October 1, 2017
You’ve been hearing a about it recently, and you’ll hear more in the weeks to come. On October 31, 1517, a thirty-three year old Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Actually written in Latin, it was an invitation to his academic colleagues to a debate – a discussion about some church practices which were disturbing him, not the least of which was the sale of indulgences. Well, someone apparently took a picture with their Iphone, used Google translator, and the rest is history.
That wasn’t exactly it, but it was as remarkable. Someone did get a copy of the 95 Theses, translated it, and used a new invention called the printing press to make copies. It spread like wildfire, and Luther was an overnight sensation. It was the shot heard round the world – and the Protestant Reformation was born. Yes, there were others who had attempted reform before – like John Wycliffe and John Huss. But it was Luther God used.
And so October 31, 2017 is the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. But really, I suppose we should ask, what’s the big deal? Was all that uproar and subsequent division – tearing apart the bride of Christ, as some suggest – was it really necessary? Was it just a Middle Ages religious squabble? After all, we are so much more sophisticated today. Are the things for which they fought really that big a deal?
Some have thought not – that it’s time to bury the hatchet – put the issues behind us – after all, there’s much more with which we Protestants agree with Catholics than not. This so-called Reformation was really a revolution and has needlessly divided the church. Jesus told the disciples, a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples by your love for one another. And so, isn’t love, tolerance, acceptance, even of non-biblical teaching and practices the foundation of our faith? Should we allow doctrine, a Middle Age spat, to divide us? A legitimate question.
Some have thought not. And so, in 1994, a group of Evangelicals and Catholics got together, authored and signed the ECT Accord – Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The purpose was to list those areas of agreement between them – and it was a rather long list. Would it be the new 95 Theses of our generation – could we once for all put behind us the detrimental results of the Reformation? Could we heal the fracture? Make no mistake about it – there were some heavy hitters who either signed or endorsed the agreement. I read the Accord in ‘94, and indeed, there were some significant areas of agreement. But…also listed in the back were those things upon which we still did not agree. And I would suggest they were the very issues central to the Reformation. For example, it was stunning to find the signers agreed that Evangelicals and Catholics still did not agree on the nature of justification.
Most suggest justification was the central issue of the Reformation. What do I mean by justification? Justification is how a man or woman is made right before God. It is how a person’s sins are forgiven and removed, and how that person is brought into a right relationship with the Triune God of the universe. In short, it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So understand, the central issue of the Reformation was nothing less than the Gospel. And it is not too much say that the Gospel had been lost to the church of the Middle Ages – that is, until it was recovered in the Reformation. Recovered by some courageous reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. Nor is it too much to say the still current divide between Catholics and Evangelicals is of eternal significance. We cannot, we must not bury the hatchet if we stay divided on this most fundamental of Christian doctrines.
My brothers and sisters, we are able to call each other brothers and sisters because of the Gospel of Jesus. And so, this 500th Anniversary is a celebration of an event of greatest import. I cannot overstate what it should mean to us. To be clear, the Reformation does not save us. The Gospel alone does. You see, that was the argument of the Reformers. The gospel alone saves – that gospel which had been lost – now recovered – beginning with the posting of the 95 Theses by a thirty-three year old Augustinian monk named Martin Luther on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. This man, a Catholic priest and doctor of theology, a professor in a relatively small German town stood up to the two most powerful men of his day – the emperor and the pope – and the two most powerful organizations behind them – the Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire – to recover the Gospel – the Gospel that saved you.
God used this movement to bring the light of the gospel back to bear on the souls of people. The motto of the Reformation, printed in your bulletins, became Post Tenebras Lux – After Darkness, Light. It is engraved on the Reformation Wall in Geneva Switzerland. In fact, coins minted in Geneva contained the motto for hundreds of years after the Reformation. It is not only the motto of the Reformation – it is the motto every believer – after darkness, light.
I have looked forward to this day, this month, this year, for years – to celebrate this historically momentous occasion. We’ve scheduled a couple things to do that. First, as it happens, there are five Sundays in October. During the Reformation, there were five titles that were used to summarize the central theological convictions of the Reformers. They are called the Five Solas of the Reformation. They are Latin, but the word Sola means only. The Five Solas, also printed in your bulletins, are:
- Sola Scriptura
- Sola Gratia
- Solus Christus
- Sola Fide
- Soli Deo Gloria
- Scripture Alone
- Grace Alone
- Christ Alone
- Faith Alone
- The Glory of God Alone
Lord willing, during these five Sundays of October, we will learn each of these. Meaning we’re taking a break from the Gospel of Mark, which we’ll finish beginning in November. In this series, I will seek to give the historical perceptive – that is, why the Reformers were committed to these five theological convictions and how they differed from the teaching of the Roman Church. But perhaps more importantly, are these recovered truths still viable for today – and if so, if they are as important today as they were then, what are the current threats against them? I want you to hear me – the eternal truths recovered at the Reformation have dismissed again.
The second thing we have planned is a Reformation Celebration on October 31. Yes, I know it’s a Tuesday evening, but it will take the place of our Wednesday evening gathering. Yes, I know there’s another event on October 31 that has something to do with candy, but it will be Halloween next year. I’m hoping through this month, you’ll see the great value of this extremely special day, and you’ll choose to celebrate with the church. We promise to make it worth your while – we’ve been planning it for some time – for children and adults. Truly, I hope to pack this place out. We’ll even give the children candy – on the way out.
I could not be more excited to be spending this time with you. So let’s begin with Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone. It is the foundation for the other Solas – what some call the formal principle. It is from the Scripture the other four Solas find their authority. Why were the Reformers of the 16th Century so committed to this foundational truth? In fact, Al Mohler, President of Southern Seminary, recently wrote, “We must always remember that what was at stake in the Reformation was nothing less that the authority of Scripture and the gospel of Jesus Christ.” That seems like an audacious claim – so how was the authority of Scripture at stake? We’ll briefly walk through the following three points:
- The 16th Century Context of Sola Scriptura
- The Biblical Basis of Sola Scriptura
- The 21st Century Context of Sola Scriptura – that is, is it still true and needed today?
I suppose we should start with a definition. One author writes, “Sola Scriptura means that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.” Please see how the Bible is to be the supreme and final authority for the church of Jesus Christ? While that may seem obvious, what was the context of the 16th Century that made this such a big deal? After all, didn’t the church of Martin Luther and other Reformers affirm the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of Scripture? Why yes, they did.
But they said more – they said Scripture was not the only inspired, inerrant authority. They said the church, embodied in the person of the pope and the power of the councils, was also inerrant and therefore authoritative and on the same level with Scripture. Papal and council decrees can together be called church tradition. And the traditions handed down by church leadership, even if not found in Scripture – even if contradicting Scripture – tradition, the church of Luther’s day said, was inerrant authority. Some would even argue the church saw itself in authority over God’s Word. Here’s what a Dominican theologian, Sylvester Prierias, appointed by Pope Leo X, wrote in response to Luther’s arguments: “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic.”
Here’s how they did that: they said the church produced the Bible, and therefore is in authority over the Bible. Not only that, they said the church and the church alone has the authority to interpret or give meaning to the text. Common people could not read, study and interpret the Scripture. It was in Latin, it wasn’t available to them. So, all that lead to, for example:
- If the church said salvation was to be found in the church, who alone has the authority to dispense saving grace – even though that is not found in the Scripture, it is to be affirmed.
- If the church said that salvation was dispensed by observing an elaborate system of sacraments, to include penance – not found in the Scripture, it is to be affirmed.
- If the church says Christ’s death paid for our sins in eternity, but not temporally – that the sinner must pay for his own sins in a place called purgatory – even though not found in Scripture, it is to be affirmed.
- If the church said you could buy your way out of purgatory with money through the purchase of an indulgence, even though such teaching is damnable – it is to be affirmed.
- If the church said only certain people attain sainthood and go directly to heaven, but the rest of us must go through purgatory – even though the Scripture declares us all saints – the erroneous teaching of the church is to be affirmed.
- If the church said your sins must be confessed to a priest, who then assigns works of satisfaction so that you may receive absolution – even though the Scripture declares us all believer priests – and that there is one mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus – the teaching of the church is to be affirmed.
- If the church said you could pray to the Virgin Mary or the saints for help – nowhere in Scripture, the teaching of the church is to be affirmed.
- If the church said Mary, like Jesus, was immaculately conceived and without sin, and became the queen of heaven at her ascension, crowned by Jesus Himself, even though contrary to Scripture, it is to be affirmed.
- If the church said the Mass, with the Eucharist, is a re-sacrifice of the actual body and blood of Christ since the elements literally turn into the body and blood of Christ through transubstantiation, the teaching of the church is to be affirmed.
- It the church says infant baptism gives justifying grace and removes all original sin, but then future sins must be forgiven through the system of penance, the teaching of the church is to be affirmed.
- If the church says you can find absolution for all your sins by ascending the so-called Holy Staircase on your knees, reciting the Our Father at each of its 28 steps, then the teaching of the church is to be affirmed.
- If the teaching of the church says if you die in the crusades against Muslims, you go straight to heaven, the teaching of the church is to be affirmed.
- If the teaching of the church makes up a so-called plenary indulgence through which purchase you don’t just reduce time in purgatory but skip purgatory, the teaching is to be affirmed.
- If the church says you can buy an indulgence to release an already dead loved one suffering in purgatory, apart from repentance, the teaching is to be affirmed.
- If the church says you can reduce your stay in purgatory by viewing relics – lots of relics – things like fabric from the swaddling cloth of baby Jesus, pieces of His crib, straw from the manger, gold from the magi, a morsel of bread from the Last Supper, a thorn from His crown of thorns, a hair from the Virgin Mary’s head, etc., if you venerate those things, it results in less time in purgatory, the teaching is to be affirmed. By the way, if you paid to see these things in the collection of Frederick the Wise, who displayed them in the Castle Church in Wittenberg once a year on November 1, you would reduce your stay in purgatory by 1,902,202 years and 270 days.
- If the church says the Pope and the Councils do not err – even though the Council of Constance in 1415 recognized three popes who had excommunicated each other – and even though that same Council burned John Huss at the stake for teaching the gospel and for suggesting Jesus was the head of the church and not the pope – the teaching is to be affirmed.
We will talk of these things in weeks to come, but the Reformers, through Sola Scriptura said there is only one inspired, inerrant authority, and that is the Scripture, not the unbiblical, in fact, anti-biblical traditions of the church.
I have been using several terms about Scripture which I suppose must be proven by Scripture. Even as I say that, you must understand Scripture is self-attesting and self-authenticating. That is, its own inspiration, inerrancy and authority comes from itself – because it is God’s Word, and no one stands in authority over it. This has been the teaching of the church for 2000 years. It has only been recently that the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of the Bible has been questioned by those who place themselves in authority over the Bible. Quickly, where then do we find this teaching on inspiration, inerrancy and authority? And you should understand these build on each other – to do away with one is to make the truth of Sola Scriptura crumble. And those who oppose Christianity know that – so they attack the inspiration, truthfulness and reliability of Scripture.
It is because Scripture is inspired by God – God-breathed – that it is inerrant – a perfect self-revelation of Himself to His creatures. And since it is inspired – God’s Word – all of it; since it is inerrant, that is, without error or contradiction – not just in the spiritual truths is addresses, but all things whatsoever it says, it is the final rule of faith and practice – the final, supreme authority for the church and believers. My brothers and sisters, there is a reason we study the Bible every week. And not just what I think about a particular topic, seeking to find verses to support my thinking – but we go verse-by-verse, because the Bible is God’s Word and the supreme authority over our lives.
Now, that is not to say there are not other authorities over the church and believers – for example, church leadership found in pastors or elders. The Scripture is clear we submit to those in authority over us. But only inasmuch as that authority is submissive to and consistent with Scripture. In other words, authority lies with the truth, not the person or the position. So inasmuch as our elders and pastors are submissive to and consistent with the Scripture, we obey. But when they aren’t, as they were not in the 16th Century, the Scripture remains our ultimate and supreme authority.
So again, where is this to be found in Scripture? As to inspiration, the Bible is clear that every word is breathed out by God, and therefore, every word is God’s Word. You see, it has become quite popular to say, the Bible contains God’s Word – as if some of it is God’s Word, and some of it is man’s word. Here’s the question – who decides what is what? Such an idea destroys confidence in Scripture. Sola Scriptura affirms all of it, and maintains confidence. Consider these verses:
II Timothy 3:16-17, “16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” All of it is inspired by God, and therefore sufficient – giving us everything we need for life and godliness.
Further, II Peter 1:20-21 says, “20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Clearly, the Scripture says, of itself, that every word is from God, such that we can say, what Scripture says, God says.
Consider Paul’s words to the Thessalonian church (I Thessalonians 2:13), “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” Now certainly this includes Paul’s message – but it was a message that he had received from God, that he was simultaneously recording in Scripture.
Therefore, since every word is inspired by God, then we can fully trust the Scripture. That is, it is reliable, and inerrant. Inerrancy, infallibility, that is, it is without error, is the natural corollary to inspiration. In his famous book Thy Word is Truth, author E. J. Young writes, “There is no such thing as inspiration which does not carry with it the correlate of infallibility….A Bible that is inspired is a Bible that is infallible.” If it is verbally inspired by a perfect God, than it is itself perfect.
There was another group of Evangelicals that convened in 1978 to address the continued attacks by mainline, liberal Protestant denominations against the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. These were more than 300 of the most notable conservative evangelicals of the church, and they met in the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy. They produced an important document called the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. I won’t read it to you – although I do recommend it. It says in its preamble, “Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority.”
Now again, it’s popular today to say, well, where it addresses spiritual matters, it’s reliable. This is called the limited inerrancy view. They suggest God through His Word accommodated itself to man’s human finiteness, his limitation, and therefore, where it addresses history or demons or miracles – well, we know that’s not really true. Of course it’s true. Every Word of God is true, faithful, reliable and without error. Jesus Himself said in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” Proverbs 30:5 proclaims the same truth, “Every word of God is tested (and therefore, the idea is, true).”
And since God’s Word is inspired and inerrant, it, and it alone, becomes the supreme and final authority over the church and the believer. Jesus said man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So clearly the reason the Reformers were committed to Sola Scriptura is because the Scripture declares itself to be inspired, and therefore inerrant, perfect, and therefore our final authority.
But what about today? Are there attacks against the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture. You bet. Following the Reformation, with the coming of the Enlightenment – elevating reason above all things – mankind once again became the judge of Scripture. This time, not claiming to be equal to Scriptures inerrancy and authority, but to be over Scripture, and with human reason, to dismiss those things in Scripture not submitting itself to human reason.
The Enlightenment was followed by Liberalism which, with rationalism, questions anything supernatural. Stories in the Bible may contain spiritual truth, but the Bible is a product of human hands, and therefore filled with error. And of course, anything miraculous, to include the deity of Jesus and His resurrection, is to be dismissed.
Which brings us to our day and its postmodernism which does away with objective truth. Its focus is on relativism. What is true for you may not be true for others. And so while Scripture may be true for you, it may not be true for me. There is no such thing as objective truth that is true for all and corresponds to reality. And so, we certainly must deny inspiration, because if it is from God, it does carry authority. But certainly ancient Scripture written by fallible men carries no authority in my life. We are left therefore with those both inside and outside the church questioning, even denying Scripture.
Carl Henry in his book God, Revelation, and Authority, says the church throughout history has faced repeated attacks on the Bible from skeptics, but only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God’s Word been questioned, criticized, and abandoned by those within the body of Christ. While the church of the 16th Century diminished the value of Scripture by placing itself alongside Scripture, the church of the 21st Century devalues Scripture by denying its inspiration, inerrancy and authority. The liberal church must do this, you see, if it wants to deny certain teachings in the Scripture.
We are out of time, but I would reaffirm Sola Scriptura to you today. God’s Word is inspired, and therefore inerrant, and therefore, authoritative. When Martin Luther was called to the Diet of Worms in April, 1521, he was called to recant his words and his works which denied the inerrant authority of anything outside Scripture. After given a day to consider, he responded with these words of Sola Scriptura:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”