By Curt Daniel
Reprinted from the March 2020 issue of The Banner of Truth Magazine
Sola scriptura is the first of the five sola doctrines rediscovered in the great Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. We need to be vigilant in holding to this precious truth in light of ongoing challenges.
The biblical basis
Many Roman Catholics and liberals have argued that the Bible itself does not teach sola scriptura. But 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that all Scripture is inspired by God. Being the word of God, it has the authority of God himself. Our Lord Jesus regularly appealed to Scripture as the highest authority with the words “It is written” (such as in Matthew 4:1-12). Paul urged his readers “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6) and said in Romans 4:3, “What does the Scripture say?” The noble Bereans were commended for testing even the apostle’s preaching by Holy Scripture (Acts 17:11). First Thessalonians 5:21 tells us to “test all things,” and 1 John 4:1 says, “Test the spirits.” By what standard? “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).
There are several false authorities that people have appealed to instead of, or in addition to, the Bible.
- Tradition. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their appeal to a tradition that nullified Scripture (Matthew 15:3-6). The Roman Catholic church later succumbed to the same error, ascribing authority to “the unanimous consent of the church fathers.” But Christ said that God’s word is more authoritative than the words of mere men.
- The church. The Jews in Jesus’ day also appealed to the Sanhedrin as a source of authority. Roman Catholicism likewise appeals to the magisterium (the councils, bishops, popes, etc.). Rome argues that the church gave us the Bible and it is therefore equal or superior to it in authority. But in Matthew 7:24-29, Jesus said that a house must be built upon the rock of his words, not vice versa. Ephesians 2:20 says the church is built upon the apostles and prophets — that is, on their Holy Spirit inspired writings.
- Creeds. Creeds, confessions, catechisms, and other statements of faith may be useful summaries of what a church believes. But God has not promised inspiration or infallibility to any creed. When the Westminster Assembly submitted the Westminster Confession to Parliament for official approval, Parliament sent it back, requiring the divines to provide Scripture proofs. A creed is useful only insofar as it is biblical in content. The Westminster Shorter Catechism recognized this in its second question: Q. 2. “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? A.: The word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.”
- Experience. The experiences of men cannot be appealed to as sources of authority, for the minds and hearts of men are affected by sin. Our ultimate authority is God and his holy word, not human opinions, feelings, fads, cultural mores, or conscience.
- Science. The many branches of science are useful, but no scientist is infallible or inspired by God. All scientific theories are subject to error. If any theories, such as evolution, contradict Scripture, they are necessarily false. We are to test science by Scripture, not Scripture by science.
- Supernatural claims. Many people appeal to alleged dreams, visions, prophecies, tongues, angel visits, miracles, and mysticism to validate what they say. This whole approach opens the door to fanaticism. Such claims are misguided at best and demonic at worst. All such supernatural claims must be stringently tested by the word of God (1 Corinthians 14:37). The word of God alone is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105).
Some Areas in Which We Must Apply Sola Scriptura
There are several areas in which we must apply Sola Scriptura.
- Worship. The only worship acceptable to God is that which he himself has ordained in the Bible. This is called the regulative principle of worship. We must worship the Lord only in ways given by command, example, or principle in Scripture. Colossians 2:23 expressly warns against human-invented forms of worship. We need to return to Bible-based worship and avoid man-centered entertainment.
- Preaching. “Preach the word!” (2 Timothy 4:2). True preaching is biblical in both content and method. Opinions and stories do not feed hungry souls. All sermons must be measured by the yardstick of Scripture (Acts 17:11; Galatians 1:9). A sound preacher says, “It is written” and “The Bible says.”
- Apologetics. Evangelicals have used a variety of apologetic methods such as Christian rationalism, evidentialism and presuppositionalism. It is vital, however, that truly Christian apologetics seek to answer the questions and objections of unbelievers foundationally from the Bible itself, which is sufficient for correction of error (2 Timothy 3:16). We need to rediscover the inherent power and authority of God’s infallibly true written word in defending the faith.
- Evangelism. True evangelism is telling lost sinners the gospel “according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15: 1-4). Biblical evangelism will follow the pattern of the apostle Paul, preaching and teaching “repentance towards God and — faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Evangelistic messages and literature should be saturated with Scripture, for God gives saving faith principally through the ministry of his word (Romans 10:17).
- Church government. God ordained the local church and has given us the principles by which it should be governed. For example, 1 Timothy 3 gives the necessary qualifications of elders and deacons, and chapter 2 clearly states that the eldership is limited to certain qualified men. Sola scriptura does not encourage us to develop cultural creativity when it comes to oversight of Christ’s church. Too often today God’s revealed wisdom is subordinated, or simply neglected, in favour of secular theories of leadership. This, in part, has led to the near abandonment of meaningful pastoral visitation in many evangelical churches. The Scriptures could not be clearer: elders are under-shepherds, who are to give themselves to the care as well as the oversight of God’s flock.
- Ethics. The word of God is our only authority in determining what is right or wrong, true or false. God’s laws are our ethical standard, for he is the ultimate lawgiver (James 4:12). Reformed theology recognizes three main uses of God’s law: to restrain sin, to convict sinners, and to instruct believers. Biblical ethics are authoritative; unbiblical systems, such as situation ethics, moral utilitarianism, or postmodern relativism, are not. Bible-believing Christians will refuse and confront the so-called gender revolution, not because we are “behind the times,” but because we are under the authority of God’s word.
- Family life. Newlywed couples should begin their marriage by building it on the solid rock of Scripture (Matthew 7:24-29). God gives us his principles for the selection of spouses, husband-wife roles, child-rearing, and principles for solving problems. The husband-father, in particular, must lead his family in daily Bible reading. A godly family gets its directions from the word, not the world.
- Guidance. Scripture is sufficient to give us godly wisdom to make important decisions. We need not resort to “fleeces” ( misuse of Gideon’s example in Judges 6:36-40), casting lots or flipping coins (a misuse of the apostles’ example in Acts 1:26), mystical feelings (“The Lord led me” or “I have peace about it”), or other such popular methods. To get the mind of the Lord in a matter, we should turn to the Bible’s commands and prohibitions, good and bad examples, and general principles.
Sola scriptura is a foundational and precious truth. it is not simply a badge of Reformed orthodoxy, it is the revealed wisdom of God to shape, style and direct all of life.
Sola Scriptura, however, does not mean that we are to neglect the history and tradition of the church. John Calvin quotes Augustine 403 times in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and in the chapter in the Westminister Confession of Faith on “Of God and the Holy Trinity” simply echoes the teaching of the great Concil of Chalcedon (AD 451). What sola scriptura does say is that, “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (Westminster Confession of Faith I.x).
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 — English Standard Version
The Temptation of Jesus
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
Jesus Begins His Ministry
Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.
Matthew 4:1-12 — English Standard Version
I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.
1 Corinthians 4:6 — English Standard Version
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:3 — English Standard Version
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
Acts 17:11 — English Standard Version
but test everything; hold fast what is good.
1 Thessalonians 5:21 — English Standard Version
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
1 John 4:1 — English Standard Version
To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.
Isaiah 8:20 — King James Version
Traditions and Commandments
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Matthew 15:1-9 — English Standard Version
Build Your House on the Rock
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
The Authority of Jesus
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
Matthew 7:24-29 — English Standard Version
built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,
Ephesians 2:20 — English Standard Version
If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 14:37 — English Standard Version
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Psalm 119:105 — English Standard Version
These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Colossians 2:23 — English Standard Version
preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
2 Timothy 4:2 — English Standard Version
As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Galatians 1:9 — English Standard Version (see Acts 17:11 reference above)
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
1 Corinthians 15:1-4 — English Standard Version
Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
Acts 20:21 — King James Version
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Romans 10:17 — English Standard Version
Qualifications for Overseers
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
Qualifications for Deacons
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
1 Timothy 3:1-13 — English Standard Version
The Sign of the Fleece
Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.
Judges 6:36-40 — English Standard Version
And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
Acts 1:26 — English Standard Version