(This article has been adapted from Steve Bang Lee’s plenary session “Sola Scriptura” from the 2017 SOLA Conference “Here We Stand”)
The Christian message of the gospel is an astounding claim.
The gospel says that God loves us and likes us because of the forgiveness of our sins accomplished through Jesus. This completely reorients the Christian’s past, present, and eternal future trajectory. What an amazing claim!
But how do we know that’s really true? In fact, how do we know anything we believe about Christianity is true?
We can cite our reasons (logic), experiences (feelings), and even church traditions (history), but what do we do when others give their counterarguments? How do we know who is ultimately right?
What we discover is a great need for a greater voice, a higher authority, one that exceeds mere human experiences and human tradition. What we need is a final word, an ultimate authority, that is indeed true, truthful in all that it claims, without error, and is therefore able to validate or invalidate all other voices of authority in our lives.
The Reformation gives us the gift of Sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone, which is the idea that Scripture is the final and ultimate voice of authority in and over the life of the Christian.
Luther, Jesus, and the Divine Book
The core issue of the Reformation was not a battle on corruption of indulgences and money. The foundational issue was one of ultimate authority. This is why scholars have called Sola Scriptura the formal principle of the Reformation because it gave form to all the other solas. The other Solas materialized and were realized from Scripture.
The Roman Catholic church did affirm the authority of the Bible, but did so alongside the authority of the church. It was a shared authority, which meant the church could stand over the Scriptures when necessary. But when Luther came along and nailed the 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church, the growing conviction of Luther’s became that it was Scripture that stood over the church, and not the other way around.
This conviction ultimately culminated in the fateful day on 1521, when Luther stood before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in an overcrowded room in the Diet of Worms (an imperial assembly). With all of his publications and writings laid out on a table, Luther was asked to recant or be excommunicated from the church as a heretic, and he gave his famous declaration:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, 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 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."
Luther was not trying to dethrone the pope. He was just trying to enthrone Scripture.
Luther appeared to borrow a page out of Jesus’ playbook. Jesus, although he was divine, affirmed the supreme authority of the Scriptures.
Kevin DeYoung writes in his helpful book Taking God At His Word,
“...it is impossible to revere the Scriptures more deeply or affirm them more completely than Jesus did. Jesus submitted his will to the Scriptures, committed his brain to studying the Scriptures, and humbled his heart to obey the Scriptures.”
If there’s anything confusion on the role of the Bible for the Christian, Jesus’ example provides clarity.
This is confirmed through the theological idea known as the inspiration of Scripture, which teaches that the Bible was written by human authors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, leading us to the conclusion that what the Bible says, God indeed says.
The Bible is the Word of God and if God has spoken, His Word is final.
With that being said, here are 7 profound implications of this truth:
1. Scripture alone means we can have certainty about what we believe
We may think, “I wish I had some kind of experience or saw a miracle that confirms what I believe.” But according to the Apostle Peter, who was an eyewitness to Jesus and heard the audible voice of God the Father at the transfiguration in Scripture, “...we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19), meaning Peter found greater reliability in the Scriptures!
2. Scripture alone mean we have clarity of God’s will
We often ask questions like, “What’s God’s will for my life?” “Who should I date?” as if life’s greatest questions are hidden to us. However, we have life’s greatest questions regarding our origins, purpose, and destiny already answered for us. Which means, as long as we focus on the things He’s already made clear, the unclear things will begin to grow in focus. God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet (Psalm 119:105).
3. Scripture alone means we can take charge of our spiritual growth
Conferences and retreats are helpful, but they don’t provide any secret recipes for us to grow spiritually. In the Bible, God provides for us a key ingredient for spiritual growth. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk (in God’s Word), that by it you may grow up into salvation— (the salvation you’ve been given). (1 Peter 2:2)
4. Scripture alone means we can be comforted in times of pain and confusion
Sometimes when life goes bad, we need more than a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on, but an anchor for our souls. When we open the pages of Scriptures, our hearts are anchored in timeless truths in the midst of stormy seas we see a God who is in control and present with people in the midst of their suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
5. Scripture alone means we can have conviction of sin, moving us toward obedience
Sometimes we don’t know if we’re in sin or if our motives are in the right place. But when we read the Scriptures, the Scriptures will read us and hold up a mirror to our face. “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.” (Hebrews 4:12)
6. Scripture alone means you can be competent in the work of God
We want to serve God but don’t feel adequate. Paul the Apostle would say, “Get in the Word!”
“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.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
7. Scripture alone means we can celebrate Jesus more and more
The more we open the Scriptures, the more we grow in awareness of the beauty and grandness of Jesus. He said the Bible “bears witness” about Him (John 5:39). The deeper we dive into the Bible, the higher our view will be of Jesus.
Does God’s Word stand over your life as the highest authority? Or is it simply one of many other voices?
One sure way to activate Sola Scriptura in our lives is to read the Bible since it’s really hard to submit to a book that’s rarely open.
Our generation’s privilege is that we have the ability and access to open it anytime we want.
Leading up to the Reformation, not everyone had their own copy of the Bible. Only the rich and the wealthy could afford their own copies. Even in the Protestant era, it took decades for the majority of common people to have a copy of their Bible in their own language. And so at the time of the Reformation, the only Bible that people like us really knew was what they heard in their churches.
The difference today is that we have copies of the Bible at our disposal, even right in our pockets! We are a Bible-resourced generation and we must take advantage of it.
And perhaps, as we read our Bibles one verse at a time, it will begin to do something profound in us, that will have a ripple effect in our world.
After all, the Reformers weren’t trying to change the world. They were just trying to go back to the Bible, and in doing so, they changed the world.
May we go back to the Word, again and again, so that our lives begin to look like Sola Scriptura. Who knows how it will propel our world forward?
Steve Bang Lee is the college & teaching director at Living Hope Community Church and serves as the Editorial Director for SOLA Digital.