Facebook Live Q&A
Today we are looking at one of the Five “Solas” of the Protestant Reformation. Dr. George was here about 2 months ago talking to us about “Sola Christus” (Christ alone), then Dr. Duesing was here one month ago for “Sola Fide” or (Faith alone), and today we’re looking at “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone). And feel free to text in your questions after the thread goes out around 11:05am, though I won’t answer them today. I’ll answer them on Facebook live this week and also email that out. So please do send in your questions.
It was October 31st, 1517 (which was 500 years to the day this past Tuesday) when a theology professor from Wittenburg University in Germany went to the door of the Castle Church there in Wittenburg to nail a large piece of paper to the door. These theses, or arguments, included some pretty controversial statements about the teachings of Scripture and their relation to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Luther didn’t post the 95 theses because he hated the Catholic church. He had no desire to start his own church or even to lead some sort of Reformation. His reason for posting these concerns was to start a discussion, and to challenge some of the Catholic Church’s teachings and whether or not they were biblical.
These teachings included prayers to the saints; immaculate conception, which refers to Mary and how she had no sinful nature and was actually sinless herself; Papal authority, which is the belief that the pope has supreme, universal power over the Church, including her beliefs; and the sale of indulgences, among many other things.
Now, an indulgence was a way to shorten your time in purgatory, which is this intermediate state after you die but before you reach heaven where you basically pay for certain sins and are purified before entering heaven. You could do different things to receive an indulgence; you could even buy one. You could pay a certain amount, and have some time taken off your stay in Purgatory. Obviously, indulgences (and even purgatory) were teachings with no biblical support.
One of the specific things that really drove Martin Luther to do what he did was the selling of indulgences by a man Johann Tetzel. He was a priest who was sent on a fundraising campaign to help try and finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He was sent out by Pope Leo X to sell the most effective indulgence ever! For a quarter of a florin ($35), you could release a loved one from purgatory permanently! And Tetzel was known for his salesmanship. His most famous jingle you may have heard before: “When a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
You might, at this point, understand why Luther was so frustrated. The biggest problem for Luther was not just that he didn’t like these things. It wasn’t that he just had a grudge against Catholics. It’s that Biblical truth, and therefore Gospel truth, was no longer central to the Church’s teaching and practice! The Scriptures were not the authority, and the Church was even teaching things and practicing things that were directly contradictory to the Bible’s teachings, even when it came to the gospel!
“How can I be made right with God?” Well, you do this, this, this, this, this, and this. Says who? “A coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Wait, says who?! What’s our authority here? Where do you get that?! That might be the most important question we can ask as Christians, when it comes to authority—especially when it comes to those supposedly speaking on behalf of God. Says who?
Luther asked this question. He was an Augustinian monk, but he so struggled with the weight of his own sin, that they forced him to go to get a doctorate in theology, so maybe he’d and figure out the answers to all the questions he had. So Luther learned to read the Bible for the first time ever, because the Bible had not been translated into German yet (the Church did not allow for it to be translated into German for fear of common-people twisting and misunderstanding it, ironically). So for the first time ever, Luther learned the languages and studied the Scriptures for Himself. He asked questions of his professors and other professors, but their answers often weren’t satisfactory for him, because he kept asking the question, “Says who?” You can make up an answer to my question all you want, but does God answer it in that way? How does his WORD answer this question? Or that question?
Listen, this is the question we too must be asking. Not merely what does a pastor say, or a church, or a denomination, or a meme on Facebook, or a catchy quote from some author. What does GOD say!? Because he is our only infallible source for truth. “Sola Scriptura,” which became one of the rallying cries of the Reformation, does not mean that the Bible is our only source for truth. We have our senses, we have brains that God gave us. These too are sources for truth, but these sources can fail us. They can be wrong. God, though, can’t be wrong. That’s why God’s Word is our ultimate authority. And since it is our only ultimate authority, we submit to it in every way. And we believe that by submitting to God’s Word, we are submitting to God Himself.
Because of that, today we bring up five particular areas in which we must submit to the Word of God. These are five areas in which it is so easy deny “Scripture Alone” as our ultimate authority. Maybe not out loud, but at least functionally we can so easily place other things on equal level to God’s Word. And yes, these go for the Catholic Church in Luther’s day, but they also go for our culture today, even within our Christian culture, and whether we realize it or not, in our very own hearts and minds. These are for US. So here are the five main areas we must submit to the Word of God, and today we have multiple Scriptures we’re bringing up to undergird our commitment to “Sola Scriptura.”
- We submit our desires to the Word of God.
For the Catholic Church in Luther’s day, it was convenient to be able to sell indulgences. Why? Because they wanted to build St. Peter’s Basilica, which I’m sure sounded to everyone like something that would glorify God! It was supposedly a good thing, so there must be nothing wrong with selling indulgences if it helps this cause. They let their personal desires trump the truth of the Word of God. The truth was that there was no such thing as an indulgence that gave man the power to free loved ones from purgatory. Honestly, the truth was that there was no such thing as purgatory at all! But certainly, also, it was wrong to manipulate people into buying these tickets into heaven. They let their desires trump the Word of God not only with what they believed but also with what they practiced.
But even for us, today: we too, can so easily let our desires trump the Word of God. Maybe not in the same ways of the Roman Catholic Church. But think about it: one of the easiest ways that we deny that God’s Word is our ultimate authority is by projecting onto God what we want him to be, instead of what we know Him to be from His Word. In other words, we need to be careful when we say things like, “I like to think of God as…fill in the blank.” Because the question we need to be asking is, “Is that what God is really like?” In other words, says who?! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having favorite character traits of God, or favorite titles that reflect who he is. Like right now my favorite two titles, specifically for Christ, are Substitute and King. You’ve probably heard that a lot in the language I use while preaching. There’s nothing wrong with having favorite characteristics of God, or meaningful names that you call him even perhaps more than other biblical names.
The problem is when we let our desires turn God into something that he may not be! When we love God’s mercy to the point where we can’t also love his justice, or even acknowledge his justice, there’s a problem! This is when it’s very easy to become a universalist without even really meaning to. Universalism is the belief that God will save every single person on the planet—that all people are saved and are going to heaven. Is God merciful? Absolutely, but his mercy does not negate his justice. When we love his mercy so much and want his mercy to be his primary or even only characteristic, we put our desires above what the Scriptures actually teach. Instead, we must submit our desires to the Word of God. And we MUST make sure and help each other do this, because no one else is doing this. Most just believe whatever they want to believe!
Within mainstream Christianity, it seems like people just go to the places where they hear what they want to hear, whatever their itching ears desire. We cannot do this. The Word must be central. Here’s our reminder from the Bible as it pertains to our desires and the Word of God. 2 Timothy 4:1-5:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
We must guard against falling right in line with so many that hear whatever they want to hear and believe whatever they want to believe. We must preach the Word, Sunday mornings, to each other regularly, to ourselves as we soak it in! That’s one thing I have to mention before we move on to number 2: you will not submit your desires to the Word of God if you do not read the Word of God! You are UNABLE to believe what God has said if you are not regularly exposed to what God has said. Open it, find a church that preaches it, jump into a bible study. Read it. Understand it. Grow to love it. Number 2: the 2nd area we must submit to the Word of God:
- We submit our reason to the Word of God.
Again I think it’s worth noting that Sola Scriptura does not mean that Scripture is our only authority for truth, but that it’s our only infallible source for truth. We use our brains. We use reason, logic, the minds that God has given us to understand reality. We use all five senses to experience the world in which we live, and learn particular truths not only about the universe, but also about God Himself. This is why Christians should lead the way in the sciences, and biology and chemistry and pretty much every academic area. Because we believe that all truth is God’s truth.
But, there is a problem when we let our reason trump the Word of God. Yes, all truth is God’s truth. But our only infallible source for truth is the Word of God. Darwinian evolution is an example of something that is incompatible with Scripture, and yet many Christians will side with pretty much the full scope of Darwinian Evolution.
Another modern example is the sexual revolution in which we are currently living. A revolution in which man’s reason demands that we get on the right side of history and give up old, bigoted, patriarchal views. Or even if we don’t give up on our beliefs in these areas, at least we should be quiet about them. Otherwise, the church may risk becoming irrelevant! At least that’s what we’re told. Instead of asking the question, “What does God want?” we’re told to ask the question, “What will keep us relevant in this culture?” In fact, I want to play you a short video of Rob Bell and Oprah Winfrey. Rob Bell is a very well-known so-called “Christian” author (he was a pastor for some time as well). He wrote Velvet Elvis and Love Wins, if you recognize those. But I want you to pay attention, and I want you to put your thinking caps on as we hear from Bell and his wife speaking with Oprah Winfrey:
You heard Bell’s logic, his reasoning for why gay marriage was included in his book? Because “loneliness is not good for the world. It’s totally normal, natural, and healthy to want someone to go through life with. It’s central to our humanity.” What’s he using there? Is he using the Word of God to answer this question? Of course not! He’s using human reason. Why should the church change, according to Bell? Because it will become more and more irrelevant if it continues to quote letters from 2000 years ago…
It may certainly be true that the church becomes less and less relevant in the world’s eyes if we continue our commitment to God’s truth, but it will not be less and less relevant in God’s eyes. In God’s eyes, lots of things change constantly, but His Word does not. Isaiah 40:8:
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Why must we submit our reason, our logic, our thinking to the Word of God? Because it’s the only way not to be bound by our time and culture. Cultures change. What is supposedly reasonable today will not be reasonable tomorrow. For the Lord, though, He does not change. His truth does not change.
Obviously this is true for what God has told us about the beauty of sexuality in how he designed it, and I’m guessing for most of us here it’s a bit easier to agree with that. But we really must ask ourselves these harder questions. Because letting our reason trump the Word of God I think is far more common in the church, in our lives, than we think. Maybe we hold to, and are even vocal about these hot topic issues like homosexuality or transgenderism, maybe in that area we take a stand, but do we ask ourselves the same questions?
Are we justifying sin to avoid submitting to God’s Word? Well, pornography helps me not cheat. Or, how can I not lust in the world in which we live? Well, I’m angry because of that person and what they’re doing. I’m complacent, but it’s because my church just isn’t encouraging me enough, or doesn’t have the right ministries that I need. I’m bitter, but no one would blame me for being bitter if they knew what she did. I don’t start the gossip, I just happen to be someone people can talk to. This goes on and on. Are we justifying ourselves in our sin, kind-of reasoning our way out of it? Because when we do this, we’re placing our reason as higher in authority than God’s Word. That’s a dangerous place to be. The 3rd area we must submit to the Word of God:
- We submit our creeds to the Word of God.
What I mean by “creed” here, basically, is a fundamental set of beliefs, or even a single belief. Or a creed could be like a guiding principle. We have classic creeds of the Christian faith that have served as guideposts helping people, as time went on, stay on track with some of the most important doctrines of the faith, especially having to do with who God is, his nature. But they are not Scripture, nor should we ever see them as equal to Scripture.
For the Catholic Church in Luther’s day, and even in our day, they didn’t submit their creeds to the Word of God. They saw them as equal to the Word of God. I know most of us here today would agree that that’s not good. But, by “creed,” I’m also referring to our personal creeds…mottos…mantras. These are sayings that we live our lives by. We may not realize we have these, but let me list some common ones that might ring a bell for you. Just very broad creeds or mantras:
- Above all to thine own self by true (Shakespear).
- Believe in yourself.
- Follow your dreams.
- Life is what you make it.
There’s an endless number of these kinds of life mottos. We like catchy, sometimes trite, sayings that simplify things for us. Sometimes these can be helpful! In the Christian world, it is no different. But, sometimes we can like short, easy-to-remember sayings more than we like to understand and follow the Word of God. This is why maybe we follow Christian leaders or personalities on twitter and remember their quotes, but don’t actually read the Bible. Can I tell you: oftentimes these mottos and sound bites do not reflect the truth found in the Word of God?
Sometimes we hear them, and they sound good and even encouraging, so we assume them to be true! “Faith activates God; fear activates the Enemy.” That sounds pretty good! It’s not completely true, though…God used fear often in the Scriptures. In fact, in a very real sense, we’re called to fear God. Another one (this one you may have heard debunked before): “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Says who? 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, Paul specifically speaks of hardships “far beyond our ability to endure.” In fact, he then points out why God brought this hardship that was more than he could handle: to force him to rely on God who raises the dead!
Even phrases that have to do with the Gospel, what we must do to be saved, we must be careful: “To become a Christian, you accept Jesus into your heart as Lord and Savior.” Says who? Do we even know that that phrase, “accept Jesus into our hearts,” is nowhere to be found in the Bible? That should wake us up a little bit if we didn’t even realize that it isn’t in the Scriptures. And we should very clearly know what that phrase means if we do choose to use it, though I would encourage you to consider not using it. To me, it’s unclear, vague. Repentance and Faith is the language of the New Testament. And even if that’s what you mean by that phrase, they don’t sound very parallel at all.
The point here is not to completely avoid sayings and quotes and mottos that are helpful, but to ALWAYS submit them to the Word of God. TEST them. And don’t rely on them primarily for your life and sustenance as a Christian. Don’t rely merely on twitter or facebook or sayings you’ve written down that you’ve heard before. You need the Word itself. Why? Paul lays it out clearly in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
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.
God’s Word is what we need for teaching, for training in righteousness, becoming the men and women he wants us to be, not merely short, catchy sayings that might reflect biblical truth. The 4th area that we must submit to the Word of God:
- We submit our promptings to the Word of God.
We could easily have a whole Sunday or even a series just on the question or HOW, exactly, God leads us, or in what ways God speaks to us, his people. But for our purposes today, I’ll just say that I believe that God can lead us through promptings. Somehow, his Spirit living in us, I do believe can lead us to speak to a particular person about the Gospel, or make a particular decision on a job or whatever else is going on in life. I do believe that.
BUT, these so-called “promptings” or “leadings” are NEVER to be understood as on equal level with the Word of God. In fact, honestly, I think most of these “promptings,” if they really are from God, come as a result of God having molded your mind and heart through the Word of God. The more our minds and hearts are filled with His truth and molded by His truth, the more we’re going to do what God wants us to do.
Many of you have a more charismatic background—Assembly of God, Pentecostal, etc.—and likely have been taught to seek out these leadings of the Holy Spirit. I don’t want to totally dismiss that idea at all. But I do want to warn us against 2 things. First: we must have in mind that the Bible is our only ultimate source of truth from God, our only infallible source of truth and guidance from God. In other words, these “promptings” can be wrong. Very important for us to realize that. Secondly, an encouragement: Do not spend more time seeking these special promptings or leadings than you do seeking Truth to be found in His Word! Don’t become obsessed with being led by the Spirit in a way that’s somehow separate from the Word of God. If you want to be led by the Spirit, and if you want to lead a Spirit-filled life: Soak up the Word of God. Let the Holy Spirit teach you and lead you through what he has written!
When we treat promptings or any supposed special revelation we receive from God as equal to the Word of God, we’re ignoring a very clear and, honestly, sobering warning that God has given us, found in Revelation 22:18-19:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
I think that pretty much covers it. God gave men who were prophets, and he gave men who were apostles, who spoke on behalf of God, and who God used to bring His Word to us. And that canon of the Word of God is closed. There are no modern-day apostles, writing and speaking with the same authority as those who wrote the New Testament, who walked with Jesus himself. Because of that, we submit any “promptings” or “leadings” we experience to the Word of God. As Luther would put it: “My conscious is captive to the Word of God,” not captive to however I feel God is leading me in the moment. It’s captive to the Word of God. The last area we must submit to the Word of God:
- We submit our hearts to the Word of God.
This is a perfect last one because even in the world of Christianity, what I sometimes call “pop-Christian culture,” it’s so easy to fall into the TRAP of thinking that God wants us to follow our hearts. I heard just recently an evangelical pastor say these words: “Wherever your heart is leading you; that’s where God wants you to go.” And he was applying that very broadly. Is that true? Is it best to think like that? Let me allow God’s Word to throw a wrench into that plan. Jeremiah 17:9:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
Our hearts are deceptive above all things. Now yes, God is changing our hearts, right? Our hearts can lead us in the right path, but, our hearts were never meant to be our ultimate guide. Instead, our hearts are to trust in the Word of God. It’s the Word of God that is molding and transforming our hearts in the first place. One of my favorite verses in the entire Bible expresses this—Hebrews 4:12:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Did you catch that? It discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It stands over. It reveals and cuts and convicts and discerns and transforms the heart. God intended for us to submit our very hearts, our identities, our desires, our will, to the Word of God. God designed our hearts in such a way that they would be pierced by the truth of the Word.
And yet, I must come back once again to this point I mentioned already: We can’t submit our hearts to the Word of God if we don’t ever open it and let it do its work. If we as a church don’t preach and teach it; if we don’t open it with each other individually and in small groups and over lunch; if we don’t read it on our own, we can say we believe in Sola Scriptura all day long, but listen: if you don’t open it, there is something else guiding your life.
You’re living your life according to some set of principles; it is a fact. Whether they’re just your own principles you made up, or maybe a few Biblical principles you learned when you were a child (or at least you hope they’re biblical; you learned them in church, so you assume). If we’re not opening God’s Word in the church, in small groups, with friends, and on your own, then we clearly are not seeking after it like it’s truly God’s ultimate truth for us.
And unless we’re opening the Word letting it have its effect on our minds and hearts, we will inevitably forget the Gospel to which it testifies. We hear about indulgences and think that’s crazy how far-off the Roman Catholic was. We think about Luther and his contemporaries and how they went to church and never actually heard the Gospel preached and we think that’s crazy, but then we forget or maybe we just don’t notice that in most churches (or at least many), the Gospel is far from the pulpit and far from the hearts of the people.
Maybe indulgences were more obvious than moralism or legalism today, but the prevalence of believers who don’t know the Word and, more sadly than that, aren’t even interested in knowing the Word— this should wake us up. In our churches, in our homes, in our individual lives: where God’s Word is not seen and treated as the only ultimate and infallible authority for truth, the gospel will not be clearly displayed in all of its beauty: My sin and rebellion against God paid for on the Cross by my King Jesus, who died then rose from the dead. We forget the Word, we forget the Gospel. We marginalize the Word, the marginalize the gospel. We don’t find our life and joy and sustenance in the Word of God, we don’t find our life and joy and sustenance in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Insofar as we cherish God’s Word alone as our final authority, we cherish Jesus and what he did for us. The Word is how we meet, how we know, and how we love our Substitute and King.