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Message # 1 | The Five Solas of the Reformation | November 6, 2016


Last Sunday, many churches throughout the world, celebrated Reformation Sunday. The popular belief is that it was 499 years ago on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg Castle church. With this quite normal and not terribly dramatic act, Luther desired to begin a scholarly debate about the abuses of the Catholic church, specifically around the selling of indulgences. From this act, a Reformation was birthed.

Theology was at the root of the Reformation. The primary theological beliefs that flowed from the Reformation were what are called the “five solas.” While the “five solas” were never categorized and referred to as such during the Reformation, these were the 5 theological beliefs that drove the Reformation. Solas is Latin for alone. Therefore, the English translation of the five solas are scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, for God’s glory alone.

We will be taking the next 5 weeks to offer a brief overview of these 5 theological beliefs. In so doing I will offer a very brief historical overview followed by an equally brief biblical understanding.

Let me acknowledge up front. I realize that I am encouraging you to consider a couple things that a lot of people don’t really care for – history and theology. I promise that I will do my best to engage you with some beautiful historical accounts and equally beautiful and encouraging biblical truths.

This week we will take a look at Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone. We believe that the Word of God is our sole authority for what we believe and what we do. This authority is both sufficient and clear.

Historical Significance

I uncomfortably and humbly desire to offer an historical line of thought, a line of thought of which I have only personally touched the surface. Keith Mathison does a superb job of outlining a history of the discussion in his book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura.[1] I want to tell you two significant stories in regards to Sola Scriptura, but before we can get there I feel like it is necessary, or at least helpful, to offer a sweeping overview leading up to the historical moment of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli’s life.

We believe that the Scriptures are the sole source for faith and practice. This was as well a position that was held by the early church fathers. Within their writings we do find much discussion about Tradition and the value of it, but the discussion concerning Tradition involved a couple of things as I can see. (1) The Apostolic Tradition involved the traditions that were handed down by the apostles themselves, and these traditions were all found in the New Testament. Therefore the traditions of the church were found in the Scriptures themselves. (2) The early church as well treasured the commentaries of early church fathers. The Tradition of the church involved what the early church fathers came to say in regards to the interpretation of the Scriptures. In the same way that I appreciate and treasure the host of commentaries in my office, the early church appreciated the teachings of the early church fathers. They appreciated understanding how the church had traditionally understood Scripture. In this case the Tradition was the collective interpretation of the church fathers. At this point, Scripture was still clearly the sole authority and the written or oral traditions were appreciated interpretations of that sole authority. This was the majority opinion in the church well into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

A significant turning point in this discussion comes at the end of the 13th century with William of Ockham (1280–1349 AD). Ockham began teaching that there were two sources of revelation, (1) the written teachings of the apostles (the Scriptures), but also (2) the oral tradition that had been given to the apostles by Christ during the 40 days between his resurrection and ascension. This oral tradition had not been written down but instead was passed along and the church was in sole ownership of this second line of revelation. It was Ockham’s two source theory of revelation that the church came to accept as its doctrinal position and primarily in order to refute the position of sola scriptura that was being argued by men like Martin Luther. Luther, and other men like him, did not develop the concept or biblical doctrine of sola scriptura. They simply reiterated a doctrinal position that had long been held by the church but had been twisted and abused and in danger of being lost.

Martin Luther

The specific impetus that motivated Luther to insist on sola scriptura was the rampant immorality and abuse in the Catholic Church. Leo X was the pope at the time and is clearly established as one of the most worldly popes in history. His extreme greed was most vividly seen in his selling of ecclesiastical privileges. He needed to do this because he had come into some financial issues in the vast buildings and projects he had undertaken, especially the great St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. His extravagant tastes in art had all but bankrupted the Vatican treasury, thanks in part to Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel.[2] One of the most historic abuses by Leo was when he sold three bishoprics to one man, Albert of Brandenburg. A bishopric is the position of bishop and includes the district under his control. At this point, owning a diocese or area of control was more about the financial income that came along with it than it was about the spiritual needs in the area. Albert, as well motivated by greed, purchased his third position from Pope Leo but he couldn’t afford to pay for it.

Because the pope was raising money to rebuild St. Peter’s in Rome and because Albert now had a large amount of money he owed the . . . bankers, Leo granted him the exclusive right to sell a new indulgence . . . for a period of eight years. Half of the revenues would go to the coffers of the pope, and half would go to Albert to enable him to repay his debt. Albert chose a young Dominican, John Tetzel[3]
(I)n his entrepreneurial spirit Tetzel even devised a marketing campaign of sermons—“Can you hear your dead relatives screaming out in pain in purgatory while you fiddle away your money?” he preached—and even an advertising jingle: When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.[4]

One of the areas in which Tetzel was selling indulgences was Martin Luther’s parish. Imagine the anger and outrage that he felt as he saw his people manipulated and in essence stolen from. His response was to pound his 95 thesis on the church door of Wittenburg. He was outraged that the church had so deviated from Scripture and become so corrupt.

Thesis #50 is rather straightforward: “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.”[5]

It was these statements by Luther, and other statements he made, that finally ended in his excommunication and a showdown at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Here, Luther was confronted by a heap of his writings and asked if they were his. He said yes. He was then asked to recant them. After taking a day to consider his response he came back and said:

Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, plain and unvarnished: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the 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 to 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.[6]

Ulrich Zwingli

Picture the scene. Christopher Froschauer, printer and citizen of high repute in Zurich, has invited a group of men for a sausage supper in his home. The local priest, Ulrich Zwingli, tops the list. It is reported that Zwingli, though present, refrains from partaking . . . But not so for the others. They eat freely.

On the surface this event does not appear to have the makings of an historical occasion. But in reality it does. It changes not only Zurich but all of Switzerland for centuries. How could such a seemingly conventional dinner . . . start a theological revolution?

It was March 1522, and it happened to be Lent, the season in which such things were not done, especially in the presence of a priest. . . .

[Despite natural appetites for bratwurst and sausage, these could not be eaten during Lent. Zwingli, as we have seen, had a problem with that. As he scoured the Scriptures, he looked in vain for any such regulation. The New Testament, he came to find out, did not have much to say about sausage at all.][7]

Two weeks later Zwingli preached a sermon with arguably one of the greatest titles of all time: “On the Choice and Freedom of Food.” After running through a number of New Testament texts Zwingli concluded, “These announcements seem to be enough to me to prove that it is proper for a Christian to eat all foods.” The Lenten fast stemmed from human tradition. Zwingli called such traditions spots on the face of Christ, “unseemly things, and of the foulness of human commands.” Instead Christ will “become again dear to us, if we properly feel the sweetness of his yoke, and the lightness of his burden.”

Perhaps a group of middle-aged men eating sausage is not as heroic a picture as a monk swinging a mallet, but it was just as effective. When that group ate a sausage meal and when Zwingli preached his sermon, the Reformation began in Switzerland.[8]

Biblical Evidence

The Word of God is Sufficient (Psalm 19:7-9).

(1) The Word of God is perfect in entirety.

“The law of the LORD is perfect” (Ps 19:7a). It is complete, with no errors in any of its parts. Another word that may be translated in this passage is that of integrity. The Word of God is perfect, has integrity in all its parts, completely. Every area in which it deals, it is accurate, historically, scientifically, spiritually, etc.

(2) The Word of God is without error.

“The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever.” (Ps 19:8-9a). Have you ever seen a perfectly blue sky? It is a beautiful thing. While the clouds are beautiful as well, at times they seem to pollute the perfection of a cloudless sky. When the wind comes it blows away the clouds and all that is left is a perfect palate of blue (Job 37:21 NIV). This is like the Word of God. The Word of God is the perfect blue sky. It is free from any defilement and cloud of error.

The word “cleared or swept” in Job 37 is the same word that we see in Psalm 19. The Word of God is without error, and it will eternally be without error “enduring forever”. There will not be a day when the Word of God is no longer relevant to people.

(3) The Word of God is a sure foundation.

“The testimony of the LORD is sure . . .The judgments of the LORD are true” (Ps 19:7b, 9b). Both these words, sure and true, come from the same Hebrew root word – aman. It means “to confirm, support, uphold.” The Word of God is a faithful and established foundation. We often tend to think highly of scripture, but not highly enough. We think that it is great but that it is incapable of dealing with all our problems. We may think that God overlooked some of our more serious problems and did not deal with them in scripture. I beg of you, please do not hold such a light position on the Word of God. It is a perfect and true foundation for us to lead our lives.

(4) The Word of God restores the mind, the whole man.

“The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul . . . The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart” (Ps 19:7a, 8a). Some may say that the soul is the spiritual aspect and that the soul does not speak to things concerning the mind. Yet, nephesh, refers to “life, soul, creature, person, appetite, and mind.” And, labab, refers to the “heart, understanding, mind . . . However, in its abstract meanings, “heart” became the richest biblical term for the totality of man’s inner or immaterial nature. . . . virtually every immaterial function of man is attributed to the “heart.”

(5) The Word of God offers practical knowledge.

“The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Ps 19:7b). The Word of God is sufficient to take a simpleton or the naïve man so often spoken of in Proverbs and lead them to practical wisdom. It is true that parts of the Word of God seem like theological treatises or some theologians dissertation. There are difficult parts that may seem difficult to apply to every day experiences, but that is not characteristic of all of scripture. Much of scripture if not the majority was written for an average person to take and use as a guideline for life.

(6) The Word of God is eye opening.

“The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps 19:8b). The meaning of barar, the root word for enlightening, means to “purge, purify, choose, cleanse or make bright, test or prove.” I have had, on a few occasions, the great joy of seeing half a group I’m teaching simultaneously enlightened. All of a sudden the confused expressions on faces disappear, their eyes widen, and they say, “I get it.” What happened? The truth of God’s Word was illuminated in their mind. The Holy Spirit did His work and the truth was grasped. I can say the same thing repeatedly, but it is not until the Holy Spirit through the Word of God illuminates their eyes, that they get it.

You have all experienced that to some degree. Ladies, when you walk into a clothing store, or any of you avid outdoorsmen, when you walk into Gander Mountain and you see that one thing you have been looking for and it is on sale. Your eyes widen and you smile. You see it, that which you have been looking for. It is there in front of you and you can grab it and hold on to it.

The Word of God does that for us. It offers truth and when we go to it, the Holy Spirit points out that truth and helps us see and grab hold of it.

The Word of God is Clear (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

The Dilemma in Biblical Clarity. At the very heart of the sufficiency of Scripture is the concept of the perspicuity (or clarity) of scripture. What good is a foundation for life if it is incomprehensible? If we cannot understand clearly our sole source for faith and practice, we are in trouble.

The Incomprehensibility of God. If God is beyond understanding, would it not follow that His revelation is going to be beyond our understanding? Just because God is incomprehensible does not mean that He is incapable of clearly communicating to mankind aspects of Himself and what He desires of them. Just because we will never fully understand God does not mean we cannot understand the primary tenants of His Word. One characteristic of the truly brilliant mind is the ability to take the profound things of the world and articulate them clearly in a simple manner. Is it not likely that God, in his incomprehensibility, can take the profound aspects of His character and simply present them to mankind in an intelligible manner?

A Definition of Biblical Clarity. Larry Pettegrew defines the clarity of Scripture in these terms, “The basic doctrine means that the Bible can be understood by people through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and that people need to search the Scriptures and judge for themselves what it means.”[9]

2 Timothy 3:14–17 (ESV) But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

(1) Understanding is possible or it would not adequately equip a believer for every good work.

Chrysostom offers a great analogy of the depths and whirlpools in various rivers of which it would be wise of us to steer cautiously through. The same can be true of Scripture.

Let us suppose a river, or rather rivers . . . all are not of the same depth. Some have a shallow bed, others one deep enough to drown one unacquainted with it. In one part there are whirlpools, and not in another. . . . So it is in the things of God. He that will know all things, and ventures to intrude into everything, he it is that is most ignorant what God is. And of rivers indeed, the greater part is safe, and the depths and whirlpools few . . . Why then art thou bent on drowning thyself in those depths?[10]

(2) Understanding is possible or an individual could not have known the scriptures from childhood.

It is easy enough for a child to understand and difficult enough for an adult to never exhaust. This does not mean that all parts of scripture are easy or clear. There could be difficulty in applying or even understanding. You may understand the simple point but struggle in understanding how to apply that simple point. You may struggle in interpreting the ‘simple’ point (2 Peter 3:16).

For almost nothing is dug out of those obscure passages which may not be found set forth in the plainest language elsewhere.[11]

(3) Understanding is possible but will take a life time to learn.

Timothy is told to “Continue in the things you have learned.” This is why the older are to teach the younger. An understanding of the scriptures is a lifelong process. For Scripture to accomplish all these things, it is necessary that it is understandable. If it does not carry a clear meaning, it does not carry clear teaching, reproof, correction.

(4) Understanding involves knowledgeable teachers.

The clarity of Scripture does not negate the need for teachers. Obviously we would reject the idea that everyone must filter their interpretation through the church, but that does not mean that everyone ought to interpret scripture in a box either. In Titus 2, women are directed to teach the younger women. As well the pastor is required to be able to teach (1 Tim 3).

Current Importance

So then, let us not think that Sola Scriptura is just an historical or theological discussion with no ramifications for our lives. Consider a couple practical ramifications.

First, there has never been a time since the birth of the church that the people of the church did not view the Scriptures as their sole authority. The natural ramifications of this truth is that the people of God have always held precious the Scriptures and longed to understand them for the direction of their lives. While we may embrace this truth in our church doctrinal statements, do we practice this truth in our lives. Is the word of God our sole source for what we believe and what we do? Have we allowed other things to sneak in and take that position? Do our feelings and emotions drive us instead? Do the teachings of others drive our thoughts and actions?
Secondly, we live in a day in which truth is considered to be relative. We think that truth is malleable. What’s true for one person may not be true for another. Instead of determining what Scripture means, we can be more concerned about what it means for me. This is dangerous. Instead of Scripture being our sole authority, our personal understandings, feelings, and emotions become the authority instead.

We believe that the Word of God is our sole authority for what we believe and what we do. This authority is both sufficient and clear.

[1] Mathison, Keith A. The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001.
[2] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).
[3] Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 91.
[4] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).
[5] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).
[6] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).
[7] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).
[8] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).
[9] Larry D. Pettegrew. The Perspicuity of Scripture, The Masters Seminary Journal 15/2 (Fall 2004), 211. Accessed November 3, 2016.
[10] St. John Chrysostom. Homilies on 2 Timothy, VIII. 1415. Accessed November 3, 2016.
[11] Augustine of Hippo, “On Christian Doctrine,” in St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. F. Shaw, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 537.
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