced Him with mankind.

This is the reality of humanity in this age. From a young age, individuals have brainwashed themselves to keep on excavating their potential and upholding the value of man without understanding the true meaning of being man. The bible teaches that God created man in His own image and likeness, so that man would have value. Unfortunately, many people uphold the value and dignity of man and forgetting that God is the one who gave value to mankind in the first place.

The story of the Tower of Babel seems to be repeating itself. Men and women gather, and together they uncover their own potential by building the Tower with the purpose of bringing glory to themselves. This is the same humanistic spirit exhibited in this era. Men compete to better themselves, constantly trusting in their own potential, all in order to attain their own glory. (This sentence even when untranslated is VERY similar to the previous sentences, take care not to make the sentence redundant)

Instead of teaching anthropocentrism, the bible teaches the theocentric way of thinking. This puts God as the centre of all things. Paul in Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” During the Reformation, the Reformers have also upheld the value and dignity of man. However, this was done with the realization that the value and potential of man can only be excavated for the glory of God. These thoughts have vanished within this age. The understanding of man as the image and likeness of God, and that his whole life should be for His glory. Without this realization, man will always be kept astray from the initial purpose of all creation, that is to glorify God. Not unlike a tool used not for its intended purpose, such is the condition of man who abandons God and continues to idolize themselves.

The spirit of soli Deo gloria preached in the Reformation is the key to our return to true humanity. Man was truly created for the glory of God. If this sentiment is not within him, then he shall lose his purpose and identity, no longer being truly man. Because of that, those who chase their own glory are in the process of destroying their own image. Man’s effort to become gods of their own selves is effort that only points them to their own destruction. Do not let our lives be wasted achieving our fruitless desires. But let us come back to our true purpose, that is to glorify God. May we learn to surrender our whole lives under the will of God and be faithful to Him until death, all for His glory.

The spirit of Reformation is still very relevant, and in fact much needed in this age. The churches that have abandoned this spirit are those that have sold their firstborn right to the world’s concept of humanism. They think that by adopting the world’s humanistic concept, the church will be loved. Perhaps the congregation will increase in number, but what use is that when genuine faith has been lost? May last year’s commemoration of the reformation act as a reminder of the true spirit of soli Deo gloria, one that has been established by the Reformers. All this, so that we may achieve true humanity, together forming a true community of believers, a strong church acting as the salt and light in this sinful world. (KH)

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