The 5 Solas of the Reformation - Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone
Topic: Protestant Reformation Passage: 2 Timothy 3:16–17, 2 Peter 1:20–21, Psalm 119:105
“THE 5 SOLAS OF THE REFORMATION
SOLA SCRIPTURA: SCRIPTURE ALONE”
2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:20-21, and Psalm 119:105
On the eve of All Saints Day, October 31, 1517, a priest named Martin Luther quietly approached the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Unfurling a document containing ninety-five clearly worded statements which critically addressed the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, he nailed it to the church door. Not even the sound of the hammer attracted much attention because this was the place that regularly served as the town “bulletin board” and the source of local news.
Only later was the significance of the event—and of the document in particular—made clear. In fact, it would unleash a firestorm that would impact all of Europe and send shockwaves that continue to be felt to this very day. It is not an overstatement to say that the manner in which you and I gather to worship this morning finds its roots in the seed which was planted that evening.
The posting of what came to be known as the “Ninety-Five Theses” was actually the culmination of a decade-long personal quest on the part of Luther to find peace with God. He had entered the priesthood thinking that his spiritual conflicts would find resolution, but they were only just beginning. Able now to witness the workings of the church from within, his anxieties increased in light of papal extravagance and practices for which he was able to find no biblical support.
Chief among those was the prevailing “indulgence” system, where for a monetary gift to the church one could purchase salvation for oneself or a departed loved one. Luther had become aware that Rome had mistranslated Jesus’ command to ”Repent” in Matthew 4:17 as “do penance,” and used it as a powerful theological tool to play upon the fears of gullible people who had been taught no differently all of their lives. Therefore, it is not surprising that the very first of the “Ninety-Five Theses” read: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
To attack or even question the indulgence system put an immediate target on Luther’s back, because it threatened the purse strings of the church. The Theses were in no small measure a response to the oft-repeated statement credited to Johann Tetzel, one of Luther’s chief religious opponents. Tetzel reportedly had coined the jingle, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” In other words, for the right price a person could “purchase heaven.” Such a notion troubled Luther deeply.
It is argued that Martin Luther never meant to begin a revolution, and that is no doubt true. But the nailing of the “Ninety Five Theses” fired the first volley of what in time would come to called “the Protestant Reformation,” which was nothing less than an attempt to recover the pure Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The clarity of its message had become obscured in the medieval church, and in some contexts completely denied.
There were forerunners to Luther’s act on that October evening, men like John Wycliffe and John Hus, who were executed for bringing the light of the Gospel out of the Dark Ages. There were contemporaries, such as Ulrich Zwingli, William Tyndale, and John Calvin who shared Luther’s persuasion for the Gospel of redemption through Christ. And there were many others—such as the later Purtians—who would follow and give their hearty “amens” to that same message in the decades and centuries to come. While there may not have been unanimous agreement among them on every point of doctrine, there were five essential questions to which all would answer in accord:
- First, is Scripture alone the sole authority for doctrine and life?
- Second, is Christ alone our Great High Priest and sole Mediator?
- Third, is God’s grace alone, apart from any consideration of our worthiness or our merits our only means of rescue?
- Fourth, does God justify us on the basis of Christ’s work alone through faith alone, or on the basis of something He sees within us?
- And fifth, do we get any credit for playing a role in our salvation, or does God get all the glory?
To each of these questions, the Reformers answered with the Latin word, “sola,” meaning “only” or “alone.”
- It is the Scriptures alone that are authoritative.
- It is Christ alone who saves.
- It is grace alone that intervenes.
- It is faith alone that is the means of our justification.
- And, therefore, it is God alone who is to be glorified.
These are the distinctives that define us as “Protestant.” In fact, I would go so far as to say, that holding to these five essentials are what marks one off as a “Christian” in the true biblical sense of the term. Failure to subscribe to any one of them disqualifies and separates a person from the Kingdom of God. That may seem to be a bold statement, but I trust you will come to see that to be true as we work our way through these “solas” over these next five weeks.
This month marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Protestant Reformation, which some have called the most significant date of Church history since the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Were it not for the courage and conviction of those who fought the battles from which we have claimed the spoils, we would all remain enveloped in the shadows of spiritual darkness.
So, let’s begin our journey where we must...with the doctrine of Scripture itself, for therein lies the authority for everything we believe as Christians. Using the Latin phrase, as they did for each of these five doctrines, the Reformers held unflinchingly to “Sola Scriptura”—“Scripture alone”—as the ultimate and final authority for our lives.
Without apology, the Reformers believed that the Bible was truly the Word of God, meaning that in all matters to which it speaks, it has the final word. And these men were willing to stake their very lives on that claim. In fact, many died because they would submit to no higher authority...not tradition, not the state, not the church, not the pope. For them, it was “Scripture alone!”
When questioned at Diet of Worms in 1521 and facing the threat of certain excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church if he did not recant what he had taught and written, Luther responded, “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 recant anything...Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. May God help me.”
Luther’s confidence rested in the claims that the Bible has made for itself. To him and the other Reformers, the Scriptures were their unrivaled authority. In our day the argument seems to have shifted from one of authority to one of sufficiency. For many, especially within our churches, the chief problem is not whether the Bible is authoritative, but is it sufficient? That is, is it alone sufficient in its ability to do what is necessary in drawing believers to Christ, enabling them to grow in godliness, providing direction for their lives, and transforming and revolutionizing society?
In many churches today, “worldly entertainment” has replaced the preaching of the Gospel for reaching the lost, “religious experiences” have been substituted for knowledge of the Word in offering assurance of salvation, “special revelations” have been encouraged for discerning the will of God for our lives, and “persuading voters from the pulpit” has become the way of changing society.
In other words, the 16th-century battle was against those who wanted to add church traditions to Scripture, but in our day the battle is against using worldly means for doing God’s work.
So, I propose to you that Bible remains authoritative, and that it is equally as sufficient for the accomplishment of God’s purposes as it was 500 years ago. In order for us to see that is so, I’d like to look at a couple of passages of Scripture with you this morning. Both are likely familiar to you, but they must not become so familiar that we bypass their teaching. The first is found in 2 Timothy 3, verses 16 and 17 and reads:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
What we see in these two verses is that...
The Scriptures were given by the inspiration of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
When the writer refers to “All Scripture,” that phrase is not meant to imply the entirety of the Bible, as much as “each and every part.” In other words, each individual verse of “Scripture”—without exception—is “breathed out by God.” What that implies is that it is not left up to our discretion or personal preference to select which portions of the Bible we will choose to believe and obey. We are accountable to it all, because it “all”—every book, every chapter, every verse, every word, every “jot and tittle” (cf. Matthew 5:18, KJV) is the revealed Word of God
You are likely aware that the phrase, “breathed out by God” is one long word in Greek (“θεοπνευστοs”). Other versions translate it “inspired by God” (NASV) or “given by inspiration of God (KJV). God has chosen to reveal Himself through a written word, and the process by which He has done that is called “inspiration.” That term literally means “God-breathed,” and suggests that just as He spoke “the heavens and the earth” intro creation in Genesis 1, so God supernaturally gave His Word. And because that is so, we believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible. To suppose otherwise, as many do today, is to suggest that our God is capable of error and can be charged with fault. That would make Him a less-than-perfect God, a proposition which would have made the Reformers cringe.
This passage goes on to tell us that this “God-breathed” Word is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” This is where not only the authority of Scripture but its sufficiency as well is emphasized. We are told that it is “profitable” (“ωφελιμοs”)—and that word means “beneficial,” “useful,” and “advantageous”—for four stated things:
- First, it is “profitable for teaching” (“διδασκαλια”), which refers to “the content of what is taught” as well as to “the activity of teaching.” This is the bedrock, the very foundation of everything we believe and hold dear as Christians. For one thousand years, the Scriptures not only were not taught to God’s people, and most had no Bible of their own to read, study, and by which to grow in their faith. That was a privilege reserved exclusively for the priests and certain members of nobility. What a privilege is ours to have and to hold the sacred Scriptures. May God help us in our neglect of them, and may we hear His call to immerse ourselves in this sacred Word.
- Next, we are told the Scriptures are “profitable...for reproof” (“ελεγμοs”). That refers to “the refutation of error.” The word covers a range of activities all related to making one aware of sin or deviating from the path of righteousness. Some versions translate it as “rebuke” (NIV), which is certainly appropriate when one fails to heed the warning to repent.
- Then, it is said that the Scriptures are “profitable...for correction” (“επανορθωσιs”), which can be understood as the “flip side” of “reproof.” Whereas “reproof” points out deviant behavior and may be considered the “negative” aspect, “correction” provides the “positive” antidote. The goal is recovery. I think of the words with which James ended his epistle: “Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). That’s the goal of correction.
- And finally, this passage tells us that the Scriptures are “profitable...for training in righteousness.” The word for “training” (“παιδεια”) conveyed a dominant concept in Greco-Roman culture in terms of educating children. The purpose then was to “train” good citizens who were able to make positive contributions to society. The purpose of Scripture is to make us “good citizens” of the Kingdom of God. The “righteousness” (“δικαιοσυνη”) spoken of here refers to “upright Christian living.”
Notice further, in verse 17, that the intended outcome of the Scriptures is so that “the man (“ανθρωποs”) of God (and the term is generic, meaning male and female) may be complete, equipped for every good work.” To put it another way, our instruction in the Scriptures is not merely for academic reasons. Its goal is that every Christian be “thoroughly furnished” (KJV) and prepared to live in such a way as to make the Lord and His Word known.
Truth be known, whatever your vocation, every believer is to be engaged in “full-time Christian ministry.” Wherever we are and whatever we do, we have a life-giving Gospel from a living Book to share with others.
In addition to being given by the inspiration of God...
The Scriptures were given through the instrumentation of man (2 Peter 1:20-21).
Please turn with me now to 2 Peter 2, verses 21 and 22, where we find this further word of testimony for what the Bible says of itself. It reads...
“Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
These two verses reiterate the fact that the Scriptures are divinely-inspired, but a few additional facts are highlighted for us here.
In the first place, notice that “no prophecy of Scripture”—or to express it another way, no word of God that has been spoken—is subject to “private interpretation” or “solution” (“επιλυσιs”), which is what that word actually means. What that suggests is that none of us is “left to our own devices” or expected to “figure it out for ourselves.” One person’s “interpretation” is not as valid as someone else’s. While there may be many applications of any biblical text, there is only one correct interpretation. And as Bible students throughout history have learned, the only infallible interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself. That was a hill the Reformers were willing to die on.
Verse 21 adds that “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man.” Just as none of us is able to lay claim to an exclusive “interpretation” of the biblical text, even those who were writing it did not do so as an act of their own wills. None of them sat down before a piece of parchment and picked up a stylus and said, “I think I’ll write some Scripture toady.” Had they done so, we could rest assured that it wouldn’t have been “inspired by God,” and would soon have been detected as fraudulent...as many such writings were.
Having said that, we must realize that God chose to record His eternal Word by means of human instrumentation. By way of supernatural influence exerted on the writers of Scripture by the Spirit of God, their writing was preserved free from error and omission. Admittedly, we don’t know how God superintended the recording of the sacred record, but the salient point for the church today is that we have God’s recorded Word as given through the personalities, vocabularies, and circumstances of divinely chosen human authors.
This mysterious blend of the “divine” and the “human” is sometimes difficult for us to understand. So let me take you to a passage which demonstrates that the Scriptures are not the only place where Deity and humanity have been brought together. The passage I have in mind is the prologue to John’s Gospel. Beginning with John 1 chapter 1 and verse 1, we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made”
So, who is John talking about here? It’s quite clear, isn’t it? He’s talking about God. How does he refer to him in this passage? As “the Word.” Now watch this as we drop down to verse 14: “And the Word (that is, God) became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Now, who is he referring to? Obviously, it is Jesus Christ. Deity and humanity were united in Christ. That is why He is at times referred to as the “God-Man.” Interestingly enough, He is here called “the Word.” In a similar fashion, mysterious though it remains, God similarly brought Deity and humanity together in giving us the Scriptures. Whereas Christ is the living “Word” of God, the Bible is the written Word of God. Both came to reveal God to us.
Notice how verse 21 of 1 Peter 1 concludes, “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The picture of being “carried along by the...Spirit” helps to illustrate to the concept of “inspiration,” which was introduced in the 2 Timothy passage.
What we find here is the “dual authorship” of Scripture. The Old Testament alluded to this in several places. In 2 Samuel 23:2. for example, David said, “The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me; his word is on my tongue.” Similarly, the Lord told Jeremiah, “Whatever I command you, you shall speak.” To which Jeremiah testified, “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth’” (Jeremiah 1:7 and 9). God spoke and men wrote, but God was at work within them and through them so that what they said was His Word. It was not by means of dictation or through a state of spiritual ecstasy, but through the controlling agency of God’s Holy Spirit.
The phrase “carried along by the Holy Spirit” clearly illustrates “inspiration.” The term “carried along” (“φερω”) is used elsewhere in the New Testament of “blowing wind” (cf. Acts 2:2). Twice in Acts 27(:15 and 17), it is used of a ship being “carried along” by the wind. It refers to being “moved along” by a force outside of oneself. The writers of Scripture “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
So far we have seen that the Scriptures were given by the inspiration of God through the instrumentation (or mediation) of man. That leads to one additional point, which is...
The Scriptures were given for the illumination of God’s people (Psalm 119:105).
The 119th Psalm is the longest of the hymns sung by the ancient Israelites. It is beautifully constructed in acrostic fashion with twenty-two stanzas corresponding with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and witheach stanza containing eight verses, for a total of 176 verses. There is no secret as to the psalmist’s theme, because in all but two of those verses (verses 122 and 132) he makes reference to the Word of God. The Scriptures are repeatedly referred to again and again in this psalm as the “law,” “testimonies,” “precepts,” “statutes,” “commandments,” and “word.”
Allow me to draw your attention to a single verse within that psalm, because it seems to explain the purpose for which God has given us His Word in the first place. In verse 105, we read: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” “Lamp...light”... ...illumination. This metaphor speaks more about moral decision than personal direction. Or, as one has put it, the Scriptures give light in the day as well as in the night. It refers to having one’s life lined up with God’s will by both hearing and heeding His instruction.
We must understand that God did not give His Word in a vacuum. He gave it to His people so that they might find their way to Him...and once having found their way to Him, they are to live life in its entirety for His good pleasure and for the purpose for which they were created. The Scriptures were inspired by God, mediated by men, and serve the purpose of illuminating the people of God.
This was the conviction of the Reformers, a conviction so deeply imbedded within them that they were willing to sacrifice all that they had for the preservation and proclamation of this Book’s message. I doubt that any of us are able to estimate the incalculable debt we owe to men like these.
In our day, many are fighting for a “cause”...some just, some not...some quite worthy, some less so. Never has there been a cause more just or more worthy than the preservation of the purity of God’s sacred truth. Given our access to sound biblical instruction, it is hard for us to imagine the spiritual darkness that had enveloped the world for more than a millennium. At the time when light at last began to dawn through the writing and teaching of men like Martin Luther, never were truer words spoken than those recorded by John the apostle when He wrote of Christ, “People loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).
The same light that illumines the path of truth for some blinds the eyes of others. The Protestant Reformation did not become a popular movement overnight. It took decades of debate and the cost of many lives before its doctrine became formalized. What caused these men—the forerunners of our faith—to persevere was their unshakable belief that the Bible was the unassailable Word of God. “Sola Scriptura!” “Scripture alone!”
Today’s church stands as the guardians and trustees of that same truth. If its authority and sufficiency are to be maintained and passed along to the next generation, that task rests with people like us.
In Psalm 12(:6) David testifies to the purity of the Scriptures, when he writes, “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” And in the 19th Psalm (verse 7), he speaks of their perfection, saying, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.”
God has repeatedly borne witness to the purpose of the Scriptures. We recall His words from Isaiah 55:10 and 11:“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
And it was our Lord Jesus—the very One to whom those Scriptures bear witness (cf. Luke 24:27)—who affirmed their permanence, when He said in Matthew 24:35, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
I believe what is needed in our day is not a “new reformation,” but a recovery of the essentials of what made the Reformation of the 16th-century such a potent movement. That begins with a fresh renewal of the commitment to the Scriptures on the part of God’s people...His church. In the first article of this church’s Statement of Faith we unashamedly confess that...
We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.
Martin Luther was driven by a passion for the exaltation of God’s Word. May we too be bound by the Scriptures and our consciences are held captive to the Word of God. May we, therefore, boldly declare, “Sola Scriptura!” “Scripture alone!”