Mechanisms for C stabilization in soils have received much interest recently due to their relevance in the global C cycle. Here we review the mechanisms that are currently, but often contradictorily or inconsistently, considered to contribute to organic matter (OM) protection against decomposition in temperate soils: (i) selective preservation due to recalcitrance of OM, including plant litter, rhizodeposits, microbial products, humic polymers, and charred OM; (ii) spatial inaccessibility of OM against decomposer organisms due to occlusion, intercalation, hydrophobicity and encapsulation; and (iii) stabilization by interaction with mineral surfaces (Fe-, Al-, Mn-oxides, phyllosilicates) and metal ions. Our goal is to assess the relevance of these mechanisms to the formation of soil OM during different stages of decomposition and under different soil conditions. The view that OM stabilization is dominated by the selective preservation of recalcitrant organic components that accumulate in proportion to their chemical properties can no longer be accepted. In contrast, our analysis of mechanisms shows that: (i) the soil biotic community is able to disintegrate any OM of natural origin; (ii) molecular recalcitrance of OM is relative, rather than absolute; (iii) recalcitrance is only important during early decomposition and in active surface soils; while (iv) during late decomposition and in the subsoil, the relevance of spatial inaccessibility and organo-mineral interactions for SOM stabilization increases. We conclude that major difficulties in the understanding and prediction of SOM dynamics originate from the simultaneous operation of several mechanisms. We discuss knowledge gaps and promising directions of future research.