Prior to a decision of our local partner churches to once again have a joint sermon series this fall, it was my intent on my long-term speaking calendar to do a five-part series at this same time called “Sola: The Five Cries of the Reformation.” Rather than have this material be completely surpassed, I am including five devotions on this topic and working them into the flow of our readings and writings through the book of James.
This season, this week, marks the essential 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The expanse and significance of this historical event cannot be minimized; it was huge!
The actual date was October 31, 1517 that, as the story goes, a monk named Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the chapel door of the Wittenburg Castle. This is popularly seen as a defiant stand and bold statement of rebellion against a corrupt system. Though containing many probing and uncomfortable elements, the document (officially called “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,”) was more of a bulletin board posting of his call for an academic discussion about the theological foundation for the common Roman Catholic practice of people paying to have their sins forgiven. Yes, the result was a great forest fire, though the initial spark was more of a wee lighter flame to the corner of a post-it note than a torch thrown on a bonfire pile of gasoline-soaked branches and rags.
The central theme was that salvation was through faith alone and not through deeds and good works. This was very provocative, as his writings were disseminated all throughout Germany, ultimately coming to the attention of church leadership in Rome. A series of disputations sought to bring Luther back into conformity with the Roman church, but he successfully argued against the errant theology, finding himself excommunicated in January of 1521.
In April of that same year, Luther was given a chance to recant at the famous “Diet of Worms.” (This does not refer to an eating regimen of creepy-crawly things … a “diet” was an assembly of religious leaders, this one held in Worms, Germany.) Luther’s final word was the famous statement, “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.” An edict was issued against him by the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, with the writings of Luther ordered to be burned.
Luther had to spend time in hiding, and he also took about 10 years to finish the translation of the New Testament into German. Luther was adept at using the new printing press technology to his advantage and for the good of spreading his message.
When looking back at the Reformation and seeking to codify the basic foundational teachings, there are five “solas” … this being a Latin word that means “alone” … or “solitary” … hence the five summary statements are…
- Sola scriptura = scripture only (for authority)
- Sola fide = faith alone
- Sola gratia = grace alone
- Solus Christus = Christ only
- Soli Deo Gloria = to God’s glory only
So, in referencing the big idea of the implanted Word of God in our James writing yesterday, let’s talk briefly today about Sola scriptura.
Over the roughly 1500 years following the ascension of Christ, the church had morphed into equating the words of the Pope with the same authority as the words of Scriptures. Actually, there was no such thing as a pope until Gregory I – about AD 490 … though the Catholic Church will claim a succession of such dating back to Peter.
Martin Luther challenged the idea of this dominant authority from human instruments, insisting that the only authority was from the accepted Word of God in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. At the Diet of Worms he said, “Unless I am overcome with testimonies from Scripture or with evident reasons — for I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils, since they have often erred and contradicted one another — I am overcome by the Scripture texts which I have adduced, and my conscience is bound by God’s Word.”
The essence of this is well-stated in the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) that summarizes Reformation teaching – “We believe that Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God.”
Just as a country or civil government will fail when its constitution and laws are dismissed as binding or seen as antiquated and irrelevant (thus giving way to subjective standards on all matters), so also does any church or denomination of churches fail when the detailed and authoritative Scripture is dismissed in preference for the whims and winds of contemporary culture. This pattern is obvious all about us. And that is why we must be a church with a top-drawer passion for the Word of God as our authoritative guide in all matters and as the focus of our ministry.
2 Timothy 3:14-17 – But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.