2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. His actions set in motion a movement that changed the entire course of history. The Reformation was, at its heart, a recovery of the Gospel. Out of the Reformation came 5 essential truths that became the foundation for what the church stands for today. They are known as the “5 Solas” – 5 Latin phrases that summarize what the church stands for:
- Sola Scripture (Scripture alone)
- Sola Gratia (Grace alone)
- Sola Fide (Faith alone)
- Solus Christus (Christ alone)
- Sola Deo Gloria (God’s glory alone)
To mark this great historical occasion, we are going to examine each of these and see how they apply to us today.
Sola Scriptura (our only foundation)
“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.” – Martin Luther
Sola Scriptura means just that – Scripture alone. This does not mean that the instructions, counsel, advice or experiences of other people are not helpful. This does not mean that the truth in the Scriptures is equally clear to all people. Nor does it mean we don’t need the guiding, teaching and empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit (I’ll be getting to that soon). What it does mean is that the Scriptures are our only ultimate, reliable and infallible authority for all Christian faith and practice.
Psalm 119:89 says, “Lord, your word is forever; it is firmed fixed in heaven.”
Firmly fixed – sure, settled, immovable, unchangeable, reliable, dependable, trustworthy and true.
So why was this so important to the early Reformers? Because in their day the ultimate authority was not the Bible. It was the church. Picture in your mind a 3-legged stool. Label one of the legs “Scripture,” label the second leg “Tradition,” and label the third leg “Magisterium” (I’ll explain that one in a minute). You now have a picture of the authority structure of the Roman Catholic Church. Now think of marble column or staying with the analogy, a one-legged stool. Label that one pillar or leg “Scripture.” You now have a mental picture of the authority structure of Protestant Churches.
In the Roman Catholic Church, Scripture is only one authority. Tradition has equal authority. And so does the offices of the Pope and the Bishops (the Magisterium). And the Pope, along with the Bishops have the authority to interpret the meaning of both the Scripture and Church Tradition (which come in really handy when it comes to making a change). The Reformers protested against this saying, “No, we have only one authority: Scripture.”
Perhaps the most convincing text on this would be 2 Timothy 3:16-17
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
The word “inspired” is the Greek term theopnustos. It means “to breath out.” All Scripture is literally “breathed out by God.” And that becomes even more significant when you understand the word for breath and Spirit are the same – the Greek word pneuma. The Word of God comes from the Spirit of God. That’s why we should never divorce the Spirit from the Word. We should never pursue an experience of the Spirit apart from the Word. Nor should we try to understand and apply the Word without any interaction with or dependence on, the Spirit. The two work hand-in-hand.
Now everything we need for the Christian life is found in the Word so Paul is able to say, “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (v.17). It doesn’t spell out how to be a Christian astrophysicist or a Christian accountant. But it points us to Jesus, shows us all the riches that are in Christ, it brings faith in Him which unites us to Jesus and equips us to bear fruit in all sorts of ways.
- It teaches us the truth (by showing us what is right)
- It rebukes us of sin and error (by showing when we are wrong)
- It corrects our behavior (by showing us how to get right)
- It trains us for righteousness (by showing us how to stay right)
No one else can do that for you. I can’t do that for you. Your spouse can’t do that for you. The church can’t do that for you. But the Word of God can do that for you. It is able. It has authority. Because it is given by God Himself.
The Word of God is our authority. We don’t have any other authority. We listen and pay heed to what God in his Word tells us –
- Not what tradition tells us
- Not what human opinion tells us
- Now what human wisdom and human reasoning tells us
- Not what the culture we live in tells us
- Not what our experience tells us
That is why this doctrine – Sola Scriptura is so important for us today. Because we will always be tempted to move away from Scripture or to go beyond Scripture. There will always be something out there that is more attractive, more alluring, more rewarding, more tantalizing, or more exciting. Who wants to sit and do bible study when there are so many other things on offer? But will those other things reveal to you the mind and will of God like his Word will?
Will they expose sin and error in your life?
Will they draw you closer to Christ?
Do they have the power to transform you?
Can they feed you spiritually so that you leave with your soul full?
Can they give you personal advice and counsel on just about any subject?
Can they comfort you in times of distress?
Can they help lift your eyes to God?
Can they give you wisdom that is needed for counseling others?
During the Reformation, the main contestant for authority in the church was tradition. Tradition, along with the sacraments and rituals and relics trumped Scripture. Today I believe it is experience. If a Christian experiences it, then it is valid. It is of God. And the Bible is interpreted in light of the experience, not the experience in light of what the Bible says. Don’t get me wrong here: it is a good thing to seek personal encounters with God. It is a good thing to sense God’s presence and to have such a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit that you sense his leading and prompting in any given situation. But just remember: experiences can be faulty. Emotions are not always trustworthy. Subjective impressions and so-called “leadings” must always be tested. And the only sure test we have is the Word of God.
Because it never changes. It always remains true. It is always trustworthy. It will never put you wrong. And that is why it is our only authority.
Sola Scriptura. Never forget it. Lay hold of it each and every day.