October 9th, 2017

“My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” (Martin Luther)

2 Timothy 3:10-17


Sola Scriptura

Five hundred years ago this month, everything changed. An otherwise obscure and somewhat insecure monk challenged the status quo by posting 95 debate propositions on the door of the university chapel. At least that’s how the story has been told. Nothing has been the same since.

Take, for example, the Protestant principle, sola Scriptura, Latin for Scripture alone, or Scripture only. In its most literal sense, it means that all we need is the Bible to make any decision. In the sixteenth century, that was a critical corrective to the absolute power of the Catholic church. Part of the reason was that only about 10% of the German population could read and write in the early 1500s. The Bible as we know it had been around for a long time, but almost no one owned a personal copy and therefore the Church had to tell them what was in it. Then, as now, those who could read and interpret the Bible got some things right and some things wrong. 

The principle of sola Scriptura arrives in a package deal with a hazard which continues to reverberate in 2017. If it’s a bad idea for one powerful institution to interpret the Bible unchecked, what happens when any individual can hold and read a Bible and assume that they then can discern and express the mind of God? Today we have thousands of denominations, hundreds of thousands of churches, and millions of individual Christians who consider themselves personally, or their group, an unopposable authority on spiritual matters because the Bible alone is their guide.

What’s wrong with what? It cycles back to the very first sin, the root sin, which is pride. It’s the desire to usurp God’s place, to know what God knows, to be God-like.

Martin Luther’s most famous action was posting the 95 theses on the chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany, October 31, 1517, but his most famous speech came about four years later in another German town, Worms. He had been ordered to appear before political and church leaders to defend himself against the charge of heresy. The assembly laid before him a display of his own writings and demanded first that he admit that he had written them, and second, that he recant (issue a formal retraction and apology).

It was a Thursday evening about 6:00 when Luther defended himself in the open assembly. He was eloquent and brilliant as he first of all admitted that all the books were his – unless, of course, someone had deliberately altered them. He went on to say that he couldn’t recant of everything he wrote, because his writings were in several categories. One set of books was a simple explanation of the Gospel that everyone agreed on. Another group was against the worst offenses of the Pope and Councils. The Catholic church’s own law said that if the Pope contradicts the Gospel he is wrong. The third group, he said, attacked individuals and Luther humbly admitted that sometimes his words were indeed too bitter and sharp. “I do not claim to be a saint,” Luther said, “nor do I proclaim my life, but rather the doctrine of Christ.”

Luther also admitted that his words were divisive, that he had threatened the unity of the church and had helped to provoke “discord, peril, uproar, and rebellion.” Then he added, “It is quite revealing as far as I am concerned that the divine Word causes factions, misunderstanding, and discord to arise…. Perhaps we condemn the Word of God if we do away with our factions and dissensions.” In other words, if there is universal harmony we’re probably doing something wrong.

Finally, Luther closed with his most famous speech. He apparently didn’t write it down, so we are at the mercy of the local newspaper that recorded his words this way –

Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Scripture or by evident reason (for I trust neither in popes nor in councils alone, since it is obvious that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am convicted by the Scripture which I have mentioned and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Therefore, I cannot and will not recant, since it is difficult, unprofitable, and dangerous indeed to do anything against one’s conscience. God help me. Amen.[1]

That’s what we mean by sola Scriptura. Luther was so passionate about the Bible he invested twelve years of his life translating the Bible into common German so everyone could read it. Corey and Delisa Wenger[2] help continue that work today with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Everyone should have the opportunity to read the Bible in his or her own heart language. Let’s turn now to how the Bible presents itself.


2 Timothy may well be the last letter Paul wrote, at least the last one we still have access to. In chapter four he even writes, “The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race” (4:6-7). What he says, then, is of highest importance. He wants to make sure that when he is gone, mentees like Timothy keep the essential message intact and spreading.

Paul begins chapter 3 with words that seem like they could have been written in or about 2017:

There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power (1-5).

In response to that setting, Paul tells Timothy, “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings” (10-11). Paul joins Jesus in affirming that difficulty and opposition are normal for those who follow Jesus. How should the believer respond?

Timothy is to “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures” (14-15). This is important because it counters the fierce, prideful independence and personal autonomy that Christians tend to display. Paul doesn’t say, “You can read the Bible for yourself – sola Scriptura.” He says, “Timothy, you have embedded deep in your soul the lives and teachings of others who have by example and word infused you with truth. I’m talking about your mom, Timothy, and your grandmother, and me (Paul) and others. You don’t have to invent the Gospel – it’s been handed down to you.”

This is a critical principle of what I like to call “horizontal humility” when it comes to the Bible. I need the Body of Christ – local and universal, present and past – to keep me from becoming arrogant in what I believe about the Bible. John Calvin, another of the great sixteenth century reformers, said in the preface to his commentary on Romans that the reason we have differences of opinion on Scripture is first to keep us humble, because no one person has “a full and perfect knowledge in everything,” and second, to “cultivate brotherly intercourse.” We need each other.

Sometimes we can focus so much on horizontal humility that we say nothing confidently about Scripture as God’s Word. Thus, we need a “vertical humility” that leans hard on the Bible as a completely trustworthy guide for faith and life.


We now come to one of the Bible’s clearest statements about itself in verses 15-17. There’s a statement about the source of the Bible. “Statement” is overstated. It’s really just one word in Greek, and it’s a word Paul apparently coined. In your Bible, it probably says something like “God-breathed.” That’s a pretty good translation of two Greek words Paul put together – “God” and “breath” (or “spirit” or “wind”). We are to read the Bible as if God himself exhaled it.

For Paul, the issue is the origin of the Bible. It’s God-initiated, God-directed, God-breathed. Peter, who includes Paul’s writings when he uses the word “Scripture” (2 Peter 3:16), says that Scripture isn’t a matter of private opinion. (He seems to be talking about both the writer and the reader.) “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

In my view, some Christians spend too much time arguing the fine details of what they believe about the Bible. I like the quote attributed to Charles Spurgeon, who was asked why he didn’t make a greater effort to defend the Bible. He answered, “I’d sooner defend a lion.” Can you imagine a lion being attacked by a puppy, and I come along side and say, “Never fear, lion! I’m here to help you!”

That’s not meant to take anything away from apologists who counter the arguments of those who discredit the Scripture. But do hear this:  The Bible’s been around in its current form for the most part since the first generation of Christians. Your grandchildren and mine to the tenth generation will be reading this book in largely the same format we are. The Bible is God-breathed, and its message and power will endure.

What Paul focuses his attention on is how useful the Bible is – how practical, how helpful, how effective it is. He makes three remarkable statements.

First, the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (14). Remember, he’s talking primarily about what we call the Old Testament. Paul sees his gospel as being completely consistent with what Moses and the Prophets wrote. How much more true is that statement when we add the Gospels and Letters!

This is our deepest need, isn’t it? In a world of uncertainty, of “terrible times,” of pride and ingratitude, of pleasure-loving, don’t we want to know how we can be rescued? Don’t we want to know how to find significance and purpose in this life, and how to have the assurance of eternal life? The Bible is able to do that. The whole message from front to back is how futile our attempts are to find hope and life and meaning by going our own way. It sure doesn’t keep us from trying!

Second, Paul says the Scripture is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (16). “Useful” is an interesting choice of words. Someone said this week, why doesn’t he say it’s “mandatory”?

The word “useful” is from the world of business. It means “profitable.” In the same way that the bottom line question for business is whether you’re making money, this is bottom line for the Bible – is it creating the “profit” of teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training? What do those four words mean? Teaching is what to believe.  Rebuking is what not to believe. Correcting is what not to do. Training is what to do.

The entire Bible – yes, even those genealogies and bloody war stories and details about sacrifices and feasts – all Scripture – will help us not only become wise for salvation but will be useful to guide how we think and what we do.

Sometimes I wish it were better organized – like a detailed rule book of every issue or situation and exactly what to do about it. No, I don’t really. Do you think it helps us all pay taxes more honestly and more contentedly because we have the IRS code? The current version is about 2600 pages long, and it’s only covering how to pay federal taxes. If God gave us a detailed code book with precisely how to handle every moral and life decision in every life stage all over the world in every era, how long would it be and would you read it?

No, what we have are essentially principles and case studies applied over and over to a broad variety of situations. We see how God acts and we see how God’s people respond – sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly.

I apparently stirred a bit of response a couple of weeks ago when I said that I’d rather have the Bible than what Abraham had – a half-dozen direct encounters where he heard God’s voice. But I would. Let me ask you who are parents. It’s one thing when you’re guiding your children at age 3 or 8 or 15. But when your son or daughter is 40, do you want them calling you every time they need specific advice, or do you hope that the cumulative effect of what you’ve taught them in situation after situation while they were under your roof will guide them to make good decisions? That’s what the Bible is. We see time after time what God wants his people to believe and not to believe, to do and not to do. And as we ponder them we see connections to our worlds. It’s so useful.

Finally, Paul says, the purpose of all this is so that God’s people can be “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (17). This again is such a practical value of the Bible. Good works are those motivated by gratitude for what God has done for you and by a desire for holiness. But they’re “good” in the sense that they overflow God’s love into the lives of others. It really is a test for our “works” that they are “good” – that they spread the message of the Gospel and improve the world around us.

The Bible, Paul says, will thoroughly equip you for this. The word here is “outfitted” – like a camper heading into the woods or a soldier going into battle or a football player suiting up. Whatever you need, it’s there.

You can’t say that about any other book. This is the field manual. It’s not given to you to whack other soldiers with, or to sit on, or to light fires with, or to gather dust. It’s there to thoroughly equip you to love like Jesus loved.

About you

What does sola Scriptura mean? Does it mean I have no regard for my own reason or conscience? Luther did, as he said at the Diet of Worms. Does it mean I don’t need the heritage of those who have gone before? Of course I do. Luther and his contemporaries are among those whose insights continue to guide us. But there’s no rivalry to the authority and usefulness of the Bible.

Perhaps a helpful analogy is sola Linda. I have many female colleagues and friends. None of them even come close to rivaling the exclusivity, priority, and longevity of my relationship to my wife. It’s not only a matter of degree (one relationship more important than the others), there’s a sola-ness to my commitment and love for one woman only.

Sola Scriptura, though, is not just about the place Scripture holds. It’s about the function of the Bible in my life. I came home from the Western North Carolina Association meeting yesterday with a gift for Corinth. When our downtown building was razed almost six decades ago, a number of items from the structure and furnishings were brought here to the new campus, but some were offered to other churches and individuals. Dr. Harry Althouse, pastor of Corinth at the time, gave Rev. Bobby Bonds, then serving as pastor of what is now Faith Reformed Church in Brookford, a wall clock that had adorned the back of the sanctuary.

Rev. Bonds wanted the clock to return home to Corinth. When he gave it to me, he added the comment that he had heard from some of our members that I needed a clock at the back to shorten my sermons. I have a watch and an iPhone to tell me what time it is, but apparently they’re not “useful.” Would a more visible clock help? That would depend on whether I made it “useful.”

Sola Scriptura is ultimately about you. I wish I had some profound and creative insight for you, but the only application here is that you attend to the Scripture. The best way to continue the insights of the Protestant reformers is to commit time to studying Scripture. That means commitment to regular personal devotions and study, and also a commitment to study Scripture in community – not just in worship services but in small groups. It also means attending to the wider community – the church across and years and around the world. Scripture alone will guide us into salvation, into truth, into holiness, and into the good works for which the Spirit is equipping us. Amen.


[1] The quotations and summary of Luther’s address to the Diet of Worms comes from The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants, Hans J. Hillebrand, ed., 88-91.

[2] The Wengers gave a ministry update during the worship services on October 8.

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