Soli Deo gloria is one of the important doctrines emphasized during the Protestant Reformation. Soli Deo gloria, along with the other four solas of the Reformers, separates the biblical gospel from false beliefs. The Latin word soli means “alone” or “only” (soli is the root of our English word solitary); and the phrase Deo gloria means “the glory of God.” So, soli Deo gloria means “to the glory of God alone.”
Soli Deo gloria has reference to our salvation in Christ. When the Reformers spoke of our salvation “to the glory of God alone,” they emphasized the grace of God. Salvation is all of grace, not of our works (Ephesians 2:8–9). A key phrase in Ephesians 2:9 is “so that no one can boast”; that is, God’s grace in providing salvation excludes all human pride and boasting. In making his case for justification by faith, apart from the Law, Paul writes, “Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith” (Romans 3:27, NLT).
There is no room for the glory of man in God’s plan for salvation. The glory is God’s alone. Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). If it were possible for someone to attain salvation through the works of the Law, then he would have something to boast of (Romans 4:2); but it is impossible. We cannot save ourselves. We who were dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1) could do nothing to help ourselves toward life. But, praise the Lord, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The glory is God’s, not ours. Soli Deo gloria.
The salvation of sinners was God’s idea, the accomplishing of that salvation was God’s work, the granting of that salvation is God’s grace, and the fulfillment of that salvation is God’s promise. From beginning to end, “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Psalm 3:8, ESV; cf. Revelation 7:10). Jesus likened salvation to a new birth (John 3:3); as an infant can take no credit for his own birth, so we can take no credit for our being “born again.” King Hezekiah was not credited with saving Jerusalem from the Assyrians (2 Kings 19); God was the One who defeated the enemy. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not credited with saving themselves in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3); God preserved them in the flame. The glory belongs to God alone. Soli Deo gloria.
In Reformed theology, the doctrine of soli Deo gloria is closely related to the doctrine of irresistible grace. God’s grace drew us to salvation and even enabled us to believe. Yes, we repented of our sin, but only because God’s grace enabled us to repent. We placed our faith in Christ, but only because God’s grace enabled us to have faith. There is no work that we can do to in any way earn our salvation or help secure it for ourselves. We are called and kept by the power of God alone, “in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). Soli Deo gloria.
The German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) understood that music was a gift from God to be used for the glory of God. Beneath all of his compositions of sacred music, Bach penned the initials SDG, soli Deo gloria. In his vision of heaven, the apostle John saw “the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, / to receive glory and honor and power’” (Revelation 4:10–11). Even the elders of heaven do not keep their crowns; they give glory where glory is due—to God alone.